America, it turns out, is not a melting pot after all. It is a banquet made up of a vast array of dishes: tinned beans eaten cold en route to the Dakota Territory; Poularde Demi-Deuil savored at the Pavillon; alligator tail from Cross Creek, Florida; Chinese stir-fry made in a cramped San Francisco kitchen; and barbecued pork cooked over a pit in a Virginia forest. American Food Writing (Library of America/Penguin Putnam) is a collection of essays, journal entries, letters, reportage, fiction, and recipes, edited by Molly O’Neill, that tells the story of this nation’s diet in the voices of the people who have cooked and eaten on these shores—often after wrestling their supper to the ground first.
The stories Molly O’Neill has gathered are hilarious and heartbreaking, erudite and folksy. The book begins in the 1770s with an account of a Finnish botanist delighted by this new colony’s innovative ways of feeding itself and ends in 2006 with Michael Pollan’s stunning philosophical consideration of how to eat meaningfully in a mechanized world. Along the way, O’Neill manages to cover every major and minor food trend that has ever crossed a plate, from soul food to French food, hobo coffee to homemade jam. An essay on the pleasures of indulgence (even at the cost of obesity) is balanced by another on self-restraint; cake mix appears alongside sustainable farming and artisanal cheese. Julia Child gets her say, as do Thomas Jefferson (in the form of his very own recipe for vanilla ice cream), Herman Melville, Nora Ephron, and David Sedaris. You’ll also find a slew of characters you’ve never heard of but whose writing transports you to their kitchens and fills your senses with the aromas and textures of their lives.
Other collections of food writing have been published in recent years. This one stands out not only because of the quality of the individual pieces but also because of the power of their cumulative effect. American Food Writing is more than just an assortment of tasty literary morsels. It is a testament to the fact that America itself is a feast of many flavors.