Hold on to your chef hats – a new book claims America has the most complex cuisine in the world.
Typically associated with mundane (but delicious!) dishes like burgers and apple pie, American cuisine is much more dynamic, according to historic foodie Sarah Lohman in her debut album, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.
“I have taken immense pride in American cuisine,” writes New York blogger Lohman, “which I believe is the most complex and diverse cuisine on the planet.”
In “Eight Flavors,” Lohman breaks down the history of America’s appetite into its component parts – starting with our oldest, black pepper, and ending with Sriracha, our youngest. She pulled recipes from her large collection of cookbooks dating back to the late 1700s and charted how often references were made to various flavor profiles landing on the eight most popular (except chocolate). and coffee because they were made to death, she wrote).
The results might surprise some francophile foodies. “I learned that American cuisine has a complicated and ever-changing identity, just like Americans themselves,” she writes. After reading this delicious journey through American culinary history, we tend to agree. Here you’ll find some of our favorite anecdotes about how each flavor came to dominate the American palate and how each reflects our mishmash history.
Most Americans used garlic medicinally – the potent smell was considered too unpleasant to use in cooking. “Garlic is said to be a sovereign remedy for gout. There is no cure for garlic,” read an 1879 article published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Later, “garlic stench” became a racial epithet aimed at Italian immigrants. That’s until after World War I, when groups of artists, intellectuals, and other expatriates began spending time in Provence, where garlic was a key ingredient in nearly every dish. The change in taste happened suddenly. Travel journalist Waverly Root noted: “In 1927 you were looked down upon if you ate garlic, a food suitable only for ditch-diggers. When I came back in 1940, you were looked down upon if you didn’t eat it.
Garlic consumption continued to rise after World War II. In 1945, Americans consumed 4.5 million pounds of garlic. In 1956, they ate 36 pounds. Now we eat more than 250 million pounds a year — and it’s by far the most popular flavor in the book, writes Lohman.
Curry made the jump to America via England. The soldiers and merchants of the British East India Company had developed a taste for Indian cuisine and brought it back to England with them. Curry had a boom in the United States thanks to cookbooks like “The Virgin Housewife” from 1824, which included curried catfish recipes.
Yet curry was one thing – Indian food was quite another. An Indian chef has made a career out of trying to bring America to fully embrace Indian cuisine. “Prince” Ranji Smile started out at the Savoy Hotel and then was poached by Sherry’s, a fine dining restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He became a celebrity chef, nicknamed “The King of the Kitchen” and traveled the world.
By the time Smile left the United States in 1929, the mark he left on the culinary landscape – particularly in New York – was undeniable. A new wave of Indian cooks has entered the city, opening restaurants inspired by the work of Chef Smile. One such restaurant, now called Bombay Masala, opened around this time at 148 49th St. and is perhaps the oldest Indian restaurant in the country.
The most controversial of the eight flavors has its ardent fans and vocal detractors. Many mass-produced foods today advertise “NO MSG” in bold. Yet the average American ingests at least a little MSG (averaging about 0.55 grams) daily, often without realizing it.
MSG, a salt that can be made naturally by boiling kelp, originated in Japanese cuisine as a way to give vegetables a “meatier” taste. In 1907 (yes, MSG is that old), Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered an easier way to create this flavor. While investigating the chemical source of his favorite food, yudofu, or tofu simmered in kelp broth, he evaporated his food until he was left with only a white powder. Ikeda had discovered monosodium glutamate (MSG).
MSG bounced from Japan to China and then to America via Chinese restaurants. Efforts to incorporate MSG into American cuisine proved futile, although processed food companies immediately promoted the additive.
Lohman, a migraine sufferer, once tried to avoid MSG, but after researching her history, she’s now embracing it in her own kitchen. “Now, with every bite of homemade soup or stew, I’m like, ‘You know what would make that taste better?’ The answer is always MSG,” she wrote.
The United States is the largest importer of black pepper in the world – it is the top-selling spice in America and accounts for approximately 10% of all spice sales. But that wasn’t always the case.
Black pepper has a long culinary history on both sides of the Atlantic, but after the colony severed its ties with England, the pepper became harder to find. England has retained a stronghold on the spice, in part because it has kept the location of its pepper growers secret. That is until an American captain caught wind of their location and docked in Sumatra. The secret source of the pepper plant had come out.
