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Traditional American Cuisine


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#1 robert brown

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Posted 30 January 2003 - 02:59 PM

Reading my way through Serious Pig by food writer and newsletter publisher John Thorne, I have gained new respect for traditional, classic (maybe even historic) American cuisine.

Serious Pig is in part based on Thorne's "Simple Cooking" newsletters from the early 1990s, when he and his wife were living in Maine. Among the produce and dishes Thorne writes about in evocative, adoring and detailed prose are baked beans, clam rolls, gingerbread, blueberry pie, lobsters, and local breakfast fare. As a New Englander, it reminded me of food I had while visiting the seashore of Connecticut and Massachusetts as well as the traditional foods I have eaten in the South. Although my attention later turned to dining in Europe, I always have had a soft spot for lobster pounds, clam houses, steak restaurants, and diners.

As I find many "creative" American chefs attempting to create beyond their training and abilities and, therefore, a dearth of quality in their restaurants, I have begun to reassess the glories of "good old-fashioned American cooking". (Of course America has its more legendary and very popular types of cooking such as barbeque, Creole, shore dinners, Tex-Mex and the like. Yet there are many areas or regions of the country whose cuisine one never encounters.) What about yourself?

Do you consider classic American food to be more than just "road food" or tourist food?

Does it deserve to have a pedigree or standing that ranks it alongside traditional French or Italian food?

Does the pressure of the marketplace to drive chefs and restaurateurs to offer personal or inventive food come at the expense of the preservation of classic American dishes?

Do you believe that classic American food is adequately available in major cities or do you wish it were more readily available?

Do you incorporate traditional American dishes into your cooking repertoire?

#2 Nick

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Posted 30 January 2003 - 04:57 PM

My first thought, since you brought up New England and that's what I'm most familiar with, is that what is found in "American" restaurants is rarely to never as good as what you might experience in the homes of very good "American" cooks. And so, American cooking in restaurants has never made much of an impression on me. Most of what I've found, in my rare excursions to American restaurants, I could cook better myself or know someone else who can.

On the other hand, especially when outside my region, I like sampling the local American offerings of wherever I'm passing through. For instance, I remember having a really good meal in St. Augustine (FL) at a restaurant I found by pulling into a gas station and asking for a good place to eat. Excellent southern seafood and hush puppies. But here again, I imagine that the good local home cooking was probably even better.

This is wandering dangerously off-topic, but since reading your post Robert (and being an American), my thoughts wander to the differences between truly good cuisine that is cooked in the local home vs. what is found in the local restaurants. Perhaps the restaurants can give us an example of the local cooking, but, in most cases, the jewels will be found in the homes of people we'll never meet.

Well, Robert, I've probably wandered so far from your original intent for this thread that it's okay not to post it.

#3 robert brown

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Posted 30 January 2003 - 05:29 PM

NickN, absolutely not. I am sure there are many who would argue your position as well. It addresses one of the issues that is at the core of the topic starter. Have you read John Thorne's marvelous book Serious Pig? As I wrote above, it takes place in your neck of the woods.

#4 dlc

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Posted 30 January 2003 - 07:16 PM

As I find many "creative" American chefs attempting to create beyond their training and abilities and, therefore, a dearth of quality in their restaurants, I have begun to reassess the glories of "good old-fashioned American cooking".


I have to agree with the sentiments that you expressed. On many occasions my wife and I have wondered why we just didn't stay home and cook. You have reminded me about how many times I look to recipies from Craig Claiborne, Edna Lewis, or Ben and Karen Barker (my southern heritage showing) when I really want to feel well fed.

The most interesting thing to me about "American cooking" is how it is changing and growing. If you have visited the Gulf Coast lately the influx of fishing families from Southeast Asia has created a quantum shift in the way you can eat seafood. Not always fried with hushpuppies, although there are times when only this will suffice.

As regards your question about whether our food ranks with the Italian or French food in pedigree or standing, I feel that if you travel into the rural areas in either of these countries that you will find that the food there is not appreciably different that that you find in rural US.

