David Page (author of Food Americana) tells the origin stories of many popular American dishes like sweet & sour pork and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Bet you didn’t know oysters on the East Coast used to grow a foot long. Or that fried chicken was one of our original fast foods, sold to passengers through train windows in the post-Civil War era.
Flip through “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes” by David Page, and you’ll learn fascinating facts you never knew about enchiladas, pizza, Peking duck, bagels, barbecue and other dishes you crave each week.
It’s filled with anecdotes, cultural history, recipes and a trove of trivia. Page, a former journalist and the creator of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” knows how to research and he spent two years stockpiling a mother lode of knowledge and has presented it, gimlet-eyed, with a Calvin Trillin-like clarity.
A two-time Emmy winning producer, he was a network news honcho based in London, Frankfurt and Budapest. He traveled throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East “covering some of the biggest stories in the world and developing a passion for some of the world’s most incredible food.”
Page covered the revolution in Romania, interviewed Yasser Arafat and Moammar Gadhafi, and was there to tell Americans what it was like to walk through the Berlin Wall the night it opened. He also relished dining experiences during his travels, recounting the night in Vienna when he asked the local crew to take him to a favorite restaurant and instead of eating schnitzel he wound up in a Texas barbecue joint.
Packed with facts and figures, “Food Americana” is still a breeze to read, so we had to find out how Page researched like a mad professor and still managed to pop out this fun, freewheeling, cross-country feast.
Q: How did this book come about?
A: I kind of stumbled into the role of food journalist because I needed work. … I’d opened my own production company … and I wasn’t getting any. So rather than starve, I called a friend, Al Roker.
Q: THE Al Roker
A: Yeah. Al had worked for me when I ran the (Weekend) “Today” show. Al had set up his own production company and I called up and said, “Hey, I’m starving. You got anything?” He said “I’m doing a lot of things for the Food Network. You want to do some of that?” I said sure and all of a sudden I was a food journalist. I started pitching the Food Network on some projects of my own which eventually resulted in “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” from that I then created a syndicated series called “Beer Geeks.” And then I looked around one day and said, you know what? I better write that damn book.
Q: This book contains an astounding amount of reporting. How did you get it done?
A: I approached the book as a journalist and I applied the same standards to it that I would have applied to any of the producers who worked for me when I was in charge of the investigative unit at “20/20.” One of the things I’m proudest of is that I do some debunkery of stories. I referred to the hamburger at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven as something that they claim to have been the first burger in America. I think it’s really important to try to separate myth from reality when you’re reporting — frankly, how do I say this politely? — there is a lot of legend and misreporting when you dig into the food area.
Q: Oh yeah. That story about the janitor inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos went down in flames recently.
A: So much of it is who got the attention of the time. Everyone accepts that the Anchor Bar invented Buffalo wings. But as I discussed in the book, there was a restaurant making Buffalo wings before the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, a place known as Wings and Things (no relation to the chain) run by a guy named John Young who, according to his daughter, ate plenty of wings and other parts of the chicken growing up poor and African American in the South. Now Young’s wings were different than the variation the Anchor Bar eventually produced, which is wings broken into two pieces, served with blue cheese. Young served his wings as one piece with something he called Mambo sauce. But the fact of the matter is, arguably speaking, the first wings in Buffalo were not made at the Anchor Bar, unless you define Buffalo wings as that particular style of wing.
Q: How long did it take you to write the book?
A: Because it was my first book I was deciding to basically do somewhere between 10 and a dozen different foods without thinking of how much work would go into each one. Finding the time to research for a chapter — it’s almost enough for a book of its own. So the work took two years almost to the day.
Q: In the ice cream chapter alone, you talked to Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Jerry Greenfield, you interviewed Tyler Malek, who’s on the leading edge of alterna flavors, and Amy Ettinger. I interviewed her when her book came out; she has done a ton of reporting on ice cream. How did you get these people?
A: To be a journalist A.: You have to be curious. And B: You have to have no fear of rejection. My biggest shock was when Mel Brooks’ folks said he wanted to talk to me at my request for the bagels and lox chapter. You gotta do your research, which is reading whatever’s been published on the subject. I read all or part of 200 books for this book. Did internet searches. Spoke to a number of authors and to a number of other experts in those fields. And you know how it goes, person A recommends person B.
Q: Hey, a sidetrack: A lot of people ask me to recommend an old-fashioned Chinese restaurant. In the book you distinguish between Chinese American food and traditional Chinese food. Do you think that the old school restaurants have just disappeared?
A: No, they haven’t disappeared. And by the way, I don’t say “traditional” I say “as eaten in China” because even in China food evolves and one of the most popular dishes in China these days is scrambled eggs and tomatoes. I don’t have the statistics but there is a sense that many Chinese restaurants close because the parents don’t want their kids having to work that hard. And the kids also don’t find it attractive. I’m speculating here, but I’m guessing that the pandemic was not kind to family-owned restaurants operating on a tight margin. … I think the most interesting thing I wrote in the book is Chinese American cuisine is pushing the envelope, using tastes, textures, flavors and smells more along the lines of what is in China.
Q. So you don’t shed a tear for chop suey or sweet and sour pork with pineapples and maraschino cherries?
A: I’m not gonna cry over chop suey. However, I’m going to tell you that in my view, well done Chinese American cuisine is a value cuisine and it’s terrific.
Q: So what’s next? I can see a TV series, like “Finding Your Roots” only for American comfort foods like mac and cheese, pepperoni rolls and doughnuts.
A: If anyone wants to option the book, please get in touch with me. I’m not doing TV production, but I actually pay for my daughter’s grad school, which costs all the money you have.
Q: Any takeaways for our readers?
A: Eat good food from somebody who gives a damn and actually cooked it from scratch. One example, at my daughter’s undergraduate graduation, I was the designated food-getter at 10 in the morning. So I went across the street and there were two storefronts. One of them had a huge line pouring out the door and down the street, obviously people from the graduation. The other one had nobody so I went into the other one. It was a bodega, and I ordered a breakfast sandwich for each of us and watched the guy behind the grill make one of the world’s most perfect things: A bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on a terrific new York roll. And I took those out. As I left, the line was no shorter for the other store. The other store was a Starbucks where all the people were lined up to get conventional microwaved, plasticine products passing as food. I got to tell you, I don’t get that.
Author: David Page
Publisher: Mango Publishing Group
Price: $20 or less, available in paperback at amazon.com.
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.