Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new book samples eight flavors that unite people across decades and demographics.
As a teenager, Sarah Lohman worked at a historical museum in Ohio, where she donned a stiff crinoline and baked cakes dashed with rose water. In college, she ran a pop-up restaurant serving Revolutionary-era root vegetable soups and maple-glazed squab. She was hungry, she writes, for “a dinner eaten with ghosts of the past.”
Now, as a historical gastronomist recreating arcane recipes, Lohman looks to the table for clues about national identity. In her first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (Simon & Schuster, $27), Lohman examines how some historic ingredients have maintained a hold on the present, and what flavors reveal about the country’s eaters.
For this project, Lohman excavated cookbooks spanning two centuries of cooking in America. She mapped the frequency with which particular words appeared, and eight flavors emerged as ones that had enjoyed a surge of popularity and maintained their grip.
Lohman tracks those ingredients from fields to factories to plates. And while hers is indeed a story about eight flavors—among them, vanilla, curry powder, garlic, and MSG—it’s also a profile of the citizens who, often unknowingly, plotted the course of the American palate. These people, Lohman notes, “don’t usually get a place in the history books.”
But they’re at the center of this one. In its pages, readers meet enterprising New England merchants who launched the black pepper boom after the Revolutionary War, and Edmond Albius, an enslaved man who hatched a mechanism for hand-pollinating vanilla vines. Readers tag along on Lohman’s tour of the sprawling, garlic-infused Huy Fong Sriracha factory near Los Angeles, which churns out 7,500 bottles per hour in varying hues of red and orange. “Here, sewn around Southern California, a refugee from Vietnam made a Thai-style chili sauce, that’s produced by Mexican labor, and has seduced a nation,” Lohman writes. “It’s a story more American than apple pie.”
As she wove across the country, Lohman grafted the flavors she encountered onto a quilted map: one patch for the traders who manned ships stocked with black pepper; another for San Antonio’s German immigrants, who transformed chili. Predicting future stalwarts, she writes, is “a little bit like soothsaying,” because the country’s identities are in constant flux. Lohman conjures a cloud of possible answers, including matcha, smoke, and rose water. Whatever’s on the plate will reflect tastes and histories. “The flavors that Americans choose to add to their pantries will say something about who we are as a country,” Lohman writes.
CityLab chatted with Lohman about the book, and how demographic shifts have affected what’s on American plates.
Why focus on flavors, rather than dishes?
I think that a dish looks at a microcosm, while a flavor looks at the macro. I was searching for a way to define American cuisine. We live in a very big country where there’s a lot of regionality, and a lot of different ethnicities. Different generations come into play, too. Those things really affect what you’re cooking and how you’re flavoring it.
But then I also realized that there were certain ingredients that, no matter where you lived or where your family was from, you tended to have in your kitchen pantry. Like vanilla: Such an American flavor, and such a big part of how we’re cooking and baking. That made me curious. I wanted to find out why these flavors united us as Americans. I wanted to use these uniting factors as a way to define American cuisine. Not only do people find that it defies definition, but people insist that it doesn’t exist—that our food is somehow terrible or ‘inauthentic.’ Even Americans say this about our food. This frustrates me, to be so self-deprecating and then to encourage other countries to feel that way about us.
Food is seasoned differently over time, and I got genuinely curious about those shifts, and how some flavors become cumulative and some fade out over time, too.
The go-to touchstone of “American” food is often something associated with a mid-century franchise: burgers, fries, hotdogs. How does your story complicate that idea of what’s on the quintessential “American” plate, and the timeline of when it emerged?
The irony is that hot dogs and hamburgers came from Germany. We are fusing two German things to define what American food is. When I break it down that way, it’s fascinating. We had enormous German immigration in the middle of the 19th century in America. There were German societies in New York, Cincinnati, Texas, and they brought their food with them. There are even newspaper articles in the middle of the 19th century, including one in The New York Times, that’s like: “Lager beer—how it’s made, what’s it cost, and where to get it,” from like 1863. It’s essentially a food blog. It’s emboldening Americans to travel into an ethnic German neighborhood, go into the bars, try this new drink—we weren’t drinking a lot of beer, and when we were, it was ale, not lager.
That’s when frankfurters and hamburgers as ground beef patties were introduced. In this country, those foods evolved. We put the toppings on them—the celery salt if you live in Chicago—we changed it. And now, 150 years later, these two foods that in 1860 would have been considered an ethnic German dish, are now what we use to define American food. Even this idea of fast-food culture offers a glimpse of what is lying deeper to what makes American food. It still represents the mash-up and evolution of immigrant cuisine once it comes here and becomes American.
