American Food Beyond Apple Pie
Published: May 2009
By Ken Chowder
Where do you go to get quintessential American food? 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.
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.
NAVAJO TACO Arizona
My brother, Andy, and I drive through piñon and juniper, the high-desert scrub, and park beside the other pickups at the Tsegi Café, just a 30-minute drive from Monument Valley. The interior is furnished in fast-food style, but the radio plays KTNN, Voice of the Navajo Nation, with country music, morning chants, and the "stock market": prices of sheep and cattle. We're the only non-Native Americans here. A stately older couple wordlessly sips coffee at the next table. He wears a bow guard on his wrist and a white Stetson with an American flag pinned on the crown; she's in a long skirt and a turquoise and silver squash-blossom necklace.
We're here to have a Navajo taco, which is like any other taco except that the sauce, salsa, and sour cream are piled on fry bread: a soft round of deep-fried dough. This fry bread is beautifully light; it tastes like a huge, airy doughnut without the sugar. The rest of the taco is not light. No. After a Navajo taco, nobody moves. We sit and admire the red-rock walls of the canyon for a long while, watching a drifting thunderhead. There's something ghostly about this place, with its stolid waitresses and its view of the curving canyon—a scar in the dry mountains—that echoes a long history of endurance. In the distance, we see the first flash of lightning. But there's no sound.
Lumber-camp cookhouses used to be common all over the West. Today, only one survives—a relic of an era when the tree stump was a symbol of progress. On Route 101 in northern California, Andy and I glide between gargantuan redwoods till we come to the Samoa Cookhouse, west of Eureka. The big red farmhouse dates back to 1892, when it used to feed hundreds of loggers each day, and now includes a museum with sharp articles of the trade on display.
At the Cookhouse, you sit at long oilcloth-covered tables, on mismatched chairs, and chow down. Today we get split-pea soup, then wide platters of roast beef and turkey surrounded by deep bowls of peas and corn, gravy and biscuits, and for dessert a pumpkin pie. A whole one. With whipped cream. This is part of the American experience, too: we come to the wilderness and start consuming; then we feel sorry about it (God knows I didn't need that last piece of pie). The Samoa Cookhouse is the kind of place that European tourists shake their heads over and secretly adore. Though they may find Americans charmingly tasteless, that doesn't stop them from devouring another slice of that pumpkin pie.
CHILI DOG Oregon
Nick's Famous Coney Island might be that kind of place as well, if Europeans heard about it, which they wouldn't. Nick's is a throwback, a neighborhood bar in southeast Portland, Oregon, something like the one in Cheers was pretending to be. I drop in with my pal Tommy, a regular for the past 25 years. "It's like stopping home for lunch, except that there are always thirty people waiting for you," he says. We're welcomed by the booming voice of Frank, the owner: "Hey, look who's here." The whole idea that people in a public place actually know one another leaves the McDonald's version of America floundering in its special sauce. At Nick's, the special sauce is the ubiquitous homemade chili. Since 1934, they've been splashing it over the foot-long dogs and slathering it with shredded cheddar and raw, sweet Walla Walla onions. Tommy comes to Nick's for the company and the "pick-'er-upper": a Coney Island dog with only a little chili on it. "My dream," Frank confides, "is to get the goddamned menu down to one item before I go."
The chili dog stains your face orange, burns on the way down, and warms you in some deep place. When Tommy's mother died, Frank attended the service. Her picture stands among the memorabilia behind the bar, like the photos of starlets at Hollywood bars—only this one's of Helen McKenna from Rutherford, New Jersey. At Nick's, you're in America as we all want it to be.
Before World War II, a servant couple in heiress Evangeline Johnson's Connecticut household decided to start a business. In 1939, they opened a roadside hamburger stand in the northwestern part of the state. The Clamps did such a good summer business that they could afford to spend the winters in Florida. I know the story because I grew up with those burgers. They were the best in the world—slightly crisp on the outside, subtly infused with the smoke of the ancient grill, and peppered and salted to perfection. We had them with charred onions and ketchup and washed them down with slim bottles of Canada Dry birch beer sucked from a straw, and the very thought of them made our jaws ache with anticipation. All summer, barefoot on the gravel, we'd line up for burgers. By the 1960's the paint had peeled off the Clamps' sign, but they didn't repaint it because they didn't need a sign. Those summer evenings, as bats darted through the sunset, a light shone brightly on a naked wooden shingle. Eventually the Clamps died and the sign came down; their grand-nephew now runs the stand. It's still true to itself: still no sign, no telephone. This must be the place; every burger reveals the America where life is wonderful. In Frank Capra's hometown. Or mine. Or yours. This is a place where the American soul is best fed.
KEN CHOWDER is a novelist and has written for such magazines as Smithsonian, Gourmet, and National Geographic.
Nance's Creek Front Restaurant
DINNER FOR TWO $34. MURRELLS INLET, S.C.; 843/651-2696
LUNCH FOR TWO $22. 5535 15TH AVE., E.TUSCALOOSA, ALA.; 205/758-8135
DINNER FOR TWO $30. 1015 E. 85TH ST., KANSAS CITY, MO.; 816/333-2132
LUNCH FOR TWO $14. ANASAZI INN, HWY. 160, TSEGI CANYON, ARIZ.; 928/697-3793
LUNCH FOR TWO $21. 79 COOKHOUSE LANE, SAMOA, CALIF.; 707/442-1659
Nick's Famous Coney Island
LUNCH FOR TWO $14. 3746 S.E. HAWTHORNE, PORTLAND, OREG.; 503/235-4024
LUNCH FOR TWO $10. RTE. 202, BETWEEN WASHINGTON AND NEW MILFORD, CONN. (NEAR MARBLEDALE); NO PHONE