Creation Trends: In setting taste trends, U.S. regions are greater than the sum of their parts

Contributing Editor Marc Halperin guides us toward an appreciation of regional U.S. cuisines "from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters"

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"Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east..."

More than two centuries after J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur made his bid to define America’s national character, the answer to the question, “What is an American?” remains maddeningly elusive.

Since we can’t easily sum up who we are, it’s no surprise that we can’t easily sum up what we eat. Ask 20 people at random, “What is American cuisine?” and you’ll quickly start 20 different arguments.

There is, of course, no single “true” American cuisine. Our food is the product of different climates, crops, cultural influences and cooking techniques favored in various U.S. regions. And there are at least seven distinct strains that can now be readily identified and celebrated for their uniqueness and creativity.

Consider the cuisine of Napa Valley, Calif., for instance. Northern California’s wine country for years has been the epicenter of a culinary revolution that champions procuring the freshest, highest-quality locally grown or raised ingredients available and getting those ingredients from farm to fork as soon as possible. Simple preparations--grilling, baking, pan-frying--are favored over more complex ones. Mediterranean influences abound, as do pure, clean flavor profiles.

Like the region that inspired it, Napa Valley fare is at once elegant and relaxed, earthy and sophisticated, and absolutely sure of itself. Thomas Keller’s world-renowned French Laundry in Yountville is, for many, the very embodiment of Napa cuisine, with dishes such as a sautéed sirloin of Cloverdale Farms rabbit served with a ragout of baby garlic, fava beans, chorizo, green almonds and extra virgin olive oil.
Domaine Chandon's tasting menu features wagyu ribeye with beech mushrooms, chinese celery and oxtail jus.

If you find yourself at the Martini House in St. Helena, Calif., you might opt for the Sonoma duck breast with a confit of cipollini onions and pearl barley. And at Domaine Chandon, offerings range from a sauté of black trumpet mushrooms served with lentils and smoked onion jus to roasted squab breast with foie gras sausage and parsnips.

What’s fun about introducing the uninitiated to the cuisine of the Napa region is watching how their initial intimidation quickly gives way to unadulterated pleasure from the first bite. This isn’t food that requires any effort to appreciate.

North by northwest

Heading north up the coast, the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest also capitalizes on the region’s natural assets: fresh and saltwater fish, apples, pears, apricots, berries and so on. Wood-plank cooking, particularly of fish such as local salmon, is a hallmark. “Natural resources are the foundation here--there’s less manipulation of the food, so we’re product-driven, as opposed to technique-driven,” reports Cory Schreiber, chef and owner of Portland’s popular Wildwood Restaurant. “I spend an enormous amount of the time on the phone sourcing product with people who sell direct and like knowing where their food goes.” Wildwood favorites include skillet-roasted mussels with sun dried tomatoes and garlic in saffron vinaigrette as well as a salad of greens, crispy fried oysters and pancetta.

Whereas the cuisines of Napa and the Pacific Northwest owe more to what grows there than to who goes there, Southwestern cuisine is unmistakably a product of the region’s ethnic diversity. Mexican ingredients--such elements as fresh and dried chiles, cilantro and cumin--are being “interpreted” by North Americans in a variety of interesting ways, according to Amey Shaw, former head chef at Berkeley, Calif.’s Fourth Street Grill.

“In Mexico, not many places will put, say, white wine in a chile sauce--you’d probably see beer in a recipe before you’d see white wine,” Shaw notes. “But because many North American chefs have a background in luxury European cuisines, you’ll see things like a chile demiglace or a julienne of tortillas garnishing a ceviche, which isn’t a technique Mexicans use a lot. It’s fusionesque.”

Shaw points to Chicago chef Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo as a standard-bearer for the new Southwest cuisine. There, the menu includes his Pato al Pasilla, a slow-roasted duck with spicy honey-pasilla sauce, tangy mango-jícama salsa, crispy potato cake and braised wild Mexican greens, while the catch of the day is served pan-roasted and marinated with lime and flatleaf parsley and served with roasted tomatoes, güero chiles, sweet plantain budín and orange-dressed spring greens.

For the working chef, the value of getting acquainted with these and the five other U.S. regional cuisines we’ll discuss in this space next time is the ability to tap into an enormous variety of flavor profiles and unique preparations that have taken root within our domestic borders. You don’t need to book a ticket to an exotic foreign locale to sample a range of creative culinary approaches: It’s a good bet that 800 or 1,000 miles from wherever you’re sitting, someone’s doing something interesting, inspired and very different in the kitchen.

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