Food typically plays a prominent role in holiday celebrations with family and friends. It also can serve as a distinctive representation of a particular region. Matthew Gavin Frank, author and NMU English department faculty member, has served up a holiday gift idea for foodies and general readers alike. His latest book offers a richly illustrated culinary tour of the United States with 50 signature dishes and a “radical exploration of our gastronomic heritage.” It is titled The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food.
Frank has long been obsessed with cuisine and spent most of his occupational life as a chef in restaurant kitchens. Bored with contemporary food writing that relies on adjective-heavy descriptions or vague references to food and family or food and memory, he set out to approach the topic in a new way.
“I took seemingly mundane foodstuffs and scratched and scratched at them via research and interviews until they leaked some inner secretive holiness or horror,” Frank said. “There is a lot of atrocity and sacrifice lurking in the shadows of, say, Chicago deep-dish pizza or Boston cream pie. I wanted to dissect the unexpected origins of familiar dishes and weave them with cultural and personal associations with each region. It’s a combination of the culinary aspect and revisionist history.”
The extensive research took Frank more than three years to complete. He and former graduate student Tim Johnston developed a list of 10-12 potential dishes for each state. They narrowed them down to a few manageable options through research online.
“Then we needed to do interviews with restaurant chefs, historians and museum employees,” Frank said. “We solicited information and opinions. Sometimes there is a benign controversy over the most distinctive dish selected or conflicting narratives about its history. Rather than sweep them under the carpet, I actually highlighted and inflamed them. One reason I write is to agitate reader expectations. There is no singular narrative about anything, including the origin of hot dish in Minnesota.”
Frank also visited all 50 states in “scattered” fashion and tried all of the dishes prepared by local chefs. The book’s format features an introductory essay for each state, followed by the recipe for its quintessential dish. The text is complemented by retro-style, line-drawing illustrations to resemble a vintage cookbook. Here is a sampling of what Frank uncovered:
1. In the Upper Peninsula, lean times fueled by economic and mine collapses led people to seek cheap, high-fat, high-energy, stick-to-your-ribs foods. This contributed to the pasty’s selection as the representative food of Michigan. Some of the original pasties were two-course meals encased in a single pastry. A miner would clutch one in his hand and eat the top layer of ground beef and rutabaga stew before hitting the sweet course of apples and cinnamon. Frank said the notion of eating downward tied into the descent into a mine.
2. The coal-mining culture in West Virginia contributed to that state’s controversial choice: rat stew. The dish was birthed out of desperate times, similar to the pasty, as people would empty their rat traps into stock pots as a meat source. “Rat is pretty good; it tastes almost like citrus-marinated sour pork. Two or three rat dishes, such as ratatat teriyaki, make the cut at the annual roadkill festival in Marlinton, even though they don't qualify as roadkill. In old Bordeaux, France, rat was seen as a dish fit for aristocracy. Vintners would roast the meat over broken-down wine barrels to impart the flavors and prepare the meat with a beautiful sauce of shallots, tarragon and red wine. It’s interesting when you take a foodstuff out of one regional context and historical period and situate it within a different one.”
3. Why does New York’s signature bagel have a hole in it? Frank said, historically, Jews facing exile from a particular area wanted to take along as much food for as many people as they possibly could. They made a lot of dough for bagels and, to carry them all, needed to string them on a rope or long staff of wood. The hole allowed them to do that and the tradition lingers. He said Jews also weren’t allowed to bake, so bagels were boiled [sometimes they are steamed today]. “New Yorkers say their bagels are best because of the quality of the city’s water.”
4. If Frank had to choose a favorite among the foods featured in the book, it would be the Moravian spice cookie of North Carolina. “It is like the Listerine strip of the cookie world. It melts on your tongue, in a way, because it is incredibly thin. You can almost see through it. Taste-wise, it’s heavy handed with pumpkin pie-style spices. I loved the conflict between the delicate texture and the almost overbearing flavor. But the first disclaimer in the book reads: ‘These are very hard to make.’”
The Mad Feast has garnered positive reviews, including this one from Entertainment Weekly: “Never has a country-spanning food romp felt this subversive. Frank’s essays―which dissect signature dishes from all 50 states―are nothing short of brilliant…. [A]n exploration of humanity, life, and tastes, the book is delicious."
The book is published by W.W. Norton & Company.