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It's All American Food
by David Rosengarten

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

The generalizations we tend to make about nations and their cuisines are rarely accurate, if difficult to avoid. Many people believe, for example, that the French still produce the finest food on the planet. On the other hand, there are Italians and Spaniards who would readily and vociferously relegate the French to imitators.

Can the United States compete in this game? Can we get great food in any region of this wonderful, varied country if we know where to look for it? David Rosengarten believes we can. His All American Foods: The Food We Really Eat, The Dishes We Will Always Love throws the American toque into the ring of top world cuisines.

Rosengarten follows a useful three-part strategy in this pragmatic paean to American cuisine. The hefty first third of the book is devoted to ethnic America: Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Mexican—eighteen ethnicities in all. These are not simple collections of recipes, but thoughtful analyses of the true part each ethnic cuisine has played (and will play) in our gastronomic drama. “[east] Indian cuisine in America,” Rosenberg relates, “ is one of our healthiest, most vibrant cuisines.” Rosengarten gives us recipes for the ever-useful Samosa (which, in the old days, “were to Indian restaurants in the United States what Chinese egg rolls were to Chinese restaurants: a must-have first course.”) Samosas are “full-flavored, deep-fried triangles of pastry stuffed with spice-accented meat and/or vegetables.” He also details how we can home-manufacture the wonderful bright-green coriander sauce we find at Indian eateries. His formula here: take the exotic, and empower us to make it our own.

When I was growing up, there were only two ethnic family restaurant options: Chinese, and Italian. The cuisines differed in taste and presentation, of course, but I never stopped to appreciate another critical difference: we readily cook Italian food at home as part of everyday American cuisine, but we usually leave Chinese food to the professionals. Rosengarten believes that should change. His flagship Chinese recipe couldn’t be anything else but “The Old-Fashioned Chinese-Restaurant Shrimp Roll.” Next, predictably, he gives us “Chinese-Restaurant Spareribs,” then a yummy array of pot-stickers and dumplings. It’s All American Food devotes similar detail to American varieties of Greek, Scandinavian, Cuban, Middle Eastern and many other cuisines, stressing the American character of these developing food-ways in every case.

Part Two gives us a masterful culling of regional American food traditions; I’ve added at least a dozen of these recipes in my personal kitchen repertoire. The full list: New England (clam chowder), New York (cheesecake), Philadelphia (cheese-steaks, hoagies. soft pretzels), Pennsylvania Dutch (chicken pot pie), Chesapeake Bay (crab cakes), Low Country (she-crab soup), Dixie (southern fried chicken and corn bread), Florida (Cuban sandwich, key lime pie), Cajun/Creole (gumbo), Texas (real Texas chili), Midwest (corn dogs and Chicago deep-dish pizza), Southwest (New Mexican green chile stew), California (Cobb salad), Hawaii (ahi poke). These sections each offer dozens of recipes with enthusiastic head-notes and cultural provenances. The “Dixie” section is especially thorough (I’m not a Southerner, but—yum—I do understand why.)

Rosengarten rounds out his treatise with an excellent third section, rightfully paying homage to beloved foods that transcend ethnic and regional appellations: “a core American food—a group of dishes that virtually all Americans, in all parts of America, prepare in their own kitchens.” Here are our beloved comforts: corned beef hash, home fries, buttermilk pancakes, coleslaw, tuna salad sandwiches, meat loaf, pot roast, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, Parker House rolls, apple pie—in other words, that fine array of timeless foods about which the benighted French haven’t the slightest clue. The secret is safe with me. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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