I think that sometimes we Americans are to apologetic for our cuisine, or maybe we are intimidated by the media that make us feel that anything French or Italian is inherently better. I am looking forward to subsequent posts as I think this is a great topic for this community of "foodies".

#5 snowangel

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Posted 30 January 2003 - 08:20 PM

My first thought, since you brought up New England and that's what I'm most familiar with, is that what is found in "American" restaurants is rarely to never as good as what you might experience in the homes of very good "American" cooks. .

How much of this thought has to do with the emotions and feelings one associates with eating this "traditional American food" in a home; the experiences one had as one watched this food being cooked in a home kitchen, consumed with family around a generations-old kitchen table?

For example, no fried chicken, to me, will ever be as good as that cooked by my Aunt Laura, now deceased. A large part of that had to do with how she cooked it, but another part had to do with the experience of being with her, at her house, her standing on the front stoop waiting for us, the Franciscan Desert Rose dinnerware, the smells, etc., etc.
Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

#6 ChocoKitty

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 06:51 AM

I think that sometimes we Americans are to apologetic for our cuisine, or maybe we are intimidated by the media that make us feel that anything French or Italian is inherently better.  I am looking forward  to subsequent posts as I think this is a great topic for this community of "foodies".

I wonder whether this is a function of the relative "newness" of American cuisine with respect to, say French or Italian cuisine. When compared with other cuisines around the world, American cuisine reminds me of a teenager going through an identity crisis. At the risk of sounding like a philosophy major, I think we first have to ask, "what IS American cooking?" American cuisine hasn't been codified like French cuisine (I guess we need our own version of Escoffier?), and with the constant influx of immigrants in our history, I'm not sure we CAN freeze-frame a time when we can say "Yes, THIS is American cuisine." James Beard's "American Cookery" is probably the closest thing we have to a fixed definition for now.

I really enjoyed "Serious Pig," though, because from my vantage point it highlighted an interesting perspective of what American cuisine is. I'm from the Midwest and my parents are Chinese immigrants, so interestingly anything that's not Chinese is, to them, "American".

Has anyone read "American Appetite" by Leslie Brenner?

#7 JAZ

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 12:17 PM

It might be a mistake to speak of American cuisine as if it were a homogeneous body, given the great variety of regional cooking. Having grown up in the Western US, I have to say that lobster rolls, clam bakes and Boston brown bread are much more "foreign" to me than much Mexican cuisine. Likewise with Southern food: my experience with it is very limited, and my exposure to it has been as an adult, not as a child growing up with it.

These foods might very well be "American," but they're not the "American" food I grew up with. They play no part in my personal culinary heritage.

And you notice that there's never much sentimentality devoted to the "American" food of "middle" America (which, incidentally is what I did eat growing up, at least in part) -- the tuna casseroles, the salads composed of canned fruit cocktail and jello. Meatloaf and macaroni and cheese are the possible exceptions here, but those are usually lumped together into that dubious category of "comfort food" -- food that never seems to be taken very seriously, even while it's being enjoyed.

Much of what I consider American food might more accurately be described as hybrid -- that is, Italian-American, Jewish-American, Pacific Rim, Cal-Ital, Tex-Mex -- which is hardly surprising, given our immigration history. I'm not denigrating these cuisines at all; I'm just not sure how to categorize them. Not having read Serious Pig, I'm unsure whether John Thorne discusses these. But certainly they belong in any thorough discussion of American cuisine.

Adrian Hoffman, chef at One Market Restaurant (he might not be there anymore; the following is from the Spring 2002 issue of Gastronomica) has an interesting take, I think, on "American" food:

"I'm often asked what style of food I cook at One Market. My stock answer, 'Contemporary regional European,' is as hokey as it sounds. The truth is, I cook American food.

"So why do I cringe when I write that?

"Sadly, 'American' has many connotations that I don't like to associate with my way of cooking. It's a catch-all term, which at one time or another has implied a lack of culture, a lack of soul, a lack of focus especially."

