The Myth of American Regional Cuisines

The admirable Mr. Strenk took me to task for my failure to appreciate New York pizza.  Coming from most New Yorkers, I would have shrugged of the (albeit playful) criticism, but I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Strenk some years back at a Summer School and learned to view him as the best sort of American.  To avoid further plunge into saccharine platitudes, I'll get to the  point.

I take it as a given that the strength of local and regional cultures can be  measured in part by their distinctive cuisines.  Now, it goes without saying that in highly civilized cultures--like those of ancient Greece or Italy for the past thousand years or France since the Renaissance--regions like Tuscany and Aquitaine, cities like Florence and Pisa, Venice and Strasburg, ancient Argos and Sicyon gave birth to distinctive traditions in art, music.

Here in America, only an extreme chauvinist would boast of our contributions to painting and sculpture, music, architecture, and poetry and philosophy.  Of course we have writers worth reading--Twain, Melville and Hawthorne, Poe and Simms, but most of our best writers are simply regional variations on British themes.  Our frontier writers were perhaps the most distinctive, though hardly the most accomplished or polished of our literary performer.s  Music, if we regard jazz as a higher kind of pop music, which is what it is, we had better not talk about, though there are some decent schools of regional painting.  Still, on the whole, after 300 plus years, American cultural contributions are considerably less than those of Florence, much less of Tuscany as a whole.

Though candor is as rare as it is despised among us, let us for a change be honest with ourselves and confess, we are, at best, a colonial culture, much like Greek Sicily and Magna Graecia, with the obvious stipulation that we have never come close to producing anything like the temples in Agrigento, much less writers of the stature of Stesichorus, Parmenides, Zeno, Ibycus, and the Pythagoreans.  In most respects, where we are most distinctively American, we are roughnecks and primitives.  I'm not complaining, just observing.

So we have a yeoman culture, typified by cowboy ballads, blues, country and western music, and the peculiarities of our regions and localities can be best appreciated by sampling the songs and the food.  Does it ever strike you as odd that, while there are dozens songs, many traditional and folkish celebrating Georgia, Savannah, Charleston, the Shenandoah, etc, and some even devoted to the Ohio and Wabash rivers of the Middle West, it is only the commercial song factories of Tin Pan Alley that extoll the merits of New York and Chicago and San Francisco.

Yes, this is overstated and yes there are significant exceptions, but I think the pattern is clear.  In the American popular mind, the South and the West are attractive to the imagination, but no so much New Jersey or Illinois.  (Yes, to anticipate, I agree entirely that The Music Man and Guys and Dolls are two of the best productions of our musical theater.)

When we turn to regional and local cuisines, we find a similar pattern.  People go out of their way to eat the seafood and pork barbecue and fried chicken of the South and the beef brisket of the Southwest.  Who makes the drive to Springfield, Illinois to try the Horseshoe Sandwich?  (My advice is don't!).

There are urban dishes in northern cities that at one time or another have been celebrated:  pizza in New York and New Jersey, steak sandwiches in Philadelphia, hot dogs in Chicago, chili in Cincinnati?  How many of my readers, I ask, have ever eaten the Cincinnati treat, chili three ways?

The history of Cincinnati chili is a little vague but it seems to have been the creation of Middle Eastern Greeks who opened up hotdog stands and diners.  In other words, it is not a cultural development of Cincinnati but a restaurant invention.  The same is true of the Chicago hotdog and New York pizza.  I like them all, but imagine someone foolish enough to put them on par with the specialities of New Orleans or Cajun country?  Or Charleston?  Or Texas along the border?

To put the matter quite simply.  Much of what we regard as American regional culture, the literature, the music, and the cuisine, are commercial products with about as much claim to authenticity as a MacRib Sandwich or a Barry Maniilow song about a Cuban night club.

Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
And while she tried to be a star
Tony always tended bar...

Sure, much traditional country music was written and recorded by professionals, but the songs of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams  were simply a refinement on what local people had been singing from time immemorial.  Charleston and Birmingham now have famous restaurants but the basis is still Southern and local.  Perhaps more to the point is that if you go to an upper South diner serving meat and three, you are given real food, very much like what local people eat at home.  Who makes New York pizza at home?

The most important exception to my wildly overstated generalization is Maine lobster (and other seafood).  It is decidedly local, and, although painfully simple, absolutely delicious.  Does that mean that Maine is as deeply unique as South Carolina or Texas?  I think so, though I have only been there two or three times.  The dialects are as incomprehensible as the old Lowcountry South Carolina dialect, and the people as bizarre.

Another very distinctive culture region in America is the far North stretching from northern Michigan out to perhaps northern Minnesota and the Dakotas.  It's a cultural mishmash, dominated by Germans and Scandinavians but with strong elements of Russians, Finns, Poles, and even Southern Slavs.  There is, alas, no distinctive cuisine, unless "really bad" can count as a distinction, but in the sticks there are still people who eat a lot of venison, grouse, and fish, and there is actually good Lake Superior trout and Whitefish in places like Bayfield.

