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Just What Is A Runza? And, How I Hit a Home-Runza

Meandering MEGabite-A food travel story about my run into Runza of Lincoln, Nebraska.

WHY, JUST WHY?

This past week, I returned to Lincoln to see my son graduate from University of Nebraska College of Law. Not knowing if I would have the opportunity to return to this wonderful city, I quickly made a list of experiences that I wanted to have in Lincoln before I die; eating a Runza was way up high on my list. My son and his friends laughed when I told them about my Runza quest,  apparently this is a late night fast food stop for the kids. They made jokes about “runs,” if you get my drift. Laugh away little smarty-pants because this was one fantastic stop. I guess one either loves them or hates them and I LOVED my Runza moment!

Before I went to the fast food Runza restaurant, I read everything that I could on this delightful dish and my curiosity peaked at a feverish height. I had so many questions that needed answering. What is a Runza? Why had I never heard of this before? Was it like a pasty, an empanada,  or a stromboli?   How did this fast-food restaurant skyrocket to chain status of 80? Who are Volga Germans?

WTH IS A RUNZA?

The Runza Hut Restaurant opened in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1949. I was unable to find the exact origin of a word relating to Runza.  I did read a 2009 quote from the granddaughter of the founder who stated that “…. Also, my grandmother created the spelling of the name from the pronunciation used by her mother. She did not have an actual spelling, but spelled “Runza” the way her mother pronounced the word….”  [1] The term Runza is trademarked in the United States by The Runza Restaurant. Other names for the Runza include; cabbage sandwich, fleischkuche, and bieroch or bieroch, beerock, berrock, bierox, Nebraska beef buns, and kraut bierock. Check out this fact, the Bierocks of Kansas are generally baked in the shape of a round bun where the bierock/Runzas of Nebraska are shaped in a rectangle.

The original version was simple in theory; a Bierock/Runza is a doughy yeast bun filled with ground beef, cabbage, and onion. Of course, there are many variations and bastardized versions but this is the only way that I would want to eat the sandwich; at least on the first try, I am a purist that way.   Yes, it is slightly bland but a great way to meet and taste this ethnic dish. I was curious to see which version the kids tasted on their late night adventures, so checked with my son and his friends and indeed, they went for the Spicy Jack Runza filled with bacon, jalapenos, and spicy ranch dressing.

This is clearly, or not, the best photo that I could have taken. This is the Classic Runza after splitting into a half.

runzasandwich.jpg

COOL FOOD HISTORY- WHY IS RUNZA SPECIFIC TO CERTAIN AREAS?

This sandwich made it to Nebraska by the way of a group of Germans who settled in Russia. The sandwich is said to have been a food staple carried in a cloth and put into pockets or a lunchbox. The dense sandwich retains heat and was eaten during the long days of the hard-working farmer. This dish was and is also served at family and community gatherings and in school cafeterias. It is said to be (mainly) a Midwest thing, so why hadn’t curious and well-traveled Meg ever tasted or heard of this fare?

Digging through blogs and Wikipedia, I learned that the radio slogan for Runza used to say “Food just like grandma used to make, which is true if your grandmother was a German peasant who once lived in Russia under Catherine the Great.”-John Wenz, The Awl [2] Funny, and this made me curious.

I Googled Volga Russians and learned that during the 18th and 19th century, groups of German farming people were recruited to settle an area along the River Volga region of Russia. They were to introduce superior and advanced German methods of farming to this area and in return, were granted the right to: maintain their language, to be exempt from military service, maintain their religious practices and so on. Over the years, various rights were changed, taxes needed to be paid after 1870 and for cultural and persecution reasons, waves of people left this area for different parts of the world, mainly United States, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil.

