Red, White, and Blueberry
Ask almost anyone what French food is, and you'll get a good idea of its basic elements: cream and butter sauces, wine reductions, fresh subtle herbs. There are strict rules for each dish. But what, other than hamburgers at a barbecue or turkey at Thanksgiving, are the characteristics of American cuisine?
In researching my latest cookbook on American food, I have traveled the country, seeking the answer. I have found a cuisine in a perpetual state of flux, marked by a collaborative spirit that's been around for centuries.
When English settlers first came to these shores, the collaboration began. Indians introduced the Pilgrims to corn, beans, and squash, as well as the American wild turkey and lobster. Early settlers, like all immigrants since, used local ingredients in dishes that reflected their heritage: fish chowders, squash puddings, and johnnycakes made from stone-ground cornmeal. These simple dishes, documented in Amelia Simmons's American Cookery in 1796, are still enjoyed today.
For a long time, this kind of unpretentious--some might say bland--cooking defined American food. When I was a child in Providence, R.I., in the 1950s, meals were straightforward, governed by the days of the week rather than a sense of culinary adventure: meatloaf with ketchup Mondays, macaroni and cheese casserole Tuesdays, beef stew on Thursdays.
Then came the 1960s--a tumultuous decade in politics and in culture. In 1965, sweeping immigration reform allowed many more foreigners to reach our shores, profoundly changing America's culinary mores forever. Today, when I cook for my family, I may make rigatoni with pesto and string beans one day, Moroccan chicken with olives and lemon another, and Mexican fajitas still another (although my "ethnic" dishes have far less bite than they would in their native communities).
Americans cook and snack across an incredibly broad cultural spectrum. At the Dekalb market in Atlanta, the West Side Market in Cleveland, and the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, I have found endless varieties of cilantro, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes, as well as beef cut for stir-fry, fajitas, and Korean hot pots. New Yorkers no longer nosh only on hot dogs and knishes, as they did when I worked there in the late 1960s and early '70s. Now, they stuff themselves with Indian dosas, Japanese sushi, and Puerto Rican-style jalapeno bagels. But the internationalization of American food isn't just a big-city phenomenon. Even in the smallest, seemingly insular towns, Mexican and Thai cooks have opened restaurants.
Farm fresh. Restaurants also reflect the growing preoccupation with food fresh from the farmer's market. Last month, I lunched at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where chef Dan Barber creates superb seasonal dishes with produce and meat from the farm. The menu included a soup made from peas picked that morning and a South Carolina-influenced grits souffle topped with beets. Such regional dishes are gaining new respect--although only in America can a chef champion a local cuisine when he or she is not from the region. Jasper White, a great proponent of New England cuisine, was raised in New Jersey. Janos Wilder, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., and is a leading chef of southwestern cuisine, hails from Palo Alto, Calif.
The new American cuisine was on display this past Fourth of July at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's Food Culture U.S.A. Participants described (and sometimes prepared) dishes they love: a Portuguese clam boil, a Korean meat barbecue known as bulgogi, and, of course, hamburgers and hot dogs--dressed up with tantalizing chutneys and salsas, as well as ketchup.
The multiethnic table at the Folklife Festival makes American cuisine seem complex. But my years of traveling (and sampling) have taught me that the food we eat today is strongly connected to the dishes the Pilgrims once made. The singular characteristic of good American food, I believe, then as now, is simplicity. Even with the cornucopia of new ingredients, the best cooks incorporate them into their cuisine without great pretense or fuss. And the results speak for themselves. Just give me a fresh heirloom tomato with basil, corn salad, a piece of grilled fish (topped with Moroccan preserved lemon for an exotic touch), and a piece of perfect peach pie.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.