74. Northern USA

While Southern cuisine of USA has defining characteristics of influences from Africa brought via the slave trade, as well as Native, Caribbean, Spanish and French influences, the rest of the USA (which I’ve combined here as “Northern”) is a little harder to define. Certainly the native crops have played a huge role in the cuisine and still represent some of the largest crops in the States today; indeed the USA remains the largest producer of corn in the world. Also, the long history of varied immigration into a “melting pot” society has led to the adoption and diversification of recipes from many countries of origin. This concept is particularly prominent in New York, which traditionally received the majority of seafaring immigrants. As a result, Chinese American, Italian American and Jewish American foods are all hugely popular in the USA, but now bear only a passing resemblance to the true cuisine of those countries. This long-term immigration led to little pockets of culinary influence that has rendered the cuisine of the USA exceptionally diverse and regional in nature. The pockets range in size from suburbs of New York that have distinctly Italian flavours to entire states of the Midwest having clear German and/or Scandinavian influences, to all of New England displaying an affinity for British-style food. Another characteristic of the USA’s food history is the long held affection for industrialised processed foods, which took off alongside the explosive automobile industry (and led to the combination of these passions with the “drive through”). This affinity for processed food was solidified by The Second World War, which necessitated ingenious solutions to food shortages, such as powdered milk and eggs, and orange juice concentrate. After the War, however, instead of relishing a return to fresh whole produce, the USA entered into a long-term idolisation of highly processed and convenient foods, for instance TV dinners, microwavable mac ’n’ cheese, breakfast cereals, and, the epitome of this concept, cheese in a can. The “fast food” idea sent its tentacles into the heart of society, influencing the restaurant scene, home cooking, as well as a significant core of national identity. It’s clear that, however convenient and prosperous, this model of food production and consumption is not good for the country, evidenced by the USA frequently topping lists for the most overweight (over 70% of the population) or obese (over 30% of the population) country in the world.  The consumption of fast food has also been linked to numerous cancers, high cholesterol and even depression. These figures have long puzzled Americans, especially as the convenience food industry rapidly morphed alongside these health issues to advertise “slimming” and “diet” products, but if anything, these innovations seem to have worsened the situation, and the USA remains the largest producer of fast food in the world. The common wisdom now seems to be that the only solution is to break out of this model and return to whole foods, leaving the excessive added sugar, children’s advertising, addictive combination of ingredients and convenient lifestyle behind. This push may have led to a recent rise in the popularity of cooking shows both in the States and internationally, as cooking your own food is a foolproof way to control the ratios and ingredients and ensure you are getting a good mixture of nutrients. So come on, Americans, let’s join together to Make America Cook Again! I promise it’s not too hard and actually lots of fun (although maybe I’m biased)!


Thanksgiving feast.jpgThanksgiving is a holiday celebrated throughout the USA on the fourth Thursday of November and is thought to have originated in part from English traditions of harvest festival and the Protestant Reformation’s attempts to create new holidays in order to compete with the loss of many Catholic Church holidays. When these pilgrims and puritans from England emigrated to the Northern USA, they partook in the “First Thanksgiving” in Plymouth, New England, after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. The feast lasted three days and was attended by 90 Native Americans and around 50 Pilgrims – the survivors from the original Mayflower voyage. The story goes that the Pilgrims settled land that had been left empty after all except one of the resident Native Americans died of plague. The survivor, Squanto, came to help the Pilgrims, whose population had also been decimated by plague, at the request of Samoset, another Native American who knew the Pilgrims. Squanto, familiar with the land, taught the Pilgrims to catch eels and wild turkeys, grow corn and generally make use of the land they had settled. This spirit was also mimicked in another Native American leader Massasoit, who gave food to the Pilgrims when their supplies from England ran out during the long hard winter. Accounts of the food present at that original Thanksgiving include cod, bass, waterfowl, wild turkeys, venison and corn. Much of that early traditional ethos was carried over into the spread of Thanksgiving dinner, and many foods native to the Americas feature in the meal, as well as choice ingredients brought over from Europe. My feast was as traditional as I could make it, including bread rolls, corn on the cob, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole (which can have a topping of candied pecans or marshmallows: I couldn’t quite cope with the concept of the latter so chose the former), roasted Brussel sprouts, carrots, mashed potato, and green bean casserole with mushrooms and French fried onions. And, of course, centre stage, the turkey. On Thanksgiving it’s approximated that 85% of Americans partake in the traditional meal, which means over 45 million turkeys are consumed on a single day. Indeed, all of the figures for this day are inflated, with Americans consuming more food on this day than any other of the year. As with almost all histories between colonists and native peoples, the history of Thanksgiving is not without its problems, for instance the Native Americans were killed primarily by plague, which the Pilgrims brought with them, and there were certainly instances of violence, warfare and oppression in those early years and beyond, leading many Native American groups to consider it a national day of mourning. However, with the utmost regard and respect for the Native American perspective on the true events referenced by Thanksgiving, I’ve always been fond of the ethos of this day – it lacks the gross commercialism of Christmas, the religious solemnity of Easter, the dramatic public drunkenness and late nights of New Year celebrations, and is perhaps less egregiously insulting to native people than the “Australia Day” that is hugely controversial here. However unreliable the origin story, Thanksgiving is, at its heart, about setting aside differences, helping your fellow neighbours, and showing appreciation through the act of preparing a delicious meal. Indeed, studies have shown that gratitude, already ceremonially practised by the Native Americans before the arrival of the Pilgrims, can greatly enhance mental health and wellbeing. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving and practising gratitude, here are some of the things I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that I have truly supportive and kind parents, who I’ve never doubted for a single second of my existence love me with all their hearts. I’m thankful to have wonderful friends that I see regularly and who are a constant source of laughter and comfort. I’m thankful I was born in a wealthy country, and have always had access to vaccines, healthcare, clean water and have never spent a night hungry. I’m thankful that I live in a time and place in which I have had equal rights and access to education and therefore a career I love and take pride in. I’m thankful for the relative and continuing good health of myself and those I love. And last, but certainly not least, I’m thankful for food, more specifically the astounding culmination of technology and opportunity that has allowed me to learn about the foods of the world, cook them, and share them here with you. Happy Thanksgiving one and all!