Once, I was leading a walking tour for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where I work. We were eating our way through 150 years of immigration history. I told people, “When we eat every food today, I want us to ask ourselves, ‘Is this American, or not?’ What rules are we going to use?” This one woman said to me, “Do they serve it at McDonald’s?” At first, everyone kind of laughed, but at the same time, when we’re talking about a chain food restaurant that is trying to appeal to all regions and all cultures, I think it’s interesting to look at what dishes are for sale. That is kind of a good rule of thumb of what we accept as American. We’ve got this German hamburger, and it’s got pickles on top. A hundred years ago, Jewish immigrants were eating pickles in the Lower East Side, and that smell and flavor was associated with their resistance to assimilation.
It’s really fun to take that into the future, and think, ok what will [fast food restaurants] add next? Are they going to add fried plantains? What about Beijing-style dumplings? It gives you this glimpse into what foods Americans like, how those tastes change, and how immigration also reflects that change.
Flavors are often appropriated from one group to another. Do you see a tension there? Can the relationship between culture and cuisine be a symbiotic one?
I do think that’s something to be aware of, certainly, especially when you’re not nodding to a dish’s roots. I think it’s unavoidable in this country. One of the things that makes American food so incredible is that we’re untethered by tradition. In other people’s homelands, dishes have been made a certain way, and that’s the way they’re going to be made—they’re traditional. In Hong Kong—a place that had been under British rule for so long and touched by Western food—there are bakeries. Baking is not a cooking method traditional to China. In the places where baking has appeared, it is crazy flavors, forms, textures—unlike anything that is being made in England or America. The food itself isn’t traditional. It doesn’t have to be made in a certain way. That is America, with every food.
When we talk about cultural appropriation, we’re really talking about white people. What are white people doing with this food, what are they taking away? The reality is, white people don’t actually own American culture. They never have. The idea of white has changed over time: 100 years ago, Italians weren’t “white”; 150 years ago, Irish people weren’t “white.”
But it also ignores the lateral appropriation that happens among immigrant groups. I live in Chinatown. Outsiders see this neighborhood as Chinatown, and the people who live here as Chinese. But in this neighborhood, there are nine mutually unintelligible languages spoken. I live in a Fujanese neighborhood; there are also neighborhoods that are set around people from Beijing or Hong Kong; the old Cantonese neighborhood is south of Canal Street. There are really different groups of people living here, living all in the same neighborhood. They’re living alongside other people that they would not have back home, and they’re seeing their food, their ingredients, and they’re experiencing food and flavors from different places from their own country in this one. They’re cooking and changing their food based on their neighbors.
Two of the chefs that I interviewed in the book, Jonathan Wu and Mario Carbone, both talked about how their versions of Chinese food or Italian-American food also pull from the neighborhood of the Lower East Side. At Fung Tu, Jonathan Wu has an egg roll that has pork belly and olives in it. It’s this combo of Little Italy and Chinatown. He does not call this “fusion food”—he hates that word. He says that this is simply food that has come out of growing up in New York City—the fact that you are living around people who have come from all over the world and are serving food from all over the world, and this is the result.
In my mind, it’s inevitable, and it’s happening in a lot of different ways, and it’s happening too because we removed this food from the homeland. You can see the opposite with Jewish cuisine. There is no homeland anymore. So this food is frozen in time. There’s a genuine fear of losing Eastern European Jewish dishes because that home culture has been lost. Places like Mile End have been trying to innovate it, to keep it alive, and been receiving a lot of criticism, because that food is locked in nostalgia. Their comeback is, if this food doesn’t evolve, or doesn’t change, it’s gonna die out, we’re gonna lose it. Evolution is a natural part of this process of a food surviving, of it being alive, of a type of cuisine continuing to be a part of American culture. It has to evolve.
You talk about immigration and demographic shifts propelling some of the changes in flavors and foods. Did these patterns mostly play out in dense urban areas?
You see it everywhere. I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, and there were a lot of foods I ate in Cleveland that, when I arrived in New York City, I was told were Jewish foods. I was like, “wait a minute, we have the same damn thing back in Cleveland.” Cleveland is very Eastern European, but it’s Catholic; New York is very Eastern European, but it’s Jewish. We both had babka, strudels, and all these other things that are a big part of both cultures.
The upper Midwest Norwegian and Swedish cultures are immigrant groups that often get ignored. Even three, four, generations along, the ethnicity is strong in the upper Midwest. Each Christmas, people whose great-grandparents came here are still making lefse and lutefisk, and all of these really regional dishes that the whole rest of the country seems totally unaware of. You see immigrant foods being served and evolving all over the country. Sometimes we overlook them a little bit.
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, $27 from Simon & Schuster.