What Is American Food?

Pigeons and pork bellies, apparently

Creme Brule
Courtesy of Flickr user: latca

Pigeons and pork bellies, apparently. And don’t forget the sweetbreads…

I was lucky enough to snag a seat (and a fork) at a recent dinner lecture organized by the Smithsonian Resident Associates at 701 Restaurant, here in DC. The topic, “What is American Food?” conjured images of meatloaf and apple pie in my mind, but it turns out I have a lot to learn.

“Chilled lobster composition salad with wasabi apple crème, orange and tomato gelees,” and “Pan roasted squab breast with crispy sweetbreads and grilled vegetable pave,” were among the menu items. Not exactly things mom used to make!

701’s chef, Bobby Varua, had created a special five-course tasting menu to show us his personal take on American food. As we nibbled our pork-belly-with-soy-tapioca-pearls “amuse bouche,” the guest speaker, food historian Andrew Smith, told us that American food is any and all of the following things:

1) Native American food. For obvious reasons.
2) British food. Ditto.
3) “Ethnic food,” i.e. Chinese, Mexican, German and Italian – because immigration trends affect our cookbooks as much as our history books.
4) Industrialized/processed foods. (Easy Cheese. Enough said.)
5) Genetically modified foods. According to Smith, about 80 percent of American food contains GM ingredients, primarily corn and soy.

Throughout the night, Smith pointed out several ingredients on our plates that American Indians would have eaten, like squab, rabbit, and lobster (though he noted that lobster was considered a “trash food” only eaten as a last resort by many tribes). Flavors like wasabi expanded the menu to other continents, and at least one GM ingredient (soy) made an appearance. Hints of Britain were evident in dessert – custard – and perhaps in the ravioli, which I was surprised to learn may have been invented in England rather than Italy. (Well, that’s what Smith says – after googling a bit, I think the jury may still be out on that.)

Things I personally learned:

1) Squab is a fancy word for pigeon. Eeek.
2) Sweetbreads are neither sweet nor bread, but rather a type of animal gland. Double eeek.
3) Clearly, I’m still a recovering vegetarian.
4) Robert Mondavi once bought a vineyard that had a patch of Muscat grapes in it, and then – well, I don’t know, because the wine rep’s story was cut off by Smith’s booming voice. The rep didn’t seem to like that very much.
5) Any day that ends with crème brulee is a good day.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.