The United Tastes of America

What exactly is American cuisine? I found myself pondering this question after the most unlikely of prompts — a political conversation.

The context was the dismantling of Confederate statues in the south — a point my friendly rhetorical rival argued is the erasing of an important part of the legacy of people in that region. My counterpoint was that for people of African American heritage, these monuments were painful symbols of slavery. And, by the way, were also celebrating men who were technically guilty of treason against the United States. “You can’t equate it with baseball and apple pie,” I said.

Which got me thinking: “How American is apple pie, anyway?”

When I looked “apple pie” up on Wikipedia, it said: “Origin: England.” Or course, the French would likely argue that. The broader point being that there were no apples in the New World when the pilgrims arrived. Nor were there any much earlier when the first people to set foot in North America crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age.

The British brought apples. That is, when they immigrated to North America. The French probably brought them when they immigrated, too. And they probably argued about who made the better crust for their apple pie. (I would likely favor the French, but that’s neither here nor there.) Before the European migrants, there was no apple pie in North America. There was corn and “natives” — who, as we have already established, had themselves migrated here.

Let us not forget that Marco Polo brought the noodle to China. Or, wait… did he bring the noodle back from China??

Apple pie, photo courtesy Betty Crocker

When I was a kid, we didn’t go out for “American” food. There were five restaurants we frequented in our 1970s suburban Los Angeles neighborhood — Sierra’s, a dark labyrinth of vinyl booths and enormous platters of rice, beans and enchiladas or rellenos or whatever main you ordered; Papa Tony’s, your classic red-checker-tableclothed spaghetti-and-meatballs joint; Twin Dragon, what we would later understand to be “Cantonese” style regional cuisine but what back then was just Chinese; Joy of Tempura, where I learned to use delicate chopsticks and developed an early love for bonsai trees and raw fish; and Papillon, a jewel box that served snails and where my parents liked to delight the waitstaff by having the 6-year-old me order the Pouilly-Fuissé. Cooking and serving and bussing in each of those restaurants were happy Mexican, Chinese, French, Japanese and Italian people who came to America or were born to parents who did, bringing their traditions as they crossed the desert or the sea following the American dream.

Cecilia Chiang, pioneer of the famous San Francisco restaurant, The Mandarin, recently turned 90. She may be one of the most American chefs of all. She was born to a wealthy Chinese family, escaped the Japanese occupation in 1942 by walking for six months, fled Mao after that, and wound up in San Francisco in 1960, where with no experience she opened a Northern Chinese restaurant, betting Americans would be open to exploring authentic Chinese flavors beyond egg foo young and chop suey. Likewise, Wolfgang Puck, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions. A Carinthian kid with a dream of a different kind of pizza — a uniquely Austrian/California/Italian mash-up only possible in Hollywood.

Growing up in Los Angeles, a burrito was American food. A few decades ago, my friend, Saul, came across the border in the trunk of a car. He got a job bussing tables at a deli, where he met a jewish waitress whom he eventually married. He got into construction, earned his contractors license, built a house and became a citizen. A few years back, he travelled back for a visit to his family’s village in Jalisco, where he grew up in a small house with ten siblings and no plumbing.

“What would you do when you had to go to the bathroom?” I asked.

“We’d go out in the field,” he said.

“What about toilet paper?”

“We’d find the smoothest rock we could find.”

He came back with a large wedge of cheese for me — queso cotija his mom had made from unpasteurized milk from the family cow. It was one of the most delicious cheeses I’ve ever had, and I guarded over it like it was gold. My American friend Saul, and his mom’s Mexican cheese.

The best apple pie I ever had was at a street festival in the northern Japanese city of Aomori, which is known for its apples. Apples originated in Asia, don’t you know. How did they get to England and France? I don’t know, maybe… migrants??

And that, my friends, is about as American as apple pie.