Cobb salad

Cobb salad.JPGThe USA is a country of paradox and extremes, holding extreme left and right wing views  on many topics. So, just as it is known for its burgers and fries, so too is it known for its salads, with countless hugely popular salad bars existing all over the country. Even McDonalds had to introduce a salad range to keep up with the demand of the populace for salad. Indeed, the seemingly infinite numbers of 24-hour salad bars was one of the highlights of my parents’ trip to New York a few years ago, and was one of the few features that managed to lessen the stress of the insanely busy city. This preoccupation with salad, however, doesn’t seem to have helped the rising obesity figures of the USA, possibly because just labelling something “salad”, does not instantaneously render it healthy and slimming. This fact is well illustrated by one of the most famous of US salads, the Cobb salad. Cobb salad traditionally includes a bed of lettuce/greens on which Roquefort cheese, bacon, tomato, avocado, roast chicken, red onion, hard boiled eggs and pecans are arranged, finished with chives and a dressing of red wine vinaigrette. It is thought to have been invented by Robert Howard Cobb (or his chef), a restaurant owner at the Hollywood Brown Derby, in the 1930s. The story goes that Cobb, working hard, found himself starving at midnight, so mixed together leftovers he found in the restaurant’s kitchen with some bacon the cook fried up fresh for him, combining it together with French dressing. So good was the impromptu recipe that it was put on the menu of the restaurant and became an instant sensation, with devotees including Jack Warner of Warner  Bros. Studios. I found the Cobb salad to be delicious, although, dare I say it, a bit much? I am starting to see how the very concept of excess and “overdoing it” are rooted in even the salads of US society. I think that the same salad but with greatly reduced proportions of meats, cheese and avocado in relation to the other fresh vegetables would suit me much better, as, there’s no denying, this is a delicious combination!

