Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Apr 7, 2014
12:09 PM
Small Dishes

Top 21 All-American Foods (Part I)

Top 21 All-American Foods (Part I)


Burger and baked potato with sour cream and onions, Port of Call, New Orleans

These are not necessarily the best our nation has to offer, but each—for better or worse—has impacted how we eat. Many of these favorites may have antecedents in foreign cuisines, but all are universally perceived today as iconically American.

Baked potatoes. We’ve been eating them here and in the United Kingdom (where they’re called “jacket potatoes”) for ages, but their popularity didn’t really take off until the twentieth century and the arrival of Luther Burbank’s russet potato. It had a mealier texture than the older varieties that tended to retain moisture and sometime explode when baked. Idaho soon became famous for growing russet potatoes. The only problem was some of them were thought too large—two to five pounds each—and shunned by the buyers who favored smaller spuds. But beginning in 1909, the Northern Pacific Railroad made “the Great Big Baked Potato” a signature dish in its dining cars. It’s hard to contemplate a baked potato without sour cream, but that was the case until the 1950s when the product first appeared in this country.

Barbecue. Neither cooking over an open fire nor smoking foods is uniquely American. But the cooking of meat over low heat—customarily in a pit—for a long time so that it’s permeated with smoky flavor is. Traditionally the fuel source has been hardwood, but modern technology has muddled things a bit. Some believe this cooking technique migrated to our country from the Caribbean. Regardless, the early colonists who came from Europe had long ago forsaken cooking outdoors for the convenience of boiling and roasting indoors. African slaves living in the South enjoyed few amenities such as an actual kitchen. They introduced the concept of cooking over a fire made in a hole in the ground, and so began our long love affair with the cookout. Since barbecuing first took hold in the South, pork was naturally the meat of choice. Cuts like the shoulder and ribs became standard, cheap and made delicious by long, slow cooking. As the frontier expanded, settlers took barbecue with them to Texas and beyond. Hickory is the wood most often used for spice, but mesquite is popular out West, and oak, cherry and apple all have their fans. Say “barbecue sauce” and most conjure up an image of the bottled brown slather sold at the grocery, but in reality preferred condiments vary by geography. In fact, barbecue has become a regional specialty, with different opinions on how it is best done. In the end, all the matters is how it tastes. Recently, a lot of good BBQ options have made it to bratland. One of my favorites is Double S BBQ that does East Texas-style brisket and ribs.

Brownies. Despite its national popularity, our nation cannot take credit for the cookie—derived from the Dutch word koekje and called “biscuits” in England, galletas in Spain and keks in Germany. We can thank Bertha Palmer and her namesake Palmer House Hotel for the invention of the brownie. She requested that a hotel chef furnish her with something between a cake and a cookie that could be included in box lunches prepared for ladies attending Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exhibition. By the first decade of the twentieth century many cookbooks included recipes for brownies. Originally the chocolate-flavored baked treats were more cake-like, but gradually became chewier and richer in chocolate. Inevitably, hundreds of spinoff recipes followed for peanut butter, butterscotch, grasshopper and more types of brownies, as well as for every variety of what we now call “bar cookies”—all grandchildren of Bertha’s original.

Chili. Its exact origins are murky, but were definitely in Texas and not Mexico. Exactly what defines it is contentious to this day: whether the beef is chopped or ground, whether to add tomatoes or beans. In the Southwest chili is flavored using dried and roasted chili peppers. Elsewhere, chili powder—a blend of spices that includes ground dried chilies, cumin, paprika, garlic powder and oregano—is more common. During the Depression family-run chili parlors sprung up across the country. Cities like Cincinnati came up with their own innovative interpretation of the dish. Chili became a sauce for hot dogs, a topping for fries and the essential ingredient in Frito Pie. There are no more passionate cooks than chili makers. Each is determined to create the ultimate recipe.  Secret ingredients often include chocolate, coffee, beer and even peanut butter. The Union Chili at Tip Top Tavern is one of the zestiest bowls of red in town.

Chowder. New Englanders are known for their thriftiness, and chowder may be a stingy stew but nonetheless satisfying. Unlike its richer European counterpart, bisque of creamed soup, it’s made with milk instead of cream, traditionally thickened with crumbled crackers (hardtack) instead of flour and always contains potatoes. Chowder can be and is made with fish, corn and lobster, but clams are by far the most popular additive. That many restaurants still religiously serve clam chowder on Fridays even though the Catholic Church no longer requires its members to abstain from meat on this day of the week speaks to its appeal. Clam chowder in the Midwest inclines to being thicker and richer. The Old Fashioned adds a Wisconsin touch: bacon!

Corn. Most of us know that it’s one of our continent’s great gifts to the world. Elsewhere, it is thought of as a grain, but here a vegetable as well. Though the popularity of corn on the cob has never really taken hold beyond North America, so many of the things fashioned from corn have.

Cornmeal—made from grinding the dried grain—has long been an American staple. Native Americans shared a recipe with early European settlers on how to make a quick bread. Cornbread is still outrageously beloved in the southern states. In New England cornmeal is the preferred breading for fried clams and oysters. Grits are but a coarser grind of cornmeal and in Italy called “polenta.” Hominy is a variation made by soaking the grits in a slaked lime solution. Dried and powdered hominy becomes masa harina, the flour used to make tortillas. 

