“Food Americana” – a new book from the creator of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”


The decor, an unadorned wooden table in a tent next to a parking lot. No plates, the food arrived in boxes. The service consisted of placing a tray containing our order. Yet we were in heaven. I bit into a BBQ Smoque St. Louis rib and my brain let out a cry of joy so distinct I could almost hear it. I pulled the rib back and looked at her, moved. I almost kissed him. It was so good.

“Oh … my … God,” I said.

The United States has recently drowned in shame and incompetence. A plague rages on as our fellow citizens retreat into infantile terror and mass hallucination. Even the planet itself sometimes seems to be trying to shake humanity up, like an angry bull at a rider.

But do you know what we can still count on? Food. The kitchens that we have loved all our lives do not let us down. Like a bunch of superheroes, they show up to save the day. Or save several days, anyway.

So David Page’s publication of “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories Behind America’s Favorite Plats” is a welcome and timely field guide to the goodies that keep harsh reality at bay. With chapters devoted to the distribution of our country’s love affair with food – burgers, pizza, fried chicken – it takes us on a quick tour of each of our favorites, both its history and known practitioners. today. Sushi is there, along with Mexican and Chinese food, a reminder that while millions of our fellow citizens don’t know what kind of place our country is, our bellies always know it.

David Page’s book was published by Mango Press in May.

The first sentence – “When I was a child my grandmother made me something that she, for some reason called Jewish spaghetti” – made my mind shift in the past. Page’s grandmother made pasta, boiled, then fried with onions and ketchup, which I think is gross. But it reminded me of my mom serving spaghetti with melted cream cheese on it, which may sound gross to you. I remember it was delicious.

As a word maker, I have been gratified by the number of new terms I have learned while reading “Food Americana”. Page calls charred spots on a properly baked “leopard” pizza crust, the dough in a tortilla is “nixtamalized” or “baked in an alkaline solution usually containing lime.” (Calm down the mineral, not the citrus wedge you stick on the edge of your margarita).

The barbecue is “the only real good American cuisine”. But what about the word? No idea, right? The Taino people in the Caribbean roasted animals in a green wooden structure over hot coals, and the Spaniards used their word for the lattice, “barbacoa”, to describe the food so prepared.

Smoque BBQ St. Louis Rib Half Slab, 3800 N. Pulaski Rd.

Smoque BBQ St. Louis Rib Half Slab, 3800 N. Pulaski Rd.
Neil Steinberg / Sun-Times

Foodie books sometimes lean towards optimistic giddiness, and I admire how Page isn’t shy about talking about thorny issues: running and barbecuing, or sustainability and sushi. Jews embraced Chinese food, in part because Chinese restaurants welcomed them as customers. Not all restaurants have.

Page invented “Diners, Drive-in and Dives” and loves to visit places where fish tasting out of the water: the sushi bar of a gas station grocery store near Oklahoma City, a bagel bakery in Kansas City and the Pekin Noodle Parlor, founded in 1911, perhaps the oldest Chinese restaurant in America, in Butte, Montana.

Barry Sorkin is recognized for creating Smoque BBQ in 2006. Page says that Smoque is hailed as “Chicago’s best barbecue,” even though it’s kind of like being the best pizza in Reykjavik.

I discussed with him the mixed blessing of regional foods that are spreading across the country.

“Everything is everywhere,” he nodded. “We’ve pretty much nationalized everything at this point. … You can get deep pizzas all over the country. You can get a Chicago hot dog anywhere. It might not be Viennese beef … ”

I thought to add, mischievously, “If it’s not Viennese beef, it’s not Chicago hot dog.” But we have too many purists like that. They are a curse.

I asked Page about Chicago restaurants in general.

“A big city for food,” he said. “Chicago doesn’t get the credit it deserves for this. What makes it so wonderful is that it’s homemade by people who care.

And also eaten, never forget, by people who also care, passionately. We cannot get out of the various crises our nation is facing. But we can certainly try.


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