‘Good American’ dishes satisfy a hole I have in my soul for home

‘Many would say the best American fare comes from the traditions of our melting pot of immigrant cultures’

Pop a cherry on top of the Ice Cream Sundae and dig in!

Pop a cherry on top of the Ice Cream Sundae and dig in!

 

It’s a sizzling hot July day in the Heartland of America. I am 10 and tanned, wearing ponytails and a pair of cut-off Levi 501’s. The sum of my small hometown is gathered in its very own Central Park, where the municipal band plays Semper Fidelis on a stage festooned in flags of red, white and blue. We are all here to kick-off our yearly festival commemorating the local origins of the iconic Ice Cream Sundae. The crowd is filled with faces of glee; each holding a cup of vanilla ice cream covered in glossy hot fudge, a spray of whipped cream and a cherry on top.

There are probably several other “birthplaces” of the ice cream sundae in the USA; all complete with historical monuments and proud celebrations like ours. But, who cares – I was an American girl raised on promises and this was one of them. They say “what is remembered, lives” and that annual sundae shindig is one delicious memory from my childhood that will never die.

I have also been fortunate to call Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York “home”. Some of my best memories of living in those cities are related to food, food with people, or food people. Despite hopes for a night of debauchery in Chateau Marmont, I rang in my 21st in Los Angeles with classic grilled salad from The Ivy. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul introduced me to an incredibly diverse food landscape with steaming bowls of Japanese noodles from Tampopo in Cathedral Hill and eastern European delicacies from Kramarczuk’s northeast. In New York, I saved my production assistant pennies to treat myself to a Katz’s corned beef on rye each weekend.

With the pandemic, I woefully haven’t been back to the States since 2019. Thankfully, the last time I visited I spent two full days eating my weight in Manhattan restaurants with friends. From Via Carota, to La Mercerie, to pulled Asian noodles and tacos at Chelsea Market and Korean fried chicken in Midtown.

In the film Nomadland, Frances McDormand’s character meets a woman with the question “Home, is it just a word? Or, is it something you carry with you?” tattooed on her arm. Is it bad that this made me yearn for Po-boy sandwiches in a New Orleans pub?

Food memories are home to me.

Ironically, for years after moving to Ireland I cooked everything EXCEPT American food. When I came to this Irish farm in Co Limerick in 2007, I immediately tucked into embracing all things Irish food. It was the best way I knew to navigate my new life here. Over the years, I have contributed an abundance of newspaper and magazine columns dedicated to Irish life and the food that went with it, wrote a cookbook with 150 modern Irish recipes, and made Irish butter on a stage more times than I care to admit.

Over time, my wedge scones have transformed into rounds, chips became fries – as crisps did to chips – and bay-zil has finally become baah-sil. I’ve been so steeped in Irish food vernacular, I’d put a Barry’s tea bag to shame.

Lately I’m replacing tangible visits to the States with edible bites of nostalgia prepared in my (starkly contrasting) Irish country kitchen. On any given day you could find hoe cakes or Hoosier Pie on the menu. This is not hyperbole. I’m not ashamed to admit that I recently scored a top-secret recipe for American-style bratwursts and persuaded a certain butcher to make up a big fat bespoke batch for our 4th of July gathering.

Sometimes these cravings catch me off guard. Last week I got a hankering for my former daily “one scoop tuna/one scoop chicken salad” order at NBC Studios’ cafeteria in 30 Rockefeller. I rushed out, bought ingredients, blitzed it together and plopped the combo on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Never mind that there was a perfectly good Shepherd’s pie in the oven, I dove in and demolished. Bliss.

My Irish food pal Agnes Bouchier-Hayes noticed my obsession with preparing sentimental foods and suggested I write about it. These dishes satisfy a hole I have in my soul for home. When CNN’s US headlines make me misty-eyed about America, it seems I can always count on a DIY Chicago-style pizza to turn that frown upside down.

