Table of Contents
From the Oven
Biscuits, Breads, and Muffins
By the Bowl
Chilis, Soups, and Stews
On the Side
From the Garden
Blue Plate Specials
Cakes, Pies, Brownies, and More
When it comes to food, either cooking or eating, American fare is more than “amber waves of grain.” Like the people who make up this beautiful mass of land we call the United States of America, true American food is a melting pot of taste and texture. True American food harkens back to slavery and dishes brought to America from Africa, the West Indies, and other countries involved in the slave trade. True American food is adaptations of dishes from the southern regions of our borders and, in many cases, from the northern regions. True American food has its origins in Asia and Europe, brought to this wonderful land of liberty by immigrants looking for a better way of life. In a very real way, true American food is the epitome of world culinary history.
True American food is a goulash pot of earthy goodness, stirred together with imagination and served with pride. It is red, white, and blue—and just for good measure, a few rainbows thrown in for extra flavor. American food is more than some dishes from the South. American food is the freshness from the vineyards of California. It is the vibrant flavors of New England. It is the tongue tantalizers of the great American Southwest. It is a plate full of East Coast goodness. It is the robust nature of the Midwest, and yes, it features the “amber waves of grain” from the Great Plains.
Whereas many international cuisines take a great deal of pride in keeping their native foods historically accurate, you will never really find this to be the case with American food. Why? Because American food is the epitome of bastardization. This is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it is a good thing. American food is ever-changing. What is cooked one way today will probably see an adaptation tomorrow. American food is an idea which just seems to deliciously grow. A perfect example of this is American eateries in general and the famed American diners, truck stops, cafés, and roadside eateries in particular. As a matter of fact, it is within the walls of the aforementioned eating establishments where American food really shines its brightest.
If you have ever traveled the roads of this beautiful country of liberty, you have no doubt stopped at more than a few roadside eateries. Whether they were called diners, truck stops, or cafés, if you ate there, you experienced Americana. Though there are many American homes which celebrate true American food with recipes handed down through generations, it is the roadside eateries which keep our culinary history alive. Sure, they may have some of the latest chic and fad fare, but you can bet your Uncle Sam hat, they will also feature some dishes which are a part of their cooking history. It may be fried chicken. It may be chili. It may be pot roast. It may even be the fabled (and oftentimes cursed) cream-chipped beef, which also has the rather colorful moniker of “shit on a shingle.” No matter what they may put on your plate, it will be pure Americana with possibly a dash of originality, just to keep your mouth honest.
As we venture throughout America via the pages of this book, you will notice something rather interesting. Long before there was the rage (or fad) of using fresh products, it was a staple of the American kitchens. When you needed vegetables, fruits or fresh herbs, you simply went into your yard and picked them. If you didn’t have them, chances are very strong your neighbor did. If you had to venture to the market, their produce sections usually only consisted of locally grown produce. My, how things have changed. Along these same lines, it is interesting to note that the health of the average American was better then than it is now. Coincidence?
To select the dishes to present in this book, I did something rather unusual. In an effort to present the best of the American culinary culture, I will not only take you into the American homes where our national cuisine was born, but we will also venture into the aforementioned cafés, diners, truck stops, and roadside eateries where the current resurgence in American food is now taking place. You will find a virtual cornucopia of culinary delights, the blending of old and new, a mixing of traditional and unconventional—all with one tasty goal in mind: the celebration of American food!
Our foray into the tastes of America will begin probably the same way most of us remember eating our first nibble of American food—with something From the Oven. In the section called From the Oven, I will share with you some incredible baked delights. Of course there will be a virtual plethora of biscuits. Whether it be a Sunday family dinner or a lunch sitting at the counter of a diner, biscuits have always been a part of the American food scene. As you will soon learn, when it comes to Americana, there is a lot more to biscuits than the tried-and-true buttermilk biscuit.
Breads have always been a part of the American food landscape—and for good reason: they taste good. Of course during the chilly autumn months and the cold winter months, homemade breads were also a way to heat the house as, in the days of yore, many breads were made in an open hearth. As we look at breads, I will delve into some of the classics, and since artisan breads are very popular in the chic cafés dotting the American highways and byways, you will find a few of those as well. If you happen to love the classic American cornbread, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the selection I will be presenting.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an American kitchen without muffins! Let’s face it, there is nothing quite like a warmed muffin with a cup of coffee or tea to start the day. When you get to the muffins, you might notice something kind of strange for a cookbook celebrating America. There is an English muffin recipe. What?! Well, an English muffin really is an adaptation of the classic American griddle cake! Not only are these fun to make, they’re easy too, and yes, I’ll even tell you how to get those famous “nooks and crannies.”
While it may be true that soups did not originate in America (not many foods really did since we are such a young country), the simple fact of the matter is we may have perfected them. Whether it be in grandma’s kitchen, at mom’s table, or sitting in a diner, truck stop, or café, there is nothing which warms the heart (and brings on memories) like a bowl or mug of homemade soup. In the section cleverly entitled By the Bowl, I will pay homage to a wonderful culinary genre of comfort foods: soups, stews, and chilies. This section will take us all across the American landscape and even feature a stew and chili with beer as one of the main ingredients. If you happen to be a fan of Tomato Soup, I think you will find our recipe to be off the charts (page 63)—it is unlike most tomato soups because it is not creamed and tastes like it just came from the garden!
