Friday, June 1, 2007

We Are What We Eat

The original post of this column appeared at in July 2007:

(my monthly column for HEARTLAND WOMEN)
July 2007

My friend Dianna and I were talking the other day about food. She was telling me about the time she and her two college roommates decided to make kielbasa for dinner. They were surprised to find one of them wanted to fry it in a skillet, one wanted to boil it on the stove, and one wanted to bake it in the oven, each absolutely convinced that the way her mother made it was the only way to properly cook kielbasa. I’m sure the only reason no one suggested grilling it was because it was probably winter, and they went to college in Michigan! Dianna thinks they decided to bake the kielbasa that night, and agreed to try it a different way next time. Anyway, she and I ended up laughing and talking about the different influences of family, heritage, experiences, and place – and roommates! – have had on our cooking and eating habits.

Clearly, our families defined our earliest food experiences, incorporating the many historical, cultural, religious, and economic circumstances that had affected them and their cooking and eating habits. Early on, we learned to eat what was put before us, in the manner that our families prepared it, and willingly accepted it for the necessary nourishment it provided. It was not until we got a little older that we realized not everyone shared the same tastes in food as our families, nor the habits or customs of selecting and preparing it.

Before the advent of the Food Network, most of us actually learned to cook from our mothers and grandmothers. Recipes were collected from women’s magazines, newspapers, close friends, church cookbooks, and neighbors across the fence. Some became family treasures handed down through generations and important parts of the ritual from meal to meal, holiday to holiday, generation to generation. Women built culinary reputations on their ability to master the family recipes, with perhaps a slight variation to perfect one or two as their signature dishes. Families became accustomed to the way grandmother made fried chicken and mother made potato salad. Recipes familiar to our palates were recognized as the “gold standard” for that dish.

Sooner or later, we were old enough to venture beyond the family kitchen, and discovered that some potato salad was yellow and some spaghetti had meatballs – and people still ate it and liked it! A timid taste was sometimes all it took to send us running home to inform our mothers that Mrs. So-and-So made the best mashed potatoes we’d ever tasted, and she should call and get the recipe! I know, at my house, we relentlessly begged my mother for years to get the recipe used by the Winkler School lunch ladies for what we considered to be the quintessential macaroni and cheese! There was some muttering about government subsidized milk, cheese, and butter, as she shook her head, but no attempt to call the lunch ladies. I’ll admit I still think fondly of those lunch ladies and their lost secrets for that masterpiece of macaroni and cheese.

If living with college roommates failed to reveal the paradox of food preference and preparation, there was still a dangerous fork in the road shortly after we married. How many young wives, seeking only to please their new husbands heard these words? “It’s really good, honey, but still not quite as good as the way my mom made it. Why don’t you just ask her for the recipe?” Women are made of strong stuff, but that one comment can cut like a knife and begins many a newlywed argument! Oh sure! Some have given it a sincere effort, but few succeed in duplicating a mother-in-law’s recipe. It is a wise husband, indeed, who figures out early on when to cut his losses, along with his mother’s apron strings.

Shortly after Dean and I were married, he actually called to get the recipe for his personal favorite best-ever-gold-standard-chocolate-chip-cookies. In what my mother must have seen as an ironic twist of fate, the recipe came, not from Dean’s mother, but from the lunch ladies at Willowbrook High School and one single batch made 500 cookies! Even with copious pages of mathematical calculations of liquid to dry measurement ratios, I could never capture that certain je ne sais quoi of those lunch lady cookies. To this day, Dean still gets a far away look in his eyes whenever he mentions those cookies, and I just get far away!

Last weekend, I was struck by a perfect example of passing on what we know about food and cooking to the next generation. We were all in the kitchen working on our family Father’s Day dinner. My niece, Megan, was making blue box macaroni and cheese. Her father, my brother Jeff, was standing at her right elbow, working on homemade pizza dough, and Uncle Dean, the brick oven fire master, was standing at her left elbow. Jeff, a true and gifted master baker of thin and crispy pizza crust, advised Megan to carefully measure her ingredients, at least until she had a feel for the recipe, before she began to make alterations. Uncle Dean, a pilot by profession, and a reluctant cook, advised her to follow the list of directions exactly as they were written on the box. Megan, who is ten and already knows her way around a pot of blue box mac and cheese, confidently explained her preference for adding the ingredients, by degree, until it tasted just right to her. As she stirred and tasted from her pot, she also waxed poetic on her preference for cooking with gas vs. electric heat. We just had to laugh! She may only be ten, but she has already logged a lot of time standing at someone’s elbow and learning her way around the family kitchen.

I’ve been reading a lot about national cuisines and regional foodways lately and I’ve decided that with only 231 official birthdays under our belt, the U.S. may have too brief a history for a truly national American cuisine to have developed just yet. We don’t have the longevity or common culture required, especially compared to countries in Europe or Asia. But that may not be all bad.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines foodways as “the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.” From Dianna’s kielbasa-cooking roommates in Michigan to Megan mixing up her own unique version of macaroni and cheese, we truly do have foodways in America. They represent the diversity of our immigrant population and our relative youth, our adventuresome pioneer spirit and our strong ties to home and family. What we have are enduring regional recipes and foodways, relying heavily upon locally available food resources, and seasoned with the history, heritage, and tastes of almost every other country and cuisine in the world. We are such a big country from north to south and east to west that no one cuisine can define us – we are a true melting pot!

