In the 1980’s, when I was still living on a mostly-Gerber diet, a food revolution of sorts was taking place in the US. Before this time, most of the top chefs in America were cooking regional foods from other countries—French bistros and Italian trattorias, tappas and Mediterranean cuisine were all popular—no one serious was talking about America’s food identity. This changed with chefs like Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman, and Jeremiah Tower, who championed local American food and the regional delicacies of our states and cities. Suddenly, people were talking about American regional cuisine, and working to represent America’s cultural diversity through cooking.
Despite their efforts, and the efforts of loads of American chefs who are working towards the same goal today, American food still gets a bad rap. When talking about American food, people most often talk about ammonia-dunked fast food burgers, heat-lamp-covered all-you-can-eat buffets, and ridiculously large portions. This is a shame, because America has an incredibly rich food history. If you want proof of this, look no further than Mark Twain’s homesick rant in A Tramp Abroad, in which he lists the foods he is most looking forward to eating when he gets home from his travels around Europe. I know this list is long, but do yourself a favor and read it in full, you’ll forget all about those heat-lamp buffets.
Radishes. Baked apples, with cream
Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.
American coffee, with real cream.
Fried chicken, Southern style.
Broiled chicken, American style.
Hot biscuits, Southern style.
Hot wheat-bread, Southern style.
Hot buckwheat cakes.
American toast. Clear maple syrup.
Virginia bacon, broiled.
Blue points, on the half shell.
San Francisco mussels, steamed.
Oyster soup. Clam Soup.
Philadelphia Terapin soup.
Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.
Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.
Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.
Lake trout, from Tahoe.
Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans.
Black bass from the Mississippi.
American roast beef.
Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.
Cranberry sauce. Celery.
Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.
Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.
Prairie liens, from Illinois.
Missouri partridges, broiled.
Boston bacon and beans.
Bacon and greens, Southern style.
Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.
Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.
Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.
Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.
Mashed potatoes. Catsup.
Boiled potatoes, in their skins.
New potatoes, minus the skins.
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.
Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.
Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.
Green corn, on the ear.
Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.
Hot hoe-cake, Southern style.
Hot egg-bread, Southern style.
Hot light-bread, Southern style.
Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.
Apple dumplings, with real cream.
Apple pie. Apple fritters.
Apple puffs, Southern style.
Peach cobbler, Southern style
Peach pie. American mince pie.
Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.
All sorts of American pastry.
Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.
Ice-water—not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.
Twain mourns delicacies from Baltimore to Illinois, Boston to Tahoe, New Orleans to Mississippi, Connecticut, San Francisco, the Sierra Nevadas, Virginia, and Philidelphia—he even misses the ice water, the frogs, the possums. One of the foods Twain misses most, though, is the porterhouse steak, which he describes in language so rich it could make a vegetarian sweat. While bemoaning the inadequacy of European beef, he imagines:
“an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender, yellowish fat gracing an outlying district of this ample county of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in its place.”
Often when reading old texts containing food, I’m struck by how much our tastes have changed. It forces me to alter history a little bit, to tweak the recipe, so that I can give you one that you’ll actually use, instead of one that involves things like veal jelly. In this case, though, there isn’t anything I would change. If you were going to buy a porterhouse steak from me, I would recommend that it be 1 ½ inches thick. I would tell you to season it only with salt and pepper, and to let it rest after cooking with a pat of butter melting over the top.
In Twain’s time, all of the produce would have been local and seasonal. The beef would have been pasture-raised and grass-fed, and from what I’ve read, it also would have been dry-aged for a couple of weeks to ensure that it wasn’t tough. These are all practices that have come back into vogue in the past ten years or so, as part of a new wave of American food revolutions. I understand the eye-rolling that comes with these culinary buzz words—words like “grass-fed,” “pasture-raised,” “local,” and “farm-to-table”—any word that you hear too often when you’re hungry is annoying, but their intentions are honorable and important. One of the intentions behind all of those buzzwords is to preserve this land that we are so lucky to live on, to keep it healthy and bountiful. If for no other reason, do it for the peach cobbler, the lake trout, and the apple fritters. Happy (almost) 4th, friends.
A Tramp Abroad Porterhouse Steak
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon coarse black pepper
1 porterhouse steak, 1 ½ inches thick
2 teaspoons high smoke-point neutral oil for greasing skillet
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
Mix your salt and pepper together and sprinkle them evenly over both sides of the steak. Let steak sit at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour. This allows the steak’s temperature to rise, which ensures even cooking, and it also lets the salt absorb into the steak’s muscle-strands, acting as a kind of quick-brine that helps with flavor and tenderness.
Add oil to skillet and heat it over medium-high until the oil begins to lightly smoke.
Add steak and cook for 5-6 minutes on each side, or until a thermometer inserted into the center reaches 130°F-135°F (for medium-rare).
Transfer steak to a cutting board and top with butter.
Tent foil over the steak to keep it warm and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before slicing against the grain and serving.