Culinaria: The United States: A Culinary Discovery
Reviewed by Pableaux Johnson, Fri., March 24, 2000
Culinaria: The United States: A Culinary DiscoveryEdited by Randi Danforth
Konemann Publishers, 509 pp., $39.95
Every time I pick up my 10-pound copy of Culinaria: The United States: A Culinary Discovery, I get hopelessly distracted. Paging through its large-format glossy pages, I'll start reading about the development of New York's luncheonette culture or the cultural roots of South Carolina's low-country oyster roasts. A few pages further in, mouthwatering shots of Puerto Rican arroz con pollo or Midwestern blackberry pies draw me into detailed discussions of the United States' multifaceted regional cuisines. If I crack it open, I'm usually committed to about an hour of freeform exploration into American food.
Part of Konemann's popular Culinaria series, The United States: A Culinary Discovery is a monumental work of edible geography cleverly disguised as a hulking coffeetable book. In the course of its 500-plus pages, the volume explores our national cuisine through its regional dishes and the widely varied food cultures that developed them. Meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated, and instantly accessible, The United States: A Culinary Discovery may be the best (and heaviest) single reference work on American food culture.
Arranged by geographic region, Discovery dedicates colorful two-page spreads -- complete with historical sidebars and recipes -- to the indigenous specialties that define each area's "local flavor." Rather than following traditional political boundaries, the book divides the country by culinary influence and activity, which results in neighborhood-by-neighborhood discussions of New York City's immigrant influences and more general discussions of rural Midwestern foodways. Informal histories of modern pan-American topics -- soft drinks, supermarkets, hamburgers, Christmas traditions, and ice cream, to name a few -- are also sprinkled throughout the hefty text.
The photography in this volume rivals both the beauty shots of the new-generation gourmet magazines and the striking photojournalism of National Geographic. The photos never fail to illustrate the text perfectly and include everything from action shots of lobstermen at sea to closeups of sugar-dusted New Orleans beignets. Photographic glossaries give one-glance overviews of such complex subjects as nonstandard ingredients found in Mexican cuisine (chayote, jicama, prickly-pear cactus fruit) or dishes commonly found on dim sum (Chinese tea breakfast) carts. Ambitious cooks will appreciate the blow-by-blow tutorials on how to construct a traditional New England clambake or Hawaiian luau pig roast.
Instead of depending on a single author, Konemann commissioned local experts to tackle the wide range of American food and traditions. The chapter on Texas was written by Arizona-based Madge Griswold and Fort Worth food maven Renie Steves. From the cowboy cooking of the King Ranch to the new Panhandle wineries to the Tex-Mex border food of El Paso/Juarez, the varied traditions of the Lone Star State are well-represented. The one confusing exception is the section on chicken fried steak, which features a beauty shot of a crispy steak smothered in brown gravy instead of the traditional pepper-flecked cream variety. (Luckily, the accompanying recipe gives instructions for cream gravy, so all is not lost.) Local barbecue fanatics will also appreciate the discussion of our state's smoked meat tradition, which features photos from the old Kreuz Market in its pre-breakup glory days.
For the armchair traveler or curious home cook, every reading of The United States: A Culinary Discovery is an education that never fails to inspire simultaneous attacks of hunger pangs and wanderlust. Just make sure that you have a good chunk of free time whenever you crack it open.