Sunday, March 9, 2014
Colman Andrews, editorial director of the Daily Meal.com, and a cofounder of Saveur magazine, has a new book out called Taste of America. The winner of eight James Beard journalism and book awards, Andrews has written books about cooking in Italy, Ireland, the Mediterranean, and the great Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. In The Taste of America he turns his attention back to America’s shores with the ever so essential question: If you are what you eat, what does America taste like? It turns out 250 edible items including Maine’s own Congdon’s Doughnuts, saltines, rainbow trout, bratwurst, maple syrup, lima beans, persimmons, and jelly beans.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Andrews about his book, Maine seafood, and the state of food writing in America. Following is an edited version of our conversation….
For the record I like that you included junk food. Do you feel you have had to justify including it?
Oh, I think the only justification is I’m trying to reflect what people actually eat. It’s not a book about what a nutritionist wishes people would eat or what Alice Waters wishes people would eat, it’s what people actually eat. I think there are some items - you could call them junk food or candy - that are just very typical of America. I have artisanal chocolate in here, but I also have Hershey bars, because Hershey bars are one of those things - like a McDonald’s hamburger - it may not be something you ever want to eat again, but if you do take a bite of it then it takes you back and reminds you of the way you used to eat or still do. Hershey, frankly compared to all those artisanal chocolates that are out there day isn’t very good chocolate, but it’s an American classic.
It completely it takes me back to my summers at camp. I appreciate it the way I do Jif peanut butter.
I was excited to see several foods from Maine. I imagine you could only include so many to achieve the right mix. Were there some that almost made the list?
Oh boy. (Laughter) I didn’t have a quota. I didn’t sit down and say I have to have at least “x” things from every state or at least “x” numbers of kinds of things. The cheese section was kind of difficult, because there are so many great cheeses in this country now, but I tried to represent one of each different approximate style of cheese.
There are some inconsistencies that I cop to in the intro, but I can’t quite justify why I included Red Velvet Cake, but not Key Lime Pie. I made a decision – I could have had barbecued ribs that you can order already cooked from all kinds of places now, but that didn’t seem right. There’s not a lot of cooked food per say. The Red Velvet Cake is one example that stands out. I tried to have an overall kind of mix of things. I think I figured out I cover 40 or 42 states. There are a few states that didn’t get in there, and I’m sure if I looked hard enough I could have found great products from them. As I said, I didn’t do it by quota. I know there are almost 50 entries from California, which coincidentally is my home state. It’s also where the vast majority of commercially available produce in America comes from.
Texas is up there with quite a few. Maine too, I didn’t count Maine, but I guess there were eight or nine.
But not wild blueberries, one of the most sentimental – you’ve got the classic book Blueberries for Sal and the whole thing - people gravitate towards them maybe before maple syrup and hopefully before Whoopie Pies.
What is your impression of Maine’s food scene?
Maine has a reputation for being very individualistic and kind of stuck off there in the far corner of the country. I think a lot of people in a lot parts of the country aren’t that aware of it frankly. They know it’s there, but you ask them what some typical foods of Maine are and I don’t know that they could come up with anything. Historically, everybody associates potatoes with Idaho but as you know Maine is a major producer. Unfortunately, most of those are commercial fast food potatoes with some exceptions. My impression I guess would be it’s a place where obviously the seasons can be very harsh, but the agriculture there is very important and they produce a lot of wonderful products – good cheese, obviously good seafood and the famous Maine lobster. I’ve used that as an example of the breadth of the book…it has everything from Snickers bars to Maine lobster.
I picked up on your fondness for Maine lobster.
I do like Maine lobster a lot, but a lot of that comes from the fact that when you’re in Maine in the height of the season you can do a lot with it. I have done things like cooking where I’ll take one lobster and not even bother to take the meat out and crush it up and use it to make stock. It only cost me $4, why not. I live in Connecticut and we can get lobster from Maine or elsewhere at a halfway different price, but nothing like in Maine when you can walk in and spend $30 or 40 and walk out with more lobster than you can carry sometimes.
The last few years it’s been really cheap.
Which, is of course is not good for the Maine fishermen.
Regarding your inclusion of Maine Sea Salt. I think it was Chef Sam Hayward who said to me salt tells the terroir or flavor of a place. Now I’m starting to see Maine Sea Salt everywhere, so that’s fun.
