I’ve heard that some foreigners think we’re all about hamburgers. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, we like our beef, but there is so much more. While hamburgers and hotdogs somehow gained the top spot, the best American food is left to be discovered within the regional cuisines. This is one of the many joys of exploring the United States.
In my home region of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we have the Pennsylvania Dutch influences. Shoo fly pie, chicken pot pie that is more like a stew than a pie, hard pretzels, and oh the wonderful fresh corn in summer.
Travel to coastal regions such as Maryland with the Chesapeake Bay and you’re discovering seafood. How about some Chesapeake Chicken (chicken topped with crab meat), crab cakes, or a crab feast? Or lobster in Maine? In New England, they’re serving up clam chowder. Well, if you’re in Boston, it’s “chowd-a”. This chowder is cream-based, while in Maryland the chowder has a vegetable broth base. I’m really not loyal to one or the other…I’ll eat either whenever the opportunity arises.
Many regions boast of their barbecue. Memphis, Texas, Kentucky, and North Carolina come to mind. While on a road trip across North Carolina, I had the pleasure of discovering North Carolina barbecue. Oh….my…..goodness! It was soooo good. As you travel across the state, you will notice a variation between their eastern and western styles of barbecue. The whole hog is used in the east, while in the west it’s the shoulder and tomato sauce is part of the mix. I thought it was all fantastic. Accompanied by hush puppies, not fries. I ate barbecue at every opportunity, and every place I stopped had its own rendition of the hush puppy. It looks like a little log, now it looks like a meatball. But, thankfully, these bite-sized fried corn breads all just taste yum. The chefs of North Carolina also generate variety in their coleslaw creations. On this trip, I discovered red coleslaw. The red hue is due to the use of red wine vinegar. Ok, I will admit that this dish does not rank at the top of my list of foods to try again.
I always welcome a trip to the south. Not just because of the warmth of the weather and the people. It’s the food! Grits and okra are at the top of my list. For the uninitiated, grits is a hot cereal, somewhat like cream of wheat but grittier (no pun intended) and corn-based. Yes, grits is an acquired taste. But I didn’t have to acquire because I was born a southerner at heart. A little salt and sugar, perhaps a dollop of butter, and I’m set.
Regional cuisine is inspired by the plants and animals that thrive there. It developed before big box grocery began allowing us to seemingly buy whatever we want at any time of year. You want strawberries in January – sure…your grocer brings them in from California or Mexico. Seriously, though, you have not eaten strawberries until you’ve stood in the patch in June and sampled a few with a bit of the warmth of the sun in them. It is quite an experience, I assure you. Big box grocery stores have made us forget about many wonderful foods. If it can’t be mass-produced, is not pretty, or doesn’t travel well, it’s just not making it to your grocer. Ever eaten an heirloom tomato ripened on the vine? How about a paw-paw? I’m in the process of raising paw-paws so that I can sample this fruit that is said to taste like banana and mango but is not available commercially because it can’t survive transportation.
If you’re like me and find yourself intrigued by the food and the history behind it, check out The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky, the writer of Salt. He’s dusted off writings from the national archives about regional foods in the United States in the mid-20th century. You know, before franchises and the national highway system. When food was purely ingrained in the culture. This is still true to an extent, but much is sadly lost through the generations. All is not lost, however, and if you search you can find.
What are your favorite regional foods? I know I’ve missed *many*, such as the chicory coffee in the south, southern fish fries, Wisconsin cheese curds, and sourdough bread born in San Francisco. Let’s share…join the conversation below…