Like all good Michiganders, I raise my left hand and point to signify where I am from. After a little over six years in Chicago, and two in the Twin Cities, it has been nearly a decade since I have lived in Michigan.
Now, due to COVID-19, I have not visited home in over a year, making this the longest I’ve been away. I have always been a sentimental person but something about this year, and the fact that I could not responsibly travel home has made me crave the signature foods I grew up eating. I began recreating suburban specialities to self-soothe.
Olga’s Kitchen is one place in particular I found myself reminiscing about for the first time in literal years. The well-known chain in the southern part of the state from Metro Detroit to Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing all serve signature pita wraps (called Olga’s) and Olga’s Snackers. Little did I realize until this year, however, was that the chain had Metro-Detroit roots and that Olga was a woman that actually existed.
Olga Loizon opened her first store in 1970 in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit. The chain rapidly expanded and then eventually and unfortunately shrunk by 1992. For years I figured the name “Olga” was adapted for marketing purposes, in an attempt to make the chain sound homey and inviting. It was only when I went looking for a recipe for Olga’s Snackers that I stumbled upon the Detroit Free Press’ coverage of her death, at 92, in 2019.
The bombastic restaurateur (with amazing taste in jewelry, I might add) created a chain in a similar vein as Coney Island. Coney Island, a string of Greek diners, is also a trend I wish would take off out-of-state like Detroit-style pizza has in recent years. That is a discussion for another day.
Olga’s Kitchens are exceedingly popular in shopping malls. Their pita sandwiches, crunchy salads, soups, and appetizers were the perfect place to hang out as a suburban teenager. After my friends and I snagged a couple free samples from the food court and decided against Sbarro’s for the 800th time, there was always a booth at Olga’s where we could comfortably hang out until our parents came to pick us up.
Olga’s Snackers are triangular pieces of warm pita bread with orange spices on top that you then smear in a white, cheesy (but not gooey) dip. That is how I remembered and described them to my partner, a Minnesota native. This was something I didn’t realize until I left Michigan: pita bread was everywhere. I had not even considered that kids grew up in cities and went to diners that didn’t have a profound and very apparent Greek influence.
In 2019, the Detroit Free Press published a recipe for an “Olga-type Bread” that looks thicker than those that are used for wraps but taste similarly. The snackers, however, look sad in comparison to the zesty almost Dorito-orangeness of my memories.
After a few days of internet sleuthing I discovered the spiceblend was most likely McCormick’s Salad Supreme. The spice blend includes paprika, poppy seed, celery seed, black pepper, Romano cheese, salt, garlic, and most notably the sesame seeds I remembered most vividly. I immediately purchased it the next time I found it in the grocery store despite not really knowing what else I would use it on. I then made it a mission to search where in town sells perfect cheese dip. The Freep’s article made it seem so obvious, that of course the semi-sweet white cheese dip had almonds in it. Eventually I concluded Merkt’s almond swiss cheese spread would be the closest but came out empty handed and eventually found an alternative, Weyauwega from Wisconsin, that includes white cheddar and provides a bit more bite.
For a trial run I cut up pita bread I picked up from Target, tossed it in olive oil and spices and baked it in the oven. It turned out drier than if I were to make it from scratch, but the savory salty spices combined with the warm bread and cold, sweet cheese… I felt like I was giggling with my friends and texting my mom to come pick me up from the mall. It may sound like an odd combination, but I promise you it’s weirdly delicious.