The setting, an unadorned wood table in a tent next to a parking lot. No plates, the food came in cardboard boxes. Service consisted of setting down a tray holding our order. Still, we were in heaven. I bit into a St. Louis rib at Smoque BBQ and my brain let out a squeal of joy so distinct I could almost hear it. I pulled the rib back and regarded it, agog. I almost kissed it. It was that good.
“Oh ... my ... God,” I said.
The United States has lately been marinating itself in shame and incompetence. A plague rages while our fellow citizens retreat into infantile terror and mass hallucination. Even the planet itself at times seems to be trying to shake humanity off, like an angry bull bucking a rider.
But you know what can still be depended on? Food. The cuisines we’ve loved all our life do not let us down. Like a band of superheroes, they show up to save the day. Or save many days, anyway.
Thus publication of “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes” by David Page is a welcome, well-timed field guide to the goodies that keep harsh reality at bay. With chapters devoted to the cast of our nation’s love affair with food — hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken — it takes us on a quick visit to each of our favorites, both its history and noted practitioners today. Sushi is there, as well as Mexican and Chinese food, a reminder that while millions of our fellow citizens do not know what kind of place our country is, our bellies still do.
The first sentence — ”When I was a child, my grandmother use to make me something she, for some reason, called Jewish spaghetti” — sent my mind tumbling into the past. Page’s grandma was making pasta, boiled, then fried with onions and ketchup, which sounds gross, to me. But it reminded me that my mother used to serve spaghetti with creamed cheese melted over it, which may sound disgusting to you. I remember it being delicious.
As a wordsmith, I was gratified by how many new terms I learned reading “Food Americana.” Page calls the charred spots on a properly-cooked pizza crust “leoparding,” the dough in a tortilla is “nixtamalized,” or “cooked in an alkaline solution usually containing lime.” (Lime the mineral, not lime the citrus wedge you stick on the rim of your margarita).
Barbecue is “the one true great American food.” But what about the word? No idea, right? The Taino people in the Caribbean would roast animals in a structure of green wood over hot coals, and the Spanish used their word for the lattice, “barbacoa,” to describe the food so prepared.
Foodie books sometimes skew into upbeat giddiness, and I admired how Page doesn’t shy from talking about thorny issues: race and barbecue, or sustainability and sushi. Jews embraced Chinese food, in part, because Chinese restaurants welcomed them as customers. Not every restaurant did.
Page invented “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” and loves visiting fish-out-of-water gustatory spots: the sushi bar at a gas station convenience store near Oklahoma City, a bagel bakery in Kansas City and the Pekin Noodle Parlor, founded in 1911, perhaps the oldest Chinese restaurant in America, in Butte, Montana.
Barry Sorkin gets highlighted for creating Smoque BBQ in 2006. Page says Smoque is lauded as “the best barbecue in Chicago,” though that’s a little like being the best pizza in Reykjavik.
I chatted with him about the mixed blessing of regional foods spreading across the country.
“Everything is everywhere,” he agreed. “We’ve nationalized pretty much everything at this point. ... You can get deep dish pizza all over the country. You can get a Chicago hot dog anywhere. It may not be Vienna Beef ...”
I thought of adding, archly: “If it’s not Vienna beef, it’s not a Chicago hot dog.” But we have too many purists as it is. They’re a curse.
I asked Page about Chicago dining, generally.
“A great foodie town,” he said. “Chicago doesn’t get the credit it deserves for that. What makes it so wonderful is it’s homemade by people who care.”
And also eaten, never forget, by people who also care, passionately. We can’t eat our way out of the various crises facing our nation. But we can sure try.