James Beard, the paterfamilias of America-first gastronomy, was evangelical in his zeal to awaken the U.S. to its culinary riches, to remind the nation that it’s so much more than burgers and Velveeta.
As a cookbook author and consultant, he transmuted his happy Oregon childhood grilling razor clams on the beach into a busy adulthood advocating the embrace of native ingredients and local foodways. In 1959, at Manhattan’s new Four Seasons restaurant, he helped devise a menu that included Amish ham steak, Hudson River shad roe, and stone crabs from Florida. Years later, Beard worked with the young chef Larry Forgione at Brooklyn’s River Café to develop a bill of fare that, in the words of the critic Gael Greene, “mimicked a Rand McNally road map: Peconic bay scallops, Smithfield ham, morel mushrooms and wild huckleberries, and farmed buffalo from Michigan.”
This gastronomic litany is echoed by Gabrielle Langholtz in her introduction to America: The Cookbook, in which she urges Americans to consider the good eatin’ they may be missing out on by simple virtue of geography: “crab cakes and cracklins, fiddleheads and fatback, huckleberries and huevos, corn and conch, peanuts and peaches.”
At 768 pages, America: The Cookbook is a bona fide event and another major play by Phaidon Press Ltd., whose editorial director, Emilia Terragni, has been rewarded in recent years for her bullishness on old-fashioned printed cookbooks. They’re doing surprisingly well across the board. Turns out, readers haven’t ditched them in favor of digital recipe sources, and home cooks tend to trust the research that goes into hefty books and the famous chefs who write them. Last year, Phaidon alone published 20 cookbooks. This latest, selling at Amazon.com for about $35, is a heavyweight contender for space on your shelf alongside requisite copies of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
It’s a welcome addition. Langholtz and her team have taken a democratic approach, inspired as much by spiral-bound church cookbooks as by recent lavishly produced how-tos published by neo-regionalist star chefs such as Maine’s Erin French and South Carolina’s Sean Brock. In format, America is pleasingly uncomplicated: It’s divided into thematic sections (starters, main courses, desserts, breakfast, etc.), and each recipe bears a little state-shaped marker denoting its place of origin.
These recipes are blessedly unwordy and to the point: For example, a gorgeous, richly flavored starter of kimchi-flecked Korean pancakes—a Southern California specialty—is surprisingly simple. Another appetizer, walleye fingers (the fish are cut into strips, then floured and fried), begins with a succinct line of anthropological back story, noting that the snacks are “served in bars throughout Minnesota and are especially common near Lake Superior.” There are esoteric meaty treats from regions far and wide (Ohio’s loosemeat sandwich, South Dakota’s cowboy steak with whiskey butter) and vegetable dishes such as a simple ancho-chili-spiced preparation of pigweed, a Southwestern green that American Indians have long cultivated.
Where America: The Cookbook differs from its predecessors in reckoning with the meaning of the nation’s food is that, to use the oft-parodied term du jour, it’s woke. It acknowledges the contributions not only of this continent’s indigenous peoples but also those of refugee and immigrant populations that have taken hold in unlikely places—hence, a “Nebraska” recipe for Sudanese greens cooked with peanut butter. And for anyone for whom it’s been a rite of passage to visit Washington, D.C.’s Ethiopian restaurants and eat a meal without utensils, instead scooping up one’s food with torn bits of injera—well, now, thanks to America, you have a recipe for the spongy, fermented flatbread.
As a bonus, the cookbook’s final third is devoted to 50 short sections, one for each state, each part keynoted by a guest essayist and followed by a few recipes specific to that state. The first essay is by white Alabama-born chef Scott Peacock, who admits that he undervalued his state’s culinary heritage until he forged a friendship with black Southern-cooking godhead Edna Lewis, who urged him to do some research and embrace Alabama’s historic food traditions.
America respectfully celebrates how food, which for so long went uncontemplated in the U.S., has firmly established itself as a well-studied cornerstone of the nation’s culture, as important an indicator of our identity as our literature, movies, and music. A welcome hybrid, it lets you have your Appalachian apple stack cake and read it, too.