Why didn't the frozen north develop a distinctive cuisine?  My guess is too much ethnic diversity, and the contributing folk cuisines of the Scandinavians and Poles is something better left undiscussed.  My wife and I once saw a promotional film entitled "Norway, Land of Giants," which starred a very skeptical John Cleese.  At one point he talks about the food and singles out some lutefisk.  "This is a kind of cured fish," he observes, "though what it was cured of, we'll never know."

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

19 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    I remember making a trip to Philadelphia for some sort of Catholic youth event back in my High School days. We were told that we absolutely had to have a Philadelphia pretzel which was covered with mustard. At one point, running into a street vendor, I partook. One cold, chewy, tasteless piece of salt and mustered encrusted dough later I wondered who on earth was so desperate for good food they thought that was supposed to be delicious.

    I’m not culinary historian, but I wonder, is it the intermingling of blacks in the kitchens that helped the South develop such a unique and delicious cuisine? If it had just been a bunch of lowly Irish or Welsh running the plantation kitchens, I can’t imagine it would have become such a distinct and delicious flavor.

    Personally, I grew up with serious culinary diversity. Kim chi and hot chicken one night. Fried chicken and coleslaw the next. Thai curry the night after that. I wish more of that had rubbed off on me, but I wasted my college years eating ramen out of a paper bowl. In my late adulthood I’m learning anew how to cook, and while I think I’m holding my own as far as flavor goes, my timing is wretched. We usually wind up eating at around 7:30 or 8 p.m., at which point my kids mock me for serving dinner like we’re a bunch of city folk. Everyone’s a critic!

  2. Steven Lakoff says:

    Mr. Cornell, I grew up in Philadelphia and can tell you that the street vendors always sold inedible pretzels. The real stuff took a little more work to find. These days though, even the cheesesteak has declined to the point where it is rarely worth the effort and calories.

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    I do blush, I assure you.

    Of course you are right about pizza. It is not real food, but the pizza of my youth was at least flavorful and made from real food ingredients like cheese. Pizza “cheese” these days is generally some odious soy product. I ate pizza with my friends. Pizza was sometimes brought to the job on Fridays by good bosses and pizza parties in school were always looked forward to. It was a social thing and convenient when there wasn’t time for anything else. I haven’t had a slice in years. After my Sicilian friend left the restaurant business there was no point in eating the other crap and I rarely ate his pizza preferring stuffed calamari, osso buco, tripe with peas and potatoes and so on.

    You briefly mention William Gilmore Simms. Having recently completed his The Forayers I had to chuckle at the end remembering the swipe that he took at Scott early on for dwelling too long on meal-times. Simms then ends his work with several chapters describing the preparation and service of a single feast. Perhaps this was a joke by the author on himself. I shall explore further in his other works.

    While Northern and mountain cultures often have very wholesome ingredients the variety is limited as are spices. Bulgarian and Serbian food is basically typical for the whole Slavic world except that they are further south so more things grow there and they were on the spice road.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    MS, try Katherine Walton, and, above all Woodcraft. Simms is consistently better than Cooper–except for Cooper’s Satanstoe novels. You are shortchanging South Slavic food. While it is true they have better ingredients for a larger part of the year, they were subject to Greco-Roman, then Turkish and Italian influences. I once, in Moscow, asked Serbian friends to arrange a meeting with Shafarevich. It was a memorable evening in an elegant private club. The proprietor–a Serb–came by and asked if we would prefer Russian or Serbian menu. I looked at him and asked in Serbian, why would anyone eat Russian, when he could eat Serbian. And so the miracle took place-a great dinner in Russia. Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Bulgars, have a pleasure in living that requires good food and good wine and spirits. Russians drink Vodka–what more do I have to say?

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Maryland blue crabs compare to Maine lobsters.

  6. Frank Brownlow says:

    There was something called the American Renaissance that set in sometime about the 1880s, and until it was snuffed out by, oh, WWI, depression, and the Democrats, produced the splendors of American classicism (e.g., Penn Station & Grand Central, NY) and, in painting, the Boston school, of whom the greatest was probably Sargent. In my teaching days over here I was surprised, to put it mildly, to find that there was no mention of anything to do with this in what passed for “American Studies.”

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Frank, yes, I agree with everything you say, which I had mentally included in my observation that our most serious art was in thank e European vein. Think of Henry and William James, Edith Wharton, Augustus St.-Gaudens, and his friend Henry Adams or one of the two spectacular drop-outs from West Point: James MacNeil Whistler, who to the end expressed his admiration for the commandant who bounced him–Robert E. Lee.

    On the whole, a very respectable showing, not on par with tiny Scotland, which, starting in the mid-18th century, gave us David Hume, Hutcheson and Reid, Scott and Burns, some of Britain’s greatest soldiers and engineers including the great lighthouse engineers the Stevensons, father and grandfather of the writer who has been shamefully neglected.

    As an American, I am proud of what we were accomplishing in the late 19th and early 20th century, and as a classicist I cheerfully put it in a broader context. By the way, in the days when classics still mattered, the three great men who nearly dominated the field were Wilamowitz the German, Jebb the Englishman, and Gildersleeve the Charlestonian at Hopkins.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I should add that I take pleasure in visiting regional art museums in America. In the Southwest, one might easily tire of the landscapes and Indian scenes, but it is worth the time to visit Ft Worth and El Paso.