I love the fact. That’s a case where there used to be a salt business there a long time ago and it kind of disappeared and now it’s coming back. I love those little stories. I found some of those in the book, which were fun to tell. Also, as I mentioned in the intro, something that kind of surprised me was how many of the enterprises I wrote about whether they are fishermen from farmers to factories turning out Biales or something are 3rd, 4th, 5th generation family owned companies. I thought that was really interesting. This is an area we don’t necessarily think about, because the agri-business is so prominent. The Pepsi-Cos and various other Frito Lays and so forth make so much of the food we eat or some of us eat anyway we kind of forget there is still a very strong thriving small on a modest level family businesses producing food all around the country.
With Maine shrimp I was happy and sad to see included. Recently, I had a conversation with someone in fisheries management and he was talking how people don’t think about their seafood enough. Where it came from, who caught it, and what’s happened around it. I love the guys at Port Clyde Fresh Catch, so I was so glad you mentioned them.
I understand there is not going to be any Maine shrimp this year.
The same person told me there may not be a season for two maybe three years and then there’s a 50/50 chance. It really depends on having some strong winters. There’s a combination of things that went into it, but it’s just sad. These guys in Port Clyde they are this perfect example of what your book represents to an extent. Here’s a bunch of guys in these little boats from this small coastal community and their cash flow during the winter was these shrimp, but now it’s gone. We hope it comes back. I don’t know if you want to speak to that at all.
I can’t speak with any authority to the situation. It’s such a large issue in general. On one hand it’s so wonderful to be able to get wild seafood. We all enjoy eating and cooking with them and it’s all disappearing. There won’t be any more Bluefin Tuna, there won’t be any more California Spot Prawns. There is so much. I mentioned I live in Connecticut. At least the first ten years I was here we were getting lobsters out of Long Island Sound. In fact there was a guy down at the end of a street not far from where I live. It was a house, but there was a little sign that said “Ford’s Lobster Dock” and he had a little wooden lobster he put out on the tree when he had lobster. You’d go down there and buy this barely legal sweet little lobsters that he’d pulled out of there and they all died off in one season and there is no more lobster in Long Island Sound.
Half of what you just mentioned I’ve never heard of. Maybe that’s another thing that can come from your book, I don’t know. People seem to live in this insular world where they know what’s going on in their community or their state, but have no idea these foods are permanently gone from other areas.
I enjoyed your referencing not being a locavore, or rather being one. The locavore movement started out as this pure thing that was meant to help people learn about local food, which we’ve just been talking about and that’s great. Do you think it remains a good way to integrate communities and their restaurants or is it just a marketing strategy?
It’s become a marketing term. It’s such a complicated issue on so many levels. There is the food miles issue. I did a program last year and got out my calculator and figured out that tomatoes that were trucked up here from Mexico in big container trucks had lower food miles than stuff was driven 20 miles from a local farm, because the local farmer had 300 tomatoes in the back of his truck and the container truck had 500,000 tomatoes in it. Per tomato you’re using fewer fossil fuels buying the ones from Mexico.
There’s also the issue of growing things where they don’t grow easily, just to say they are local. I’m sure you could grow tomatoes in a greenhouse up by the Canadian border and maybe even in the ground a little bit, but you’d probably be using pesticides, more energy. If you buy them from places that grow easily and naturally you are consuming a lot fewer natural resources in some cases.
There’s also the issue that civilization is basically based on trade. I’ve got the salt and the wine and I’ll send you the salt and you catch the cod up there in Iceland and send it back down and we’ll eat it all year in Spain. The trade routes and things were largely based on food. The idea of exchanging goods is basic to human activity.
What do you think of the state of food writing in America?
This is a long conversation. Basically the pioneers, even though they were not pioneers online, of this kind of thinking in the food area were the Zagats. The concept that, and I don’t know that they were the first ones that ever had it, the concept that what a lot of people you don’t think is about a restaurant is more valid or interesting or more informational than what one person who has made a specialty study of this thinks. The great democratization of things. Today, with the exception probably of Pete Wells at The New York Times and maybe some other big city newspaper/website critics, nobody reads professional critics. They read Yelp or the comments on Four Square and various other places and that’s where they get their information and I think there is something to be said for experts whether about food or anything else. Maybe it’s a really American idea, but what we the people think about a certain place is really important. What one snobbish guy that eats caviar every morning, which is the common perception, that that’s not what you want to listen to. What you want to listen to is the people, the cumulative wisdom of everybody else. I think that really bodes badly for the true profession of writing about food, especially writing about restaurants, but also the whole area of recipes. When you are looking for a recipe, does the average person pull down the Paula Wolfert volume or go on Allrecipes.com. They do the latter. That’s changed the way we look at – a kind of devaluation of expertise in a way.
Images courtesy of Phaidon Press.Tweet
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.