What does America taste like? Ahead of the classic American holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving, award winning American food writer Coleman Andrews celebrates the most exceptional and delicious food products from across the United States with CD-Traveller readers
In assembling the present catalogue of American foods (and a few drinks), I have sometimes identified their home state or city in the heading, when that term is essential to their identity (Cincinnati chili, Florida stone crabs). In other cases, the source may not be specified initially, but there is no question what it is: Turkey Joints are made in Rome, New York, and nowhere else; ponce comes from Cajun country. For some foods, though, I’ve strayed across a state border or two (or more), following my palate. I found my favourite Mexican-style chorizo, for instance, not in Texas or California, but in Chicago; the barbecue sauce I ended up preferring doesn’t hail from Kansas City or the Deep South, but rather from Wyoming. For the purposes of this book, at least, I’m not a locavore — or rather I am a locavore, but one whose locus stretches from Alaska to Florida, Washington to Maine.
When appropriate, in other words, I let flavour trump geography. Speaking of geography: whenever possible, I’ve supplied mail-order sources for the foods and drinks included here (see pages 274–281). In some cases, these aren’t necessary—the items in question (Coca-Cola and Snickers, for instance) are sold everywhere. In other cases, they are perishable and/or hyper-local, and so best purchased at seasonal farmers’ markets (or grown at home).
Unlike Mark Twain, in choosing foods to include on my own roster of edible Americana, I haven’t thought in terms of an imagined meal. My guiding principle wasn’t so much “What do I want to eat?” as “What would I want you to eat?”—whether you are a visitor with an appetite for real American grub, or a citizen or resident of these United States interested in expanding your culinary horizons without crossing our frontiers.
It is hardly necessary to say, I hope, that this selection of comestibles is a highly personal one, no doubt erratic and illogical if not sometimes downright eccentric. I have included many emblematic American foodstuffs, the kinds of thing that, regardless of their origins, no book purporting to represent the best of what we eat could possibly ignore (the aforementioned Maine lobster, for instance, but also bratwurst and bialys). Also included on the list, though, are products that are hardly ours exclusively but that figure in our diet (at least some of our diets), and that we grow or raise or make very well here— among them mozzarella and chèvre, canned tuna, free-range chicken, asparagus, bacon, peaches, tea, mayonnaise, and mustard.
I’ve identified local bakery specialties, but also commercial snack foods and condiments; I’ve put handmade chocolates in the inventory, and machine-made candy bars as well. If there are good and easily obtainable foods raised in an organic and sustainable way by small producers, I’ve often favoured those, but I’m not an organic-and-artisanal snob, and if I were, and let my feelings guide my choices, I’d be presenting a skewed picture of the way we really eat.
Some readers may quarrel with my inclusion of “junk food” and sugary soft drinks, but I have chosen a few of these that are so clearly representative of the way we eat and drink as to be almost heraldic. Others may note that I have elected certain canned goods (tomatoes, collard greens, chili); these have a story, and represent aspects of our regimen, for better or for worse. Preserved products (mostly smoked or pickled) aside, I have included very few finished foods, but there are certainly some, mostly baked goods such as (frozen) biscuits and red velvet cake. Here is where my illogicality shows itself most plainly. Why red velvet cake and not, say, pecan pie? Why pasties and not empanadas? I have no good answer, except to say that I chose whatever I thought most vividly expressed the essence of the way we eat.
Inevitably, I suppose, I’ve included several foods that Mark Twain put on his all-American menu, among them maple syrup, Blue Point oysters, hominy, “catsup,” soft-shell crabs, and wild turkey. I have also, of course, included a good many other things that Twain likely wouldn’t recognise, and might well dismiss with the same scorn he heaped upon European strawberries and soup. What would this man of neat gastronomic talent have made of Fritos, Snickers, or Grape-Nuts?
One very heartening phenomenon I encountered in choosing entries for this book was that of continuity: I was frankly surprised, pleasantly, by how many of the farms or other producers whose products I identify are family operations, going back three or four generations and occasionally more. In some cases, older enterprises have changed hands, but their original proprietors have sold them not to big corporations but to other farmers or businessmen with compatible philosophies. (A proviso: small and/or familyowned companies do sometimes go out of business quietly and quickly; the sources given in these pages are up-to-date at the time of publication, but their longevity is not guaranteed.) Of course, there are cases of companies that started small and are now owned by multinational concerns—not too many of those in these pages, but a few.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Laura Chenel’s goat cheese is still superb, even though she sold her original operation to a big French dairy producer; Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing, now owned by a branch of the Clorox Company, contains ingredients that the man who invented it wouldn’t recognise, but it has become an American classic anyway.
This brings me neatly back to my original question: What does America taste like? It tastes like all the foods and drinks I’ve found a place for in this book, and many, many more besides. It tastes like whatever we want it to taste like. That’s why it’s America.
Extract taken from The Taste of America by Colman Andrews (Phaidon, £30.95, out now)