Spend an entire year eating your way across the country, and you’re bound to come away with the best flavors of America.
In his new book, Fed, White and Blue: Finding America With My Fork, out today, Simon Majumdar documents his journey of eating across the United States. Majumdar, who is a food writer and a recurring judge on Cutthroat Kitchen, Iron Chef America, and The Next Iron Chef, fell in love with an American woman, and despite being a proud Brit, he decided to become an American citizen for his now-wife.
As he writes in the introduction to the book: “The moment you talk to people about the food they eat or, better still, ask them to eat with them, they not only open up their kitchens, but also their lives, allowing you to experience a side of them you might never normally be allowed to see.” Majumdar spent a year on the road, eating things like a Shabbat meal in Kansas City and late-night Korean in Los Angeles.
The final page of Fed, White and Blue is a list of the journey’s top 10 eats, and while Majumdar says, “There were so many terrific meals along the way that I could give you a 100 choices without touching the sides,” he also acknowledges that it’s a pretty good snapshot of America’s culinary diversity. In addition to sharing Majumdar’s list below, Yahoo Food hopped on the phone with the author to understand why these experiences made the cut for someone whose motto is “go everywhere, eat everything.”
Lobster roll at the Pearl Restaurant, Rockland, Me.: Pearl uses tail, claw, and knuckle meat, a mixture Majumdar likes for its variety in both texture and flavor. And while he likes Maine-style lobster rolls — those made with celery, mayonnaise, and a bit of dill as opposed to simply melted butter — the mayonnaise should be slight. “Many people use far too much mayonnaise,” Majumdar said. “It’s not a mayonnaise sandwich with seafood. It should be a lobster-forward event, and this was.”
Part of the reason this experience made the list was “the context in which the dishes were created,” Majumdar said. “We had been out on the boats that morning, catching those lobsters; we brought them back to restaurant and dispatched them in as quick a way as possible … It really connects you to what you’re eating. That’s something we’ve lost in the U.S.”
“Now, on the other end of the scale, it was just a bloody good lobster.”
Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese in Wisconsin: Majumdar once wrote on Chowhound that “America is where good cheese goes to die.” A decade ago, he said, the American craft cheese movement was in its infancy, and imported cheeses tended to suffer a bit on their journeys. “America is now making genuinely world-class cheese,” Majumdar told Yahoo Food, and Uplands’ Pleasant Ridge Reserve is one of the shining examples.
The flavor of owner Andy Hatch’s Reserve “goes from soft and fruity to, once it ripens, it develops a real maturity,” Majumdar said. “And it develops a length of taste like a wine — even 10 minutes later, I tasted it on my palate.” Majumdar said that famous cheese-making countries such as Britain and France are in admiration of what Hatch is doing.
Photo: Jose Wolff/Flickr
Carnitas El Momo in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, Calif.: El Momo uses Coca-Cola in its sauce because of the high sugar content. “It caramelizes the meat so it’s a little crisp on the outside and then there’s this sweetness and heat,” Majumdar said. “They’re just exquisite carnitas.”
Smoked salmon in Alaska: In Anchorage, Majumdar noticed that almost every household has a salmon smoking hut on its property. “They’re not smoking whole sides, but strips of the belly,” he said. “It becomes intense in flavor — like distilled salmon flavor — and quite chewy, but really delicious. It’s almost like smoked salmon jerky.” The salmon there is particularly oily and “beautiful,” Majumdar said, and “the belly is the best.” It’s different from any other smoked salmon he’s seen in Scotland or Eastern Europe or anywhere, really.
Kare-kare at Salo Salo, West Covina, Calif.: Kare-kare is a Filipine stew noted for its strong peanut flavor. Filipino food is, Majumdar said, “one of the greatly underrated cuisines in the world, but it’s the most food-obsessed culture.”
“My wife is Filipino-American, and inheriting this rather wonderful group of Filipino in-laws, I decided I would show them my chops.” So Majumdar went to Salo Salo Grill in West Corvina and “spent time hard core learning how to make those dishes.” On the last day, a caravan of his Filipino relatives came in to taste his kare-kare with oxtail, peanuts, and shrimp paste. “I got the thumbs up.”
