Food talk these days is about regional cooking, so when the nation's food editors got together in Louisiana early this month for their annual conference, they verbally explored each other's territory. Which regional foods from the Midwest might make big-time menus elsewhere, some wondered -- having overeaten and overwritten Cajun food.
Bratwurst and smoked pork chops suggested Peggy Daum of The Milwaukee Journal. But they're German, not native American.
She suggested fish frys. Well, everyplace fries fish.
How about meatloaf and mashed potatoes? They're already the darlings of new wave diners.
Midwestern food, one began to suspect, was merely the food of one big region called America.
All right, how about New York food? Anyone returning home from a trip to New York is immediately and often asked, "Where did you eat?" People around the country know the names of New York restaurants they've never been to, and have a definite image of New York waiters, New York street vendors, even New York sandwiches. We all love New York food.
So when the biennial New York State Festival in Washington had its date set, I blocked it off on my calendar and licked my chops. New York's salute to Congress takes place in Washington every other year, a kind of gustatory thank-you that shows off the state's food specialties in gratitude for those who have supported New York. The festival is held in the enormous ballroom of the Washington Hilton, its circumference lined with tables serving nearly a hundred different regional dishes. This year there were Spanish, French, Oriental andCaribbean tables. One table had spa cuisine, another desserts -- guess which was more crowded. Then there was New York within New York: a New York regional table.
So what is New York food? The steam-table rack of lamb at the French table didn't seem regional (or authentic), and while the Caribbean ackee and salt fish tasted utterly authentic and the fried yam cakes utterly delicious, they weren't what one would associate with New York. Cheesecake, yes, but cheesecake is even more prevalent nationwide than the Midwest's meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Finally, I decided that what made New York food regional was its style and atmosphere. Felafel served from a silver chafing dish was a mismatch; in New York felafel should be eaten on the street with a subway rumbling underneath. Filet of beef bearnaise alongside a basket of rye bread and onion rolls, that was more like it (even though the onion rolls came from Duke Zeibert's here in town). Chitlins and sticky barbecued ribs eaten in black tie, and a Nathan's hot dog being wolfed down by a glamorous woman with no meat on her bones and a designer red silk gown on her back -- that's New York. An elbowing and shoving crowd at the oyster bar and the Peking duck table are definitely New York. And the pastrami server (the pastrami really was from New York's Second Avenue Deli) urging just one more slice on my overladen plate. Ah, New York. The New York deli waiter, that's a regional trend that could fly anywhere.
Tabletalk After several days of rich, heavy (and wonderful) Louisiana food, America's food editors were given a modern Cajun feast by chef John Folse at The Pilothouse outside of Baton Rouge. Roast baby pig and creamy, buttery seafood hors d'oeuvres were followed by creole shrimp and gumbo with quail stuffed with oysters and sausage. When the charbroiled duck was announced, to be served on a bed of three lettuces, one guest loudly expressed the sentiments of the group: "All right, lettuce!"
Four restaurant chefs demonstrated their cooking to food editors to once again try to explain the various influences that coalesced to form Creole and Cajun cooking. It was easy if you looked to the fats: Leah Chase of soul food restaurant Dooky Chase used chicken fat in her recipe; Chris Kerageorgiou of the French restaurant La Provence used butter. Goffredo Fraccaro of the Italian La Riviera used olive oil. And Bernard Guste of the utterly Creole restaurant Antoine's began the recipe with chicken fat and finished it off with butter.
New Orleans is a food town to the core. Three food editors hailed a cab to Chez Helene outside of the French Quarter. Would they be able to find a cab when they were finished with lunch? "I don't know why not," the cabdriver answered. "I'm going to come in and eat too." The same thing happened when I got a cab to stop at the Short Stop for one of New Orleans' great po' boy sandwiches on the way to the airport. The cabdriver, who had never known of that particular place before, also stopped in for a po' boy -- wrapped in two parts so he could eat one half right away and the other for dinner.
Chez Helene, known on television as Frank's Place, is joining the Cajun imperialists and opening a branch in Chicago.
NEW YORK GALA YAM CAKES (Makes 20 2-inch round cakes)
1 pound fresh yams (not sweet potatoes), peeled and finely grated
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 tablespoon finely grated onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 egg yolks
Oil for frying, about 1-inch deep
In a bowl combine yams, butter, onion, parsley, salt and pepper. Mix well. Beat in egg yolks vigorously until mixture is smooth and thick enough to come away from sides of the bowl. Line a pan with paper towels and place in oven. Preheat oven to lowest setting. In a heavy, large skillet, pour oil about 1-inch deep and heat over moderate heat until a light haze forms above it. Drop yam mixture by tablespoons into hot oil. Deep-fry for about 4 minutes on each side or until golden and crisp at edges. Transfer to lined pan to drain and keep warm, and serve at once.
Adapted from "The Cooking of the Caribbean Islands" (TIME/LIFE Books, 1970)
1987, Washington Post Writers Group