But why had I never remembered “meeting” any of these folks in my life?   I am fluent in genealogy.  I visited The German Heritage Museum in Davenport Iowa. I lived in Wisconsin, Saskatchewan, and Iowa.  Wisconsin once held the largest German population in the United States. In one small area of Wisconsin, many subgroups can be found, representing Germans from Schleswig-Holstein, Pomerania, Saxonia, Hanover, Hesse, Hunsrück, Baden, Bavaria and many other places

According to “Oshkosh First and Facts” –The Oshkosh Public Library, In 1899, a group of Russian-Germans settled near Oshkosh, Wisconsin (20 minutes from my hometown.) Beginning with about 4 families from Jagodnaja Poljana, Russia, by 1905 they grew to a number of 296. These families were tight-knit, spoke German and maintained their religious practice in the Zion Lutheran Church.  [3] Factory work was not their forte and families were lured to Nebraska, Dakotas, Saskatchewan, Colorado, Manitoba, and Kansas for free farmland. The south-central part of North Dakota was known as “the German-Russian triangle.”

OHHHH, so this is why I do not personally remember meeting this group of German peoples and this particular food. *Disclaimer, this is not to say that this sandwich in its pure form is not served somewhere in Wisconsin, Iowa or Saskatchewan. I simply have not come across it. I also checked with my like-minded food curious brother-in-law who has lived in Milwaukee his entire life and he has also never come across this version. Interestingly enough, I poured through a 1971 parish cookbook from my youth and I did find many German recipes along with a recipe called “Cheeseburger Turnovers.” Made without cabbage and with cheese added, it is quite similar in theory.

THE RESTAURANT CHAIN-

runza

Runza is a fast food style restaurant named after this ethnic dish.

I was surprised to learn that they make the Runza’s fresh from scratch every day with quality ingredients such as 100% pure ground beef. They also make from scratch; double breaded onion rings, ranch dressing, French onion dip, made to order fresh and never frozen hamburgers with buns from a local Omaha bakery. Even the chili is made from scratch.

As of 2014, there were 80 restaurants in 75 locations. As of this day, this is still a family-owned business serving communities in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Iowa.  In an effort to remain true to their scratch made quality foods, they are actively seeking Franchise candidates in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri and Wyoming only.

THE RUNZA CLIMAX-

It was a long three days in Lincoln, waiting to taste the Runza, I went straight to the classic, no cheese. The bun had a nice golden slightly firm exterior and the interior was soft but somehow not soggy, the cabbage was surprisingly not overpowering. The perfect symphony of flavors and that fantastic made from scratch bun with its golden and buttery exterior. If I lived near a Runza Restaurant, I would be hooked.

MEGastars: I give this experience 5 MEGastars ***** I absolutely love a fantastic food travel story. *Kids, I assure you that the food caused no issues.  A few more random Runza facts below the recipe link.

MEGatips:

