Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Apr 14, 2014
04:59 PMSmall Dishes
Top 21 All-American Foods (Part II)
Continuing my list of the 21 most idiosyncratic American culinary specialties (see Part I here).
Jell-O. For me it conjures up childhood memories of potlucks and church suppers—ones that I would rather forget. Not to mention what it actually is: the artificially colored and flavored protein extract from the skin and bones of animals—and that’s putting it politely! Regardless, there is no denying its acceptance or influence. In 1904, there were only four flavors: lemon, orange, strawberry and raspberry. Currently there are twenty-nine flavors, but some only appear seasonally. Of the least liked and therefore discontinued are tomato, root beer and cotton candy. Mormons are proud of their fondness for Jell-O, so it is fitting that the Utah Legislature designated it as the official state snack food in 2001. If artificially flavored and colored congealed salads aren’t appealing to you, either, Jell-O can be used to deodorize kitty litter, dye Easter eggs or remove soap scum from bathtubs.
Key Lime Pie. Its predecessor was lemon icebox pie, an easy-to-make, no-bake pie—a radical concept at the time—made possible by condensed milk and the refrigerator. However, it was a variation first popularized in south Florida that has become American’s most popular restaurant dessert. Key West claims it invented this pie, but ironically the small, key limes it’s named after are no longer commercially grown there since a hurricane in 1926 wiped out most of the trees. The Florida Legislature once tried to ban key lime pie not made with key limes. That effort failed, but it was successful in making key lime pie the official state pie in 2006. Most often today, the pie comes topped with whipped cream rather than the original piled-high meringue. Last year, Babcock Hall Ice Cream honored new UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank with a featured flavor: Bec-Key Lime Pie.
Mac and cheese. Whether it was the Chinese or Italians who invented pasta, there’s no argument that its preferred manifestation in this country is macaroni and cheese. Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing macaroni to the States. In 1802, he served what he called “macaroni pie” at a state dinner. By 1824 a recipe for “macaroni and cheese” appeared in an influential cookbook of its day, The Virginia Housewife. By the end of the nineteenth century, virtually every church cookbook in the nation included a recipe for this dish. Kraft introduced its first packaged macaroni and cheese in 1937 with the slogan “make a meal for four in nine minutes.” However, it was the homemaker’s bible of the 1950s, the Better Homes & Garden Cookbook, which came up with the idea of using Velveeta cheese. I promise you there is no Velveeta in the Capital Chophouse’s very sophisticated lobster mac and cheese.
Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich. Many believe that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, but alas it was not one of the many uses for peanuts that he discovered. Its origin can be traced back to the Aztecs, who used a paste from ground roasted peanuts in cooking. It was actually a Canadian pharmacist, Marcellus Gilmore Edson, who patented peanut butter in 1849. But it was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that made it an American icon. Its first mention in print was in the Boston Cooking-School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics in 1901. In the beginning it was a fad for the well-to-do. By the end of the 1920s, peanut butter was a staple in most American households and the preferred sandwich filling among children. According to a survey in 2002, the average American will consume 2,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before completing high school. It’s a no-brainer that Fried and Fabulous, Madison’s unique food cart that worships anything baptized in hot oil, would feature a deep fried PB&J.
Pizza. Yes, its name is Italian as are its ancient roots, but what the world enjoys today as pizza evolved in the U.S.A. Italian-Americans definitely took a major role in defining the concept of bread dough topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and other toppings. Every city and region of this country has its own idea about how it should properly be done, especially how thick or thin the crust should be. The diversity in our own town is exemplary and eclectic. One of the newer pizzerias, Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, even touts Trenton, New Jersey, style pizza where the sauce goes on last.
Potato chips. Many of what would become outrageously popular foods—like the chocolate chip cookie—were the result of a serendipitous accident. However, rarely were they the outcome of a cook’s anger as is the case with the potato chip. In1853, George Crum, chef at Moon's Lake House in Saratoga, New York, received a complaint from a diner that his fried potatoes were too thick. Crum’s response was to slice the potatoes ridiculously thin, and when fried, douse them with an extra measure of salt. They were an instant hit and became known as “Saratoga Chips.” In 1908, the Leominster Potato Chip Company in Leominster, Massachusetts, became the first commercial producers of the snack. Many regional companies soon followed, first selling their wares in tins and later in waxed paper bags. Their popularity spread to Britain and Ireland where they are called “crisps.” Things pretty much remained the same until the 1950s when an Irishman, Joe "Spud" Murphy, came up with a successful method to flavor potato chips—his original flavors were Cheese & Onion, Barbecue and Salt & Vinegar. We all know where that led. Recently, kettle chips have become the vogue in potato-chip making. Regular chips are processed on a mechanized conveyer, whereas kettle chips are processed in batches, continually stirred to prevent them from sticking together. The results is kettle chips have a different texture and are supposedly more flavorful. Today more often than not our potato chips come from a bag rather than a restaurant. However, many American bars embrace homemade chips as an appetizer, including the Harmony Bar where they arrive hot with a blue cheese dip.