    I take blue crabs for granted. I’m not sure they are better in Maryland than in McClellanville, where I once spent a summer losing money with a partner–we ran close to a hundred traps. In my limited experience I have had better crab cakes in Maryland, maybe not on average but the best I have eaten had less filling than the Charleston deviled crab. Speaking of Southern specialties, I hope never to see another bowl of Brunswick Stew.

    There is a pretty good Nero Wolfe novel–“Too Many Cooks”–in which the gourmet detective lectures a conference of chefs on America’s great delicacies. It is worth a quick read.

  9. Dot says:

    I will take Mr. Van Sant’s blue crabs as comparable with Maine lobsters. For me a side order of steamed littleneck clams and a main dish order of 1 1/4 lb. boiled lobster with butter and a 1 1/2 to 2″ high slice of blueberry pie is a delight – enjoyed in Maine, of course.

    The museum of Fine Arts in Boston is quite nice as well as the Boston Public Library and of course there is Fenway Park.

  10. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I never eat lobster or crab. As I tell my wife, they are cockroaches of the sea. When we go out for surf & turf, I let her wade in the surf while I trod the turf.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Cockroaches of the sea? By the same token, deer are, as Edward Abbey called them, rats with antlers, and all their ungulate cousins are also rats. Mr. Van Sant has a lucky wife, who gets to eat the shellfish while he is wolfing down the rat and bat meat. One thing I don’t quite get is why he put on the list of delicious regional specialities a food he finds disgusting. I am going to propose red clay, which poor folks in some parts of the South used to eat, probably for the iron.

  12. Michael Strenk says:

    I am currently acquiring as many of Simms’ books as I can lay hands on with an emphasis on his seven revolutionary war novels. My next effort will be Eutaw as it is a continuation of The Forayers.

    I am hesitant to give the Turks credit for much of anything, particularly food. As a formally nomadic people I can’t imagine them making much of a contribution of their own although I can see the possibility of their collected slaves from various culinary traditions amalgamating something interesting, otherwise I concede your point regarding classic influences in Balkan cuisine. The Russians can hardly be blamed for drinking vodka, traditionally anyway, as their access to grapes was quite limited and expensive.

    I have, more than once, heard the destruction of the first Penn Station described as a crime, especially considering the travesty that is the current station on a different site.

    The waters around Long Island used to produce large quantities of high quality lobsters and blue claw until they started spraying to coasts for mosquitoes in the 90’s. There is more to what Mr. Van Sant says than meets the eye. It turns out that they are closely related enough to mosquitoes to be similarly affected by poisons meant for insects. Puts me in mind of Tom Horn (Hey! Why not Tom Horn?) when he is brought in by the cattle barons to settle their rustler problem. When asked how he enjoyed his lobster his reply is something like, “Biggest bug I ever et.”

  13. Michael Strenk says:

    The blue claws are coming back somewhat, but not the lobsters. We are, by the grace of God, experiencing something of a revival in the production of excellent quality clams and oysters.

  14. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I often refer to deer as wood rats.

    I did not get the memo about limiting comments to only food you like.

  15. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Sorry. One of my guilty pleasures is getting Dr. Fleming to make an over the top comment. Red clay?

  16. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    No memo, because no limits. I am simply curious why someone would, in a discussion of good versus bad local cuisines, introduce a food he hates. Seems simple enough. If, for example, we were talking about good/authentic regional music vs bad/inauthentic regional music, and someone out of the blue proposed Lawrence Welk as an entrant into the authentic category, one would be be surprised by the response that the person never listened to Welk.

    As for red clay, clay-eating is a well documented phenomenon. I thought about using the example of Sea Islanders in SC who use cock roaches as a medicine for sore throats. I find very few foods in familiar cultures completely disgusting and have eaten raw whelks, clams, shrimp, oysters, and sea urchins with pleasure.

  17. Vince Cornell says:

    I ate a raw sea cucumber once when in Korea. It was dunked in Soju and chased with Kim Chi, but it still tasted like chewing a chunk of a car tire covered with mucus. I drew the line at the live baby octopuses. I’d take red clay over them.

  18. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I have to apologize for my stupidity. I did not realize we were differentiating between good and bad regional foods. I merely said that Maryland blue crabs met the regional food criteria. I note another over the top comment. Get a grip Dr Fleming. Do not let another person get you upset. Only you can let yourself get upset. My last comment.

  19. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Mr. Cornell, I like a lot of Asian food, and probably the best restaurant here in Rockford is a Vietnamese place, a complete dump but with good takes on many classics. Their Chinese-style stir frys are just OK, but their more authentic dishes are wonderful. Of course one has to put up with a parade of semi-homeless people buying scratch off lottery tickets, but during the day, it is worth it. I have run into Asian food that is too authentic for me, including live creatures that struggle to get out of your mouth, of course, but then there are some sort offal dumplings they put into Pho. It is better not to say what it they are reminiscent of.