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Searching for the REAL American Cuisine

Harold Stephens attempts to discover true American cuisine.

At the "First International Food Summit Conference" held in Bangkok a few years ago, the Americans weren't invited to participate. Why? America doesn't have a national cuisine, the French director said.

I have to admit he is right. America is a hodgepodge of everything from everywhere. But then, maybe, after 200 years, it's time the Americans created a national cuisine. I decided to give my full attention to this last fall when I made a motor trip across country. Maybe then, after a national cuisine is decided upon, the French may invite America to their Second, or Third--whatever it might be by the then--Food Summit Conference.

I know you can't make hamburgers a national dish, but I like hamburgers when hamburgers are served in America. Thus when I arrived in Los Angeles from Bangkok, I would have been contented dining on hamburgers for my first meal. But friends greeted me. "Just in from Bangkok," they said jubilantly, and then announced they had made reservations at a Thai restaurant for dinner that night. I learned over my bowl of spicy hot Tom Yum soup that there are an estimated 70,000 Thais in L.A., and over 250 Thai restaurants, and the food is terrific. In fact, it's about as good as you can get in Bangkok. But as plentiful as Thai food is in L.A., it can hardly be classified as an American national dish. Not yet.

From L.A. I headed south, through New Mexico and Arizona. In small towns, away from the highways, I stopped at Mexican cantinas, where the Mexican-American cattle hands and ranchers ate. Here the food is so hot Thai food would taste mild in comparison. And what food! Wild, spicy tortillas. Enchiladas oozing with cheese, and stuffed with red chilies. And frijoles (beans). Iced Carta Blanca beer, drunk from the bottle. In one place in El Paso I talked to the chef, a third generation American. "What do you think should be the American national cuisine?" He looked at me. "Cuisine, you know, food, American food."

"American, this is American," he stammered. He stood about seven feet tall and puffed out his chest. He hadn't shaved several days. "You don't like it?"

I like it, but I decided not to make enchiladas a national dish. From the southwest I headed north, to middle America--the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, a land dotted with deep forests and tens of thousands of lakes. The settlers here arrived in covered wagons, speaking Germans and Dutch. I spent the night in one town famous for its cheese. I ate cheeses I never tasted before.

Those who live in the Midwest are partial to their cheese from their own dairy farms, and they prove it to you stuffing you with their products, such favorites as Edam, Gouda, Cheddar, Mozzarella Blue and Brie. But they also make cheese you wouldn't find served in Tour D'Argent--Liederkrantz and brick cheese, both native American .

I was anxious to reach the small Pennsylvaniafarming community where I was born. I was going home. Now here, certainly, I would find America's national cuisine. Even James Michener would agree to that. I read his Centennial on my way across country. I underlined one passage, about the Pennsylvania farms a hundred years ago. "At 3 a.m. the heavy bell rang," he wrote, "and the five boys came down to the hearty breakfast their mother had started preparing at two. Scrapple and sausage, a little smoked bacon and some pig's liver and fried chicken, 18 fried eggs with sides of ham, some good German bread and two kinds of fruit pie, dried apple and canned cherry, and quarts of milk...."

"You must be hungry, Harold," my great aunt said when I sat down to breakfast. My breakfast could have been a page out of Michener--sliced ham and sausage and four eggs, five pieces of toasts, home-made jam, a couple glasses of bubbly fresh milk delivered that morning, followed by pots of coffee and freshly baked poppy-seed rolls.

But it wouldn't make the breakfast list at Maxim's in Paris. In the land of plenty, it's content rather than style that counts. "Have some more," my aunt said and poured another coup of coffee and cut two more slabs of poppy-seed roll. I gained another three pounds in two days, and as I said good-bye I tried to determine how one can make poppy-seed roll a national dish, especially when my great aunt and her mother brought it with them from Hungary.

From Pennsylvania I drove up to visit friends in New England. Snow was still on the ground, and the fireplace glowed. "How about a good American meal as a reminder," they said. It was an agonizing afternoon, waiting in the living room with the aroma that came from the oven in the kitchen. And an American meal it was they served up that evening, with that fat and fleshy native American bird they call turkey. Turkey, as American as hamburgers! Turkey, the centerpiece of Thanksgiving, originally the Pilgrims' ceremony of gratitude for survival in their new and bounteous land. And what could have been more American than all the trimmings that went with our meal--chestnut stuffing, served with sweet potatoes, corn, Brussels sprouts, squash, succotash, creamed onions and cranberry sauce, and topped off with pumpkin pie. But it would never sell on the menu at the Tour d'Argent.

