Books of the Year: America, The Cookbook

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Christopher Hirst selects his favourite cook books of 2017

 2. America: The Cookbook by Gabrielle Langholtz

Most big cookbooks covering the cuisine of one country, such as Silver Spoon (over 2,000 Italian recipes) or Spain: The Cookbook (1,080 recipes), are as terse and utilitarian as phone directories but America: The Cookbook by Gabrielle Langholtz (Phaidon, £29.95) aims to seduce rather than bludgeon. Along with tempting pictures, most of the 800 recipes are endowed with chatty introductions (we learn, for example, that the Mai Tai cocktail ‘co-starred with Elvis in the film Blue Hawaii’) while the cuisine of each of the 50 states is illuminated by an essay from a passionate local (Alice Waters on California, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik on New York). In short, America: The Cookbook has that quintessential American quality, pizzazz.

Guiding us from starters to desserts with detours for breakfast, bakery and pantry shelf-fillers, Langholtz is a lively and fascinating hostess. Due to the pervasive nature of American culture, we may already be acquainted to some degree with many of the regional treats explored in these 767 pages. Succotash, the celebrated expostulation of Sylvester the cartoon cat (‘Sufferin’ succotash!’), turns out to be a West Virginia dish of fried corn, tomatoes and beans. Scrapple, inspiration for the Charlie Parker composition Scrapple from the Apple, is a sort of skinless sausage bolstered with cornmeal and buckwheat. Collard greens, a dish favoured by the Georgia-based Allman Brothers Band, is a spicy stew incorporating these down-home vittels. Angel food cake, which makes an appearance in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (‘he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake’) is a sponge cake containing a dozen egg whites.  We learn how to make the muffuletta sandwich, a salami and provolone monster that I once brought back, somewhat managed by its 4,500-mile journey, from its birthplace of New Orleans. There’s also Hangtown Fry from California, an oyster, bacon and egg fry-up recently consumed on TV by Rick Stein (though Langholtz does not explain the weird name: it was chosen as a final meal by condemned prisoners because obtaining the ingredients gave them a few extra days of life), and even the classic burger: ’Eat it in the backyard, barefoot.’

A curmudgeonly nit-picker might point out the lack of the venerable Nesselrode pudding, egg cream, hash browns and the transcendental Last Word cocktail but this handful of omissions is as nought compared to the breath-taking variety of inclusions, from raw oysters, leather breeches (dried string beans) and chow-chow (a sort of mustard-free piccalilli) to braised turnip greens with potlikka, snickerdoodles (vanilla biscuits) and fried country ham with red-eye gravy (the secret ingredient is brewed coffee). Finally, if you’ve ever been baffled by the appeal of grits, virtually flavour-free ground corn, Langholtz’s explains the American way with this recalcitrant carb: ‘Plain grits are a hot breakfast cereal. Cheese grits elevate this dish to a side staple. They are often topped with shrimp, ham, sausage or greens.’ America has never been a place where less is more and this cookbook is as vast and generous as the country it celebrates.