Photo via Flickr user jpellgen

America's Most Beloved Regional Dishes Have Dark and Fascinating Histories

A new book teaches us why every state has its own weird version of pie, what it’s like to have Chicago-style deep-dish pizza remind you of your first kiss in a slaughterhouse, and why rat stew is probably a lot tastier than you’d think.

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Jan 2 2016, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user jpellgen

When you think of "American food," what do you envision? A long line at the drive-thru for cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes? Or perhaps heaping plates of barbecue or cornbread, or baskets of Buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks?

It seems like a simple enough thing to put your finger on, in terms of how we colloquially use the phrase; basically, we think of diner fare. But it would be a shame, if not a lie to ourselves, to forget that America is far more than just a sea of red booths and deep-fryers. It's massive, absurdly diverse in culture and geography and speed of life, and historically, often twisted. For every dish that conspicuously originated from one particular city or county or region, there is a backstory—often an odd, humanistic one, pertaining to things our uncles and great-grandmothers and former mayors did that make us squirm to think about.

Matthew Gavin Frank wrote his recently released book The Mad Feast with this in mind. It as, all at once, a celebration of the experience of being American; a query into what defines our edible traditions; and a peek into the darkness that can rumble under something as innocuous as, say, Mississippi mud pie. It takes your mind on an exhilarating and often humbling road trip to every state in our nation, stopping to taste its most potent artifacts at every turn, and never being shy at exposing how the food in America is an incredible reflection of its complicated roots.

We caught up with Matthew and learned why every state has its own weird version of pie, what it's like to have Chicago-style deep-dish pizza remind you of your first kiss in a slaughterhouse, and why rat stew is probably a lot tastier than you'd think.

Photo via Flickr user wwny

Philly cheesesteak. Photo via Flickr user wwny

MUNCHIES: Hi, Matthew. How did you conceptualize this book, and what was your process like while writing it? Matthew Gavin Frank: The intentional research for the book took place over the course of about three and a half years, but there was a lot of unintentional research that went down. I spent most of my occupational life in restaurant kitchens. I started at age 11, washing dishes in this fast-food chicken shack in the outskirts of Chicago, and then just kind of stayed in it on and off for the next 20 years. I left home when I was 17 and just kind of bummed around working in different restaurant kitchens in many different states. Eventually I got into the fine dining world, and in the kitchen, we would give each other two seemingly dissimilar ingredients, and then the challenge would be to find that perfect third ingredient that would seamlessly marry the other two into a composed dish. Maybe the perfect bridge ingredient between, say, burnt orange peel and brined lamb loin was, of course, black olive sorbet. I started conceiving of the writing of this book in the same way, pulling from a similar imaginative alchemy, where I was trying to take two or more seemingly dissimilar things, like a very mundane state dish and then perhaps a very strange and kind of often unsung, weird regional narrative, and I would try to find a perfect way to bridge them.

For the intentional research, I conducted a seemingly endless series of interviews with restaurant chefs and folks working at local historical societies and museums, and then just sort of immersed myself in what the filmmaker Werner Herzog sometimes controversially calls "The Voodoo of Location," kind of letting the place work on me a little bit, too.

Was it difficult to pick just one dish for each state? It was very difficult for me to narrow it down to a singular choice. I began with a long list of about ten dishes per state, and then just did some cursory research that allowed me the excuse to examine some of these shadowy back-alleys of weird regional history. Then I interviewed a bunch of folks from various backgrounds in each state, solicited their opinion, their stories, and their memories of particular dishes. Finally, I actually went to the states at hand and gorged myself on various versions of dishes that made the short list, and ended up picking the ones that seemed most interesting to me in a couple of different ways. The loose meat sandwich in Iowa, for instance, is not something you find outside of Iowa much. Even though there were many people in Iowa who were campaigning for the pork tenderloin sandwich, you could find that elsewhere. But the loose meat sandwich was so Iowa, so I chose it for that reason. Other dishes I chose specifically because they were so incredibly mundane and common in that state, and I really wanted to scratch at them until their inner holiness or horror began to leak out.

My mom's from Iowa, so I'll have to ask her about loose meat sandwiches. It's crazy. It's like a Sloppy Joe without a sauce. Abe and Bertha Kaled, the folks who are credited with inventing it in the 1930s in Sioux City, actually said that they invented the loose meat sandwich as a tribute to the Iowa landscape after it had been ripped apart by a tornado. They were just visually inspired by all of this all of these destroyed cornfields, and all of the trash and detritus that was deposited by the winds throughout Sioux City. They were like, Well, we're going to make a sandwich as a visual testament to this, to remind us that things can go to pieces at any time.

