While reading Molly O’Neill’s delightful anthology of American cooking I saw she had passed away from cancer at the age of 66. This sad news made her book called American Food Writing all the more special. The book features “over 250 years of American culinary history.” At the beginning, Molly writes that we Baby Boomers think we are the first generation to become foodies. She writes, “We are not, of course, the first. Culinary reform of one sort or another has a long and continuous history in America, and from early on. American writers have seen food as a window into the wider culture- a sign of our values and our ideals, a measure of our civilization. What is distinctive about American food writing is how constant and close to the surface is its sense of moral struggle. The tussle changes form…” She goes onto to speak of how good the Puritans ate while preaching against the sin of gluttony. And today, the tussle is over denouncing chemical additives and processed foods. America started out as a farm to table country and here we are again celebrating locally grown food, preferably organic. Thoreau writes that we should eat by the seasons, and during the dog days of summer that includes lots of watermelon! Walter Berry says “to eat responsibly is to live free.” And Mr. Berry lists for the reader the ways to do this. Alice Waters, as a pioneer of the farm to restaurant movement writes that “we are utterly dependent on the health of the land, the sea, and the planet as a whole, and that this search for good ingredients is pointless without a healthy agriculture and a healthy environment.” Agreed.
The anthology consists of recipes, essays, exposes, recollections about past food experiences. Take Mobile’s Eugene Walter who reminisces about trying to find okra in the most unlikely places around the world in order to make gumbo, unlikely places like the Aleutian Islands during the war when a pilot found him a can of okra in Canada, in Paris in a grocery off Boulevard St. Germain. He gives the recipes for these improvised gumbos. Walter writes that people are always asking what exactly is a gumbo- “…it’s not a stew, not a ragout, it’s uniquely and incomparably gumbo! It is as dark and as thick as river mud, unctuous, spicy, and satisfying.”
Also included is Thomas Jefferson’s 1780 recipe for vanilla ice cream, and a heartwarming story of Walt Whitman taking 10 gallons of ice cream into a Civil War hospital full of wounded soldiers. Whitman writes that many of the men had never tasted ice cream, especially those from the South. There is an essay by a Frenchman from the 1790s who kills his first American wild turkey and his recipe of how he prepared it for guests. Pehr Kalm from Finland came to America in 1748 and writes about having what we call coleslaw made with shredded cabbage and an oil and vinegar dressing which is also how my mother made it. Kalm also talks of being advised to eat raw oysters only in the months that have an “r” in them. Some things never change! Speaking of oysters, MFK Fisher writes an essay of oysters and New Orleans cooking, how Antoine’s invented Oysters Rockefeller in 1889. She gives us Antoine’s recipe, as well as her recipe for Oyster Catsup which we would call a Sherry Vinaigrette. We have George Washington Carver’s recipe for Purée of Peanuts, which we would call peanut butter. I could go on and on. There is an entry by Frederick Douglas on being terribly hungry as a slave boy which will break your heart. Also Mrs. E. E. Kellogg gives her recipe for Bran Jelly to serve with cream or fruit juice- because thanks to the Kellogg family, America learned the importance of “the role of grains and the regulation of bowels.” Their cornflakes proved to be more popular than her bran jelly.
If you love to read, love to eat, then read this book. If you love to read, love to eat, and love to cook, then definitely read this book. It’s a joy.