When we think about immigration, we might think not of walls but rather of fences — the low kind we lean our elbow on as we talk to our neighbor next door whom, upon finding we have much humanity in common with, we invite over for a glass of our family wine or to sit at our table for a slice of whatever apple pie is our tradition. And toast to the fact that we all started out someplace else. And brought our food to America with us.

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On Vegemite — Skinny Girls Roadshow LIVE from Australia

Certain foods I associate with songs. Consider, for example, the Supertramp song, “Breakfast in America,” and specifically the line: “Could we have kippers for breakfast, Mummy dear, Mummy dear?”

If ever I see or hear the word, “kippers,” I begin singing Breakfast in America.

A similar association exists for the Australian staple, Vegemite.

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Vegemite toast

Colin Hay, lead singer of the famous 1980s Australian band, Men At Work, lives a few houses down from me. If you remember their music — which was inescapable back then — you’ll appreciate this joke:  I imagine walking down to his house in the middle of the night in my pajamas, banging on the door, and when he opens, singing, “I can’t get to sleep!…” (reference: the opening line of their hit song, “Overkill.”)

Anyway, their most famous song is, of course, “Down Under,” with it’s unforgettable chorus, “I come from a land Down Under…” My very first exposure to the idea of Vegemite was a line from this song: “I said do you speak my language? He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich…”

Which, over the course of the ensuing three decades, left me wondering: “What the heck is Vegemite!?”

At the IGA on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia, I purchased a jar. The kids watched like some science experiment was unfolding as I opened it. The stuff inside was blacker than night, thicker than clay. I scraped off a thin bit with a knife and tasted it. The kids gaped, eyes wide and mouths hanging open. I may have winced; it was intense.

“What does it taste like?” one of the asked.

“Sort of a cross between molasses and beef bouillon.” They cringed.

I then went about doing a bit of research to figure out what on earth the Aussies do with this beloved ingredient. Colin Hay’s Vegemite sandwich?? It seemed one of the most common applications was Vegemite toast for breakfast — toasted, buttered bread spread with a small amount of Vegemite. Here was the key — “small amount”. I tried it. And I began to understand. This, the savory umami spread mixing with the rich butter, was tasty! Soon it became my Australia morning staple.

“Are you gonna have some Vegemite?” Immy would ask as I strolled toward the kitchen in the morning.

“I sure am, honey.”

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Then, inspiration struck one evening in the Eastern Shore town of Urunga, five hours north of Sydney. I had purchased a beautiful Australian tomahawk rib steak to “throw on the barbie” of our riverfront house. I was browsing through the sparse pantry at our Airbnb when I spotted it — my jar of Vegemite. I smashed some garlic and salt on a cutting board, then folded in a heaping tablespoon of Vegemite along with some olive oil. I spread the mixture on the steak, let it sit for an hour, then grilled it. It was truly one of the best steaks ever. Garlic, olive oil and salt, of course — but the Vegemite provided a welcome blast of flavor enhancement and caramel/molasses notes.

“What’s it made of?” my mom inquired when I emailed her about my Vegemite endeavors.

“I’m not sure. It says ‘vegetable protein’.”

I didn’t want to delve too deeply into the particulars. I liked a bit of mystery to my Vegemite — the stuff of blacks the black of deep space, and smiling strangers in Brussels handing me sandwiches.

Meat Pies, Brewpubs, Bay Bugs & Other Exotica — Skinny Girls Roadshow LIVE from Australia

“Be sure to eat plenty of meat pies,” said pal Jon as we prepared to depart for three weeks in Australia.

Throughout my life, I’ve had people trying to convince me to enter into some sort of food enterprise with them. Jon is one of those people. Married to a New Zealander whose family he was compelled to visit, he developed a taste for savory hand pies and thought it was a can’t-miss opportunity for a business in California. I was more skeptical. Lately Jon’s business concept has moved on to tacos, but that’s a subject for another post…

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Australian Rice Krispies

Back to the meat pies. Arriving in Sydney a day or two before the winter solstice, we checked into our cool Airbnb terrace house in Darlinghurst, a few blocks from the Central Business District (CBD). One of our first destinations was not the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge, but the IGA grocery store. Here, along with milk, Rice Bubbles (the Australian version of Rice Krispies), fruit, etc., I purchased a meat pie — chicken curry, to be specific.

