United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #5: Food & Drink

Ahhhhh, now this is my kind of list. Suzie and Steve and I are now on Week 5 of this series, give or take, with consideration for our collective procrastination habits. This week, they shall discuss their favorite English and Scottish foods, and I will extol the culinary bounty that the United States has to offer. Because when it comes to food, I can fucking extol. I have a pie blog. And since I couldn’t keep it to 10, I’m pulling a Suzie and doing 13.

1. Pie
No #pies indeed, Steve! Was it going to be anything else but #1 on my list? No, it couldn’t possibly. Pie may not have been invented in America, but we sure as hell perfected the dessert pie. The English can champion the savory pie, and the French can claim the quiche and pastry (I would fucking marry the napoleon if I weren’t marrying Earl), but who defined the apple pie? The blueberry pie? The cherry pie (Warrant is pretty American)? The pecan pie? The coconut cream pie? The Boston cream pie? The banana cream pie? The ice cream pie? The buttermilk chess pie? The pumpkin pie? 

Look, I am not above channeling Bubba Blue here, but for the sake of brevity I’ll just stop there.

It was US. The United States. Fuck yeah.

2. Seafood
You’re thinking, “Jenny. That is BS. Lots of countries do seafood well.” OK, well, I have a bulleted list for you, bucko.

  • The Lobster Roll – it’s not just lobster in a hot dog bun. It’s a special butterable bun, and the lobster is cold but copious, and you are a horrible philistine if you visit New England and don’t have one.
  • Blue Crabs – I’ve mentioned that I brought Earl pie on our first date, but what I haven’t mentioned is that I also gave him crabs. I sat him down in his hotel room and taught him how to dismantle a crab with my talon-like fingers and knew it was love when he still wanted to make out with me even with crab carcass all over myself. We Marylanders like to say that the blue crab is a Maryland thing, but the truth is that we’ve polluted the crab out of the Chesapeake so badly that we now have to import them from as far away as Louisiana to the Carolinas. Of course, if destroying an arthropod’s exoskeleton to get to its flesh isn’t your idea of fun, there’s always the delicious crabcake.
  • Clams, which leads me to two sub-bullets:
    • Geoduck – found in the northwest coast of the United States, it’s pronounced “gooey-duck” and it looks like a huge uncircumcised penis stuffed inside a clam shell. It’s savory and mild and is delicious both cooked and as sashimi.
    • Clam Chowder – I’m barely going to acknowledge that some people think there are two types. As much as I adore tomato-based soups, I firmly believe Manhattan should slink away and cede chowda victory to New England. Clam Chowder is cream-based, buttery, potatoe-y, and full of clam. It is also among the more delicious soups known to man.
  • Wild Alaskan Salmon – if you’ve only ever consumed Atlantic salmon, you need to get your ass over here to the States, preferably closer to the west coast, and try yourself some wild-caught Pacific salmon. It will change your mind about what salmon should be. Start with the aptly named King Salmon. Then try the Coho and the Sockeye. Then if you feel like it, the Pink and the Chum, though at that point you could just get smoked salmon on a bagel with cream cheese and onion and capers and dill and oh god…I just drooled on myself.

3. Fried Chicken
I only allow myself to have this Southern food staple once or possibly twice a year now. After I graduated college, I discovered a Popeye’s near my place of work and immediately put on 20 pounds. When I realized that both the cholesterol lining my blood vessels and my waistline were rapidly thickening, I imposed the annual limit on myself. Fried chicken is so ridiculously delicious, it’s almost unfair.

Little known fact: there is a Maryland fried chicken, where instead of being battered and deep-fried, the chicken is dredged in spiced flour and fried in shallow oil, sprinkled with Old Bay, and then served with white gravy. Try it sometime and report back to me.

4. Root Beer Float
We have the A&W restaurants to thank for this. It has a reputation for being a beverage/dessert that children consume, but I just recently had one on the way home from the beach, and now I’m asking myself why my children haven’t yet tried it. Must rectify this negligence this weekend.

5. Thanksgiving spread
By which I mean gluttony. Sure, everybody has Christmas gluttony. But we have an extra day of gluttony a month preceding. It’s like practice gluttony for Christmas!

People often blame the post-holiday-dinner sleepiness on the tryptophan in the turkey, but chicken contains just as much tryptophan as turkey, and you don’t fall asleep after every roast chicken dinner, do you? No no, not unless you’re also gorging yourself on mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, roasted veggies, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts (with bacon), squash, rolls, and at least three different kinds of pies.

Silly Americans. You aren’t falling asleep because of one innocent little amino acid. You’re falling asleep because your distended belly is freaking out about what to do with the galactic amount of carbs you’ve just consumed. Just remember, friends: if it’s a legitimate holiday englutting, the human body has ways to shut that whole thing down.

