Matthew Gavin Frank took up an interesting project, as he decided to taste dishes from every state and conduct extensive research on American Food. He tasted dishes including clam chowders, beaver tail stew, and the country’s most delicious cookies to prepare for writing his book, titled “The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food.”
Frank is a former chef who started in the restaurant business as an 11-year-old dishwasher at a fast food chicken shack near Chicago. He ate his way across the 50 states and discovered American cuisine and its varied ethnic make-up.
Frank explains the concept of ‘official’ food
Frank talked about his book tour and explained why bagels have a hole in them, as well as why many states have ‘official’ dishes that they claim as unique. He explained the history while talking about these dishes.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call any of these ‘official,’ but they are certainly typical of the U.S. states to which they apply,” says Frank.“For instance, for the state of Minnesota, I chose this strange concoction called ‘hot dish.’ It was originally made from whatever was around during lean times, in Lutheran Church basements, in order to feed congregations with a high fat, stick-to-your-ribs dish. It has no official recipe or rules beyond economic and gustatory desperation.”
He also shared how his journey of researching American food was interesting. After all, the U.S.is a huge country with great economic, geographical, and meteorological variety. He says the local cuisines perfectly reflect this diversity.
Frank further explained, “I covered all 50 states for my research, and the local cuisine is ridiculously varied and affected by numerous immigrant cultures. A lot of the foodstuffs come via a Diaspora and, like identity in general in the U.S., there isn’t a single narrative. For instance, some food historians believe that key lime pie was invented by Florida Keys sponge fishermen in the late 1800s because they were bound to their boats for days on end and needed a high fat, high protein, high sugar diet. They brought in canned condensed milk and eggs and pre-soured it with key limes. But when I did an interview with a radio show in Miami, they took major issue with the fact that I attributed the invention to sponge fishermen.”
Matthew describes the best and the worst of American food
In the last bit of his interview, Frank was asked to describe the best and the worst food that he had to taste. Given the lengths he has travelled, the choice was tough. He was highly excited while describing the best and said, “I’d have to say that the best was probably the Moravian spice cookies I ate in North Carolina. The Moravians originated in 15th century Bohemia, in what is today the Czech Republic, and through a series of historical hiccups their descendants found themselves in North Carolina. The cookies are incredibly difficult to make, as the margin for error is very small. They are known as the world’s thinnest cookies. The basic ingredients are flour and butter, heavily spiced with pumpkin spice, clove, allspice, and nutmeg, then rolled out so thin you can see through them. Traditionally, they had to be rolled out by hand, without rolling pins. I love the commingling of the light, ephemeral texture and the heavy-handed spice. When you place one on your tongue, it melts like a Listerine Strip.” He rates the Beaver tail stew from a cotton town in Arkansas as the worst, as it was incredibly fatty and cartilaginous.