Friday, August 27, 2021

‘Food Americana’ has the goodies we love

     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.
     Thus publication of “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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  1. My mother served us spaghetti with Campbell's Tomato Soup as a super simple sauce. To this day, that seems the right and proper way, while fancy dancy sauces with bits of meat and peppers, tons of spices, and much more sodium than I'm allowed to even contemplate seem extreme, overdone and unnecessary.


  2. Mr. S, did you ever go to Hecky's BBQ during your Evanston days?

    I knew Hecky Powell, although I hadn’t seen him in decades. He owned the rib joint on Green Bay Road. When you drove past it, you passed through a cloud of magical smoke.

    And his Loozianna rib sauce was bottled and sold throughout the country for many years. The motto on the label reads: "It's the sauce!" The recipe came from his New Orleans mom. I have some in my fridge right now. Smeared it on my chicken last night. Best sauce on the planet.

    When Hecky passed away last year, at 71, his obituary appeared in the New York Times, and other newspapers. His death was national news. Still another widely-known Plague victim. There have been so many.

    He put a sign in his rib joint: "No mask, no sauce!"
    It wasn't enough. He died anyway.

    1. Sure. I think of getting big BBQ turkey legs there. I've gone a few times over the years. A solid spot, but not someplace I loved.

    2. I first met Hecky when he ran for political office in Evanston...either mayor or alderman. He lost. He had stands at street fairs in my neighborhood. I ate those turkey legs, too. But it was the sauce that got to me.

      After he died, we couldn't find it in Cleveland, but my wife bought some online. Then she wrapped the bottles and turned them into Christmas presents. She knows what I like.


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