The American Plate Project

Thursday, December 31, 2020
Over at the Slice of Lime, I have something called the Pop Culture Homework Project. Its purpose is to fill in cultural gaps, and to finally experience the movies, books, television, and other works of entertainment that everyone else has already embraced. That's an ongoing goal for me, but the world of entertainment is not the only sphere that benefits from a good project.

Recently, I read (and very much enjoyed) a book called The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites, by Libby H. O'Connell. It charts the foods important to American history, from the days before the New World explorers arrived to the time I'm writing this sentence. As I read the fascinating stories of how certain foods and drinks wove themselves into the American experience, it occurred to me that I had an exciting opportunity on my hands.

Why not eat my way through this remarkable book? Why not try and enjoy all of what America has to offer, not only today, but from its very beginnings? It's tough to see a downside. I can learn more about these remarkable foods, and pass along nuggets of information from the book and from my encounters. I can explore foods and techniques I've never had before. And since eating and cooking can be such a social experience, I can use this project to invite others to participate in the journey as well.

Every project needs rules and guidelines, and although some will have to be defined and refined along the way, there are a few I can set up front:

#1: No need to work from beginning to end. I can tackle these in whatever order is most convenient, and even wipe out multiple entries in a single meal.

#2: I have to do my best to eat these foods in the spirit in which they were intended. For instance, it would be beyond simple to grab a pack of Oscar Mayer lunchmeat at Shop 'n Save and be all "Done with turkey! BAM!", but that's not what turkey has come to mean to the American experience. It's cheating. Some of these foods are simple on purpose, and in those cases, it's fine. But otherwise, no cutting corners.

#3: Some of these bites are easier to eat by myself, and some are even specifically designed to be a solitary experience. That's acceptable, but for a lot of these entries, I should make an effort to share the experience with other people.

#4: I'll do my best to track down the rarer bites, but in some cases, it may be impossible to find a source. For example, I don't hold out much hope that the corner store is well-stocked with beaver tail. In those instances, I have a few options open to me. I can pull from the extra bites listed below in the "America Today" section. I can attempt to do something that mimics the original bite as closely as possible. I can substitute a bite that I personally feel is intrinsic to American eating but that isn't covered in the book. I can substitute something that is important to local eaters, but that may not apply to the country as a whole. This is one of those things that might just need to be decided along the way.

That's all I can think of for now! As each bite is eaten, I'll write a post about it, and link it back to the list below. Wish me luck! And if you live in St. Louis and would like to join me for any of these foods so essential to our national identity, leave a comment or drop me an email. I'd be happy to have you.

America Before Columbus

1) Maize
2) Beans
3) Squash
4) Venison
5) American Bison
6) Blueberries
7) Maple Syrup
8) Wild Rice
9) Red Peppers
10) Salmon

The Old World Meets the New

11) Jamaican Pepper or Allspice
12) Atlantic Cod
13) Pork
14) Beaver Tail
15) Sassafras
16) English Garden Herbs and Vegetables
17) Cow's Butter
18) Eel
19) Perry
20) Turkey

From Colonies to Independence

21) Corn (Again)
22) Doughnuts, Waffles, and Cookies
23) Wheat Flour
24) Oxtail Stew
25) Sugar
26) Syllabub
27) Pie
28) Rum and Whiskey
29) Tea and Coffee
30) Green Peas

The Rise of America

31) Oysters
32) Roast Turtles
33) Ice Cream
34) Brunswick Stew
35) Cake and the Era of Andrew Jackson
36) Spanish California Rabbit Stew
37) Hangtown Fry
38) Irish Potatoes
39) Mint Juleps
40) Chitlins

From the Civil War to the Factory Age (1860-1875)

41) Lincoln's Favorite Cake
42) Soldiers' Rations
43) Fried Catfish
44) The Rise of Thanksgiving
45) Railroad Workers and Chop Suey
46) Borden's Canned Condensed Milk
47) Beer and Pretzels
48) Pasta with Red Sauce
49) Lunch Pails
50) Rhubarb

The Gilded Age to the Turn of the Century (1870-1900)

51) Baked Alaska
52) Oysters Rockefeller
53) Beef Tenderloin
54) Cold Cereal
55) Cracker Jack
56) Chicken Paprikash
57) Scrapple
58) Bagels and Bialys
59) Celery
60) Barbecue

The Progressive Era, World War I, and Prohibition (1900-1928)

61) Hot Dogs
62) Bananas
63) Commercial Canning
64) Peanut Butter
65) Home Canning and Food Conservation
66) Doughboy Rations during World War I
67) Lace Cookies and Oreos
68) Cocktails and the Roaring Twenties
69) Canapes
70) Tostadas

The Great Depression and World War II

71) Mulatto Rice
72) WPA Soup
73) Lamb's Quarters
74) Eleanor Roosevelt's Scrambled Eggs
75) SPAM
76) Meatloaf
77) Hershey Bars
78) Peach Cobbler
79) Navajo Fry Bread
80) Frozen Food

Post-War into Cold War

81) Jell-O
82) Iceberg Lettuce
83) Coca-Cola
84) Pizza
85) TV Dinners
86) Cuban American Food
87) Jack Kennedy's Fish Chowder
88) Creme Caramel
89) McDonald's

From Childhood to a New Millenium (1969-2000)

90) Southern Fried Chicken
91) Microwave Popcorn
92) Wonder Bread
93) Granola
94) Mesclun Greens
95) Ginger Carrot Soup
96) Quiche
97) California Vintage Wine
98) American Cheese
99) Salsa
100) Sushi

America Today

101) Chili Con Carne
102) Super Foods and Diets
103) Molecularly-Modified Foods