A gasp followed by an outburst of “No whipped cream?!?!” filled my right ear as I decided against lathering canned white foam onto the top of my Wawa chai tea. “No, fake whipped cream tastes like chemicals.” A voice beside my left ear commented that I had no sense of American values. Again, I responded in the negative: “No, I just have no values that the lazy 1970s precipitated on this country.”Given the condensation filling my hand that clutched the iced chai tea made from a powdery mix of sugar and God only knows what else, my comment probably appeared hypocritical. In my defense, I—and the others to whom the voices belonged— had just surfaced from a day-long stint of drawing molding profiles and floor plans in a colonial house with no air conditioning. Wawa, our closest, cheapest option for refreshment, taunted me with its billboard-style photos of cold, sugary drinks. I succumbed to the marketing tactic in order to combat the late afternoon slump that would imminently beckon me to a siesta under the whirring of my ceiling fan. Truth be told, I craved a glass of my mother’s always-perfect, never-cloudy iced tea. But that yellow plastic pitcher full of the sweet, herbal, earthy liquid the color of chewing tobacco sits in a refrigerator about three hours west of Williamsburg. The chai would do for the moment.
My craving for the staple sitting in the refrigerator of any decent home south of the Mason-Dixon speaks to the regionalism of American food: The tea would appall a New Englander, shock a Californian with its sugar content, and bemuse a Midwesterner. Neither does the importance of the pig, cravings for collards, and pride in sun-kissed warm tomatoes straight from the vine doesn’t resonate as strongly outside the region. Even culinary microclimates exist within broad regions: Edwards Ham sits in the delis of supermarket chains in Virginia’s Tidewater, but hunting down a decent ribeye east of the Piedmont falls just short of a Shakespearian production. If these subtleties exist, does a quintessential American culinary tradition exist?
Ask foreigners what they think of as “American food,” and they’ll rattle off a handful of fast food chains and names of slushies swirling around in the giant frozen mixers with sticky fingerprints from five-year-olds that you find in every major gas station. When I hear such answers, I inwardly shout “You’ve obviously never spread pimento cheese on toasted white bread, sliced into locally made sausage to experience that smoky-sweet aroma, or filched a bite chicken salad intended for a Garden Club meeting!” Though a little piece of my soul withers away each time I hear these responses that confine American cuisine to massive conglomerates and tasteless, processed items, I outwardly nod my head in dismay and slight agreement, for—unfortunately—their assumptions carries a fair amount of truth.
When a college town throws people from each corner of the country into proximity, initial conversation tends to revolve around the familiar. Since everyone sits down to a meal at least once a day, small talk tends toward taste buds. My paternal great-grandparents— both born and raised in the late 1800s and who lived and died in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia—would hardly recognize the major components of these discussions. The talk conforms to the following paradigm:
NOVa with her Starbucks coffee the size of a small child joins everyone else for lunch. Nebraska declares that he could use some caffeine, too, and has a craving for Chipotle. Colorado, who earnestly wishes that everyone become friends, suggests that the group eventually take a trek to Cookout—although their chicken will never compare to that of Chick-fil-A’s. Eventually, the discussion evolves into dishes that routinely appear for on tables during the holiday season. Maryland A gushes over Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, but Maryland B mentions crab cakes with enough Old Bay to constitute a side dish. Understanding little of the allure of the foods—save the pickles on a Chick-fil-A sandwich and succulent meat of the crab cakes—mentioned in the above conversation, Shenandoah Valley spreads more pimento cheese on her Ritz crackers and says she can’t wait for the advent of summer tomato season at the farmers’ market.
My paternal great-grandparents, farmers among an agricultural community, may have permitted themselves a slight smile to cross their otherwise stern countenances at the thought of a summer tomato. I know their son, my grandfather— who proudly stood in his bathing suit and held summer vegetables in both hands for a camera lens in the 1960s and ‘70s to display the bounty of his garden a quarter of the size of a football field— would have unabashedly beamed at my excitement over excellent tomatoes. I have the idea that, based upon my mother’s stories about her granny’s breakfasts of eggs fried in bacon fat, toast slathered with butter from a nearby farmer, and a side of salt-and-peppered tomatoes, my maternal great-grandparents would have empathized with my misty longing for summer vegetables, too. Somehow, the cycle of seasons and the produce and dishes each encourage resonated with me and connected me to people I had never known. Somehow, mutable weather apparently never crossed the minds of others my age, as if this anticipation of sowing, ripening, and harvesting that had preserved itself in my upbringing, had vanished completely from their consciousness.
