The past is another country. It has flavors of its own. Experiencing those tastes brings an understanding to a time when people and places were different than they are today. Like time-travelers, we can participate in the techniques, textures, smells, and tastes of America, two, three, even four hundred years ago. The remarkable changes in ingredients, recipes, and menus provide an effective window, enabling us to appreciate just how different life was in different eras of America’s story. It heightens our sense of the difference and similarities between then and now. Beavertail may be too gamey and fatty for modern palates, but hungry fur trappers dined on it happily. Conversely, warm pumpkin pudding with heavy cream entices us today, just as it enticed new colonists in Massachusetts. So while The American Plate is primarily about food and food ways, history provides the context and framework.
Where did the raw ingredients originate? Were all foods local before railroads could transport them long distances in refrigerated cars? Who cooked the food, and whose culture predominated in the kitchen? Native Americans, Anglo-American women, enslaved African-Americans, Chinese immigrants, Eastern European arrivals, traditional Hispanic families – the variety of influences and active influencers in American cuisine provides a bittersweet overview of the peopling of our country.
I chose some specific foods because they are particularly good at providing a platform for understanding American history. Others may symbolize a specific event, like the WPA recipe for soup during the Great Depression. I hope readers will challenge my choices, and email me with their additions.
The American Plate introduces you to America long ago and the recent past, through anecdotes, research, memories, and recipes. Each chapter and each “bite” stands alone, so you may read it from front to back or just pick a time or food that interests you. It can inspire meals for traditional holidays or observances. The book is also a way of fleshing out the chronology of America with stories – some very short, some longer narratives – based on eye witness accounts and other records. Covering a wide variety of food and drink, from Algonquin pemmican to colonial syllabub to 20th century TV dinners, with 15 recipes and illustrative menus, this book serves as a food guide to that other country we call America’s past.