Photo via Flickr user Cindy Funk

Iowa's loose meat sandwich. Photo via Flickr user Cindy Funk

So much of the writing in the book is pulled from personal experiences. What are your strongest and most potent food memories from growing up in Illinois? In the chapter about deep-dish pizza, for instance, you describe your first kiss, which was at a slaughterhouse. Yeah, that trip to the slaughterhouse was kind of amazing, and completely true. I actually have these amazing memories of eating horrible food with my family—really, really bad food. I did not grow up in a family that prized good food at all; everything came out of the microwave. When we would celebrate my dad's birthday, my mom would buy these frozen lamb shanks and just defrost them in the microwave and then cook them. My dad used to make my sister and me microwaved omelets, where he would just scramble the eggs with a fork and a little bit of milk and then just microwave them on high until they turned into these bloated, rubbery wheels of egg. I guess we thought this meant a lot to my dad, even as kids, that he was taking the time to feed us and cook for us, so we choked them down.

Our concept of home cooking in America is pretty different than in other countries. How would you characterize the essence of American food? I found that if you look closely at a lot of these regional dishes you will eventually peer into an American history that is alternately beautiful and atrocious, the ways in which they've evolved into their present states. You uncover the stories of, say, a Jewish-American diaspora, a Japanese-American diaspora, a bohemian-American diaspora, and so on and so forth. A lot of these dishes of course are rooted in immigrant cultures originally, and then, as what tends to happen, one immigrant culture couples with another immigrant culture and then their offspring perpetuates a hybrid form of a particular dish.

Racism and colonialism are discussed frequently in the book. Which dish in the book had the darkest history? They're all steeped in blood. Perloo, which is kind of a South Carolina low country version of paella or jambalaya or Indian biryani, is a rice dish that most often is stewed with vegetables and seafood, occasionally a salted meat. The way in which it survives today is due to the fact that in various points in our country's history, we solicited—in South Carolina, specifically—slaves from rice-growing regions in Africa to come harvest rice here in the US, and along with the atrocities known and unknown that go along with that, we now have perloo, which is this celebrated dish. But it was a dish obviously birthed in an atrocious cultural construct.

READ: You Never Forget the First Time You Have Booya or Brunswick Stew
Photo via Flickr user chazrock</a.

Perloo. Photo via Flickr user chazrock

There are many pies covered in the book—key lime pie, Boston cream pie, Georgia's peach pie, Indiana's hoosier pie, Oregon's marionberry pie. What makes it such a good conduit for exposing America's differences and cultures by region? Issues of sweetness, and issues of viscosity, which you can really exploit in various pies—the ways in which, you know, we are compelled to make things gel. I really loved interrogating sweetness too, and how the things we consider now, the dishes we consider so sweet and so comforting, are oftentimes leashed to these strange, sad stories that we have to manipulate and girdle and thicken in order to make palatable.

For your own home state of Illinois, you chose deep-dish pizza. Why does pizza hold such a unique place in American culture and nostalgia? It's a fixture of childhood. If you asked what most folks' favorite food was, especially folks of a younger age, I think a lot of people would tip towards pizza. Which, of course, is the product of immigrant cultures. But it seems so wonderfully or strangely American, or certainly Americanized now. That's assuming it's a singular thing in our country, but of course it's not. You have your deep dish pizza in Chicago, and then you have your thin crust in New York, and folks like to manufacture these really acerbic pizza wars between the thick crust and the thin. Growing up in Chicago, I have wonderful memories of going to Gino's East pizzeria with my family. If I had to pick one pizza to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Gino's East. Just the rich buttery crust—I mean, it's so buttery it's almost orange. Upon request they will actually char this thick-cut pepperoni on the griddle on both sides before putting it on top of the pizza. That's my favorite, and when I was a kid, whenever either my sister of I got a good report card or something, we would go out and celebrate at Gino's East.

Photo via Flickr user Greg Williams

Key lime pie. Photo via Flickr user Greg Williams

Was there any dish you really wanted to include in the book, but opted not to? Instead, can I tell you one that I included, but that I was very reluctant to include?

Sure. For the West Virginia essay, I picked rat stew. And there were a lot of folks to whom I spoke in West Virginia who kind of took issue with that choice, and were kind of disheartened by the fact that that's the one I was choosing to investigate. A lot of folks did not want to be painted with that stereotypical brush of "here we are, economically depressed and desperate, and so we empty our rodent traps directly into a stock pot in order to eat." But even though these issues of economic depression might be glimpsed as a stereotype, these issues were and still are in certain portions of West Virginia very real and very present. The fact that these folks were so conflicted about this particular dish made for a really exciting engagement, because there were other [people] who actually celebrated the eating of rat as a culinary cultural inheritance, to the point where in Marlinton, West Virginia, for instance, they hold this annual roadkill cookoff in order to celebrate the eating of roadkill in West Virginia. When I visited the annual roadkill cookoff in Marlington, there were two folks preparing rat dishes.

In investigating the eating of rat in West Virginia, I found this old story that these folks who colonized that area, who were originally from France, had a long history of eating rat. In old Bordeaux, rat was actually seen as a meat fit for the aristocracy, and these vintners in old Bordeaux would trap rats and prepare them with this beautiful sauce of shallots, tarragon, and red wine. I became interested and that allowed me to commit in actually engaging rat stew even though it was a controversial choice.

Thanks for talking with us.