Visiting over 20 cities in ten states since the beginning of the year, a journey that included many a meal from the enticing country breakfast, to simple but filling lunches and, of course, some regal dinners, inspired a search for the cultural core of American food: Recipes. Like many, I have shelves filled with cookbooks, a collection of immortal works and current creations.
I found the answer in an unlikely place, a bio-comedy in Atlanta’s acclaimed Theatrical Outfit about James Beard. During the exceptional, “I Love To Eat,” a play about Beard brilliantly portrayed by the accomplished actor William S. Murphy, American recipes are discussed: “There really are not recipes, only millions of variations sparked by someone’s imagination and desire to be a little creative and different. American cooking is built, after all, on variations of old recipes from around the world.”
“In the beginning there was Beard,” said Julia Child of the first TV celebrity chef. “Beard was the quintessential American cook. Well-educated and well-traveled during his eighty-two years, he was familiar with many cuisines but he remained fundamentally American. He was a big man, over six feet tall, with a big belly, and huge hands. An endearing and always lively teacher, he loved people, loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, loved a good time.”
Guided by the wisdom of Julia and James, I examined the places where I enjoyed local food. These two culinary masters understood American food and I was comfortable on my search.
The Revival Kitchens as a subject first appeared in my imagination during an elegant wine lunch at Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene, one of the top restaurants anywhere and itself the recipient of many coveted James Beard Foundation Awards. Chef Linton Hopkins, introducing wines from Oregon’s Left Coast paired with four courses from his kitchen, spoke of terroir as building relationships. While the wines were from Oregon, the wine grapes had the DNA of France and the ingredients in each dish were sourced within 100 miles of the restaurant. A synthesis.
James Beard would have been nodding, thinking “I told you so!
Few places represent the magic of culinary diversity like New Orleans. Local accents often sound more New York City than Deep South, a linguistic amalgamation.
Tim McNally, the universally admired Big Easy chronicler of his city’s food and drink heritage, describes what outsiders might never understand about the multi-generational recipes, kitchen wizards, cocktails, wines and the prevailing joie de vivre that glues everything together. McNally, one of the principal founders of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience also hosts a popular daily broadcast and mixes up a gumbo of lifestyle discussions, current issues debates, along with such esoterica like muffalettas, chicory coffee, French wine bargains and late dinner at one of the French Quarter’s heritage restaurants.
McNally calls culinary heritage “a travelers’ magnet” which draws visitors by the millions, something that “stands still for no one. The destinations of South Louisiana account for themselves well. The entire region, with New Orleans as the acknowledged lure, boasts of historic riches, stories of cultures not usually associated with the United States, and rewards for the senses of the curious.”
It is the subject of food and drink, he added, that “captures the attention of the visitor who enjoys flavorful treasures not usually available on the home-front.”
The ever-passionate McNally observes that nothing in Cajun, Creole, Southern, and International cuisine is locked-in or ever complete. “The Creole culture of New Orleans, taking advantage of fresh seafoods, bounties from the soil, and beasts of the forests, has continued to evolve with the establishment of Thai, Vietnamese, African (particularly Ethiopian), Caribbean, Yucatecan, Canary Islanders, Argentinian, and a host of other culinary influences.”
The result? “When these influences are laid on top of Creole and Cajun,” there is a metamorphosis, “a progression of intertwined flavors.” Something new made possible by combining with something new.
The gourmet highway allows for frequent stops to smell the roses and enjoy fine wines and refreshing cocktails. Travels through Kentucky requires the time to visit with the distinguished Bourbon authority and author, Michael Veach, with obligatory toasts of Old Fashioned’s in honor of the great bartender and Bourbon enthusiast Joy Perrine.
North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley is nature’s gift for wine enjoyment. Heralded wineries dot the landscape and the region, a top tourist attraction, has the feel of Europe. Florida, never to be underestimated, has its own take of classics like Mojitos and Margaritas, but I lean towards Ernest Hemingway’s rum based Papa Doble and an occasional Cuba Libre.
Cocktails are recipes and fall squarely under James Beard’s description of American evolution. Let’s return to New Orleans. Tim McNally describes a classic: His Euro-centric city never had any issues with alcohol consumption. There were never stigmas attached to proper enjoyment and judicious use of distilled and fermented beverages. “The Sazerac, reputed to be the oldest named cocktail in the world, was invented by Antoine Amedee Peychaud, a pharmacist, at his Royal Street Apothecary during the 1830’s.” McNally revealed the most recent version:
¼ oz. Absinthe
1 ½ oz Rye Whiskey
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Like music, cuisine and art help define New Orleans, “cocktails,” according to Tim McNally, “are every bit as entrenched in the lifestyle of this city, the world’s Northernmost Caribbean outpost.”
Can the South’s culinary legacy survive the flooding of popular culture? The fact that Shakespeare’s plays are still performed and the To Kill a Mockingbird is playing to sold-out audiences on Broadway are signs favorable to continuity. Bordeaux and Burgundy still produce heralded wines with lots of elbow room for California and Oregon competitors. And visionary chefs like Judi Gallagher continue to produce popular cookbooks and entertain audiences with cooking demonstrations.
The twists and curves along the gourmet highway will remain, to be sure. Destinations take on new importance as we enjoy the food and beverages waiting for us along the journey.