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Regional Foods (And Books About Them)

No matter where in the United States we hail from, most of us can name a food or foods for which that area is known. For me (being from the Philly area) it is cheesesteak and soft pretzels.

Mark Twain, the writer who coined the phrase “The Gilded Age,” in his 1873 book by the same name, lived in many different areas of the U.S. during his lifetime. In my recent book, The Gilded Age Cookbook, food stylist and historian Dan Macey contributed a fabulous essay about Twain’s Homesick Foods. After returning from a trip touring Europe for a year in 1878 Twain compiled a “bill of fare” of American foods for which he was homesick. It included foods such as San Francisco mussels, Connecticut shad, Virginia bacon, Philadelphia Terapin soup, Black bass from Mississippi, Canvas-back-duck from Baltimore, Prairie hens from Illinois and Missouri partridges. It’s interesting to note that Twain yearns for very specific foods from precise locations—a likely reflection of local specialties and what was considered American regional delicacies even at that time.

And this yearning for regional foods has endured and strengthened, as Americans have spread throughout the country and globe. While living in England for two years during the 2000s, I craved Philly soft pretzels (among other American foods). I could not find a place that duplicated the soft, salty yeastiness of a fresh hot pretzel. Many other people could probably tell a similar story.

Luckily there are regional cookbooks, so even if you move away from “home,” you can replicate dishes that evoke feelings and tastes of a certain area. Philadelphia devotees like myself appreciate The Philadelphia Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes From The City of Brotherly Love by Adam Erace and April White. Already in its second edition, this book highlights the city’s robust dining scene through recipes and conversations with well-known Philly area chefs, allowing home cooks to replicate their favorite restaurant dishes. If you are from New York, you need to check out Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food. This sizable twenty-one chapter book fuses over one hundred legendary recipes from the Big Apple along with history going back to Manhattan’s indigenous people. It is comprehensive and beautifully illustrated with lots of historic photographs and ephemera.

Even though I have never lived there, I adore Southwest cooking, and The El Paso Chile Company’s Texas Border Cookbook does not disappoint, with interesting Tex-Mex combinations such as Texas three-bean salad, Pueblo Indian-style lamb and green chile stew and jalapeno jelly syrup. And for West-coast inspired ideas, I love the book California Vegan by Sharon Palmer (who contributed not only the recipes by the stunning photos as well). Chock-full of influences and recipes from people and places around the Golden State, this cookbook has lots of recipes that would please even non-vegans. I am partial to the herbed lentil patties – yum!

Want to check out foods and recipes from every part of the country? There are numerous cookbooks to choose from, but one I have enjoyed is James Beard’s All American Eats, recipes and stories from local restaurants throughout the U.S. Divided into regions, it contains the backstory and favorite recipes from past James Beard award winning restaurants (so you know they are amazing!)




For further reading try:

As well as these historic choices: