Feeling a little peckish? What’s your pleasure?
If you’re craving something savory, perhaps we should zip on over to Illinois for some deep dish pizza and pierogies. Something a little more substantial? Well, we could feast on chicken fried steak in Oklahoma and bison burgers in Wyoming, before topping everything off with a platter of Norwegian meatballs in South Dakota.
What’s for dessert? May I tempt you with a slice of St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, Key Lime Pie from Florida, or some of South Carolina’s Buttermilk Pie? Oh, you want it all? Can’t say I’m surprised — I’d recognize your drool anywhere. 🙂
The good news is, we can sample all of these foods and lots more by simply digging into this new book, which takes us on a delicious culinary tour across the country — all 50 states + Washington, D.C. To sweeten the pot, we’re also invited to three U.S. territories: Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico!
United Tastes of America: An Atlas of Food Facts & Recipes from Every State! by Gabrielle Langholtz (Phaidon, 2019), is an appealing way to introduce middle grade kids to America’s delightfully diverse menu. With charming illustrations by Jenny Bowers and food photos by DL Acken, this tasty tome features food favorites of each state with an eye towards local harvests, regional history, and immigrant recipes — a mouthwatering smorgasbord that’ll engage readers and get them cooking.
Langholtz’s overviews are supplemented with delectable info-bites and easy-to-follow recipes with full page color photos. I was pleasantly surprised to learn lots of fascinating tidbits that went beyond the stereotypical.
For example, when you think of Vermont, what comes to mind? Probably maple syrup and dairy cows, right? Although both are mentioned, Langholtz also includes wild fiddlehead ferns cooked in butter as an early spring dish. When it comes to Massachusetts, yes, I knew about boston cream pie, baked beans, clams and cod, but I did not know that the city of Springfield hosts the world’s largest pancake breakfast every year (500 gallons of batter, 4,700 pounds of butter, 450 gallons of maple syrup).
Oh yes, I could chew on goodies like these all day long.
I can just picture kids’ eyes widening when reading about some of the more unusual eats:
- Moose chili, roast moose, and moose meatballs in Maine
- Rattlesnake cakes, elk chops, and bison tongue in Colorado
- Prickly pear cactus jams and jellies in New Mexico
- Pronghorn antelope stews, burgers and breaded cutlets in Idaho
Definitely a far cry from the usual hamburgers, pizza, and chicken nuggets!
Don’t worry. There are plenty of familiar favorites among the recipes to please any palate no matter what state you’re from:
- Chocolate chip cookies (Massachusetts)
- Blueberry muffins (Maine)
- Buttermilk biscuits (Arkansas)
- Guacamole (Arizona)
- Soft pretzels (Pennsylvania)
- Mac and cheese (Wisconsin)
- Strawberry shortcake (Delaware)
Guess which state produces the most honey? Where was the most famous cookbook in America written? In which state is there a law requiring that a pickle has to bounce to actually be classified as a pickle?
*bounce, bounce* — love that!
These are the kinds of things that are fun to know; it would make all of us much more interesting conversationalists. 🙂 Of course, no matter one’s age, reading this book will enhance appreciation for every state in the union, and will perhaps make a kid living in California anxious to check out a Maryland crab cake, a Nathan’s Famous hot dog in New York, or a kolache in Nebraska. Maybe it’ll prompt a summer road trip, but if not, there are lots of adventures to be had in one’s own kitchen for the sheer pleasure of expanding culinary horizons.
Of course the first thing most readers will do is to check out their home states. For Virginia, Langholtz mentions Colonial foods such as Sally Lunn Bread and Country Ham, and of course Virginia peanuts (the biggest of all varieties). You can’t talk about food history in the Old Dominion without including Thomas Jefferson, a true gourmand with his extensive gardens at Monticello. He also introduced Americans to waffles, macaroni and cheese, and ice cream.
Most important is that Langholtz credits enslaved Africans with having truly shaped Virginia’s foods, even more than the Founding Father farmers (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe), for it was they “who shouldered the work in the fields and at the stove” on the large plantations that “produced some of the finest dining in the young country.”
After Virginia, I turned to Hawai’i, my other home state. Langholtz describes what makes it unique: the only state not part of North America, an island chain that was a monarchy before it achieved statehood. Although she mentions the arrival of the Polynesians and other settlers who brought crops that “flourished in the islands’ rich volcanic soils” (coffee beans, macadamia nuts, sugarcane, pineapples), I was a little disappointed that she did not emphasize how integral plantation culture was in forging Hawai’i’s unique multicultural identity.
Beginning in the 19th century, thousands of immigrants from all over the world (China, Portugal, Japan, Philippines, Korea, Puerto Rico, Okinawa) were contracted to work on the sugar plantations. All these groups living and working together in such a small geographical area engendered a singular blending of languages, customs, and yes, foods. One of the best things about Hawai’i is its scrumptious “mixed plate” — ethnic foods cooked up “local style.”
Among the tasty Hawaiian tidbits: shave ice, kalua pig, poi, and Spam (to the tune of six million cans every year). I was puzzled, though, by the recipe Langholtz featured: Tofu Poké Bowl. I know poké bowls are very popular these days, but I thought it was an odd choice for a kids’ cookbook. A traditional poké bowl would include marinated raw fish chunks served over rice. Langholtz’s kids’ version calls for marinated tofu and avocado cubes. I don’t see this as especially kid friendly, but maybe her intention was to encourage them to try something new (and it’s a good vegetarian option).
This theory could be borne out by other recipes in the book that might appeal to more adventurous, open-minded eaters:
- Clam pizza
- Peach and vidalia onion salad
- Salt cod salad
- Coffee cabinet
- Bison burgers
- Smashed Jerusalem artichokes
- Oven-fried catfish
Some of the ingredients are not readily available (I guess that makes sense for regional dishes). Still, I do like that the recipes (just one per state) are categorized and indexed according to level of difficulty in addition to being listed alphabetically.
Overall, United Tastes of America will give readers a good sense of our nation’s rich culinary diversity. They will enjoy reading about which states lay claim to many of their favorite foods, whether sushi, dumplings, tacos, jambalaya, bagels, pecan pie, or barbecue (I was really drooling over North Carolina’s two styles). This will give them a general sense of which immigrant groups settled where, and they’ll also find it interesting to learn about variations to familiar dishes (chili, ravioli, bread, spaghetti, potatoes).
Finally, Langholtz includes Cooking Tips, Nine Terms to Know, Cooking How-Tos, a list of Kitchen Tools, and a nice big map of the U.S. for ready reference. This is a great resource for home or school libraries with its generous servings of geography and regional food history. I’m all for books that will get families talking, cooking, and eating together. I’ll have another serving of Blackberry Buckle, please (thanks, Montana!).
UNITED TASTES OF AMERICA: An Atlas of Food Facts & Recipes from Every State!
written by Gabrielle Langholtz
illustrated by Jenny Bowers
photographs by DL Acken
published by Phaidon Press, May 2019
Cookbook for ages 8-11, 240 pp.
Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.