We heated the pie up for breakfast the following morning. It was quite tasty, the crusty flaky and light, almost puff pastryish. All in all good, although perhaps not the stuff of lucrative American franchise.

I had done my research. I was looking forward to a joint called Hayden’s Pies on the coastal road to Melbourne a week later. I Instagram messaged them ahead to find out what kind of pie-of-the-day they would have ready for us when we rolled through. I guess they were busy, as I did not receive a reply.

My childhood pal from Topanga, Geoff, moved to Sydney a couple decades ago and was looking forward to my arrival. We had a nice lunch together, him and me and my family, our first day in the city, and made plans to have him and his mother to dinner at our place later in the week. In between, he wanted to take me for a microbrewpub crawl in his neighborhood in Newtown.

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Geoff & I brewpubbing

Still jet lagged, I reluctantly set out in an Uber on a drizzly Saturday night to meet Geoff at Batch Brewing Company. We opted for the six-beer sampler which included several strange flavors (spicy chili and cherry vanilla) that were well executed and enjoyable. Two more joints followed which blend together in my mind and I’m not sure which was which — the beer was fine and I was more focused on catching up with my friend.

Nearing the end of the crawl, we wound up at a record-store-by-day, whisky-bar-by-night, where Geoff ordered us two house-distilled whiskies and two Norwegian lactose beers. “This is a great combo to end the night.” He was right, the lactose beer delicious and unlike anything I’d had. I peeled off the label in the hopes I might find it back home, while making jokes that I was definitely not lactose-intolerant.

Nearing midnight, we found ourselves in a large private club bar watching a distinctly Australian punk pop band playing some pretty darn good music. I yawned deeply while talking briefly with a beautiful Quebecois musicologist (punk rock specialist) and then decided it was time to Uber home, as Geoff was chatting up various women and seemed to be just getting going.

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Yellowtail at Baccomatto

The next day, I got another meat pie from the IGA — a “tradie” of beef, bacon and cheese. My wife disliked the “gloppy” texture of the sauce, my kids recoiled from the boingy mystery meat. I ate most of it myself, and it was decent, though again definitely not the stuff of the American franchise of your (Jon’s) dreams.

One-day-away-from-9-year-old daughter Imogen was eager to wear her high heel shoes and special dress for a “fancy dinner”. A bit of internet research later and I had found Baccomatto, a stylish Italian eatery a few blocks from our Airbnb. As we approached the restaurant just as it opened, we helped Immy out of her Patagonia (it’s winter here, remember) and into her dress and high heels, and sat for a meal. The food was delicious and gorgeous — my main course of yellowtail tuna with Roman artichokes and squid ink sauce sublime — and they graciously made ziti and meatballs for the kids.

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Imogen approves of Baccomatto

The next day, Geoff texted: “I’m at the fish market. Anything you want or need?”

I had heard about “bugs” — not the kind I ate in Oaxaca, but a crustacean member of the shrimp family unique to the waters of this part of Australia. As eager as my kids were to see kangaroos and koalas, I was to put some unusual seafood onto the plate. Our last night in Sydney before we hit the coastal road south toward Melbourne, Geoff and his mom came for dinner, bearing Balmain bugs. Perhaps the strangest crustacean I’ve ever seen — what appears to be a giant tail is actually its face.

I tossed the snow white meat with butter and a squeeze of lemon, and was not disappointed. It was somewhere between lobster and scampi, and I was able to check off another box on my world’s most unusual crustaceans list.

The next day, we hopped in the mini van early — me driving “on the wrong side and upside down,” as my pal Dr. Lindsay Sharp forewarned me. Ahead: the great coastal road south, supper at Dr. Sharp’s house in the eucalyptus rainforest, Hayden’s famous pies and the great (we were assured by Melbourners) food and coffee mecca of Melbourne.