  1. Not only would I place this on a Midwest Food Bucket List, I would place this on my United States Food Bucket Lists.
  2. Visiting Nebraska, Kansas or Denver, Colorado? Do try a Runza in its classic form and sans cheese. After that experience, try another variation.
  3. Check out their “Frings.” a mix of French fries and onion rings.
  4. GET that house made French onion dip for your onion rings.
  5.  Runza link with locations Runza has a fun website with videos and testimonials.
  6. Going to visit U Of Nebraska-Lincoln stadium for a game? Fresh Runzas are sold at the stadium. This leads me to my next MEGatip.
  7. If it is winter, put hand warmers in your pockets and stuff them full of Runzas and chow down in style. I am a Green Bay Packer and Badger fan. I use this as a food warming method during the cold winter months. It works fantastic! This leads me to my next MEGatip.
  8. During the cold winter months, this restaurant holds “Temperature Tuesday” and gives away their Runza’s according to the outdoor temperature. The temperature at 6am each Tuesday is the price of an Original Runza® Sandwich with the purchase of a Medium Drink and Medium Fry. Additions and substitutions are extra. Midwesterners already 20 ° is no big deal but a 20¢ food is.
  9. If you are already a Runza fan, check out their web page called Runzatic Hall of Fame.
  10. Can’t get to the Midwest or a Runza? You Tube visit Making Runzas
  11. Runzas do ship their sandwiches.  Follow the above Runza link to “Shop.”
  12. Here is a recipe link with a few of my MEGatips. I included a few thoughts below this recipe link based upon my research. Taste of Home “Midwestern Meat Pies” I read countless recipes.  Although I did not find the chain restaurant recipe, it is my belief that the recipe must be kept simple. MEGatips on this recipe.  Remember Runza is a trademarked product. In the tips, I will refer to the recipes as bierocks. 
    1. One recipe expert claims white pepper is absolutely key. I would substitute this.  The writer stated she had worked at a Runza Hut.  The spices are a closely guarded secret.  This You Tube Video is a cute spoof trying to get the employee to share the secret. “The Interrogation” Runza Spices
    2. According to the granddaughter of the Runza founder, do NOT rinse or drain all of the beef fat.  She states that there is NO rosemary, butter, eggs, or garlic in this original recipe.  [4]
    3. Let the bierock rest for a while after baking.
    4. I am guessing that an egg wash was used on this bread.  I did note several Nebraska recipes using  the wash on their bierock recipe.  Nebraska Grandma’s Tips and Tricks Probably just one coating. I would consider trying this addition. Basic Egg Wash: This gives a shiny, golden look to the crust. For a clear egg wash, separate the yolk from the egg white. Beat the egg white with 1 Tbs. water and pinch of salt.
    5. Another option would be to slather with butter for the last 10 minutes of cooking. This makes for a softer top.
    6. Use yellow or white onion.
    7. Some bierock experts like to add bagged Kraut or canned Kraut with some liquid to the recipe.  The taste is said to be over the top with a tangy flavor.  Use Flanagan’s Krrrrisp Kraut for the best kraut in the world! If using canned kraut and liquid, use 1/4 – 1/2 cup  of the juice while cooking the beef and cabbage.  Save time and throw it in the crockpot for a few hours. Make the filling one day and the dough the next.
    8. Other bierock recipes use a high-quality bread dough. A really easy suggestion was to use Rhodes Frozen Teas-style Buns. Follow recipe instructions for the brand.  Once risen, add ¼ to ½ cup of the cooled beef mixture to rolled out sections of dough.  Husker fan? fold in the shape of a rectangle. Jayhawk fan? fold in a round shape.  Or, do whatever shape strikes your fancy. Bake 30-35 minutes at 350 degrees.   A fair amount of people wrote that they highly prefer the taste of the bread and sandwich with the homemade bread version.

Sources:

[1] Kansas Born: Bierocks or Perogies? Kansas Born

[2] John Wenz, The Awl. In Search Of Lost Food, My Attempt To Make The Perfect Nebraska Runza.  This was a fun and well-written read about the authors attempt to recreate the Runza of his youth.

[3] Oshkosh Firsts & Facts, Volga German Immigrants. The Oshkosh Public Library. Wisconsin Volga Germans

[4] Tips and Tricks for home made Bierocks in the Runza style. Source.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great review! Glad you enjoyed your Runza, I only knew them as bierocks till my folks came home from a trip to see friends in CO and they had gone to a Runza restaurant. Did you also see on my blog that our local chapter of the AHSGR (American Historical Society of Germans from Russia), the Golden Wheat chapter, has made many dozens of bierocks as a fund raiser for the chapter and organization? For as many as we make there’s always more people asking for them than we can provide in a one day baking event.

    My Germans from Russia ancestry were the Mennonites that brought the Turkey Red Winter Wheat to Kansas. Most Mennonite cookbooks will have a recipe for bierocks in them. Many schools in Kansas have bierocks in the lunch menu. At one time Wichita had two Bierock drive through locations (I don’t believe they had in store seating). For several years they had a booth at the Riverfest food court and the owner helped our fund raising by allowing us to work the booth. At least one year there was a satellite booth at another Riverfest location. They sell real well. 🙂

    May 17, 2016
    • Thank you so very much for your read and comments. I had not read about the fundraiser for AHSGR, I would be the first one at the door for those Bierocks! My maternal line holds German lineage of Amish “Pennsylvania Dutch” to Ohio Church of the Brethren. However, my Mom’s family left Ohio and became Methodist. There are no food stories or at least I have not dug any up yet so I thoroughly enjoy your story. I took a few moments to read about Turkey Red Winter Wheat. I find the story of the wheat “immigration” very fascinating and hope that the movement to return to this type of grain gains a stronghold. Thank you for this introduction, I intend to read further on this subject. I truly appreciate your correspondence!

      May 17, 2016

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