Tabasco sauce. It’s the one made-in-the-U.S.A food product you would most likely find in a gourmet’s kitchen anywhere in the world. Making pepper sauce began as a hobby for Edmund McIlhenny, a banker who moved to Louisiana from Maryland around 1840. He made his concoction using the tabasco pepper that grew locally, packed it in discarded perfume bottles, and gave it away to family and friends. In 1868, he founded the McIlhenny Pepper Sauce Company and started selling his Tabasco brand to the public. This necessitated ordering new cologne bottles from a New Orleans’ glassworks. The McIlhenny family continues to run the business to this day. Tabasco is sold in more than 165 countries around the world, always in the timeless bottle and label modeled after the original. In 2009, Tabasco became one of just a few U.S. products to receive a royal warrant, signifying it as an official supplier to Queen Elizabeth II. The French consider Tabasco essential with steak tartare and it’s an original ingredient in the Bloody Mary, invented at Harry’s Bar in Paris. Japanese, Germans and Austrians tend to shake it on pizza. Residents of the U.S. Territory Guam are the world’s largest per capita consumers of the hot stuff—about two 2-ounce bottles per person each year—where it’s often paired with Spam. Several new flavors of Tabasco have appeared recently, but the original is still the bestseller.
T-Bone and Porterhouse Steak. For better or worse, our country has always boasted a wealth of meat and a fondness for large portions of it, especially steaks. Steaks are enjoyed elsewhere but tend to be smaller portioned, such as the entrecote (similar to a rib-eye) and rump (from the top round); cuts most frequently found in Europe. Granted, the Tuscan specialty, bistecca alla fiorentina, is nothing more than a grilled, thick T-bone steak, but it’s always shared between two or more people. T-bone and Porterhouse steaks are two cuts in one: the strip steak (loin) on one side of the bone and the fillet (tenderloin) on the other. A Porterhouse is just a large T-bone with a larger portion of fillet. There are several stories as to how it got its name, but all are tied to late nineteenth-century U.S. hostelries. Today, it’s often the pinnacle on modern steakhouse menus as is the 24-ounce Porterhouse at Johnny Delmonico’s.
Tomato ketchup. We actually use less of it than we once did, but it’s in no danger of going away—the time will never come where there are burgers and fries and no ketchup! Heinz started out as a pickle company with fifty-seven varieties but today is synonymous with the red sauce. Ketchup and American cuisine were once the brunt of a lot of jokes, especially by Europeans, but no one is laughing today. Heinz alone sells over 650 million bottles around the world in more than 140 countries whose annual sales total more than $1.5 billion—not to mention one billion single serving packets.
Velveeta cheese. Processed cheese was a hit because it was creamy when melted. Emil Frey of the Monroe Cheese Company in Monroe, New York, invented Velveeta in 1918 and American cooks soon praised its velvety smooth texture. In 1927, The Velveeta Cheese Company was sold to Kraft Foods. Not only is it frequently used to make macaroni and cheese, but it is a key ingredient in the Tex-Mex specialty queso and subsequently ballpark nachos. Sensing you can have too much of a good thing, in the early '50s Kraft introduced Cheez Whiz, a more liquid version of Velveeta and sold in a jar rather than a block. Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia are considered inauthentic by many unless drenched in Cheez Whiz. For those who revel in the worst of our country’s cuisine will surely relish the White Trash Burrito at Burrito Drive—Spam, Tater Tots, canned pork and beans and Velveeta all together in a flour tortilla.
RECIPE: Basic Mac and Cheese for Adults
6 tbsp butter
3/4 cup panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup mascarpone
1 1/2 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8- x 8-inch baking dish. Melt 3 tbsp of the butter. In a small bowl, combine with the panko and cheese. Set aside.
Melt the remaining 3 tbsp butter in a 3-quart, heavy-bottomed casserole set over low heat. Add the flour and cook for a couple of minutes, whisking constantly. Pour in the milk and cook, whisking, until the milk comes to a boil. Continue to cook, stirring with a spatula until the mixture thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste, the Gruyere and mascarpone, and continue to stir until the cheese is melted and well incorporated. Remove the heat and set aside.
Cook the macaroni in boiling, salted water until al dente—about 8 minutes. Drain the macaroni in a colander and add it to the cheese sauce. Mix well to combine.
Pour the macaroni mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the bread-crumb mixture evenly over the top. Bake until golden brown and bubbling—about 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes and then serve.