To neatly define American cuisine is a task that even linguists might struggle over. Is it hyper-regional foods? Or fusion fare borrowing from global traditions? Whatever your opinions may be, the exploration of heritage foodways has become a focal point for many chefs across the country looking to tap into the country’s brief but complicated culinary history.
In the midst of this movement, figures like Sean Brock have broadened the public’s understanding of Southern cuisine with hawkeyed attention to heirloom grain varietals and specialities of Lowcountry fare. Meanwhile, nouvelle American classics are being revived in kitchens as diners continue to show an interest in dishes and ingredients that don’t require tweezers.
Long before this chef-driven revival, Mark Twain documented American foodways in the “A Little Bill of Fare” section of his 1880 European travel guide, A Tramp Abroad, where he 85 regional specialities—from Saratoga potatoes, to Mississippi black bass—that he sorely missed during his time out of the country. Inspired by his tribute, four of the country’s top chefs will be holding a special dinner at Rolf and Daughters on March 15 in Nashville, TN to honor the heritage foods of America. With this in mind, we asked them: Which American heritage ingredients and dishes do you wish would make a comeback with U.S. dinners?
“For me, the dishes and ingredients in Mark Twain’s ‘Bill of Fare’ evoke memories of my childhood and summers back in America (as my father worked overseas the majority of my youth). They remind me how important home-cooked food and shared experiences are in the shaping of values and consciousness.
Green corn has always been an essential summer staple throughout my life—whether eaten raw, freshly harvested, barefoot in the backyard straight off the grill, or strewn out on newspaper, covered in Old Bay alongside blue crabs from the Choctawhatchee Bay.
Sheepshead fish is commonly perceived as a ‘trash’ fish in the Southeast. I spent many a summer catching them from random docks and backyards in Florida. Little did I know that the experience of catching, cleaning, and then cooking the Sheepshead on the grill was foreshadowing my future as a cook.” (Photos: Denny Culbert, tripadvisor.com)
“[I’d like to see more] Philadelphia Terrapin soup (a.k.a., snapper soup, but not to be confused with mock turtle soup). The base of this soup is snapping turtle, and there are lots of them from where I am from in Florida (my brother almost lost a finger when he was six). My grandfather was famous for his turtle soup, but I never got to try it unfortunately. From what my father says, Grandpa Kunk would go to the butcher in Springfield, OH year round, asking the shop owner when the next delivery would be in. Always [fresh] snappers, never canned.
Soft-shell crab/softies/whales (as they are called early on in the season when they are huge) are a seasonal delicacy limited to the East Coast, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. I would imagine Twain would agree that fried until golden brown is the way to go.
Is there anything more perfect than boiled potatoes? Toss with butter, salt, pepper and add some parsley. Crush with roasted meat drippings. Cut in half while hot and mix with hearty greens, salt, pepper, bacon fat, and vinegar.” (Photos: Denny Culbert, Wikicommons)
“American butter could and should be so much better, but you can find the good stuff if you look. Some of the best butter I have ever had was in Maine—simple, bright orange, and deep with green notes and a cheese finish. Always have some out at room temp. The smartest man I ever met and a great American farmer told me, “I think butter is a perfect food.” And he is a vegetable farmer. I always think about that when I find the tangy, deep-orange stuff.
Green corn on the ear (Amish slang for marijuana) is another another lost tradition. The Green Corn Ceremony typically occurred in the late summer and is tied to the ripening of the corn crops. The ceremony is marked with dancing, feasting, fasting, and religious observations. We gave that up and instead eat out-of-season corn on the Fourth of July. I will assure you that I will have green corn on the menu this year in one way or another at the restaurants. Thank you, Mark Twain.
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern-style, is also one of my favorites. Good thing we are still digging in the books to find the good stuff.” (Photos: Denny Culbert, territorialseed.com)
“Celery is often over-looked. All parts of this plant are edible, including the seeds, roots, and sprouts.
I also think lake trout from Lake Tahoe should be in the conversation. My father and I would go fishing a lot when I was a child for this. Lake trout from Tahoe is pure, clean, and delicious in flavor due to the ice from the mountain range that melts into the lake during spring.” (Photos: Denny Culbert, acplugs.com)