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Labun Jordan: Food Culture

11/25/11 5:55PM By Helen Labun Jordan
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(Host) ‘Tis the season when we Americans talk a lot about our food traditions, but commentator Helen Labun Jordan thinks that we're too quick to ignore the food traditions and culture that we enjoy throughout the year.

(Labun Jordan) Every November, Americans get a dose of national food culture. We eat a meal that features seasonal ingredients, like potatoes and winter squash, and native ones, like cranberries and the turkey. The dinner is meant to reflect how a feast might have looked in early America, still enjoyed today with friends and family.

But that’s just one holiday. Most of the world doesn’t see America as a place that values unique food heritage. We’re seen more as a place that’s good at erasing what’s unique, so that our hamburgers or cups of coffee can taste the same the world over. I don’t think that depiction is entirely fair.

Here in Vermont we seek out both tradition and unique foods. Many chefs take inspiration from the time when not a scrap of food was wasted. Now they serve up chicken liver parfaits with coxcomb garnishes. Home cooks are relearning how to use ingredients foraged from their own backyards, like fiddleheads, ramps and thimble berries.

But enjoying Vermont foods doesn’t require esoteric tastes. We also rally around maple creamies in summer and chicken pot pie at the annual church supper. These treats that can seem unremarkable are made special by their local cultural cache.

Vermont is hardly alone. Common foods take on new meaning in a new context. Recently, I visited the home of Tabasco sauce on Avery Island in Louisiana, where they take great pride in what hasn’t changed since 1868. Peppers are still mashed up with Avery Island salt, sealed in oak barrels, and capped with more Avery Island salt, then left to ferment for several years. Every grocery store in the area had big, end-of-aisle Tabasco displays. After a lifetime of rarely using the stuff, I doused whole meals in it every day.

When I visited Texas, I had the best barbecue in a warehouse full of deep charcoal pits, where a dozen different cuts of dry rubbed meat were cooking. Slabs pulled from the grill were tossed onto butcher paper and sold by the pound. Diners added thick slices of jalapeno cheese and rings of raw white onion, then wrapped the whole thing in Wonder Bread to soak up the juices.

Wonder Bread, Tabasco sauce and soft serve ice cream can certainly be seen as examples of America’s rush to homogenize food, but they can also show how food culture starts with personal food traditions of every kind. We all have these traditions. For me, roasted pumpkin seeds are the taste of October; and I still remember which house had coconut jelly beans and which had homemade toffee decades after my last trick or treat. A friend of mine served Shaw’s vanilla sheet cake at her wedding, since supermarket cakes are, after all, the most familiar cake to have at a party. Many of us will turn a hot dog into the first sign of spring by boiling it in maple syrup.

The truth is that Americans do have a unique food culture – and it's one that we can celebrate all year round.
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