A recent Bon Apetit! article lists twelve major food trends that have swept the nation in the past three decades. Most notably the movement toward the ordinary and conglomerate lies in Americans’ preference to spend their money eating out rather than shopping at grocery stores and cooking at home, their fixation on social media, and the explosion of available global food options. We don’t bother to watch our mothers cook—or our mothers didn’t watch our grandmothers cook and rendered us helpless from conception—so we don’t know a leek from a spring onion, and we wouldn’t know how to use them if we did. Garishly bright photographs of chemical-laden chain food glare at us from our computer and iPhone screens as we scroll through our newsfeed, and almost anyone can drive to the nearest Dunkin Donuts to sample that sprinkle-covered, peptobismol-colored icing coating the newest fried lump of dough. This country uniquely exposes its citizens to cuisines from abroad—an education that both expands our palates and our minds— and, although the bonding of different communities that can begin over a bowl of pad thai or a plate of risotto generally results in positive contacts, it also causes us to lose sight of our own ancestors’ dishes because we opt for the ease of stopping at a food truck after work and bringing home a pork pupusa rather than rifling through Grandmother’s collection of carefully-curated index cards for some inspiration.
Culinarily speaking, we’ve lost our sense of self. We’ve traded our palate’s sense of place for convenience, for processed foods that have no meaning to us beyond a white cardboard takeout box and the beep of the microwave to tell us that we’ve avoided spending time over the stove. One could argue that American cooking died with the casserole recipes printed on the back of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup cans.
At least in the majority of the country. My craving for iced tea offers a glimmer of hope.
The desire to sit down with a condensation-enveloped highball glass of familiarity, the excitement surrounding a ripe tomato slathered with mayonnaise, the unpalatable taste of disappointment of a cornbread recipe with sugar in it incurs— a mark of a childhood spent in the mountains of the American South—indicates that homogenous chemical cuisine hasn’t yet invaded every corner of the country. To unearth the true answer to the question “What is American food?”, we need to begin at the regional level. We need to eat our way through the corners of every small town that the interstate has forgotten. And we can begin with the South, a place in which people tenaciously guard tradition, where the whole hog trots us through twelve months of the year, where we offer bourbon to those who cross our doorsteps, and where pie cures anything short of diabetes. Look southward, and you’ll find a haven for the food that your parents forgot. Perhaps the searching will coax memories shoved on the dusty top of a shelf to surface— or at least encourage some hunting for Grandmother’s pickle recipe—for the South cannot be the only keeper of regional food in a country as vast as this one.
A few days after the chai tea incident and the recovery from the sugar rush that it induced, I embarked on a grocery store run with the person who owned the voice beside my left ear as we had stood in line at Wawa. “See,” I said, gracefully brushing my hand over the bounty of my grocery cart in an effort that would’ve impressed Vanna White herself, “Nothing processed.” The wry voice spoke again: “You say as you drop a box of Oreos beside the milk.” True, I’ve never turned down the opportunity for an Oreo… or a cellophane- wrapped Little Debbie oatmeal creme pie ringing with the nostalgia of a rare elementary school lunch… or a Moonpie and an RC Cola. Some days, I crave these delights found on the counters of convenience stores across the country as much as I crave my mother’s iced tea. I don’t deplore these concoctions of flour and sugar as I do meat-from-God-knows-what on tacos or a dairy substitute masquerading as cream on top of a drink. Baked goods stand as the exception to the rule, and these snacks have their own American identity, a positive one, separate from the fishsticks found on aisle three. These are snacks, not substitutes for meals, and they will never usurp the prowess of homemade brownies or blackberry cobbler.
The country may have to change its relationship status with food on Facebook to “its complicated,” and even I may tread a more nuanced line on processed and non-processed food than I initially believed, but, separate from the places awash in McDonald’s and Taco Bell, our food has a history that encompasses a meaning of home. If you ever visit my childhood home in the Valley, expect to be unable to separate yourself from my mother’s gooey artichoke dip that she’s just taken out of the oven as you sip on a glass of rosé that my father has pulled from the cellar before dinner. Expect to return to the sideboard in the dining room for seconds on succotash with corn from the farmers’ market. Expect the answer “we smoked it” when you ask where my parents purchased the side of salmon lying under a thin blanket of herbs and lemon slices. And if good fortune ever blesses you with the opportunity to breakfast on cinnamon rolls made with a recipe from my grandmother, don’t you dare compare them to those lumps that leak from Pillsbury cans, for my instinct to feed guests until they retire to their rooms in a food coma extends only so far.