Potato Chips, Hamburgers, and Apple pie are foods that helped shape America. However, with the rise of ethnic cuisines and supermarkets filled with microwave dinners and salad bars, it is difficult to remember that there are extraordinary homegrown American food delights still served across the nation. They are foods with a sense of place that helped make America great.
The list I have outlined in this report is not a comprehensive account because I did not include apple pies and barbecue to give them credit. These 10 extraordinary homegrown American foods express their origins, with each one worth a trip from sea to succulent sea.
1. New England clam chowder (Massachusetts)
The Boston clam chowder is a culinary heritage, and a trip to Boston is never complete without it. The New England chowder version was so controversial, that in 1939, a bill was passed to prevent Boston from adding tomatoes to the dish. According to the old-school Manhattan recipe, the chowder should be cream colored, thick, and off white, just as it should be since 1839.
Due to the influx of Italian immigrants in the 1800s, tomatoes soon were added to clam chowder, which gives it a reddish color. The soup base is made of potatoes, salted pork, and spices, and also tomatoes. The biscuits were the usual accompaniment, either as a garnish or used as a thickener. The clam chowder is the precursor of fish chowder of today.
2. Pastrami (New York)
There are many Pastrami delis in New York City. Once a staple of the Jewish community in the 20th century, it is now one of the core components of the best sandwiches in the Big Apple. Romania and Turkey shared the credit for inventing Pastrami. While Turkish Pastrami used beef, Romanians used pork or mutton. In 125 years, New Yorkers still crave for the latest innovations in Pastrami sandwiches, which creates long queue every day, especially at lunchtime.
The most popular sandwich is the classic beef slices on the rye. Pastrami is salted, soaked, smoked, steamed and sliced thinly. Mustard is the best condiment by far. The spices used were onion powder, garlic powder, mustard, paprika, and coriander powder. Beef brisket cut is the ideal cut for Pastrami.
3) Shoofly pie (Pennsylvania)
Shoofly pie is a typical Southern food, especially among Pennsylvania Dutch; Amish and Mennonites settlers. It also goes by the name molasses pie, shoo fly pie, and Montgomery Pie. The pie got its name from a fly shooed due to their attraction to the sweet cane molasses, as the key ingredient. Historical references point its origin to Treacle Tart, which basically means thick syrup, an English generic term. In the 17th century, Treacle became a cheap form of sweetener, until the advent of sugar.
Enjoyed as a coffee cake, the pie has a crust, molasses, then topped with whipped cream, while modern versions usually have chocolate syrup. The pie crust can either be wet or dry, thick or thin, according to the baker’s preference. Although the sweet concoction became known as shoofly pie today, its origin is unclear and one of the hotly debated subjects in the culinary world.
4) Smithfield ham (Virginia)
The Virginia ham or more accurately, Smithfield Ham has a long history of high-quality meat products since 1779. The 1926 Statute of Virginia Law states that all Smithfield hams that bear the same name must be cured, smoked, and processed only in the town of Smithfield Virginia. The present statute ensures top quality hams produced there by requiring the manufacturers to abide by the highest standards of ham processing. According to food connoisseur Simon Majumdar, Smithfield ham is not only the tastiest, but also the healthiest hams in the world.
The entire process must not exceed six months to reveal uniformity in flavor. The hams are not pre-processed anywhere else but in Smithfield only. It is so popular that Queen Victoria used to order six hams a week. The ham also appeared on the movie The American President as a gift to Sydney Ellen Wade instead of the dogwood flowers.
5) Po-boys (Louisiana)
Po’ Boys is a traditional Louisiana submarine sandwich, which easily translates to poor boy’s sandwich. In contrast with other American sandwiches, Po’ Boys contain very few ingredients. It is a forerunner similar fashion the New Orleans Po’ Boy. Some delicatessens serve the sandwich in conformity to the newer trends of piling superfluous items, but the traditional way remains the best.
Po’ Boys is a rich food tradition, despite its humble origins. The key ingredient is French bread, romaine lettuce, tomato, and sauce. Many delicatessens make their own remoulade sauce, a mixture of mayonnaise, horseradish, spices, garlic, and capers.
