The taste of America

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What does America taste like? Award winning American food writer Coleman Andrews celebrates the most exceptional and delicious food products from across the United States with CD-Traveller readers

What does America taste like? Like hot dogs, Cincinnati chili, and grass-fed beef. Like Maine lobster, Hawaiian tuna, and soft-shell crab. It has the tang of Ruby Red grapefruit, Chimayo chiles, and pickled okra; the lure of Hershey Bars, New York cheesecake, and key lime pie; the reassuring starch of granola, grits, and sourdough bread. It shines through even in our staples, in our flour, honey, coffee, and salt.

The flavour of this abundant nation resides in its homegrown specialties and its factorymade treats alike, and in the many foods that we’ve adopted and adapted from the tables of the world. It’s found in pimento cheese and bandage-wrapped Cheddar, apple cider and ginger ale, miso and tortillas and knishes, Coca-Cola and peppermint stick ice cream and whoopie pie. America has not one taste but a panoply of them, an immense multicultural sensory anthology of good things to eat and drink, commercial and artisanal, decadent and virtuous, silly and sublime.

To begin with, America produces some of the finest culinary raw materials imaginable, from fish to fowl to meats both fresh and cured, from fruit to nuts, with glorious grains and vegetables in between. Our craftsmen and women make sausages, pickles, cheeses, and preserves as good as anybody’s; we can justly brag about our homey baked goods and our commercial confectionery alike. Our vivid condiments (ketchup, Tabasco sauce, ranch dressing) have gone international. We invented barbecue potato chips.The pioneering “New American” chef Larry Forgione once said that when he was a commis in Michel Bourdin’s classical French kitchen at the Connaught Hotel in London, he’d watch the wealth of perfect fruits and vegetables arriving every day from France and beyond, and find himself thinking that in a land as vast as ours, with its boundless geographical and climatic diversity, we simply must be able to produce a similar range of great ingredients.

And of course — as Forgione was one of the first to demonstrate when he came back to this country and opened his seminal Manhattan restaurant, An American Place — we were, and are.

It isn’t that we had never before known, as a nation, how wonderful our provender was; it’s that somehow, somewhere along the way, we had unaccountably forgotten what a wealth we had in that regard. Some hint of the richness and diversity of the American table more than a century ago, is suggested by Charles Ranhofer’s classic cookbook The Epicurean, published in 1894. The longtime chef at the celebrated Delmonico’s in Manhattan (and the creator of lobster Newberg), Ranhofer listed as available products in New York City some forty-six varieties of fish, including both Kennebec and Oregon salmon and the jauntily named lafayette, also known as chub; forty one kinds of hooved and feathered game, from antelope to woodcock; and more than fifty different vegetables, among them cardoons, celeraic, hops, oyster plant (salsify), girolle and morel mushrooms, and corn salad (mâche).

Fifteen years before The Epicurean appeared, that most American of writers (and one of Ranhofer’s regular customers), Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, undertook a journey through parts of Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy. Twain was serious about the pleasures of gastronomy (“I have a neat talent in matters pertaining to nourishment”), but judging from his account of the trip, published a year later as A Tramp Abroad, he was not impressed by what the European larder had to offer. “A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery,” Twain proposed, “would not starve to death suddenly in Europe; but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die.” The typical table d’hôte menu, he said, was apt to include soup without character, roast mutton or beef without flavour, “insipid lentils, or string-beans, or indifferent asparagus,”  roast chicken “as tasteless as paper,” and “decayed” strawberries or cherries.

What Twain pined for instead was a fantastical groaning board laden with, well, the taste of America—with the simple foods he’d enjoyed throughout his life, in his peregrinations across the country from Missouri to Louisiana, California to New England. He’d gone so many months in Europe without a decent meal, he claimed, that he planned to send the menu for what he called “a modest, private affair … [with] a few dishes” back to the States on the steamer before his, so that his dream meal would be awaiting him when he returned. Then he proceeded to list more than 80 specific foods, both finished dishes and raw materials, often with their place of origin attached.

This bill of fare is a fascinating compendium of American foodstuffs and prepared dishes. (Journalist and novelist Andrew Beahrs has written a terrific book inspired by the list, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.) It starts with radishes and ends with “All sorts of American pastry.” In between are soups and breads, fish from both fresh water and the sea (mostly the former), birds both wild and raised, a bit of meat (not very much), a cornucopia of vegetables (boiled onions, turnips, squash, sweet potatoes, lettuce, succotash, celery, and more), and five kinds of pie—as well as “American coffee, with real cream.”

Twain qualifies many of his choices with a place of origin: Philadelphia terrapin soup, Connecticut shad, black bass from the Mississippi, prairie hens from Illinois, bacon and beans from Boston. Although the conceit of appending the name of a farm or artisanal producer to menu offerings is a comparatively recent one, we have long identified certain foodstuffs with specific places of origin ourselves. In the restaurants of my childhood, the duckling was always from Long Island, the whitefish from Lake Superior, the lamb from Colorado. A menu from Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale in Minneapolis, from about 1958, specifies Wisconsin baby frog legs, Minnesota walleyed pike, Florida pompano en papillote, jumbo Gulf of California shrimp, genuine Cape (as in Cape Cod) scallops, and jumbo Louisiana frog legs. That kind of thing was once typical.

Extract taken from The Taste of America by Colman Andrews (Phaidon, £30.95, out now)


To read part two of The Taste of America, don’t forget to log onto CD-Traveller tomorrow!

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