If you are of a certain age (as I am), you very well remember going into diners and cafés and having the waitress (it always seemed to be waitresses) asking you, “What sides would you like with that?” Sometimes the side dishes were actually better than the main course. In American homes, the side dishes usually took up most of the table. In today’s hectic world, many people have overlooked side dishes, but in the section called On the Side, I bring them back to yummy life. I think everyone will find at least one of these side dishes brings back some memories, and maybe, just maybe, they will once again become a staple of the American dinner table.
I was at a rather nice diner a few weeks ago in Utah, and I ordered a dinner salad. The waitress brought me a bowl of rabbit food with a side of sludge. There was a time in America when salads were actually something you looked forward to. If you went to any church social on a sunny summer Sunday, you would see at least one table laden with fresh yumminess. All roadside types of eateries had a complete salad section on their menus. Moms (and dads) would always have their favorite types of picnic salads. Sounds like Mayberry, doesn’t it? In a way, it was—it was pure Americana. In the section brilliantly titled From the Garden, I will bring back some of those memories. Remember those crispy fresh coleslaws at the diners? Yep, they’re here! How about the colorful carrot salad sold in many delis with that rather interesting dressing and little orbs of sweetness (raisins)? Yep, it’s here (including the dressing). We will even venture to the American paradise known as Hawaii and bring you their version of the classic salad known as ambrosia!
Long before anyone reading this book was born (about 1892), many roadside types of eateries had what they called a “blue plate special.” Though the history of the “blue plate special” can be argued, what we do know for certain is that it was an entrée (main course) served with two side dishes for one low price. It was usually the special of the house and changed daily. Was it really served on blue plates? At first, yes: a blue metal plate which was divided into three sections. Blue plate specials have become a mainstay at diners and cafés; though they may no longer be the most affordable item on the menu, they are still downright delicious, and in most cases, they still feature classic American fare. In the section called Blue Plate Specials, I will dive mouth-first into the most famous of these dishes. You will have your fill of chops, meatloaves (including an adaptation of the legendary Paul Pruhomme’s Cajun Meatloaf which is simply unreal), and yes, there will be quite a variety of fried chicken dishes from all over America, including one made with Coca-Cola® (page 172)!
“You want some gravy?” This was always a common question at most American dinner tables. At most diners throughout America, they didn’t bother to ask. You either got gravy over the course you ordered, or you got a little cup of gravy on the side. It’s America! We love our gravies. There is just something about this liquefied fat (which most gravies are) that we love. They taste good! They feel good in the mouth! Yes, I want gravy! As an added bonus to this celebration of America and her food, I have added a special section called … America’s Gravies! In this section, I will share with you the favorite gravies of the diners, cafés, and truck stops of America. I have no doubt you will find one of your favorites here, including a real Sausage Gravy (page 221) to drape over some Buttermilk Biscuits (page 8)—now this is a truly American breakfast! Also of note in this section is the famed Tomato Gravy (page 222). This gravy used to be served over meatloaves in many diners, and as we were perfecting the recipe, I realized something. It tastes exactly like Campbell’s® Tomato Soup (minus the chemicals and sludge). Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I ate a bowl of this stuff!
When I was a kid, there were two things I always looked forward to. One was visiting my grandmother and rushing into her pantry where she always kept her fresh-baked goods. The second was the waitress at a diner or café coming to the table and saying with a smile (always with a smile), “Are we ready for dessert?” Just the word “dessert” seems to add a few inches to my waistline, but in my way of thinking, you only live once, so go ahead and have two slices!
Whereas the French and Italians may have perfected the chic and fancy dessert, here in America we have perfected the delicious dessert. Whether it be a freshly baked cake, a pie cooling on the windowsill, or one of our always tempting dessert breads, the American dessert is always the best way to end a meal (or eat as a midnight snack, midday snack, midmorning snack—you get the idea). For the most part, the art of making true American desserts has gone the way of the dodo bird. A perfect example of this is the fact that most Americans have no idea that real brownies do not come out of a box! I will venture to rectify this problem in our section called All-American Desserts and even share with you the recipe for the real, true brownie—made with real cocoa. No box! Never a box! One thing you may notice about this section is that we feature a lot of pies. Though pies are not an American creation, they are a true American dessert staple. For all of my pies, whether fruit or cream, I always use the same crust because the simple fact of the matter is: a bad crust can ruin any good pie. The crust I always use, which can be found on page 276, is very simple and French in origin (its actual name is pâte brisée). It is a simple butter crust, but if you’re from the South, yes, you can use lard.
When it comes to true American desserts, one does not look at fat or calories. It is for this reason you will notice that all authentic American dessert recipes will use cream, butter, lard, buttermilk, etc. There is nothing wrong with these ingredients. They are all natural, and unlike the processed “stuff” sold in markets, they contain no chemicals or words you cannot pronounce. If you decide to substitute “fat-free” stuff or processed stuff in any of these recipes, don’t blame me if the result looks like an escapee from a DOW Chemical plant. When it comes to desserts (or any food really), remember the words of the legendary Julia Child: “Everything in moderation.”
Enough words, and now let’s get into the kitchen. Let us all celebrate this wondrous nation we call the United States of America and the food we have all come to love, cherish, and remember. Let us become one nation sitting at one table with one goal in mind … getting full!