The setting, an unadorned wood table in a tent next to a parking lot. No plates, the food came in cardboard boxes. Service consisted of setting down a tray holding our order. Still, we were in heaven. I bit into a St. Louis rib at Smoque BBQ and my brain let out a squeal of joy so distinct I could almost hear it. I pulled the rib back and regarded it, agog. I almost kissed it. It was that good.
“Oh ... my ... God,” I said.
The United States has lately been marinating itself in shame and incompetence. A plague rages while our fellow citizens retreat into infantile terror and mass hallucination. Even the planet itself at times seems to be trying to shake humanity off, like an angry bull bucking a rider.
But you know what can still be depended on? Food. The cuisines we’ve loved all our life do not let us down. Like a band of superheroes, they show up to save the day. Or save many days, anyway.
“Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes” by David Page is a welcome, well-timed field guide to the goodies that keep harsh reality at bay. With chapters devoted to the cast of our nation’s love affair with food — hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken — it takes us on a quick visit to each of our favorites, both its history and noted practitioners today. Sushi is there, as well as Mexican and Chinese food, a reminder that while millions of our fellow citizens do not know what kind of place our country is, our bellies still do.
The first sentence — ”When I was a child, my grandmother use to make me something she, for some reason, called Jewish spaghetti” — sent my mind tumbling into the past. Page’s grandma was making pasta, boiled, then fried with onions and ketchup, which sounds gross, to me. But it reminded me that my mother used to serve spaghetti with creamed cheese melted over it, which may sound disgusting to you. I remember it being delicious.
As a wordsmith, I was gratified by how many new terms I learned reading “Food Americana.” Page calls the charred spots on a properly-cooked pizza crust “leoparding,” the dough in a tortilla is “nixtamalized,” or “cooked in an alkaline solution usually containing lime.” (Lime the mineral, not lime the citrus wedge you stick on the rim of your margarita).
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