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Culinary Arts: A Guide to the Literature (April 2016): The United States & Its Cuisines

By Jeffrey P. Miller and Jonathan Deutsch

The United States & Its Cuisines

As a nation of immigrants, the United States—some argue—does not have a national cuisine per se.  But regardless, the United States boasts rich regional cuisines.  The United States calls its own dishes that are based on its immigrant heritages, many of them blended into unique fusions that make US cuisine the equal of any.  Any discussion with regional cuisines is likely to start with the cuisine of the South.  With a history dating back four hundred years, southern American food was influenced equally, if not more, by the enslaved Africans who were forcibly brought to North America as by the Europeans who freely emigrated and settled the South.  For an overview of southern cuisine, one can do no better than Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart’s authoritative Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, which won the 2013 James Beard Award for American cooking.  Arranged in traditional cookbook format—i.e., by category, from starters and salads to “memorable sweets”—this hefty volume covers virtually all areas of the South, from the Mason-Dixon Line to the Florida Keys.  In addition to the recipes, the authors devote numerous pages to technique (often including illustrations) and provide details about foods unique to the South—for example, grits and country ham.  Accompanying most recipes is historical and cultural information that situates the dish in time and place.  Edna Lewis provides a valuable perspective on southern cuisine in The Taste of Country Cooking.  Lewis is the granddaughter of a former slave; she bases her book on her childhood growing up in the Piedmont of Virginia, in a community settled by freed slaves.  Using a calendrical approach, Lewis takes the reader through the seasons of food and cooking in this central area of Virginia.  In an elegaic piece on Lewis, who died in 2006, The New York Times credited her with “help[ing] put an end to the knee-slapping, cornpone image of Southern food.”

Another popular southern cuisine is that often referred to as either Cajun or Creole.  Though these terms are often used interchangeably, the cuisines can be very different in practice.  Cajun is the food of the Acadians who settled in rural southern Louisiana, whereas Creole food is the food of various French, Spanish, and African inhabitants of New Orleans and their descendants.  John Folse is an expert on both.  He has researched the cuisines of Louisiana for more than three decades and is the namesake of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University (part of the University of Louisiana system), which is dedicated to preserving and teaching the state’s cuisine.  In his comprehensive Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, Folse covers both Creole and Cajun cuisines exhaustively.  With more than seven hundred recipes and extensive historical material, this fascinating book provides insights into the evolution of these popular cuisines.  Nearly every recipe is accompanied by historical or anecdotal material.  One of the early popularizers of Cajun food was Paul Prudhomme; his Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen is a vital resource.  Cajun food is an excellent example of how the foods of poverty and marginalization can become world-class culinary standards, and Prudhomme’s recipes are priceless examples of this.  Prudhomme’s show on PBS, Always Cooking! (first aired in 2007), brought him, and his cooking, nationwide interest, and many of the recipes in Prudhomme’s book have been re-created in restaurants across the United States and indeed the world.  This volume is an excellent primer on Cajun cuisine.  The commentary is delightful.

One of the earliest areas of settlement in the United States was New England.  Combining knowledge from the Native Americans of the region with the fruits of the rich fisheries of the North Atlantic, many New England dishes—like clam chowder and Boston baked beans—have become American favorites.  Jasper White’s Cooking from New England: More than 300 Traditional and Contemporary Recipes provides a fascinating look at this venerable cuisine and has yet to be surpassed.  White digs deep into New England’s history and native plant selection to create recipes that celebrate both the historical and agricultural roots of this unique region of the United States.  Recipes are accompanied by information that ties together place, people, and past.

The Spanish explorers came to the North American continent earlier than did the northern Europeans of New England.  The Spanish settled in what is now the Southwest, bringing their cuisine with them.  That cuisine joined the cuisine of the Native Americans who inhabited the area in pre-Columbian times, fusing to create a southwestern cuisine that is a wonderful amalgam of the two traditions.  In their two books, Dave DeWitt and Bobby Flay present their very different approaches to southwestern food.  DeWitt’s Dishing Up New Mexico, though modern in outlook, is rooted in a tradition.  Enhanced by many color photographs, this volume not only includes recipes but also provides a tour of the entire ecosystem of southwestern food—from farmers to chefs.  Most recipes are based on ingredients indigenous to New Mexico, both exotic (bison and oryx) and commonplace (red and green chilis).  Bobby Flay is one of the pioneers of the “new Southwestern food” movement, and his Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook: Explosive Flavors from the Southwestern Kitchen, written with Stephanie Banyas and Sally Jackson, is restaurant based.  Flay uses flavorful and unusual ingredients to create a cuisine that is clearly southwestern but includes elements that make it unique as well as satisfying.  The glossary helps the reader pinpoint the ingredients, and an introduction to tequilas and margaritas adds a beverage dimension that rounds out this book.

The term “California cuisine” brings hoots of derision from various camps of food purists, but the influence of this fusion approach to food and cooking has changed forever the food and eating landscape in the United States.  The doyenne of California cuisine is Alice Waters.  Her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, cofounded with Paul Aratow in 1971, with its (at the time) groundbreaking emphasis on “fresh, local, and delicious,” had a huge influence on the culinary landscape.  Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, by Waters and “the cooks at Chez Panisse,” in collaboration with David Tanis and Fritz Steiff, is the first of her many writing endeavors, and the book’s recipes (or variations on them) still adorn restaurant menus across the United States.  Across the bay in San Francisco, at the Zuni Café, chef Judy Rodgers melds classic French technique with the bountiful larder that is California to come up with food that is creative as well as delicious.  Rodgers’s The Zuni Café Cookbook is another strong entry for California cuisine.  Like Waters, Rodgers asks the reader to make constant judgments about the product and the process.  Not for the beginning cook, this valuable volume, which includes wine notes and selections by Gerald Asher, is an excellent reference and inspiration for the dedicated culinarian.

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