great-foodAh, food! One of my favorite subjects, along with armchair travel, so that makes Great American Eating Experiences: Local Specialties, Favorite Restaurants, Food Festivals, Diners, Roadside Stands, and More by the fine folks at National Geographic a must-read for me.

Lots of great photography, interesting facts, wonderful descriptions of various foodstuffs, and an excellent index to boot, you can’t go wrong here. The book is divided into six geographic regions and then subdivided by state making it a good travel planning resource. Everything you would expect to find (lobster in Maine, russet potatoes in Idaho, chili peppers in New Mexico) as well as some less well-known outside their region treats (coffee milk in Rhode Island, vinegar French fries in Delaware, Cheerwine soda in North Carolina) await you inside. Some things sound so delectable it’s hard to imagine why they haven’t broken out of their regional status, like Wisconsin Kringles, a scrumptious pastry which my Chicao-born sister-in-law familiarized for the rest of the family. They can be purchased online, but I don’t know why no one seems to make them more than a few miles from Racine. And beignets are huge in New Orleans, but don’t seem to make frequent appearances elsewhere.

On the other hand, there are plenty of dishes that make one wonder why ever anyone anywhere would want to eat them. My grandmother made a dish she called scrapple, but it wouldn’t be recognized by any genuine scrapple eaters. Hers was cornmeal and pork sausage boiled together and eaten by the bowl or cooled and cut into rectangles then fried. Well, cornmeal and pork and frying are like “real” scrapple, but (luckily for me), hers didn’t include pig scraps, livers, hearts, and “everything but the squeal,” as does real scrapple. Nor did we eat it with maple syrup. Gulp. She was Southern, not from anywhere near scrapple’s home of Pennsylvania, so either she got her recipe from somebody else or heard about the real thing and said, “Say that wouldn’t be bad if you got rid of everything but the cornmeal and some sausage!” I don’t know, I’m just glad I never had to try to eat the real thing (and I’m not going to start now).

There are more than a few acquired tastes here, including the aforementioned scrapple and Moxie soda (New England, particularly Maine) as well as variants of widely-popular items like barbecue. While popular nearly everywhere, barbecue (whichever way you spell it) surely has more than enough regional differences. North Carolina alone has Eastern (whole hog, peppery vinegar based sauce), and Western or Lexington-style (just shoulder with vinegar but including ketchup and/or Worcestershire sauce) while Kentucky favors mutton, of all things. Never mind Memphis, Kansas City, and South Carolina which has mustard based sauce or vinegar or tomato, depending on the locale.

In addition to regional foods, the book covers numerous food festivals all over the country dedicated to apples, pawpaws, cheeses, the famous garlic festival in Gilroy, California, cranberries, buckwheat, cherries, pork, and ethnic delicacies from Norwegian to Garman to Russian and more.

Curious about things a bit closer to home? Missouri information includes St. Louis favorites Gooey Butter Cake, Toasted Ravioli, and St. Louis-style pizza as well as KC barbecue and Lambert’s Throwed Rolls while Kansas entries include Burnt Ends, the single remaining Harvey House still serving meals (in Florence), elk jerky, potatiskorv sausage, and zweibach (not the dry toast used mostly for teething purposes, but a sweet dinner roll). Oklahoma boasts the unknown to me Bristow Tabouleh Fest, the El Reno fried onion burger, fried okra, and sand plums. Okay, I hadn’t heard of sand plums before, either. Arkansas? Apparently the birthplace of the fried dill pickle and possum pie (no possum involved) as well as chocolate gravy and biscuits, a wholesome breakfast treat.

So, beautiful pictures, interesting food, a smattering of history and culture, what’s not to like? For foodies or travelers, well worth a couple of hours browsing, just eat first so you don’t drool on the book.

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