Savoring a Taste of American History

On his PBS show and in his new cookbook, chef Walter Staib offers a trenchant view of American cuisine then and now
May 29, 2019 Updated: May 30, 2019

These days, the definition of Americanism is being debated as rigorously in culinary circles as in any other realm of society. Are the origins of American cuisine pre-Columbian or, along with the word “America” itself, post-colonial?

What does it mean that our most iconic foods—think hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie—have their roots overseas, or that our richest regional traditions are all reflections of the immigrant communities who settled there? Who decides what goes in the melting pot and what doesn’t?

In the midst of this discussion comes “A Taste of History Cookbook: The Flavors, Places, and People That Shaped American Cuisine (Grand Central Publishing, $30).” A companion volume to the Emmy-winning PBS show from which it takes its name, it’s a deep dive into American culinary history circa the 18th century. It’s also a compelling testament to the passion of chef and show host Walter Staib for the subject—which is no less impressive when you consider that he himself is an immigrant.

The Accidental Scholar

The German native admitted in an interview with me that “when Europeans come over, we kind of look down at American culinary heritage,” and that, upon his arrival in the United States, he was no exception to the rule. But a chance business opportunity would change all that.

“The way it started, over 25 years ago, was that I was looking around for a restaurant site, which I needed for my consulting business, and the City Tavern came into my vision,” he said. Opened in 1773, the Philadelphia landmark served as a veritable headquarters for our Founding Fathers; a fire destroyed the original building in the 19th century, but it was rebuilt under the auspices of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1976.

As Staib looked into it, “I became very intrigued in understanding some of the data that the NPS had—there was so much opulence, sophistication, and culinary prowess in 18th-century America. Long story short, I made a proposal, got a contract, and started operating the tavern” in 1994. The more he researched, the more his dedication to period cuisine grew, and vice versa.

Waste Not, Want Not

One of the most delightful aspects of the book is its exploration of the ways in which, as Staib writes in his introduction, “our forebears were frugal and inventive cooks … The colonists used every part of the animal and every bit of the plant that they could.” In short, due to circumstance, they cooked and ate the way health-conscious and eco-minded Americans aspire to eat today: farm-to-table and nose-to-tail, with as little waste as possible.

“Food was, obviously, completely seasonal during the 18th century,” he reminded me. For instance, “at this time of year, they would have gone crazy on asparagus,” for which he includes two recipes in the book. One is a ragoût incorporating oysters, of which “Philadelphians consumed so many, the shells were used as street paving,” according to the headnote. The other is a fried preparation based on a recipe that Thomas Jefferson categorized as a dessert, though exactly why he did so is a mystery even to Staib.

In addition, recipes for salsify, cardoons, kohlrabi, and other vegetables uncommon to modern-day Americans reveal how our tastes have narrowed as we’ve moved off farms and distanced ourselves from our own agricultural systems.

The same goes for proteins. Staib offers instructions for cooking everything from eels, pheasant, and rabbit to sweetbreads, kidneys, and tripe—although he acknowledged that certain ingredients he has featured on his show proved a bridge too far the book: “I kept it consumer-friendly. I didn’t include brains or coxcombs or anything too difficult for people to procure.”

Inspiration Meets Instruction

Speaking of diverse ingredients, another fascinating discovery is the extent to which 18th-century Americans incorporated global influences at the table—if, that is, they could afford to. Be it saffron or truffles or mangoes, the ability to procure expensive imports “always perplexes my viewers,” Staib told me. “But if you had the means, you could do it.”

That eternal truism extends to the cooking process itself, he added: “Thomas Jefferson actually took his staff over to France to learn to make floating islands [a type of dessert].”

Of course, Staib doesn’t expect readers to go to half so much trouble. Far more humbly, he explained to me, “My hope is that people who buy the book will have a chance to look at the pictures, understand the stories of how people ate at the time, and get some inspiration.”

That inspiration could come as much from the presentation of any given dish as the techniques involved in making it. As he pointed out, cooks of the time “were careful to paint an actual picture” on the table through the use of, say, colorful vegetables as well as of elaborate china and other dinnerware.

“Right now, we eat out of a plastic container in front of the TV,” he said. “But if you look at Martha Washington’s tabletop settings? Spectacular.”

Ruth Tobias is a longtime food and beverage writer based in Denver. To learn more about her and her work, visit RuthTobias.com or follow her @denveater on Twitter and Instagram.

Cornmeal-Fried Catfish

Cornmeal Fried Catfish
Cornmeal-fried catfish. (Todd Trice)

Chef’s Notes: In the 18th century, ponds or small lakes stocked with fish were very common features for grand estates, and James Madison’s Montpelier was no exception; whenever he had the craving for catfish, he could have his chef get one right out of the pond. At the time, cornmeal was less expensive and more readily available than flour, which required more processing from the mill, and it was frequently used for battering fish.

Serves 4

  • 4 catfish fillets, about 6 to 8 ounces each
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Place the catfish fillets in a 9 by 13-inch pan.

Pour the lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce over the catfish and season with salt and pepper.

Place the flour, eggs, and cornmeal into separate dishes for dredging. Dip each catfish fillet first into the flour, then the egg, and then the cornmeal to evenly coat.

Place the coated catfish on a baking sheet and refrigerate until ready to fry.

Pour oil into a deep-fat fryer or 4-quart heavy saucepan to a depth of about 2 inches. Heat the oil over high heat to 350 degrees F. (Check with a thermometer, or if you drop a small amount of cornmeal into the oil and it sizzles, it’s hot enough.)

Fry the catfish (in batches, if necessary) for 5 minutes, until golden on both sides. Using a slotted spoon, remove the fish from the oil and place on a baking sheet lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Serve immediately.

Excerpted from the book “A Taste of History Cookbook: The Flavors, Places, and People That Shaped American Cuisine” by Chef Walter Staib with Martha W. Murphy. Copyright 2019 by Walter Staib and Martha W. Murphy. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.   

a taste of history cookbook cover
“A Taste of History Cookbook: The Flavors, Places, and People That Shaped American Cuisine” by Walter Staib with Martha W. Murphy, ($30).
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