photograph by Robert Lachman
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“Altitude affects everything” about cooking, says author Matthew Gavin Frank, though this Denver omelet was served at Johnny Reb’s Southern Roadhouse, in Orange, Calif., not high in the Rockies.

photograph by Robert Lachman

What’s Best, Worst, and Most Weird About American Food

A chef tastes dishes from every state, including all the clam chowders, beaver tail stew, and the country’s most delicious cookie.

Matthew Gavin Frank sampled everything from clam chowder in Connecticut to beaver-tail stew in Arkansas to deliver what he calls an “anti-cookbook cookbook.” The former chef, who started in the restaurant business as an 11-year-old dishwasher at a fast food chicken shack near Chicago, ate his way across the 50 states for his new book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food. American cuisine, he discovered, is as varied as its ethnic make-up.

Speaking from a parking lot in Michigan during his book tour, Frank explains why bagels have a hole in them; how Florida sponge fishermen may have created Key Lime Pie; and how rat meat, stewed in red wine, was once a delicacy in medieval France.

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Many states have official dishes they claim as unique. Give us a few examples – and explain how a dish becomes “official.”

I wouldn’t necessarily call any of these “official,” but they are certainly typical of the U.S. states to which they apply. 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 It was originally made from whatever was around during lean times, in Lutheran Church basements, in order to feed congregations with a high fat, stick-to-your-ribs dish.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. [Laughs] One kind of hot dish is made with hamburger meat, mashed potatoes, string beans, and cream of mushroom soup, with La Choy fried onion. Another version uses canned tuna, Kraft macaroni and cheese, canned peas or corn, topped with either crushed potato chips, shoestring potatoes, or even corn flakes. It’s pretty revolting. [Laughs] The cream of mushroom soup binder became known in Minnesota as “Lutheran Binder.” Today there are chefs in downtown St. Paul-Minneapolis who are attempting to rescue “hot dish” from mundanity and Lutheran Church basements and situate it within the realm of the gourmet.

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Legend has it that key lime pie was invented by sponge fishermen in Florida, who needed a high-sugar, high-protein, high-fat diet while out at sea for extended periods.

The U.S. is a huge country with great climatic, economic and geographical variety. How is this reflected in local cuisines?

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. [Laughs]  

In West Virginia, the dish I chose was rat stew. Rat stew was born out of lean times as a result of the collapse of the mining industry. Folks had to turn to emptying their rat traps into stockpots in order to eat meat. The strange thing is that rat meat, in old Bordeaux, France, was seen as a food of the aristocrats. Vintners used to catch rats and throw “rat parties,” where they cooked the rats in this beautiful sauce of red wine, tarragon, and shallots, roasted over a fire made from broken down Bordeaux barrels. This infused the rat meat with flavors of oak, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. [Laughs]

You tried, where possible, to track down the best example of a particular dish in each state, with a recipe. Tell us about how you got Texas brisket.

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Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn, conducts a “hot dish” cook off. Minnesota’s best known dish was born in lean economic times but today chefs in Minneapolis are trying to reinvent it as a gourmet dish.

It was tough to get some of the barbeque recipes in the book, Texas included, since a lot of these barbeque chefs are extremely proprietary when it comes to their spice rubs. Some of the recipes actually have blanks in them where folks are encouraged to contribute their own spice rub. But after having worked in the restaurant industry for a large portion of my life, I know a lot of chefs. One chef leads to another, who leads to another and another. Eventually I was able to find somebody in Texas who was known for this particular dish and was willing to divulge his secrets.

One of the fascinating tidbits I picked up is why the New York bagel has a hole – and how it got from medieval Europe to America. Tell us the story.  

Absolutely! [Laughs] During pogroms in medieval Europe, the Jews had to flee, so they would load bread and dough onto a staff of wood or a rope, and that is what made the hole in the center. The Jews were also prohibited from baking, which is why bagels are steamed or boiled. New Yorkers attribute the deliciousness of their bagels to New York City’s water, which not only goes into the batter but also serves as the boiling agent. But if one delves into the long and storied history of New York’s water supply, one finds that it has long been contaminated by rodents, sewage, and industrial waste, not to mention petroleum, rotting fish, and even human bodies. [Laughs]

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In medieval Europe, Jews were prohibited from baking, hence the tradition of boiling or steaming bagels, like these, at Brooklyn Bagels, in Los Angeles.

We all know New England clam chowder. But that’s just one of several varieties, isn’t it?

One of the unique varieties in the New England area is clear clam chowder, which is famous in the state of Rhode Island. It’s just the clam juice that comprises the broth. The folks in Rhode Island see themselves as purists because they don’t add tomato or chicken stock, let alone cream, as they do in the typically pasty version of New England clam chowder. I was lucky enough to eat—or drink—my weight in Rhode Island clear clam chowder when I was doing research for the book. And it is currently my favorite of the three.

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“New Yorkers attribute the deliciousness of their bagels to New York City’s water,” says author Matthew Gavin Frank. Here, huge pumps drain water from the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel.

Connecticut clam chowder uses milk instead of cream, so it has less of that pasty texture associated with what is called New England clam chowder. Many New Englanders take issue with all clam chowder being painted with the same brush. So, New England Clam Chowder actually doesn’t mean much. Folks outside of New England call any creamy clam chowder “New England Clam Chowder.” But there are nuances throughout the region.

I was intrigued to discover that altitude can affect cuisine. Tell us about the Denver omelet?

Altitude affects everything: cooking time, the textures of food, and the ways in which we eat. We oftentimes eat more slowly at higher altitudes because we’re huffing for air. When writing about the Denver omelet, I wanted to explore the idea of being so far above sea level contrasted with a desire to be closer to the lower earth. What goes into the Denver omelet is meat of the pig, milk of the cow, and eggs of the chicken, which are all by-products of beasts that commune with the lower earth. When we are up at altitude, where the air is thin, we also often hear this ringing in our ears. Hence, my imaginative leap to the bell pepper. [Laughs] The Denver omelet is basically ham, bell pepper, and onions mixed into eggs. Some folks add what’s known as “American Cheese,” which itself a meaningless phrase. There’s lots of delicious, nuanced American cheese. But they add Kraft Singles to the top of the omelette—and that’s your standard Denver omelet.

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Culinary students at a vocational high school in Fall River, Mass., deconstruct a spoonful of New England-style clam chowder. “We both love clam chowder,” says Melinda Pereira, left, “but sometimes the clams get missed.”

You travelled all over America. What was the bestand the worstfood you tasted?

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.

And the worst?

I feel terrible to pick this out but the beaver tail stew I ate in a town called Cotton, Arkansas, was incredibly fatty and cartilaginous. You don’t see beaver tail printed on menus anymore. But a lot of restaurants in small town Arkansas either do a beaver tail stew for Sunday lunch or in place of the standard Friday fish fry. There are still trappers in rural Arkansas who truck in lawn and leaf bags filled with beaver tails to these church basement kitchens, where they are prepared for the community on Friday evenings. It’s actually seen as a kind of luxury cut these days. But, while I appreciated the unique experience of eating it, it’s probably a one-and-done for me. [Laughs]

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at