Our southern states are known for pork, poultry and abundant fresh vegetables. Our northern states produce lots of beef, pork, and cheese and fruit. The eastern and western states have seafood from two separate oceans, as well as unique histories and populations that developed very distinct foodways. And in the Midwest, where each region borders us, those borders get a little blurry. They don’t call this the Heartland for nothing – we have it all!

I’m not sure we will ever get even two states, let alone fifty, to agree on one way to make something as common as barbecue. If three women in Michigan can’t agree on kielbasa, there is no way to get even one guy from North Carolina and one guy from Texas to agree on pork or beef for barbecue. And the sauce is another matter entirely! It’s just not going to happen. No, if we are destined for a national American cuisine, it must start with something simple like . . . a hamburger.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July, families and friends will gather to cook in backyards and parks, beside rivers and lakes, from sea to shining sea. There will be hamburgers everywhere – and whether we fry it, broil it, or grill it, the hamburger is the first icon of American cuisine known around the world. Many of us will also pop the top of an icy cold Coca-Cola, which is the #1 recognizable brand of anything, food or otherwise, in the world. But, for now, that may be as far as our foodways will take us down a common path toward a cuisine that defines us as a nation.

In New England, they’ll want to add lobsters and steamers to the menu. Southerners will cook sweet, smoky barbecue, douse it with sauce, and serve it with tangy coleslaw – some on the bun, some on the side. Across the Midwest, steaks will sizzle on the grill. And way out in Hawaii, the luau will feature a whole pig, served with pineapple and poi. Most of us will throw a few ears of boiled or roasted Native American corn on the cob onto our plates, and finish it all off with juicy red watermelon, creamy white vanilla ice cream, and a slice of blueberry pie for dessert.

Americans may never know our own national cuisine, but that’s OK. We are just not easily reduced to a common denominator. Even here, in our own Heartland region, we are a little bit Southern and a little bit Midwestern in our foodways, and we can live with that. All across America, our families, our heritage, and our cultures are honest expressions of who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. America may just be too big to limit herself to one cuisine – or one of anything!

Wherever you may be this Fourth of July, remember to go out there and cook up some great American food, share it with others, and above all – be safe!

8 c. cubed seeded watermelon, divided
1 c. water, divided
1/3 c. granulated sugar, divided
1/4 c. fresh squeezed lime juice
1 liter seltzer water, pre-chilled
fresh lime slices
fresh mint leaves

Puree half of the cubed watermelon, half the water and half the sugar in a blender. Pour through a coarse strainer into a large container. Repeat with the remaining watermelon, water and sugar. Stir in lime juice. Refrigerate until very cold - at least 4 hours. Before serving, stir in seltzer and garnish with lime slices and mint, if desired. Try serving this refreshing beverage in something special, like a martini or margarita glass. Try it with other varieties of melons and cucumbers too!

3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 cans black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
1/2 c. diced celery
1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 c. diced red bell pepper
1/4 c. diced red onion

Whisk together vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper in a medium bowl; add remaining ingredients and toss lightly to coat with dressing. Cover and chill well before serving.

from Coastal Living Cookbook
2-1/2 lbs. red potatoes
6 bacon slices, cooked crisp & crumbled
4 hard cooked eggs, chopped
3 green onions, sliced
3/4 c. mayonnaise
3/4 c. sour cream
6 tbsp. prepared horseradish
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1-1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Cook potatoes until just tender. Drain well and cool slightly. Peel and cut into 1” cubes. Combine potatoes with bacon, eggs, and green onions in a large bowl, tossing gently. Combine mayonnaise with remaining ingredients, spoon over potato mixture and fold gently to coat the potatoes. Cover and chill before serving.

John T. Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, MS, (

This “recipe” is in response to a question about how he makes burgers at home for himself. He is also the author of Hamburger & Fries: An American Story. For this burger, he recommends Allan Benton’s bacon, Madisonville, TN (* and Burger House seasoning from Burger House in Dallas, TX (* both available on the Internet. I recommend you try the recipe with your favorite brand of bacon and any seasoned salt, with a little cumin added to it.

Chop up 1 slice of *Allan Benton's bacon per burger (which is the best bacon there is, according to Edge) into bits the size of your fingernail, fry it in a skillet to about half done, let it cool, and mix it in with the ground chuck. Sprinkle with black pepper and *Burger House seasoning (a cumin-heavy concoction of seasoned salt, according to Edge). Grill to medium.

1 pkg. pretzel rods
white chocolate
red, white and blue sprinkles

Melt chocolate and dip pretzel rods in chocolate to coat about halfway up one end; shake sprinkles lightly over chocolate while holding over wax paper to catch leftover sprinkle for reuse. Lay coated pretzels on a second sheet of wax paper to dry. Great Fourth of July snack or dessert for the kids – and grown-ups too!

1 box white cake mix
1/2 c. red, white, and blue sprinkles (2 ounces)
Cool Whip
Fresh strawberries
Fresh blueberries

Prepare cake mix as directed on the box. Gently stir sprinkles into prepared cake batter with about ten strokes of the spoon; pour into a 13 x 9-in. pan and bake according to directions on the box. After cake has cooled, frost top with Cool Whip. Decorate frosted top of cake with alternating stripes of sliced strawberries and whole blueberries, leaving stripes of white in between each row. Keep cake refrigerated until serving, and refrigerate leftovers.