He goes on to talk about his background as a chef, which is in the European tradition -- primarily French, although he himseef is not French. He talks about his experience learning to cook French food (in Japan from a Frenchman), how his menu creations were always taylored to match the food memories of his boss and instructor.

He continues:

"Now, at One Market, the menus are all mine. I cannot recall memories I never had, nor can I pretend to serve bona fide European food....So I take what I've learned and try to stay as true to the original region and culture as possible....But by the time the food ends up on the plate, it will be thoroughly American."

And he concludes:

"What, then, is American food? Our copious resources have spawned many great (but many more poor) chefs, purveyors of an anonymous or forgotten culture.... It would be easy to get lost in the maze of food cultures represented here [in California]. An American restaruant needs focus. At One Market, I cook American food inspired by regional European techniques and combinations. In my kitchen you will not find soy sauce, sesame oil or lemongrass. We do not use a tandoori oven for roasting. Nor do I sell hamachi, not matter how outstanding the quality. I do my best to keep the menu as focused as possible, lest the awful, generic term 'continental' be revived and applied to California cuisine. While the food I cook is very different from authentic European cuisine, I try to respect the culture and traditions I am borrowing from....

"At One Market, I cannot deny that I am an American chef. I am learning to be proud of it."

So there's yet another take on American food.

#8 Jonathan Day

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 03:16 AM

My first thought, since you brought up New England and that's what I'm most familiar with, is that what is found in "American" restaurants is rarely to never as good as what you might experience in the homes of very good "American" cooks. .

How much of this thought has to do with the emotions and feelings one associates with eating this "traditional American food" in a home; the experiences one had as one watched this food being cooked in a home kitchen, consumed with family around a generations-old kitchen table?

For example, no fried chicken, to me, will ever be as good as that cooked by my Aunt Laura, now deceased. A large part of that had to do with how she cooked it, but another part had to do with the experience of being with her, at her house, her standing on the front stoop waiting for us, the Franciscan Desert Rose dinnerware, the smells, etc., etc.

My associations with "American" cuisine were, for many years, deeply negative. This was because I had grown up in a house where cooking was a matter of survival (just) rather than delight. When I learned to cook, largely in self-defence, it was French, starting with Raymond Oliver and Julia Child and then extending to Chinese. All of the great cooks that I knew as a child were immigrants: Chinese, Ashkenazi Jews, French, Italians. "American" food was McDonald's and macaroni and cheese from a box.

I was at a boarding school near Boston, and with a friend from Falmouth, Massachusetts, tasted great New England cooking for the first time. In my second year at university I spent two weeks in Gulfport, Mississippi, with the family of a friend. The family was wealthy and deeply enthusiastic about food. They had a brilliant cook. We feasted on oysters cooked a dozen different ways, gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffée, and all sorts of wonderful things. We travelled to New Orleans for beignets at the French Market and lunches at the best restaurants. I cooked a Chinese meal for 30 people. Even the iced tea was a revelation, since the cook prepared it with fresh mint from the garden.

So great American cooking -- and the existence of deep culinary traditions, as in the South -- was a late discovery for me, and not associated with positive home experiences.
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#9 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 03:45 AM

Isn't there a good argument to suggest that American Cuisine, as opposed to the myriad immigrant cuisines, is actually a forerunner of what we euphemistically term today Fusion?

#10 Robert Schonfeld

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Posted 09 February 2003 - 02:44 PM

A Vietnamese marries a Jew. Their daughter marries the son of a Mexican and a Minnesota native with Scandanavian roots. Their children branch off until, 50 years from now and more, some of their descendants wonder why they light candles on Friday night, and make chicken soup with lemongrass. There is no American except all of us together. Notwithstanding the gnashing resistance, from the beginning right up to now, to keep the lines from mixing, the meaning of American is in the mixture. Lml is right. Fusion and American are the same thing, albeit not to the exclusion of "myriad immigrant cuisines" developing their own streams, nor of same process taking place elsewhere.
Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

#11 =Mark

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Posted 09 February 2003 - 03:01 PM