Roasted green chilies in Santa Fe, N.M.: Matt Romero grows about 20 different types of chiles on his farm just outside of Santa Fe. “Every Saturday at 5 a.m., he sets up stall at the Santa Fe farmers’ market, which is a genuine, really A-class farmers’ market, and spends all day selling both raw and roasted chilies.” Majumdar said Romero roasts them over a burner with a small metal cage. “He’s just very funny and he’s a showman and people just come to watch the King of Chilies do his business,” Majumdar said. “But then, when you eat them, they have this gorgeous smokiness.”
About New Mexican cuisine overall, Majumdar said: “I’ve been to many countries, and New Mexican cuisine is fantastic and truly unique. It’s this mix of cowboy cuisine, Pueblo Indian, Native American, and Spanish-Mexican.”
Fed, White, and Brew in Edmonds, Washington: “I’m a great fan of the modern American craft brewing movement,” Majumdar said “It’s still in its youth, just like cheese — there’s more enthusiasm that expertise right now — but the quality every year is going up and up and up.” He traveled just north of Seattle to make an English-style bitter (ESB) brew with the American Brewing Company’s Skip Madsen, who Majumdar likes for his pure approach to brewing. “If Skip is going to make an IPA, for example, it’s going to be the best pure, classic IPA.” Madsen and Majumdar entered the ESB they called Fed, White, and Brew in The Great American Beer Festival and won a bronze. “It was the proudest thing!”
Photo: Love Apple Farms/Facebook
A salad made with just-picked produce by the apprentices at Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz, Calif.: Love Apple is a biodynamic farm in Santa Cruz manned by Cynthia Sandberg, who is famous in the food community for her more than full-time devotion to perfect produce. Majumdar asked her if he could spend some time watching her work, and she said, “’OK, but you’ll have to sleep in the bunkhouse with all the other guys,’” referring to her handful of interns. “I spent a week up there hanging out with young people I thought would make me batty, but these young people — around 22 years old or so — had this amazing energy. They talked with me about why they love what they do and they shared their food with me.”
Speaking of the food, “I can’t think of many better tomatoes than the ones I had at Love Apple Farms. That is as close to perfection as you’re going to get.”
Fresh clams in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.: Egg Harbor Township is about an hour from the Mason-Dixon line, and “they really live that relaxed life in a Southern style,” Majumdar said. “They call themselves the Bay Rats, and they spend life out on the water, fishing.” So Majumdar spent a day that way, digging clams with Dave Kopaz, who sells them to local restaurants.
“We kept a basket and cooked them up together. We stopped at little inlet and there was no one there, but they had this built-in grill for fisherman who go out there. We cooked up fresh clams and drank too much white rum, and I fell asleep on beach listing to Lynyrd Skynyrd pumping out of the tinny speaker on the boat. We woke up just as tide was beginning to go out and only just managed to get back.” Once they returned to Kopaz’s house, they prepared more clams and crabs for dinner. “I wasn’t expecting New Jersey to be anything like that.”
St. Louis ribs at Phat Jack’s, Lincoln, Neb.: “I think barbecue is one of America’s great cuisines,” Majumdar said. Every year, he cooks at the American Royal in Kansas City, the world’s biggest barbecue competition. “I love meeting people in barbecue community. They’re wonderful people.” Two of those people, Matthew and Jackie Burt of Phat Jack’s, invited Majumdar to visit Lincoln. Well, Kearney, Neb., really, to participate in one of the many smaller barbecue competitions that Majumdar says thousands of people engage in around the country every weekend. He and the Burt family drove to Kearney in a trailer to meet up with 40-some other teams from the surrounding region and cook in the “minus-something degrees, in the snow,” Majumdar said. “That speaks to the dedication.”
Burt cuts pork spare ribs St. Louis-style, in a rectangular shape so they cook evenly. He cooks them slow and low; “you get sweetness from the rub, a little bit of heat, and smoke from the hickory or mesquite wood he uses.” They didn’t win anything that weekend, but Burt said he would be there the next weekend. “This is just the way they choose to spend time, and it’s a great family connection.”
Just before we got off the phone, Majumdar added a final thought: “Here’s the thing: You get the opportunity with food to meet people with whom you probably have very little else in common. I’m a left coast liberal and hanging out with people from the south who are politically and religiously different from me. Plus, it’s very had to have an argument when you’ve got a mouth full of ribs.”
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