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American Idols

Museum exhibits on U.S. food history feature relics you can taste

Author CLARA SILVERSTEIN

Fried chicken at the America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C.

TIME WAS, if you wanted to sample the inimitable Civil War–era stew known as Kentucky burgoo, you had to go round up the squirrels and blackbirds and cook it yourself. Now, thanks to chef José Andrés, you don’t have to (for the record, his version is made with rabbit, squab and lamb). The chef-owner of Jaleo in Washington, D.C., and The Bazaar in Beverly Hills has teamed up with the National Archives to open the America Eats Tavern, a pop-up restaurant in D.C. It’s part of “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?,” an exhibit that looks at how government initiatives have influenced the nation’s eating habits over the years.

At America Eats, each of the 40 or so menu items — which run the gamut from fried chicken nuggets to lobster Newburg — comes with information about its origins. For instance, “Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding,” a precursor to mac and cheese, dates back to 1802, when one of America’s first commercial pasta makers distributed the recipe to boost sales. “ We provide the stories of people and places that have inspired what we eat,” Andrés says. “Many guests come in and share their own stories on the dishes we’re offering. That’s exactly what we hoped for.”

The U.S. has a rich culinary heritage, with waves of immigrants adapting their favorite recipes to the resources of their new home, creating an ever-evolving national cuisine. But while American museums have preserved more antique butter churns and tea sets than you can shake a rolling pin at, recently more have begun offering visitors a chance to actually try the dishes themselves.

The Indiana State Museum has re-created the carpet, the chandeliers and even the view of the city from the Tea Room at L.S. Ayres — a landmark restaurant in an Indianapolis department store that operated from 1905 until 1990 — but it’s the menu, featuring chicken velvet soup, lemon pound cake and potpie, that gives guests a real taste of what it was like to while away an afternoon at the fabled establishment.

And over at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum in Pennsylvania, the Refreshment Saloon is modeled on eateries where volunteers prepared food for Union soldiers during the Civil War. There’s nothing fancy about the grub — dishes like chili with cornbread, “sheet iron” crackers with peanut soup and “slippery” potpie (made with noodles instead of a crust) were designed to satisfy hungry, homesick men — but with every bite, visitors can imagine a life different from their own in a way that transcends the display case.

Steven Lubar, an American studies professor at Brown University who moonlights as a museum consultant, says the trend also has a practical side. “As audiences shrink, museums are having to get more creative,” he says. “But when you have good food and a good story, people are willing to pay for it.”

Editor’s note: The America Eats Tavern has extended its run through July 4, 2012. For more information, visit americaeatstavern.com.

PIE PIPER
A fourth-generation baker hooks new customers with a plethora of pies

IN MANY TREND-OBSESSED urban centers, pies, as you may have heard, are the new cupcakes. But in some parts of the country, the pastry that’s as American as baseball has never gone out of style.

In Little Rock, Ark., there’s a restaurant known as Hunka Pie, where for nearly a decade owner Chris Monroe put in about 15 hours a day baking apple, peach, cherry and pear pies that honored his mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s recipes. Then suddenly he had a vision: 100 different pies. One day. One buffet.

Also: a cherry pie with hot peppers.

The event that followed, Hunka Pie’s inaugural 100-pies-in-one-day buffet, was a smash. “I cut pies for five and a half hours straight,” Monroe says. The line snaked out the door and pie fiends dug in until the very last crumb was gone, prompting Monroe to schedule his next pie-a-thon a mere two months later. “People just love the idea of that many pies,” he says.

Coming up with all those new recipes took more than a little ingenuity. “With the cherry-chipotle pie, it definitely got a bit edgy,” Monroe says. “I wouldn’t call them the 100 greatest pies I’ve ever made,” he laughs. But still, it could be the start of something big: “My fantasy would be to have a 100-pie buffet and bring it to Vegas.” —DAN SOLOMON

GREAT PLAIN
A celebration of the unadorned cheeseburger

IT WAS AT Cherrywood Coffee House, an Austin, Texas, eatery that claims to make “real food,” that I found it: two succulent slabs of meat stacked with a thick slice of cheddar cheese, a lettuce leaf, a tomato slice, a dollop of ketchup and not a thing more. The perfect burger — smoky, juicy, unadulterated.

I’m all for reinventing culinary traditions, but there’s something to be said for a simple sandwich that can take an entire nation back to summer barbecues and Little League practice with not much more than a whiff of charcoal smoke and the ting of sesame seeds hitting a plate. More than a sandwich, a plain cheeseburger is an iconic American treasure — like a ’57 Chevy or a Ted Williams rookie card. There may be newer, fancier or cleverer versions out there, but in the end, they’ll never quite stack up to the original. —DAN SOLOMON

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