Tacos on the Mesa

My children have all attended our local community school — Flynn, now 15, is in high school, his sister Willa, 13, is in middle school, and Imogen — the youngest at 8 — is our last kid at Topanga Elementary.

Vaquero Colgin on the Mesa

Each year, there is a fundraiser to raise money for the school, in the form of an event/dinner/auction. In the past, themes have included “1970s (roller girls and disco),” “1980s (hairspray, lots of pink and purple),” with live bands to match, “Totally Topanga” in which you were supposed to dress up in hippy garb, I suppose. One event was held at a spectacular mountain-top midcentury modern with views of city, ocean and islands, and Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes performing; another particularly unsuccessful version was held in a Marriott ballroom near the airport.

I provided food for two of these events — the decades ones, in fact — turning out pizzas and cowboy ribeyes from a wood-fired outdoor oven at the 70s event, and fancy small plate courses for the 80s. This year, after a decade being asked and politely declining, I finally joined our school’s version of the PTA. And was promptly asked to produce the entire event.

 

Don Schneider at the Santa Maria grill

Having attended nearly a dozen such fundraisers in the past, I was able to consider what I liked and didn’t like about previous events, and what I might do we’re I the one in charge (which I now was). One thing I didn’t so much enjoy about the past events was what often felt to me like rigid scheduling by a Type A event producer — cocktails at 5:45, dinner at 6:15, live auction at 7, dessert at 8… etc. At the prior events where I had cooked, I could tell I was causing great anxiety with my general indifference to schedules. (“I’m not serving dinner yet, it’s not done!”)

I’m decidedly Type B. And I host pretty good parties. So I simply decided to throw a great party. The date was already set at May 4. A day before Cinco de Mayo. And so we would jump the holiday and do Quatro de Mayo. I had a theme!

Our event would take place on a wild and remote plateau in the canyon called “The Mesa,” where my friends Sue and Martin have a ranch where we had once done a very successful pop-up restaurant fundraiser.

The very first, most important thing to do was to find and hire a good mariachi band. I called some an amigo, was directed to one band but they were busy. So a whole lot of internet research later, I hired Mariachi Mexico de Sylmar. They looked great in photos in their matching mariachi garb, the band’s leader was named, “Nacho.” I was hopeful.

Next was to secure a Santa Maria grill belonging to a Topanga old timer, and plan my menu. In terms of people pleasing, there are few certainties in life as solid as the taco. For two days prior to the event, I drove around the San Fernando Valley with the school credit card, made salsas, slow roasted a cochinita pibil, delivered several large briskets to my pal, Desmond, a Texan with a nimble finger at the smoker. The food gods were smiling and the stars were aligning.

When hosting, as opposed to simply cooking, there are many things to consider besides tortillas and salsas. Toilets, for example. How to get the deluxe VIP restroom trailer I rented up the twisty road and onto the uneven event site. What to do when it is delivered to the wrong part of the event site. (Because we didn’t want our toilets right in the middle of the dining and auction area.) How to get lights to the event. How to get WiFi so we could check people in and swipe their credit cards. What to do when your friend who has graciously donated her ranch decides she doesn’t want drunk people driving back down that twisty road and so you must figure out another way to get your guests there. Now I’m an artist, mind you — this is not my comfort zone. But it was good to stretch my logistics muscle and realize that I was capable when pressed into duty.

I assembled my A-team of helpers — including pal Katy, my don’t-drink-too-much-while-you-cook minder, who’s daughter Lucy produced a lovely assembly of Mexican sweets for dessert. (A portion of the meal I usually don’t devote too much thought to.) A mountain of mesquite set ablaze promised good things to come.