Will Kellogg revolutionized what we would eat for breakfast with his accidental discovery of cornflakes in 1894. Cornstarch, corn oil, corn syrup … the list of corn byproducts that are integral to making so many of the things we enjoy eating today goes on and on. Personally, I credit a pioneer and Baptist minister in Kentucky, Elijah Craig, with the most ingenious corn byproduct of all: bourbon.

Creamy salad dressing. The French have always demanded that a salad be dressed with a combination of oil and vinegar or lemon juice with perhaps a few seasonings added. The rest of the world followed suit except for us. Post-World War II and the improving economy saw an increase in dining out. Inevitably, some type of salad made with Iceberg lettuce with a choice of dressing came with dinner. Our fondness for globby mayonnaise-based salad dressings like Thousand Island, Green Goddess, blue cheese and ranch is linked to the proliferation of our native head lettuce, which holds up to it quite nicely. (The lettuce may be bland so all the more reason to kick it up!) The French may have invented mayonnaise, but we figured out how to process it and sell it in a jar and that’s what made all of these salad dressing feasible. Heretofore, mayo took skill to make, and since it contained raw eggs, it spoiled easily. Mayonnaise was first commercially manufactured and sold in Philadelphia in 1907. Soon Hellmann's was popular on the East Coast, Best Foods on the West Coast and Duke’s in the Southeast; all of these brands still thrive today. The best salad dressing is always homemade, and my favorite choice for blue cheese is Hook’s Blue.

Eggs Benedict. It originated at the mother or all American restaurants, New York’s legendary Delmonico’s. There Chef Charles Ranhofer sometime before 1894 when his cookbook, The Epicurean, was published came up with the egg dish and named it in honor of his loyal patrons, Captain and Mrs. Le Grand Benedict.  Originally a luncheon dish, it has become synonymous with brunch. The term “brunch”—literally the combination of “breakfast” and “lunch”—was coined in England and the combination meal invaded the U.S. during the 1930s. It was a more casual meal than the traditional big Sunday lunch. Hotels assured its success since most restaurants were closed on Sundays. They begin to lure customers with lavish spreads of food and morning “eye-openers” such as Bloody Marys and mimosas. Ironically, brunch never achieved the popularity in the U.K. that it has in the U.S.

Fried and scrambled eggs seemed a bit pedestrian with the cosmopolitan ambience brunch tried to promote. Eggs Benedict, however, was right on. Many variations soon followed, including my favorite, Eggs Sardou. Created at Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans, it substitutes artichoke bottoms and creamed spinach for the English muffin and ham. Veranda Restaurant and Wine Bar serves Sunday brunch and prepares a classic Eggs Benedict as well as six variations.

Fried chicken. West African slaves introduced frying in deep fat to the southern colonies. It didn’t take long for fried chicken to become one of the region’s most popular dishes. Heretofore, the English settlers were only familiar with roasted or boiled chicken. To this day we associate fried chicken with the South, where it remains perennially popular. Most people know the story of how Colonel Harland Sanders turned his secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices into gold. Today, KFC is the biggest selling fast food brand in the world. It’s most profitable marketplace is now China. For some authentic southern fried chicken, seek out Melly Mell’s—a bit hard to find but worth the search.

Hamburgers. Ask anyone anywhere in the world to name an American food and the most likely response will be a hamburger.  Despite being named after a German city, the sandwich we know today made from grilled ground beef was born and bred in the U.S.A. (As far as I know, the only place a hamburger actually includes ham is in Mexico, where hamburguesas come topped with a slice of the pink cold cut.)  Some believe that a Danish immigrant Louis Lassen invented the burger in 1900 at his lunch counter in New Haven, Connecticut. A competing claim is that it was Charlie Nagreen in Seymour, Wisconsin. We do know that at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 it became popular food cart fad food. Early hamburgers were served between two slices of toasted bread and the advent of the now ubiquitous soft, round roll or bun was crucial to its ultimate evolution. Demand for burgers has grown worldwide in the past decade and more than half of all American consume one at least once a week. Even if Wisconsin didn’t invent them, they’re still literally a big deal here—the forty-ounce hamburger at Haase’s Supper Club in Winneconne is worth the photo op alone!

Iceberg lettuce. Anyone who has ever seen the movie East of Eden understands the magnitude of being able to successfully ship head lettuce from California in a refrigerated railroad car. And what a revolutionary American culinary event that turned out to be! For the first time even in the dead of winter in the likes of Wisconsin, something green, fresh, crisp and—most importantly—affordable was available at the corner grocery. It’s still de rigueur for finishing burgers, BLTs and tacos. In passing years as taste has grown worldlier the inclusion of iceberg lettuce in salads has fallen out of favor, ousted by field greens. A delicious taste of nostalgia is the wedge salad with French Roquefort dressing at Tornado Steakhouse.

To be continued.

RECIPE: Kate Hepburn’s Brownies

She not only could act but bake as well. I’ve tried dressing these brownies up, using better quality chocolate, but the results were actually disappointing.  Sometimes it’s better not to fool around with something that’s just perfect the way it is.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 ounces unsweetened Baker's chocolate
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup flour
Pinch of salt
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven 325 degrees. Line a buttered 8x8-inch baking pan with buttered baking parchment paper. 

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a medium-size, heavy saucepan over moderately low heat, stirring constantly until well blended. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar. Whisk in the eggs one at a time; then the vanilla. Stir in flour, salt and walnuts. Stir to combine well.

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared baking pan. Bake in the 325-degree oven for about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (Be careful not to overcook the brownies or they will be dry!) Cool completely on a wire rack. Use a plastic knife to cut into squares.

Makes 16 2-inch brownies

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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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