One could seriously argue that what constitutes American cuisine would, like the cuisines of other countries, be that which is most often exported to the rest of the world. With this in mind there's really no escaping the fact that in the majority of the rest of the world American cuisine is Big Macs, Whoppers, KFC and Pizza Hut. :shock: :sad:
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#12 Cheffie3

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Posted 09 February 2003 - 04:11 PM

I love traditional American cusine and it ranks just as high as French and Italian, if not higher, when it's cooked correctly. But I agree that categorizing american food is difficult. What I love about it is it's straight forwardness and simplicity, because after only 10 years of cooking, I'm finding that the best food usually takes the least amount of work and a few (high quality) ingredients. Maybe this is why American food is underrated?

From my limited restaurant experience ( I prefer to cook at home), it seems that the best American fare comes from small "mom and pop" diners vs up scale restaurants. Or if it is American, it's a speciality place such as a Rib Joint, a Steakhouse or a Fish place, it's difficult to find all types of good American food at a single restaurant.

Below are some of the foods I've made lately and consider to be traditional American Fare:

Chicken Fried Steak with Cream Gravy and Mashed Potatoes
Beef and Barley Soup
Pork Chops smothered with onions
Chili
Beef Stew and Buttermilk Cornbread
Fried Chicken with Rice and Gravy and Greens cooked in pot likker
Salad with Oranges, Almonds and Red Onion with Cider dressing
Seared Salmon with Spinach and garlic and lemon
Clam Chowder with Saltines
Scalloped Potatoes with Roasted Chicken

I also find that even when I eat asian, latin or european food, I still perfer the "Americanized" version than the original. As LML says "Fusion"!

#13 John Whiting

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Posted 09 February 2003 - 04:51 PM

Anyone who is interested in the meat and muscle of original American cuisine, as opposed to the bloated excrescence that threatens to engulf the developing world, should read Chapters 2 & 3 of John and Karen Hess' _The Taste of America_. These are some of the chapters written by Karen, who is America's senior food historian. Her editions of The Carolina Rice Kitchen and Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery demonstrate that American settlers began with a fine cuisine to which both Caucasian settlers and African slaves brought their own rich traditions.

Most revealing of all is the fact, verified by modern soil scientists, that the newly tilled soils of America gave fruits and vegetables an intensity and complexity of flavor so far beyond the depleted soils of Europe that visitors found them either a revelation or a challenge beyond their comprehension.
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#14 Wilfrid

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Posted 11 February 2003 - 03:27 PM

Another book to recommend is Fading Feasts by Raymond Solokow, which focusses on disappearing American food traditions, such as burgoo made with squirrel, genuine key limes, Smithfield hams, and so on.

We have previously discussed the question whether there is an American cuisine as such, and the consensus seems to be that there are a series of overlapping regional cuisines. I wonder if the following is permissible: can one distinguish a set of traditional American regional cuisines, developed by the - essentially European - settlers of seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, from an American cuisine which - first in the big cities, then everywhere - has been shaped by more recent immigration from Latin America and Asia? I think that might be possible - after all, there are plenty of historical surveys of American cooking which do just that. Harder, I think, is to exclude the African influence - of immense importance, especially in the south, from the early years.

To the extent I can distinguish such a cuisine, it does seem to me a pity that current, modern American cooking draws on it so little. I should have thought even quite robust rural cuisines, such as that of the Carolina lowlands, could be the source of quite refined and interesting dishes for the upscale restaurant market. Tex-Mex meets classic techniques in Dean Fearing's cooking. I suppose Creole cuisine has poked its nose in here and there. But have any other regional cuisines been upgraded in this way?

As a footnote, it seems to me that repeated attempts to create an upscale Southern/African-American style restaurant in New York have failed. Maybe there have been successes elsewhere.

#15 Teague

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Posted 11 February 2003 - 10:20 PM

a. Americans don't have no time to be cooking in.
b. Mixes can be good as homemade
c. If it's good, I use it.
d. Whatever, already okay?