At this time of year, millions of American families hit the highway on vacation. And if some of us resemble the Griswalds in this seemingly timeless endeavor, that’s okay – because the Griswalds were invented to resemble us.
Still, in our driving toward that one big destination where FUN can be had with a capital F, we might be driving right past some of the most important icons of our shared American identity. Especially when it’s time for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
As many have seen and said, the Great American Highway ain’t what it used to be. The best surprise has become no surprise at exits across this country, and even in the small towns and big cities that welcome us farther off the feeder road. One writer produced a whole book on the subject, and the title was “Fading Feast.” We are sadly convinced there’s some truth to that, since there was a time when most restaurants on any road trip were owned by Dick and Mildred, not by multi-national corporate warlords flying banners that all tend to look like golden arches.
In an unexpected way, as well, our culture’s sheer fascination with food and cooking – in cookbooks, online and especially on television, as well as in very expensive “chef-driven” restaurants – has taken its toll. Most of these chefs, frankly, draw their inspiration from the same sources, and indeed, more bluntly, copy and then try to one-up each other. Despite noble efforts to the contrary, the result is most often a multi-course tasting menu in one part of America (or the world) that looks, feels and tastes like a multi-course tasting menu in any other part.
For all of this, we love America’s classic regional foods, their quirky origin stories, and their even quirkier originators. We encourage you to take a Retro Road Trip this summer. Go where you want to go, just as you normally would. But think twice about where you are each stop along the way. Ask yourself: Who are these people? Why did they come to live here? And what did they invent, based on their backgrounds, their available ingredients and equipment and, of course, the weather, when it was getting near dinnertime?
The two easiest states for us to talk about are Texas and Louisiana – the “cousins” in which many of us have spent our lives. In both cases, on your Retro Road Trip, their history is written in their foods.
It’s delightfully easy to taste the Mexican heritage of Texas almost anywhere, for almost any meal. The generic breakfast buffet that comes with salsa at your hotel offers quiet testament, as do the kolaches brought by Czech immigrants and the schnitzels and strudels brought by Germans, both during that golden age of American immigration in the mid-to-late 19th century. Texas barbecue and fajitas, along with that spin on weiner schnitzel nonsensically called “chicken fried steak,” also attest to the state’s love of beef, no matter what can possibly be done to it.
Louisiana offers its dual identities that are truly separate, no matter how few tourists get the message. The Creole cuisine of New Orleans is a multi-cultural feast of French, Spanish, African, Sicilian, Irish, German, Greek, Croatian, Vietnamese and others, while the Cajun cuisine in the countryside remains a tribute to one culture’s desire to preserve itself by living apart. Both cultures managed to meet up over the centuries, to drink too much, argue, curse, get into fist fights in the street, and marry each other’s sisters. Both now revere gumbo, jambalaya and etouffee, among hundreds of worth-trying Louisiana dishes.
So many regions await. Much farther away, we have an immense love of New England. The rocky North Atlantic coast simply appeals to us, as does just about anything made with clams or lobster. From Maine down to Rhode Island, this means we will start every meal we can with clam chowder – despite the “Manhattan” version, this was not created by God to include tomato – and probably always get the lobster roll. Showcasing a mayonnaise-kissed salad on some sort of crusty, chewy or soft roll, there is nothing on earth quite like a lobster roll munched on while gazing out over the sailboats in Newport harbor.
At the opposite end of the Eastern Seaboard, there’s tiny Key West – and for such a small place, it has exerted a huge influence on regionalAmerican cuisine. The key lime gets its name from here, naturally, making key lime pie the one dessert you need to attach to breakfast, lunch AND dinner. Home cooks and even fancy “Floribbean” chefs are weaving key lime into just about everything that’s served on these islands stretching like a string of pearls from south Florida into the stunning blue ocean.
The Midwest catches a lot of heat – at least from non-Midwesterners – for not having interesting foods. But certainly in its big cities, this is untrue enough to be insane. There are many who consider Chicago the best city for a meal in all of America, especially in its traditionally Greek, Italian and Eastern European, often Jewish, neighborhoods. You can also step over to Cincinnati for a bowl of chili, or to Sheboygan (Wisconsin) for brats, or to Kansas City for yet another style of barbecue, or to St. Louis for pizza that definitely doesn’t look or taste Italian, even if it hails from a card-carrying Italian neighborhood.
And of course, eventually, there’s always California. The all-American birthplace of car culture, fast food and theme parks is also the birthplace of modern, highly regionalized American cuisine. You can visit the shrine (and still have a great dinner) at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where chef-owner Alice Waters once taught the first generation of her peers about local, seasonal and farm-to-table, and ordered them to go forth and multiply.
In next-door San Francisco, however, you can celebrate chewy-aromatic sourdough bread and order the miracle that happened in a neighborhood called North Beach when hard-to-pin-down Italian “zuppa di pesce” found a home in America forever under the strange name “cioppino.” Cioppino might end up being the signature dish of your summertime Retro Road Trip.
SAN FRANCISCO CIOPPINO
Here is one more case of seafood cookery being easier than meat cookery, though everyone cooks meat at home and so many back away from cooking seafood. With both Portuguese and especially French parallels, cioppino is a testament to fishermen selling or cooking whatever turned up in their nets that day.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
3/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes
1 large jar Mom’s brand Special Marinara
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
5 cups fish stock (or bottled clam juice
1 pound manila clams, scrubbed
1 pound mussels, scrubbed, de-bearded
1 pound uncooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 1/2 pounds assorted firm-fleshed fish fillets such as halibut or salmon, cut into 2-inch chunks
Heat the oil in a very large pot over medium heat. Add the fennel and onion, and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and 3/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes, and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in the Mom’s sauce, followed by the wine and fish stock. Cover and bring to a simmer until the flavors blend, about 30 minutes. Add the clams and mussels to the cooking liquid. Cover and cook until the clams and mussels begin to open, about 5 minutes.
Add the shrimp and fish, simmering gently until the fish and shrimp are just cooked through, and the clams are completely open, about 5 minutes longer. Be careful not to break up the fish when stirring. Discard any clams and mussels that do not open. Season the soup, to taste, with and remaining red pepper flakes. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with sourdough bread. Serves 6-8.
Buy & Try