I had to drive down to New York. Good, Lord! I ate myself silly in New York, and not in fancy restaurants. The town is nothing more than one big delicatessen. Here was food I had forgotten, food served on street corners and in cafes and diners, food that is Italian, Jewish, Chinese, German, Puerto Rican, Hungarian. Food that is a pastrami sandwich served in a Jewish delicatessen, or corned beef and cabbage, the frankfurter hot dog, sauerkraut, baked lasagna and lox and bagels, all a part of the mid-Atlantic food culture that you would never see on the menu at Maxim's.

I then headed down to the Deep South. I stopped to see friends again. Who can truly understand American southern food unless they spend time there? No people in the United States are more conscious and proud of their regional identity than Southerners.

The original English, Scott, Irish and French culinary tastes molded by the skills of slaves from Africa, set the framework of Southern cooking, as did the abundance of corn, fish and fowl. The early settlers found pigs easier to raise than cattle and sheep. The result is a cuisine heavily larded with cured ham, spareribs, sow belly, crackling, fatback and chitterlings. And things like hush puppies and fried cornmeal cakes. "Another serving," they asked, and gave me a paper sack of food to carry with me in the car when I left.

I drove back to California via Texas. Friends again. I arrived late at night, and they woke me up early with a stack of pancakes soaked in syrup, three fried eggs, a quarter pound of bacon, fresh corn bread and a half pot of coffee. "But you don't get that in China or wherever that is you live," they said. I didn't tell them Bangkok isn't in China.

"A surprise," they then said. "We're having a few people over for barbecue this evening!'

A small gathering, by Texas standards, was 200 people. A beefy steer was roasted whole. But there was also braised pronghorn antelope and roasted wild turkey. I learned there are more ways to barbecue beef than one, and these people know them all. They spit barbecue, pit barbecue and grill. How would Maxim's have a Texas barbecue, with bottles of ketchup on the tables?

I arrived back in California, that great state I now call home, the great California that does everything in superlatives. Unlike in Texas, the diet is everything fresh from the garden, where all kinds of fruit and vegetables thrive in California's rich soil and excellent climate -- okra, kale, shallots, Chinese cabbage, avocados, loquats, broccoli, spinach, limes and promeranzates, dates and figs, not to forget the more conventional oranges, lemons, grapefruits, grapes, lettuce and tomatoes. And from the sea, abalone, salmon, tuna and lobsters. And the rich red wine. But the French would not agree, American wine would never sell in Paris.

And so I did my circuit tour of America. And it got me to thinking. Growing up in America was not all antiseptic supermarkets and chain food restaurants. Certainly you can see them stretched from one end of the country to the other, but if you get away from the interstate highways and metropolitan centers,the country retains the flavor of small town America. Growing up in America still means Fourth of July picnics, church socials, state fairs and cooking contests--baked hams, chicken pies fruit pies, jellies and preserves.

I thought that perhaps much of this American heritage was gone until I returned home to Pennsylvania last year. I often thought about my childhood, the picnics, the outings, when we as kids watched our fathers pitch horseshoes and swill down kegs of beer while we kids ate tons of hotdogs in fresh buns smothered with chopped onions, oozing with mustard that dropped down the front of our shirts. Now when I returned and met old friends and went on a picnic, I pitched horseshoes and ate hotdogs with onions, with mustard that dripped down the front of my shirt.

When I traveled in America this last time I realized it only stands to reason that a country as vast as the USA and with such an ethnically varied population should have a variety of regional and not a national cuisine.

Furthermore, the national food of a country reflects not only its ethnic background but the country's climate as well. In the tropics and hot climates, the inclination is toward hot and spicy food, just as in Scandinavia and Ireland you don't find chilies and curries.

In America the country is as varied as the people. It has rugged, windswept shores; dense, brooding forests; an extensive scattering of cold lakes and streams; great plains and incredibly harsh deserts, a mountainous north where winters are generally long and hard; a semi- tropical south that seldom sees frost.

In such an environment I grew up, and it was much as Michener wrote. As a kid, I ate heavily and I was expected to work hard. Our farm in Pennsylvania, not far from the Amish, was as self-sufficient as a farm could be. The only things we bought were things we couldn't grow or raise. Survival meant starting in the spring, after the last snow, to prepare for the coming year. It was the time to plant, to set the eggs for hatching, to wean the young calves for grazing.

