A Conversation with
Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison
Authors of American Home Cooking
What precisely do you mean by "American home cooking"?
For us, "home cooking" suggests a certain style of food-simple, hearty, seasonal fare brought to a peak of flavor through years of practice and perfection in thousands of home kitchens. It doesn't, to our mind, encompass everything that people cook at home. It's not combinations of convenience foods, such as tuna-noodle casserole, or even made-from-scratch versions of popular commercial treats, such as pizza, or most of all, fancy restaurant-style preparations. The question isn't whether such foods are tasty and enjoyable, but how they came to our communal table in the first place.
As for the word "American"...Because the United States is a land of immigrants-a boiling pot of different cuisine, if not a melting pot--almost every food on the planet is cooked in someone's home somewhere in the country. Yet, "American home cooking" is not simply the sum of all the foreign dishes that different nationalities brought with them. Over four centuries of adaptation to a new land, immigrant Americans, with the help of Native Americans, have gradually evolved their own distinctive tradition of home cooking. We try to capture the core of that tradition in our book. Among the 400 dishes we believe represent the best of American home cooking, many have foreign antecedents, often two or more blended together in ways characteristic of the ethnic mix of one region or another. But they all speak today with a clear American accent, and most would require a passport to leave the country.
The story of the first Thanksgiving is part of our cultural lore. Did Native Americans and the first colonists truly cook together?
Native Americans taught the English about a few indigenous foods-particularly corn, but also beans, squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and an array of wild nuts and fruits. Generally, however, the colonists sought to preserve their own established way of eating. They had grown up in the mother country on a diet that revolved around wheat, dairy products, and domesticated meats-all absent in the new land. In adopting New World foods to survive, the colonists focused on ones that resembled familiar European products and provided comparable metabolic sustenance.
What were other early and enduring influences on American cuisine?
American home cooking has long thrived on the country's regional and cultural diversity. Its formative years were marked by a convergence of contributions from varied lands-Africa, France, Germany, and Mexico as well as from Britain. New Englanders, true to the name, remained stoutly British in their fare. They favored savory pies and puddings, porridges, pork and beans, brown bread, and meat, especially their beloved beef. The mid-Atlantic colonies added Dutch and German overtones. Wheat ended up in pancakes, noodles, and dumplings. Pork challenged beef in popularity. Indigenous shad, crab, and turtle became favorites. On Southern plantations, African cooks brought a tropical vitality to cooking and introduced foods imported from their continent, including okra, black-eyed peas, eggplant, and sorghum. In the coastal South, immigrants from France, Spain, and Portugal brought a mastery of rice and produced vibrant Creole and Cajun cuisine. In the Southwest, Spanish and Mexican colonists introduced chiles, tortillas, and tamales. In the West, both Yankee and Southern pioneers were joined by a new wave of immigrants-from Austria, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Greece, and other lands. All brought their own ethnic cooking traditions to a fresh cornucopia of local foods. Chinese immigrants soon arrived from the opposite direction and brought the country a range of strikingly different flavors.
Could you share a few examples of dishes "born in America" that might surprise readers?
Preparations for Veal Francese appear in some of the earliest American cookbooks. An Italian-American cook may have developed the name "francese" to suggest a French origin and connote elegance, but the dish is not a European import. German Chocolate Cake has nothing to do with Germany. The name comes from the distinguishing ingredient, Baker's German's Sweet Chocolate, christened after Samuel German, an early confectioner at the Baker's company. The cake gained fame quickly after The Dallas Morning News printed a reader's recipe for it in 1957, which caused a run on German's chocolate in Texas and led the manufacturer to feature the cake on its wrapper. The Chinese brought the idea of fried rice with them from the homeland, but it evolved in Hawaii and other Pacific states from a versatile way to use leftovers into a distinct dish, with a new emphasis on soy flavor. Shrimp cocktail and other tidbits were created in American homes during Prohibition along with the birth of the cocktail party.
What do you see as the future of American home cooking?
American home cooking is a cooking that thrives in spite of convenience concerns, the busyness of our lives, and health and nutrition-related fears about foods. It draws its strength from the same universal hungers behind great Italian or Chinese cooking-a passion for crafting and sharing an enjoyable meal.
American Home Cooking
400 Spirited Recipes Celebrating
Our Rich Traditions of Home Cooking
By Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison
Published by Broadway Books; October 1999
Hardback, $30.00, 544 pages
Reprinted by permission.
American Home Cooking
This page created December 1999