6. Barbecue
Let’s be clear: throwing vegetables and patties of meat on an open flame is not ‘barbecue’. That pedestrian act is ‘grilling’. Barbecue, however, is damn near an art, with several different styles. One must consider many things: is the convenience of gas worth the tradeoff for taste? Is one’s soul ever worth using lighter fluid (no, it is not, I will shank you)? Is there enough hardwood lump charcoal? Texas, Kansas City, Carolina, or Memphis style today? What sort of dry rub to make this time? Indirect or direct heat? High temperature or low temperature? What kind of wood chips to soak for smoking? What kind of mop to use? Which wood plank to use this time? How often to turn the meat? Can I afford the Big Green Egg yet? Was pink smoke ring achieved? Are the grill marks appealing? What sort of sauce to use? What sort of sauce to make? Do the guests have enough napkins?

It’s not simple. If you want simple, go back to grilling. But if you want to give your entire GI tract a comestible orgasm, barbecue.

7. Beef Jerky
I’ve had beef jerky from many countries, and none of them do it as well as farmers here do, though to be fair I haven’t yet sampled Canadian jerky. I bet they dehydrate elk really well. Properly made, jerky is thick, salty, and really fucking tough. You should be done after about 3 strips from both the saltiness and the effort your jaw has to put forth to chew. It is not the easily chewed pleather you can find in neatly die-cut sheets at 7-11.

I won’t go anywhere but the Amish market or the guy who sells meat and jerky at the farmer’s market anymore. Give me my irregular strips of desiccated cow.

8. Tater Tots
For me, tater tots were what made school lunches bearable, besides the chocolate milk. Not only are they delightfully alliterative, they are also tasty, and of a cylindrical shape that invites both finger and fork. And there are so many ways to consume them: devouring them whole; eating half of one and then polishing off the other; breaking them in half and scooping out the little potato bits with your tongue until only the fried husk is left and then eating the fried husk.

Wait, was that only me?

Anyway, they are a defining fixture in American culture, and worthy of the numerous references to them in Napoleon Dynamite. The great thing is that Ore-Ida, which apparently has “Tater Tots” trademarked, produces a variant of conventional tater tots with onion. These onion tater tots are every bit as tasty but have something like half the amount of sodium in the non-onion version! It’s the bag with the purple stripe if you go looking for it.

9. Jambalaya & Gumbo
Oh, Creole food, how I love you. Sometimes people are confused about which is which. Jambalaya is a thick, paella-like sort of stew. It starts with onions, celery, and bell peppers, kind of like mirepoix, only they call it ‘the holy trinity’. Then you add your stock and your other spices, possibly tomatoes, and then the cooked andouille sausage and chicken. If shrimp is added, it’s done so at the end to poach. Gumbo is also a stew, but more soupy in consistency, and usually thickened with okra. And oh my hell do I love okra.

I probably could have cheated and just put “Food out of Louisiana” as #9, but the truth is that I haven’t been there and I’m hesitant to say that anything I’ve had is authentic. For some reason that hesitation doesn’t extend to jambalaya or gumbo.

One day I’ll make it down to New Orleans and have a bowl of jambalaya, followed by a bowl of gumbo. Then I’ll go have a French Quarter beignet, and I’ll post a picture of my beatifically smiling face covered in powdered sugar.

10. Buffalo Wings
There are some debates about where precisely Buffalo wings were invented, but it doesn’t matter really. They’re just very delicious and quite popular. They were responsible for my Freshman 15 in college (you’d think I’d have learned my lesson from buffalo wings when I moved on to fried chicken, but after I switched from buffalo wings to celery at late night dining hall excursions, I completely forgot about my chicken weakness). There are variants of course – honey-glazed, Chesapeake, garlic, teriyaki and such – but the fiery orange buffalo sauce for buffalo wings is so delicious that people who don’t win friends  can now have buffalo chicken salad where the dressing is the fiery orange buffalo sauce.

Wings are a big deal in this country. Your football – sorry, American football – party is incomplete if you don’t have wings. And the defense of objectification of the waitstaff at Hooters largely hinges on its wings (detractors punch holes in this defense by claiming that the wings aren’t even that good). Yes, Americans! You know that people love wings so much that “But the wings!” is the excuse you give for the continued existence of Hooters.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the buffalo wing. Go forth and celebrate this anniversary. By appreciating the wing, you appreciate America.

