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Monday, July 7, 2008

What is American Cuisine?

The View from My Kitchen

What is American cuisine? Is there an American cuisine? This question came up lately when a dear friend who will be traveling to London this fall offered to take my e-pal something from the United States that she would like to have. Her initial reply was Twinkies and an American cookbook. I groaned aloud. Twinkies? And by the way, what is American cooking? “How did she learn about Twinkies?” my friend wailed.

Maybe my email buddy heard about Twinkies during the 1979 trial of former San Francisco U.S. Supervisor Dan White who had murdered Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk in November of the previous year and claimed the “Twinkies made him do it” rather than the devil. No, that should have killed Twinkies right there, but they’ve been showing up in lunch boxes since 1930. Certainly they were haute cuisine for lunch boxes of the 1950s.

I warned my e-pal that she wasn’t going to like them. My girlfriend didn’t worry about them withstanding the long trip to London. Then she was let off the hook. My London friend’s daughter came to California (I have argued that the girl still hasn’t been to the United States) and returned with two packages of Twinkies. Almost immediately I received an email from my email buddy saying that she’d swallowed her bite of Twinkies with reluctance and never in her life had she tasted anything so sweet as well as disgusting. All I replied was, I told you so.

My London friend had recently purchased American measuring spoons from eBay and wanted a cookbook, but before I could decide which light weight American book I could send with my friend, London emailed that she’d purchased a cookbook from the Ozarks. Okay, it doesn’t get much more American than the Ozarks. My family is from that region and that’s the food I grew up with. It’s not what I cook now by-and-large except when I need comfort food, but I told her it could be considered quintessentially American. But then I started thinking about what American cuisine really means. It depends on where you live and what influences you. I believe I could send her fifty cookbooks and still not hit on all the national variations of food.

If the United States has melted anywhere it is in the cooking pot. Our family routinely eats things that would have been so completely foreign to my family growing up as to have been from Mars—things like hummus, sushi, korma, yogurt, feta cheese, burritos, tacos, even pizza was uncommon in Bellevue well into the 1960s. Now it is a staple of American life. I remember when having my mother make Minute Rice was tantamount to visiting a Japanese restaurant. Well, maybe not quite because my parents had taken me to the Bush Garden Restaurant in Seattle which is still one of my favorite outings.

While our national cuisine was initially influenced by English and German immigrants, each wave of new comers has brought and introduced new ingredients and dishes which hungry America has incorporated into their diet. Quite simply there is not American cuisine unless one believes hamburgers to be cuisine.

My mother’s favorite cookbook is the Joy of Cooking. She’s gone through two copies. I have my grandmother’s copy of it and when my youngest was learning to cook and asked to use it he opened this cooking bible and turned the yellowed pages, he commented that it looked like a book of spells. I told him it was. Unfortunately that is a book rather too large to expect my friend to pack off to London.

So I told London to enjoy the Ozarks cookbook, but reminded her that those dishes were developed by people who worked hard in the fields and farm each day and that a steady diet like that for city folks could be deadly. Since most of the folks who settled the Ozarks were of Celtic extraction, the recipes shouldn’t seem all that foreign.

What cookbook would you send to someone abroad who wanted to sample American fare?


JosephMcG said...

Yum Yum Yum:
Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook
Maya Angelou's Halleujah! The Welcome Table
Brenda Rhodes Miller's The Church Ladies' Celestia Suppers & Sensible Advice

My oh my

Stephanie Frieze said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Joseph!

Shannon said...

Betty Crocker is a staple in my family. My sister finds old editions at garage sales and used book stores to hand them on to the next generation. The one in our kitchen when we were growing up had some pages that were VERY well marked with proof that we made those things often.

Stephanie Frieze said...

My mother tells a story about a friend who got sick and mother-in-law came to take care of the family while mom was in the hospital. The family was thrilled by Grandma's cooking which made mom's absence easier on everyone. When mom got home she asked her mother-in-law how she knew what to fix for the family. It was easy, Grandma said, I just prepared the recipes from the messy pages.

EmeraldPrincessOnline said...

My personal cookbook collection numbers greater than 100 and includes the classics that you mentioned plus almost every other twist on a theme that you can think of...

When we owned Love Me Now Floral Design, the flower shop in Steilacoom, we once did a funeral at Oberlin Congregational Church for a woman whose cooking was revered by the church members. Along with the floral spray on the altar, we incorporated her whisk, spatula, and other cooking utensils into the massive design, and stacked her cookbooks alongside at either end of the altar, which we draped in her favorite tablecloth.

Anonymous said...

It has GOT to be the basic Betty Crocker. It has all the basics as well as a good spread of recipes. I gave both of my kids, male and female, one when they were around ten. I think your London friend will enjoy it greatly.

One of MY other personal favorites is a wonderful Delia Smith (British) cookbook, and British cooking scales from my ten years spent in the AF in the UK.

Good luck in choosing!


Stephanie Frieze said...

Betty Crocker was the first cookbook I received as a youngster and Better Home's and Gardens when I graduated from high school. Either would be good choices as long as my friend doing the transport doesn't get charged for being over her luggage weight limit!

Lorraine Hart said...

Do not...repeat not...send the Micky Mouse Cookbook that my mother-in-law gave me!!

Stephanie Frieze said...

I briefly thought of sending my "Aunt Bea's" cookbook of Mayberry fame. Those recipes are definitely middle America, but my kids love the Raleigh Sweet 'Tater Pie and I actually thought a cookbook based on a TV show would be lame. I thought it was when MY mother bought it.