It was a perfect evening on the Mesa — a Western sun warming the sandstone and sage as it settled toward the ridge, the horse stables and dusty corral area where we held the event decorated with piñatas, papel picado and hay bales covered in colorful Mexican blankets. Trumpets and violins set a decidedly festive atmosphere as Nacho and his band of eight struck up the nostalgic sound of mariachi, and the first shuttles began delivering guests

Behind the grill, we poured ourselves some Pacifico from the keg, sipped a little mezcal and got to work. And the tacos? Even after Katy accidentally spilled two thirds of my key salsa, the results did not disappoint. Desmond’s brisket never fails to elicit lustful sighs — and there was some talk of taking the Colgin-and-Burrows taco show on the road. Crispy tlayudas, a specialty of Oaxaca slathered with lard and black beans, was another hit.

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The evening’s reviews were extremely positive — the venue was enchanting, the band fantastic and the food unforgettable. How about the hosting? Well, I suppose if you do your job correctly, people don’t even notice the hosting…

MSG = Monosodium, Good Mate!

I was at a pizza & wine cookoff recently — me with a few bottles of my family wine versus my pal Craig, with his family wines, making pizzas in the wood-burning oven of my friend and Craig’s brother-in-law, Chris. Basically, dads showing off for their and their friends’ wives.

Somehow we got on the subject of foods-that-used-to-be-taboo-that-have-been-redeemed — perhaps we were talking about eggs from each of our backyard chickens. Maybe it was butter, I can’t remember. I said aloud, “They’ve even determined that MSG is harmless.” Chris looked surprised. “Really??” However, his mother-in-law — his wife Mary’s mom — who had also joined us, looked aghast.

“Oh no!” she said, “MSG is terrible. It gives me headaches and irregular heartbeat and flushed skin!!”

I didn’t follow up.

A few weeks ago, I was cooking a test dinner of a sample menu for a briefly-mentioned-in-my-last-post-restaurant-possibility with some shall-not-yet-be-mentioned celebrity dinner guests who would be involved. My potential-restaurant-partner quizzed the guests about what their favorite kind of chicken was, and one of them replied, “KFC.”

Now I will pause here briefly to say that anyone who has ever told you they don’t like KFC is lying to you. It is @#$%ING delicious. Why? Well, there are those 11 secret herbs and spices. There is also the pressure frying which keeps the meat tender and thoroughly cooked without overcooking the crust. But there is also a fair helping of MSG.

My MSG

The bad rap MSG got from the beginning was largely bogus. It’s simply a protein isolate attached to a sodium molecule. The bad rap also dates to the 1960s, when people reported experiencing strange symptoms after eating Chinese American food. In a famous article exploring “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the author proposed a number of possible suspects — huge quantities of sodium, equally heroic amounts of oil… or, a heretofore unknown substance called monosodium glutamate. It was the latter that captured the public imagination — especially after some well-meaning scientists injected pregnant mice with 30,000x the amount of MSG any human could possibly consume and discovered problems in the resulting offspring.

If you are afraid of MSG, consider that you likely consume half a gram of the stuff daily in the foods you eat. That’s not counting naturally occurring MSG, which is chemically the same as the additive, and found in foods from mushrooms to cheese to fish.

I wanted my guests to really like the chicken. So I purchased a bag of MSG.

I was a little ashamed as I brought my contraband to the check-out line. But then I remembered I was at the Japanese market, and the Japanese still dig MSG. They were the ones who brought it to the world! Anyway, in terms of my meal, it would not be the main component of the dishes I was making; rather, it would merely enhance the flavors of garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, spices and so forth. I used a very small pinch in my spice mixture, a bit in my brines, etc. How was it? Delicious — and a bit better than it would’ve been without. My celebrity guests were on board 100%.

And I am now onboard too. With MSG.

Don’t shame me, well-intentioned food extremist. I realize yours is a small, flavorless world in which your self-righteous indignity to my defense of the world’s most hated food additive will provide you a temporary sense of purpose. I give you that. With a side of kale.

Just give me a KFC thigh and wing, please. And some kung pao chicken on the side.

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