I’ve always said that the world’s three best cuisines are these: Chinese, French, and Indian (in no particular order). I’m told Italian cuisine belongs in this pantheon, but I’m less familiar with it since 1) I’ve been to Italy only once, and there was restricted to the grounds of the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio, and 2) I’m timid about ordering in an Italian restaurant (do you have to have every course? and in which order?).
And while American food is dissed—often by Europeans—we do have our own indigenous and glorious foods. Were I to list the high spots of American food, it wouldn’t be haute cuisine, but comestibles like those on the following list, which I just scribbled down off the top of my head (readers, please feel free to supplement this in the comments):
- Fried chicken (what a glorious dish when it’s made right!)
- Pancakes, especially with maple syrup (another wonderful American product)
- Barbecue, all styles from North Carolina pulled pork to Kentucky lamb to Memphis and Chicago ribs to Texas brisket
- Clam chowder (New England style only, please) and fried clams
- Hamburgers and cheeseburgers (I predict that the green chile cheeseburger, a transcendent sandwich, will become a classic)
- Hot dogs (yes, I know the Germans have their wursts, but they’re bunless, and only America has the chili dog and—best of all—the Chicago-style dog loaded with condiments and veggies).
- The southern breakfast: good biscuits with red-eye gravy, country ham (what a wonderful thing is a well-cured country ham!), eggs and grits
- The Creole and Cajun cooking of Louisiana, including jambalaya, gumbo, boiled crawfish, beignets, and po-boys)
- The southern meat-and-three lunch, washed down with sweet iced tea and followed by banana pudding
- American-style pizza, by which I mean Chicago’s deep-dish or stuffed pizza
- American Jewish deli food: pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, potato latkes, pickles, blintzes
Note, before someone points out that this food is unhealthy, yes, I already know that—if it’s all you eat. But the stuff above is good! Oh, and there’s one more item:
Pies of all sorts are awesome, and—save for the odious rhubarb, often found in combination with strawberry (why do they do that?)—I’ve never met one I didn’t like. Sadly, Nathan Heller, a columnist at Slate and clearly a man with too much time on his hands, has just taken it upon himself to criticize American-style pies. His “critique” is in a Slate banner article called “Pie: It’s gloppy, it’s soggy, it’s un-American.” I don’t understand why Heller wrote it, since it just seems like a curmudgeonly attempt to attack something that many people love with good reason. And despite his rant, Americans will go on scarfing down pies.
Heller’s indictment? Pies are sloppy, unpalatable, and, worst of all, not American.
The pie, because it is a pie, does not so much “slice” as volcanically erupt under the pressure of the knife, oozing its livid fluid everywhere; your own piece, when it comes, is a miniature apocalypse of broken pastry parts and heat-blitzed fruit. You demur, mumbling about having eaten too much cornbread. Someone’s aging, wild-eyed mother stares you down. “It’s pie,” she says. You are handed a fork. You start to peck at a morsel of fruit. Your plate is promptly whisked away again: Because it’s hot outside, you’re told, you’re supposed to enjoy your dessert “a la mode.” The pie is warm; the ice cream melts at once. You contemplate what now looks like a slice of jammy toast that has been soaked in milk for half a day and masticated by a dog. You work your fork into the only structure still intact, the woody, crenulated crust, beating and twisting this bumper of dough against each leverageable surface on your plate, trying to break it up. Your fork loses a prong. Abandoning all hope, you finally drive your broken-fork-with-giant-crust-piece through the mire of sloppy dough and heft the entire, dripping mass into your mouth. “Mmm,” someone says. “Isn’t it so great to have pie?”
Yes, it is great to have pie—much better than having, say, a slice of cake at a picnic. The man is a jackass. And he helpfully points out, as we already knew, that Europeans have had savory pies for centuries:
The pies of the ancients, rather than being oozing desserts, were combinations of savory foods baked in a pot made of tough dough. . . Our modern pie of piled fruit stewing in a shell of fragile dough is not an innovation but a replica of something primitive—piled meat entombed in hard crust—nudged in the vague direction of dessert.
Who cares if it’s a replica? It’s a good one! Finally, Heller sees pies as a debasement of their contents:
Today, this myth of historical continuity inspires many people to take pie as a given, though it makes little sense as a 21st-century dessert. In an era of refrigeration, produce shipping, and advanced kitchen tools, there’s little in a pie that would not be better out of a pie. Who but a sadist would take a basket of ripe seasonal fruit and bake it into mush? Who would labor over flaky pastry crust that’s destined to get soaked before it’s ever tasted?
Well, Mr. Heller, what would you have us do with tart cherries or gooseberries, which reach their full glory only in pies or jams? And yes, a ripe peach is very nice, but a warm peach pie is a luscious transformation. But Heller seems to have forgotten that some of America’s very best pies don’t include fresh fruit. I’m referring to lemon meringue pie, chess pie (a Southern delight), sour-cream raisin pie (oy vey, could I do with a piece right now!), sweet potato pie, peanut butter pie (don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it), chocolate cream pie, coconut cream pie, shoo-fly pie and, finally, the Queen of All Pies:
Is there any dessert more American—and more tasty—than pecan pie warm from the oven, made with freshly shelled pecans, and chock full of big nuts? (I scorn those versions with only a thin layer of nuts atop a wedge of molasses-flavored gelatin.)
Heller’s piece is simply bad food writing, the attempt of a journalist who wants money and column space to stir up a trivial and unsustainable controversy. He can stick his piece in his pie-hole.
nb: I did not mention pakes