11. Frybread
Frybread is a Native American food. It’s fairly simple, but its history is anything but. When the Navajo were deported off their lands in Arizona and forcibly moved to Santa Fe, the U.S. government gave them simple staples like canned food, flour, sugar, and lard. The Navajo did what they could with those staples and created frybread. Today, it’s still eaten and, for some people, it links past generations to now and reminds them of their tenacity and solidarity. This article discusses frybread in more detail, and I encourage you to check it out. In the meantime, have a sort of Navajo, sort of Blackfoot recipe:

1 (~125 g) cup flour
3 tbsp (~12.75 g) dry milk
1 ½ tsp (~6 g) baking powder
3 ½ tbsp (~52 g) sugar
½ (~2.35 g) tsp salt
½ cup (~118.29 mL) warm water

1. Blend ingredients together (if you have a stand mixer, the dough hook works great for this). Let dough sit for 30 minutes.
2. Heat a shallow pool of oil (something with a higher smoke point) on medium-high until the oil is shimmering.
3. Fry patties of dough until the bottoms are a little darker than pancakes and then flip them.

I find it helps to use rubber scrapers to scoop the dough out and smear it into the pan.

12. Sandwiches
But that’s an English invention! Yes, yes it is, but the country that blessed the world with sandwiches also condemned it with the hideous abomination that is the coronation chicken sandwich: one of only three foods I’ve ever rejected for reasons other than spoilage. I’m using “sandwich” as a catchall for some distinctly American sandwiches. To wit, the BLT, the pastrami sandwich, the Po’ boy, and the peanut butter & jelly sandwich. I’m not even going to bother discussing these sandwiches except to say, “U! S! A!! U! S! A!!”

13. Hot Dogs

A friend of mine recently had a discussion about whether the hamburger or the hot dog was more American. The vote seemed to favor hot dogs. This was my analysis:

To really equalize this, you need to call it a Frankfurter vs. a Hamburger, or else the burger is at a severe disadvantage due to being named after a German city.

Pro-Frankfurter arguments: baseball, the Oscar Mayer wienermobile which is clearly a celebration of American and not German engineering, the regional specificity (e.g., Chicago and New York), the inability of the Frankfurter to rise above its station – a meat for the working middle class.

Pro-hamburger arguments: my people don’t appropriate hamburger in any of our lazy day dishes, but frankfurter gets used all the time; hamburger represents the great American cattle-ranching industry because it’s pure beef where frankfurters have been known to contain by-products; and finally, I don’t think any country does the burger as well as the US, despite its European origin.

In conclusion, I say hot dog, because it’s always the big wiener.

However, my friend Adams (there’s nothing there yet) wrote a far more insightful and well-thought-out analysis:

A hot dog is the food of the masses. When you class one up enough, it transcends hot dog and becomes sausage, or salami, or whatever Mario Batali’s dad serves that people wait around the block to eat.

Hamburgers, on the other hand, stay hamburgers. Hubert Keller has the $5000 FleurBurger, Kobe beef served with truffles and foie gras and probably cocaine.

So in truth you have two visions of America: the Hamburger represents the unifying principles of the American dream, where all men, rich or poor, can enjoy a fresh, hot-cooked hamburger. The hot dog represents the socioeconomic divide between those who can only afford to eat hot dogs, and those who eat them for amusement / nostalgia / quaintness. So, hamburgers for the idealist, and hot dogs for the cynic/realist.

Nevertheless, I still maintain that the hot dog is the big American wiener.

Food of Shame: Portion Sizes
I assure you that if coronation chicken had been an American invention, it would go on my list. However, despite the existence of the Frito Pie and this horrifying pot roast (could you get processed beef for the sake of completion?), I have to say the American idea of portion size is our greatest source of shame. I went to the movies recently and ordered a medium popcorn and a small drink. I was given a shopping bag and a trough. The truly ludicrous thing, however, is that I still finished all of it. Maybe it’s from being raised by Depression Era family. Maybe it’s from growing up with the message that there are starving children in China. I don’t know. All I know is that it took about 35 years for me to learn the lesson that I don’t actually have to take as much food as possible or even finish everything, and even after learning this lesson, I still have the compulsion to Eat All The Things from time to time.

Like shoofly pie, lemon meringue pie, key lime pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie…

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9 thoughts on “United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #5: Food & Drink

  1. Reading this first thing in the morning has made me so hungry due to all the chicken, hot dogs and stuff. It’s also made me a little bit sick in my mouth as I hate seafood. So all in all a good combination to get me going for the day. I like the fried bread idea – I might be adventurous and make some to watch with the new Doctor Who tonight! Another great list – thanks!

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  2. OK you are my kind of person. I cannot live without pecan pie at least once a month and I will kill for cherry pie hot with ice cream dripping off of it. I have to have crab cakes, I live in Maine so boy do we have the seafood and chowda with tomatoes is an abomination. And ……… hot dogs are nirvana when topped with either chili and onions, relish, onions, sauerkraut and mustard or just eaten on a bun with butter ——- yes, I eat hot dogs with butter. Why not? I think you won this one Jenny. Even if there’s no competition – nobody makes food like we make food!

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  3. Pingback: United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #7: Customs | O Pie-oneers!

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