Where do you go to get quintessential American food?To find out, I took off on a tour of the country—from South Carolina to Alabama to Missouri, from Arizona to Oregon to Connecticut—looking for restaurants that would yield a window onto the nation, and for foods that reflect who we are. Whether it was oysters or hot dogs, barbecued ribs or fried chicken or hamburgers, I followed a flawed but useful precept: if the route to a man's heart is through his stomach, then surely the same itinerary would get me to the heart of a country.
OYSTERS South Carolina
I once lived in coastal South Carolina, where I discovered Nance's Creek Front Restaurant, in tiny Murrells Inlet. That's where I go now at the start of my journey. Nance's has its own oyster beds just offshore, so the shellfish is spectacularly fresh and consistent. The restaurant is one huge room dominated by a wall of windows. Before me stretches a coastal panorama: blue-gray swirls of water wind among reeds; herons and egrets settle into the saw grass; a Boston Whaler, with a yellow Lab panting in the bow, putt-putts among distant islets.
But I'm not here for the view. I order an oyster roast. It arrives in an overfilled cast-iron roaster big enough for a 12-pound turkey. The clustered oysters have been steamed (not roasted), and are a very pale gray, the shade of a weather-beaten country barn, with their shells buckled as the roof might be. They're small, but sweet, sweet. Melted butter gilds the bivalve lily. With them come warm hush puppies (balls of deep-fried cornmeal batter); I swab everything shamelessly with melted butter.
"They openin' okay?" my waitress asks. "Looks easy but there sure is an art to it." The plywood table has a gaping hole in the center, where you chuck the shells. Mine clatter into the garbage can below like a drawn-out drum solo. The oysters make a triple attack on the senses: sweet, salty, rich. Is it too much to dip them in butter?Not at all, for this is what we're about in this country: this blessed combination of simplicity and excess.
I've always wanted to go to Dreamland, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, ever since I first heard about it, back in the 1970's. Big Daddy Bishop made ribs there for 37 years. A few years ago, he died; a dentist bought Dreamland and started franchising. One may come to your neighborhood soon, but the original is still perfect. "Dreamland is unevolved and fully formed," my friend, Scott, says.
It's always Christmas in Dreamland. We enter a dark room whose walls are crammed with license plates, dimly lit with chains of twinkle lights. Three TV's are on, showing sports, sports, and sports. Of course the true national pastime is barbecue. We're offered the traditional choice of ribs: sandwich, half, or whole slab.
Dreamland's method is unusual: salt the back side, cook them hot and fast, then douse them after cooking with a vinegary, spicy sauce. "Cooking fast is the most basic way to cook," Scott adds. "Slow cooking, smoking, tenderizing with marinades: those are all later adaptations, rococo flourishes." The quick cooking over hickory and oak leaves the ribs moist and soft, pink from the smoke. The sauce doesn't caramelize; it tangs and zings brightly on my jaws, slowly accumulating heat. The slab is wonderfully too much, my face and fingers are a true wreckage, the pile of bones mounts. "Don't use the towelettes," says Scott. "That's what the white bread is for."
Perhaps that's part of the appeal. The most American foods—corn on the cob, pizza, ribs—are literally right at our fingertips. There's something primal about grabbing ahold, using the implements of an earlier eon before niceties like forks were invented, back when we feasted to our heart's content. Gnawing on a rib to get at every bite of the tender meat, I'm about as refined as Fred Flintstone when Wilma's not home. The mess makes me truly happy. I'm at home in Dreamland.
FRIED CHICKEN Missouri
As I pull up to Stroud's Restaurant, on the southern edge of Kansas City, I get a little uneasy. The ramshackle place is tucked almost underneath the Troost Avenue bridge. Then I step inside, and the former roadhouse feels immediately welcoming, with its worn hardwood floors, thick beams, and red-checkered tablecloths.
Stroud's is known for its chicken and almost as much for its slogan, WE CHOKE OUR OWN CHICKENS, emblazoned on the side of the 70-year-old building. In fact, they don't choke their own chickens. "The health department put a stop to that," says Mike Donegan, the owner for the past 27 years. They may not choke them at Stroud's, but they do cook them to order. The result is crisp on the outside, impeccably moist within. "Because it's pan-fried," the waitress, Sherry, says. "And if you want to know how many calories are in there, well, you'd best not ask."
This place feels like some faintly remembered home, when chicken was a fancy thing to have for Sunday dinner and food deeply comforted us, before we'd ever heard of "comfort food." At Stroud's, I savor the thick-noodled chicken soup, the soft green beans boiled with pork, and the cinnamon rolls that, for some reason, come with the chicken. Mike makes the rounds. "How you doing, guys?" he says, and pats my back—in a family way.