The prominent family of sailors Crowninshield took advantage of the new opportunity in Sumatra. John Crowninshield set sail and befriended the Sumatrans, offering them double the price paid by the British. Two years later, the Crowninshield family had brought over 1.5 million pounds of pepper to the United States, flooding the market and making it a staple in American cuisine.
Soy sauce has a much longer history here than you might think, and like black pepper, it began as a food that only the wealthy could enjoy, as it was imported from Britain via China.
Everything changed thanks to an incarcerated sailor named Samuel Bowen who worked for the British East India Company. Bowen was arrested and imprisoned in China for four years for violating trade embargoes. While locked up, Bowen witnessed the making of soy sauce and managed to smuggle some soy back with him. When he immigrated to America, he opened the country’s first soy sauce factory in 1767 in Thunderbolt, Georgia. At the time of the American Revolution, Bowen was selling his own brand of patented soy sauce on the East Coast.
In Bowen’s day, soy sauce was considered an essential flavor in American cooking – and it now ranks as the third best-selling condiment in the United States.
America has long been in love with the addictive heat of chili peppers. After the Mexican-American War, tourism in San Antonio especially boomed and the Chilli Queens, as they were known, began selling chili con carne and tamales from stalls in the town square. The queen of queens was Sadie Thornhill, who smoked while taking orders and handing out business cards with her pleasingly round face.
German immigrant William Gebhardt noticed the chilli queen trend and tried to replicate it at his restaurant outside of San Antonio. In addition to wurst and beer, he sold chili con carne. Attempts to replicate the flavor of chili queens led him to experiment, and eventually he came up with the idea of using chili powder rather than fresh chilies.
Gebhardt founded his own chilli company in 1897 and began marketing it nationwide. At first, American housewives were baffled by the trick, but Gebhardt took a page from Jell-O and published his own cookbook to explain the spice. “A bowl of chili, inspired by Mexican heritage, influenced by the Germans and made famous in the state of Texas is a true American dish,” writes Lohman.
Thomas Jefferson, a true vanilla ice cream fanatic, developed a love for flavor during his tenure as Ambassador to France. His problem ? He couldn’t find it in the United States. “I have to ask you to send me a packet of 50 pods which may very well be in the middle of a bundle of newspapers,” he begged a French friend.
Although Jefferson was eventually given vanilla (he served vanilla ice cream in the White House), it would be years before the American masses got their hands on it – and it’s all thanks to a 12-year-old slave. from the French colony Ile de Bourbon (hence: Bourbon vanilla).
Vanilla may be old, but it’s also capricious. Attempts to cultivate it outside of Mexico have been unsuccessful. The owner of the plantation, Ferreol Bellier-Beaumont, who lived on the island of Bourbon, had received vanilla plants from France 22 years before, but no pods had formed – until Edmond Albius, a slave and not yet a teenager tries to pollinate the plant. Albius developed the “smashing” technique to inseminate the vanilla flower and create the pods, a process still used today and known as “marriage”. Thanks to Albius, the vanilla industry was born.
With increased availability, prices have fallen exponentially. The United States is today the largest importer of vanilla in the world.
You’re probably as familiar with the flavor — a balance of vinegar and sugar with salt and garlic mixed with jalapeno peppers — as you are with the bright red bottle with its green cap. But few know how “essentially American” Sriracha is.
Sriracha’s story begins on a chili farm in South Vietnam during the war. Due to the constant threat of bombardment, chili peppers were increasingly difficult to harvest and sell. David Tran, whose brother owned the farm, had an idea. How about making a sauce instead? The sauce was an instant hit with both locals (who often accompanied it with roast dog) and Americans who used it to spice up their military rations. But when the United States withdrew from Vietnam and Saigon fell, the Tran family nearly lost their Sriracha empire.
David Tran fled the country on a rusty freighter called Huy Fong in 1978 and arrived in the United States in 1980. That same year, he opened the country’s first factory dedicated to making Sriracha hot sauce. He named his business after the ship that took him out of Vietnam. He has since maintained double-digit sales – and today his Sriracha factory produces 7,500 bottles per hour.