David Page (author of Food Americana) dives into the historical time of America’s beloved cuisine with The Free Lance-Star.
For really authentic American food, you may want to try your nearest pizzeria, Chinese restaurant or Mexican eatery. So says author David Page in his new book, “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories Behind America’s Favorite Dishes,” released in April from Mango Publishing.
Within its 214 pages, tastefully organized in 11 chapters, is a smorgasbord of stories of the familiar and the exotic, from hamburgers and ice cream to caviar and lox. It is neither a cookbook nor a tour guide, but rather details the journey of how Americans adapted many styles of cooking into distinctive dining traditions.
One example is fried chicken, that quintessential American dish served at church potlucks, picnics and funeral receptions. According to Page, scholars disagree over the beloved dish’s origins. Some say it came from Africa, while others insist it began in Scotland, he said. Regardless of fried chicken’s beginnings, how southern American cooks enhanced its flavor with a blend of seasoning and spices is not in dispute. Now, the dish is ubiquitous around the world. Just one fried chicken restaurant chain—Kentucky Fried Chicken—has 23,000 outlets in 140 countries.
“Everything we have came from someplace else,” Page said, “And we tweaked it our way.”
The book starts with pizza, or American pie as Page calls it, and ends, appropriately, with America’s favorite treat, ice cream. A recipe appears at the close of each chapter, no gourmet skills required. The one for pizza, for instance, is for sausage and pepperoni.
Page’s motivation for writing a book—his first—came after spending more than 15 years working as a producer for ABC and NBC News on shows like “20/20,” “Good Morning America” and “Weekend Today.”
“TV constrains how much material you can use,” Page said. “I chose not one subject [for the book], but a dozen. Each chapter could have been a book.”
Page spent two years doing the research and writing. With 1 million restaurants in the U.S., you might think that choosing which ones to write about would have been his biggest challenge, but he said it was actually verifying certain facts, such as the birthplace of the hamburger, that was the most difficult.
Page chose restaurants that were representative for each particular type of food he wrote about. Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, N.C. is one example; Bordenaro’s Pizza & Pasta, a mom-and-pop pizzeria in Des Moines, Iowa, another. Both are family-run businesses where customers know the cooks and owners know their customers. It hints at one of the secret ingredients of good food that you can’t find on any menu or in a grocery store aisle, a place where memories are made.
What characterizes all great food, Page says, is the care that those preparing it put into it. “It’s a place where people making food are really, really concerned with feeding you well. Whether it’s a diner or a $1,000-a-plate banquet, it’s the love put into it. The dining experience should be an opportunity to be cocooned inside a pleasant sensation,” he said.
Despite the challenges of trying to write a book about food during a pandemic that devastated the restaurant industry (two of the restaurants he originally profiled closed before the book went to print), Page still visited places as near as his Jersey shore home and as far away as California.
Although Virginia was not among the states Page traveled to for research, the book does recognize Gordonsville’s famous waiter carriers—Black women who sold the first fried chicken commercially in the U.S. Unable to board segregated trains in the 1800s, the women carried platters of chicken on their heads and sold it to passengers through open train windows. This practice earned the town of Gordonsville the nickname Fried Chicken Capital of the World.
Although Page tells this and other stories, he doesn’t think of “Food Americana” as a history book. “Instead of history, it’s a timeline continuum of how we created a unique American cuisine and continue to create a unique American cuisine,” Page said.
When it comes to his favorite food, Page is noncommittal in conversation, describing it as “whatever I am hungry for at the moment.” Still, he admits that he “would go to my death with a bagel lox and cream cheese from Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”
In many ways, the journey Page takes readers on is a personal one that we all take, whether we know it or not, any time we dine out. His style is at once as comfortable and familiar as an old friend sitting down in our living room to tell us a story and as broad as a continent and diverse as the people who settled it.
In the final analysis, Page’s advice to anyone seeking authentic dining is as timeless as the food he writes about: Ask locals where they eat.
The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes
Food Americana is a riveting ride into every aspect of what we eat and why. From a lobster boat off the coast of Maine to the Memphis in May barbecue competition. From the century-old Russ & Daughters lox and bagels shop in lower Manhattan to the Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival. From a thousand-dollar Chinese meal in San Francisco to birria tacos from a food truck in South Philly. Readers will learn the inside story of how Americans came to form national cuisines from a world of diverse flavors. This insightful book is, overall, engaging and oftentimes extremely humorous.