Immigrants in Louisiana also served many variations of Po’ Boy, such as Bahn Mi, which bears unique flavors of the orient innovated by French-Vietnamese chefs. Po’ Boys are popular throughout the poorer areas of the Gulf of Mexico, Houston, and Florida.
6) Fajitas (Texas)
Fajitas are uniquely Texan-Mexican food. Traditionally, it is made from grilled beef, served on warm tacos or corn shell. Today, Fajitas can be made with chicken, served with a combination of onions, shredded lettuce, bell peppers, guacamole, sour cream, tomato, and most recently, cheese. The Spanish word faja means a strip, which could be chicken or beef. Chicken is a recent variation.
Homero Recio was one of the proponents of the dish that earned worldwide fame. The beef skirts were given to the Mexican vaqueros, as well as trimming, entrails, and the head. In the 1930s, beef skirts are not available commercially, due to limited beef skirt trimmings per carcass, so Recio concluded that the invention of Fajitas is only known to Mexicans.
The first to offer Fajitas commercially was Sonny Falcon. He went to fairs and rodeos to sell his ware, and soon he became the Fajita King.
7) Chicago hot dogs (Illinois)
Chicago has more hotdog diners than all of fast-food restaurants combined. Chicago’s progress was parallel to the growing popularity of hotdogs. Hot dogs was first called Vienna sausages or wienerwurst, named after the capital of Austria, from which it came. In 1852, butchers in Frankfurt started adding spices to smoked sausages. The sausages are wrapped in a casing from sheep’s intestines. The sausage is reminiscent of the popular dog breed Dachshund; hence, it was called hotdog. Today, it is an all-time American favorite, along with many nations around the world.
Chicago produces over 20 million hotdogs per annum, more than what Los Angeles and New York can. Hot dogs are served warm on a bun with pickles, onion, tomato slices, and topped with mustard. Although many offer ketchup, old-school Chicagoan hotdog stands and restaurants do not ever serve hotdog with ketchup as condiment, although many still offer ketchup.
8) Chile Verde (New Mexico)
Like all legendary food favorites, the origin of chili Verde is not clear, although historians say that it is a native dish of Northern Mexico and consequently, in Southwestern United States. Throughout Mexico, there are endless variations, prepared in many ways. The main ingredient is minced meat, and green (Poblano, pureed) chilies are added. Other ingredients include chicken broth, tomato puree, spices, black pepper, sugar, and salt. Chili Verde can be eaten on its own, but new food culture suggests that it is a great accompaniment for burritos, hot dogs, and tacos.
Commercial version of chili Verde in cans is available, but true Mexicans are said to detect authentic chili from canned counterpart. Tortilla is added to help absorb excess moisture. The chili should not be dry or wet. The amount of Poblano chilies depends on the eater’s tolerance.
9) San Francisco sourdough (California)
Sourdough bread is predominantly European in origin, and it goes without saying how it got to the United States. The bread can be eaten on its own, but it is also a base for many kinds of bread variations. What makes it authentically sour is the Lactobacillus, which is a good bacterium, served as a leavening agent to help the dough rise. It gives the dough its pungent tang.
The Boudin Bakery in San Francisco was the first to offer the bread in 1849, and up to this day. The bakery is featured on TLC with Samantha Brown purchasing the famously authentic bread from the shop. The bread is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. This paved the way for inventive chefs in San Francisco to serve chowder in the sourdough bread bowl. Sourdough bread is the only flour based food that can be eaten by gluten sensitive people. The distinctive leavening agent called lactic acid breaks down gluten effectively, and it has many health benefits.
10) Olympia oysters (Washington)
The Olympia was once abundant in the Hood Canal and Southern Puget Sound in the 1890s. The oyster, named after the Olympia industry in the area holds a unique quality that makes it popular. Olys as they call it has a distinctive celery salt, sweet, coppery flavor. Each year, the Saltwater Oyster Riot is held every May that features local brew and the famous Olympia oysters. Washington area has seen the decline of these delicious oysters due to over harvesting and in 1990, the oysters are back again in San Francisco Bay area. Oregon bay areas also harbor these oysters and are now thriving in these areas.
These oysters are eaten fresh with drops of lemon juice or Tabasco sauce. Beer is usually the best drink to go with it.
Written by: Janet Grace Ortigas