“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell
Happy Independence Day to all my American friends!
Enjoy this most important day in your national calendar and rejoice in those best features of your country that make it special amongst all the nations. Seeing it is Food Friday, I’ll dedicate my blog today to the gastronomic delights of the USA. It’s easy to think of hot dogs and hamburgers when one thinks of the USA, but the culinary tradition of this country of 400 years or so is particularly rich and complex, drawing on its inspiration on many sources: Native Indian, English, Dutch, Irish, German, Jewish, French, Italian, Greek, Spanish…
I was amazed by the variety of food available in New York City the first time I visited this melting pot of cultures, full of imported delicacies but processed and altered in such a way as to make them uniquely American. The delicatessens of New York and their wonderful pastrami sandwiches, smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, cheesecakes and New Jersey beefsteak tomato salads. The wonderful seafood of the Mid-Atlantic states – Chincoteague oysters, cherry-stone clams and striped bass. Although New England’s seafood vies for first place, with lobsters, clams, scallops and salt-water fish. I remember with fondness the traditional New England clambake ritual and the delicious flavours I enjoyed when visiting there a couple of decades ago! And who can forget Boston’s baked beans, or the pure maple syrup poured over pancakes and toasted oven-fresh brown bread with lashings of butter?
Regional touches on the East coast are the Pennsylvania Dutch dishes of shoofly pie, ponhaus (scrapple) and chicken pot pie. And what about blueberries or wild strawberries with cream? Or maybe butternut fudge and beach-plum jelly?
Travelling down towards the south, one encounters the famous southern fried chicken, corn bread, Smithfield country ham, collard greens and black-eyed peas. The wonderful spicy tastes of Creole, Cajun cooking of New Orleans – dirty rice, Creole cream cheese, catfish dishes with piquant sauces, chicory coffee… Further towards Florida, the wonderful Key lime pies, orange cake, a cornucopia of tropical fruits in fruit salads full of pineapple, mango, guava, tamarind, kumquats, papaya, limes, oranges. The influence of Cuba and the Caribbean mix with the simple ways of fisher folk and the high class restaurants of resort cities. Shrimps, stone crabs, red snapper, all served in a mind-boggling array of ways and styles.
Texas and the Southwest are the traditional home of the barbeque, with anything and everything thrown on the grill – quails, steers, antelope, wild turkey, bear and kid. Tex-Mex cuisine with chili and fiery sauces are influenced by the neighbours across the border: Enchiladas, tacos, tortillas, tamale pie, chili con carne and chiles rellenos. Okra, piñon nuts, garbanzo beans, wildbrush honey are all often-used regional ingredients. Pecan pie, mustang-grape pie, agarita jelly, hominy bread and black-eyed peas are to be found here too.
The Plains States offer us braised pheasant from Dakota, barbequed beef in Oklahoma, beef steaks cooked to perfection in Nebraska. Old Scandinavian recipes abound in the bakeries and pastryshops and there are also Bohemian and Russian influences in the Dakotas. The Mid-West abounds with foreign influences: Chicago, Milwaukee, St Louis and Cincinatti have a strong German influence, in Detroit and Cleveland, the flavour is Polish. If one tours these states, one may sample delicacies such as fried rabbit and squirrel, navy beans with ham hocks, hot biscuits, persimmon pudding, poke greens and wilted lettuce.
The Mountain States are rich in game and fresh-water fish. Trout, bass, greyling, crappie, char and perch are often cooked on the campfire of the successful fisherman. Braised moose, venison steaks, wild turkey and ruffed grouse, partridge and pheasant will often grace the tables of the hunters. The great outdoors, simple food of the hunter, fisherman and gatherer where the bounty of nature is enjoyed in picnics and in the campsites are the specialty of these states.
Washington and Oregon are full of memories for me as I have visited there a couple of times. Lovely seafood such as salmon, halibut, trout, Dungeness crabs, razor clams, large Pacific oysters and tiny Olympia oysters are all treats. Wild berries in profusion, apples, pears, peaches, and other stone fruit. Tillamook cheese, Frango ice cream and apricot and apple candy are specialties not to be missed. The produce markets of Seattle are a pleasure to visit and are full of wonderful, luscious fresh food.
California is a blessed state where fruit and vegetables are produced all year round. Vineyards and wine-making provide 80% of wine of the USA. The food here is cosmopolitan and heavily influenced by Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese and local cuisines. The seafood bounty of the Pacific also figures prominently here.
Hawaii provides an exotic touch to the mainland states and the visitor is likely to sample all delights in a traditional Hawaiian luau. A potent Mai Tai cocktail will herald the feast, where pit-roasted pig and chickens take pride of place. Macadamia and kukui nuts, marinated raw fish, steamed crabs, poi, coconuts, bananas, pineapples, guavas, papayas and fruit punch complete the feast. If that isn’t enough, why not sample some authentic Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Portuguese dishes?
Alaskans like mooseburgers, barbequed reindeer steaks, caribou sausage, bear chops, pot roast of beaver, ptarmigan pie – seriously! If you would rather fish, how about baked king salmon, king-crab salad, butter-fried razor clams, grilled shee-fish, whale steaks and Arctic char? Berries, vegetables, fiddle-head ferns, rosehips, cranberries all complete the menu.
America is also the land of the snack, the comfort food, the gratuitous mouth candy. Frozen custard, candy floss, popcorn, candied apples, cookies, burgers, hot dogs, fries, grits, ices, pies are all there to tempt you. Unfortunately, it is also the home of the infamous frozen TV dinner, the processed glop that masquerades as cheese, the unidentifiable concoctions that are shaped as crumbed deep-fried “chicken”, “fish” or “beef” croquettes and all manner of other fast food sins. Supermarket freezers are full of ignominious manufactured garbage masquerading as food and one needs to steer of most such offerings…
One can have a feast in the USA and if one chooses carefully some remarkably good eating is to be had there. Rejoice in your bounty but remember, you are what you eat!