Cheeseburger, hotdog and fries

Hamburger, hotdog and fries.JPGI couldn’t very well cook food from the USA and not mention the most stereotypical examples of fast food, now eaten throughout the world: burgers, hot dogs and fries. So pervasive is this type of food in the culture that it’s disproportionately represented in the restaurant and fast food options where I live in Brisbane, compared to cuisines from the rest of the world. Indeed, that was one of the reasons why I began this project in the first place: a strong conviction that the world had more to offer than just burgers, fries and Chinese food and a desire to sample that variety. Although, to be absolutely fair, in the grand scheme of things Brisbane is remarkably multicultural and diverse in its food scene. The concept of “fast food”, particularly epitomised by burgers, hot dogs and fries, is commonly thought to have been initiated by the White Castle restaurant chain in the 1920s, and then refined and overtaken by McDonald’s in the 1940s. Such has been the complete globalisation of this concept that the “Big Mac Index” is a common way to compare the purchasing power of different currencies, by comparing the prices of the famous McDonald’s burger. A cheeseburger is a variation (and by variation I mean “plus cheese”) of a hamburger, the name of which derives from the German city of “Hamburg”. Hamburgers themselves commonly consist of a ground beef patty between bread, along with vegetables such as lettuce, onion, tomatoes and pickles, as well as condiments such as ketchup and mustard. The connection to the city of Hamburg seems to be the great number of ships carrying immigrants bound for the USA leaving from Hamburg, and the creation of “Hamburg steaks” (minced beef patties) in New York to appeal to this customer base. In the beginning, these patties were sometime served lightly cooked or even raw, similar to the concept of German “mett”, which is like a steak tartare. The history of the hamburger is so long and complicated that there are two separate Wikipedia pages dedicated to the topic, as well as a third page on the hamburger itself, and yet another describing the cheeseburger. The most common consensus seems to be that the USA was the first recorded place in which a ground beef patty was inserted between two slices of bread in the fashion we would recognise as a hamburger today, and therefore claims the invention of the hamburger in the early 20th century. Some say that this invention occurred in Texas, others say New York was the site of creation, specifically its “Hamburg Fair”, which certainly clarifies the name. Others posit that in fact it was invented in Wisconsin, St Louis, Ohio, Oklahoma, by the White Castle chain, or even, controversially, in Germany or Brazil. Whatever the truth, one of the earliest cookbooks, the Apicius, from 4th century Rome, describes a baked beef patty, so it’s clear that at the very least there was precedent for the recipe. Similarly murky origins exist for the hotdog. Certainly pork sausages most famously originated in Frankfurt, Germany, where they have been popular since the 13th century, and they were subsequently popularised in Vienna in the 18th century, which gave rise to the term “wiener” and led to the addition of beef to the pork sausages. The pioneer who decided to put the wiener into a bun, however, is diversely credited to a German immigrant Feuchtwanger in Missouri, who started using buns after his idea of loaning customers gloves to stop them burning their hands backfired when they didn’t return them. Alternatively, some say that Charles Feltman sold them from his cart in Coney Island, New York. The origins of name “hotdog” are similarly unclear, perhaps arising from the oft-rumoured and occasionally practised use of dog meat to fill sausages in Germany. Nowadays, hot dogs are synonymous with street carts, fairs and sports stadiums, and their toppings can be widely disputed by region. For instance, in the Midwest it’s near heresy to have a hotdog without ketchup, except for Chicago, which insists upon a specific combination of mustard, fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers, green relish and pickles (and definitely no ketchup). “French fries” as they’re known in the USA, or “fries” for short, are the all-encompassing side dish for any fast food meal. They are such an ancient global hit that it’s near impossible to know who first had the genius idea to deep fry strips of potato. USA put their own spin on the concept by cutting them very thin, and thereby increasing the total surface area of oily deep fried goodness, simultaneously increasing the calories and associated health issues. In the 1940s, pre-cut fries started being sold frozen, which massively increased their popularity, as well as their liberal use by fast food chains. Purportedly the average person from the USA eats nearly 14kg of fries per year. I have a near disastrous affection for fries, but that sounds excessive even to me!

New England clam chowder and Maryland crab cakes

New England clam chowder and Maryland crab cakes.JPGChowder, to me, will always be intrinsically associated with an old episode of The Simpsons, where the entitled nephew of the Mayor of Springfield had a fight with a French waiter over the pronunciation of the dish. If there was any doubt that chowder was American, this association with the most American of all TV shows solidifies its status. Chowder refers to a general category of soup prepared with milk or cream, most often made with seafood and/or vegetables. The name perhaps derived from the French word for cauldron (chaudron), or perhaps “chaudrée”, a French fish soup. North American chowder is thought to have originated on 18th century sailing ships carrying immigrants to the USA where they commonly ate a seafood soup thickened with long faring biscuits called hardtack. Nowadays, chowder has morphed into a simple dish prepared along the North Eastern coastline with freshly caught seafood (most famously clams) combined with bacon, potatoes, onion, cream/milk and potentially other vegetables and seasonings such as celery, thyme or parsley. The chowder can be quite thin, or alternatively thickened with a roux or with the addition of crackers, which can also be used as a garnish. New England takes its clam chowder very seriously, evidenced by the existence of a national day dedicated to the dish (21 January), as well as the serious consideration of legislation in 1939 proposed to outlaw the use of tomatoes in chowder, which certain heretical rogues were using as a base for “Manhattan clam chowder” elsewhere in the country. Maryland crab cakes are comprised of crab meat, bread crumbs, mayonnaise, mustard, eggs and seasoning, such as Old Bay seasoning. Old Bay seasoning is a mix of spices including celery salt, pepper and paprika, popular in Maryland among other US states. Its name refers to the Old Bay Line, a passenger ship route on Chesapeake Bay, which is particularly famous for its production of crabs, and preparation of crab cakes. The cakes can be grilled, fried or baked, and can be served alone or alongside fries, coleslaw, saltine crackers or as a sandwich.