From sea to shining sea, no two diners will agree if asked to name a food that is most typically American. Roast turkey or apple pie, maybe. Corn fritters or even crab cakes might qualify. No matter what's named the "in" or "out" foods for 1991, most cooks will choose the handed-down-by-relatives recipes of family and regional tradition.
American cuisine challenges those who would define it. When Phillip Stephen Schulz set out to capture it for his latest cookbook, "America the Beautiful: Authentic Recipes From Across America" (Collins Publishers, $50), he tried to leave out macaroni and cheese -- and tuna noodle casserole. His editors told him, "No way."
"The publisher said this is so American, you have to put them in,he says. "I said the only way I'll do it is no canned soup! And I must say, I probably haven't eaten tuna noodle casserole in a long time, but this one's pretty good."
What makes the recipes in the book uniquely American is as much their diversity as their ingredients, he says. Mr. Schulz, who is known for his longtime business association and friendship with the late food personality and author Bert Greene, thinks of American food first as "anything influenced by the Indians, anything with corn meal, and most baked bean recipes." Then he tries to summarize the influences of immigration, economics, climates and farming on traditional cookery. What Hangtown fry, fish muddle, Shaker chicken, smothered crawfish and eggs Benedict have in common, he says, is a key ingredient: ingenuity.
He researched a bit of food history, he says, and then called multitudes of colleagues around the country to find recipes representing each state. "I felt patriotic when I was doing it," he says.
His efforts were constricted in part, he says, by the format of the book. It is a travelogue as much as it is a cookbook, and more than that, it is a photo book (Collins Publishers also produces the much-heralded "Day in the Life" photographic volumes and calendars). The chapters are twice divided: once for geographical regions with stunning scenes of soaring snow-capped mountain ranges, burnished canyonlands, cloud-washed oceans. And once for the cooking categories such as desserts, meat and game, etc.
Finding recipes to go with regions that aren't thought of as culinarily distinct -- the mountain states, for example -- wasn't easy. Mr. Schulz did find a smothered venison dish attributed to Wyoming and a barbecued pot roast dish for Colorado. On the other hand, when the editors divided the states into regions, "Far West" included Hawaii and Alaska, which are about as different as two states can get in terms of indigenous foodstuffs.
For a more representative sample of Chesapeake cuisine, Maryland readers should turn to a Junior League cookbook. "America the Beautiful" includes only four classic Maryland recipes. Grandma's fried chicken, the neighbor's sauteed soft-shell crabs, your Uncle Harry's crab cakes and just about any Marylander's oysters on the half shell are most likely as good as these recipes. On the other hand, until this book came along, a cook might not have owned the simplest of recipes for many faraway regional specialties, among them Tennessee redeye gravy and Massachusetts Parker House rolls. For variety, "America the Beautiful" is tops.
Despite the small quibbles readers may have with the way the chapters are divided, there's no arguing that it's one of the prettiest cookbooks to come along. The food photography, by Allan Rosenberg, Susan White, Allen V. Lott and Amy Glenn, prompted one reviewer to suggest she could lick the pages. In many homes, this gorgeous volume will stay on the coffee table. It's too slick for the companionship of butter-smudged and flour-gritty workaday cookbooks. (The author says he props up his copy away from his work space and covers the pages with a sheet of plastic.) Here are some recipes to whet the appetite for "America the Beautiful."
Mississippi mud cake
1 1/4 cups strong brewed coffee
1/4 cup bourbon
5 ounces unsweetened (bitter cooking) chocolate
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
sweetened whipped cream (optional)
Heat the oven to 275 degrees. Butter a 9-inch tube pan and dust the bottom and sides with cocoa.
Heat the coffee and bourbon in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the chocolate and butter. Cook, stirring constantly until smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar. Let stand for 5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer.
Sift the flour with baking soda and salt. Beat into the chocolate mixture in four parts on low speed. Add the eggs and vanilla. Beat until smooth. Pour into the tube pan.