Our cows gave us milk, and from the milk we made butter and cheese. There were always quarts of buttermilk in the milk house. In the spring we planted, and in the fall we harvested. Fall was canning time, when the whole family pitched in. My mother preserved fruit and vegetables. Bushels of tomatoes went into boiling tubs. Cucumbers were placed in huge crocks and turned miraculously into dill pickles; and cabbage into sauerkraut.

While my mother did the canning, my father fermented grapes from the vineyards and from it came barrels of rich red wine, and from yeast and hops he brewed his own beer. And far behind the barn, which we kids weren't allowed to mention, was a still.

Summer and winter, fall and spring, once a week my mother baked--hard crusted fresh bread rolls, poppy seed cake, cabbage pie, cheese rolls, and a couple dozen pies that went into the fruit cellar to keep cold.

I liked the milk house. It was stone and always damp. Water trickled down from a fresh spring and filled the crystal-clear cistern. In the summer the house was cool, and in the winter an escape from the bitter cold outside. Five gallon cans of whole milk were half submerged in the water, and blocks of cheese rested on shelves on the walls. A crock with a wooden lid, filled to the brim with apple cider, stood in a corner. The fall was also the time to butcher. The predominant scent that lingered over the farmlands was that of burning hickory from the smoke houses. Here in these black wooden shacks hung hams and slabs of bacon.

Winter set in, with heavy snow, and both Thanksgiving and Christmas were great feast days. On both days fat turkeys were stuffed into the oven. But on the farm, any day that visitors or relatives arrived was feast day. A ham came from the smoke house, apples from the barn, canned vegetables and preserves from the fruit cellar, and if the occasion called for it a fat rooster was chased down in the chicken yard.

The fall also meant hunting. Wild pheasant, rabbit, venison. There was always wild game to add a different touch to the table.

When you travel across America you understand why the country's pilgrim fathers were austere and frugal. New England itself is an austere place, cold and damp, on a windswept coast. Nevertheless, here is where Thanksgiving originated.

To these frugal American forefathers, the rest of the year was not the time to be wasteful. To them a meal was simply intended to provide sustenance and nourishment. Unlike the French with all the added flavors just to disguise and make a plate savory, New Englanders and the people along the mid-Atlantic coast did not tinker much with their food. The easiest way to prepare a meal was to put a pot over a fire and fill it with whatever was immediately available--fish, vegetables and meat which was often so tough that prolonged boiling was required. When huge pots of beans, for example, were put on the stove and left to simmer, out of it came a specialty--New England baked beans.

In later years I found that in most countries around the world fish is a main sustenance. But nowhere except in New England is there such a variety and an abundance of both sea and fresh water fish. There is bass, lobsters, herring, turbot, sturgeon, cusks, haddock, mullet, eels, crabs, oysters and mussels. From this we get New England boiled lobsters with butter sauce and the inimitable New England clambake.

And maple syrup. It was from the American Indians that the early pilgrims learned how to tap maple trees and collect sap. The Indians taught them to boil down the sap to make maple syrup. What would a pancake house in Paris be without true maple syrup?

Would members of the Summit Conference admit that there is certainly drama in the way the American cuisine in all its varied forms developed? Where and how did they originate--clam chowder, pepper pot soup, jambalaya, red flannel hash, sour milk pancakes, Kentucky burgoo, shoo-fly pie, Caesar salad, buckwheat flapjacks, cherry cobbler?

And I forgot the Hawaiian meal, where whole pigs and chickens are cooked for hours in an underground oven lined with banana leaves and corn husks and then served with various other delicacies, like poi, that thickish paste made from ground and cooked roots of the taro plant. How could you cook like this at Maxim's?

I believe that the reason I like to travel so much is that I enjoy eating the food of the country I am visiting. I eat only Thai food when I am in Thailand, and only Indian food when I am in India. And when I arrive in America I don't go looking for a Chinese restaurant. I like turkey, and stuffing, and cornbread, and flapjacks with maple syrup, and hamburgers, and everything American -- in America. But I still have to decide upon that national cuisine, or we'll never make it to the Food Summit Conference.

Harold Stephens is one of Southeast Asia's best known writers. Having lived in the area most of his adult life, he's authored 17 books--most recently, The Last Voyage, about his 18-year journey aboard a schooner he built himself--and more than 3,500 newspaper and magazine articles, covering everything from travel to jungle exploring and searching for lost cities. He lives in Bangkok and the San Francisco area. This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post.

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