It’s hard to define “Good American Food”. A quick Google search will yield a broad list including things like Twinkies, root beer, buffalo wings and SPAM. Not exactly inspiring.

Many would say the best American fare comes from the traditions that our melting pot of immigrant cultures brought with them. But, what about the native food that existed long before European settlers arrived? The Sioux chef, Sean Sherman is redefining north American food through the lens of indigenous recipes, and it is humbling.

After binge watching the illuminating new Netflix series, “High On The Hog” which traces the history of African-American culinary traditions throughout the USA, I realise how significant these ingredients, techniques and stories are to characterising good American food.

I asked some food-loving friends in the USA what “Good American Food” means to them, and here’s what they reckon:

Jeff Gordinier, former New York Times food writer and Esquire Magazine food and drinks editor says, “I understand the centrality of the cheeseburger when it comes to the ongoing story of American cuisine, but for me the greatness of 'American food' always comes back to the greatness of all the immigrant cuisines that are part of that mosaic . . . That’s what the United States can offer when it comes to food, because of immigration: variety.”

For Asian-Jewish-American best-selling cookbook author and host of Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm Molly Yeh, it’s all about the dog, “In my mind, you simply can’t have any celebration of America without hot dogs. Fourth of July, Memorial Day, summer camp, baseball games, they’re all incomplete without hot dogs.”

Actor Marina Black Goyer who lives in Los Angeles, but grew up in New York City, puts it plain and simple, “Good American food is nostalgia. Baseball games, pies, diners.”

The concept of combining food cultures for a dish cannot be overlooked. Food stylist and first generation American, Sonia Mulford Chaverri recalls her Costa Rican mother’s Yankee Pot Roast, a classic American recipe she customised by studding the joint of beef with piquant peppers, and serving it with rice.

Comfort food might be good American food says Jennifer Kouvant and Hans Li of Six Dutchess Farm, upstate New York, “Hans thinks of hamburgers, but I think of 'American' Chinese food, which someone from Hong Kong would barely recognize, or Tex-Mex smothered in cheese and salsa and guacamole . . . I’m not sure if it’s truly good, but it’s oddly comforting and familiar and nostalgic.”

Culinary student, Breanne Ciepielinski grew up in a mixed-race family in Minneapolis and considers her grandmother’s fried chicken “the best on earth.” To her mind, “all soul food – collard greens, mac and cheese, bbq brisket and ribs” would top the list of good American food.

As for me, it’s as simple as that hot fudge sundae.

Takes me home every time.

Recipe

A Good American Ice Cream Sundae
Serves One
This might not be the exact version of the original sundae, but it’s the what I grew up with in the birthplace of the Ice Cream Sundae. Good quality vanilla ice cream, rich homemade hot fudge, fluffy whipped cream, salty chopped nuts, topped off with sweet maraschino cherry.

Ingredients

Three scoops high quality vanilla ice cream (custard-style)
30ml hot fudge sauce (see recipe below)
Freshly whipped cream (to your fancy)
Dusting of chopped salted and roasted nuts (I love peanuts, pecans or walnuts)
1 maraschino cherry

For the Hot Fudge

240ml double cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
40g dark brown sugar
30g cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
60g bittersweet chocolate chopped into small pieces
100g sifted cocoa powder (sift, then measure)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Method

  1. Prepare the Hot Fudge Sauce
  2. In medium saucepan, stir together cream, butter, sugars and salt over medium-low heat. Allow to simmer for 30-40 seconds without boiling. Add chocolate pieces and stir until fully dissolved. Remove from heat, add cocoa, and whisk until no lumps remain.
  3. Return pan to low heat, and stir until glossy, whisking constantly. Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla. Serve warm. To reheat sauce, warm in a saucepan, double boiler or bain marie over low heat, stirring constantly. (You can refrigerate and use for up to two weeks.)

To assemble the Hot Fudge Sundae

  1. Place three scoops vanilla ice cream into sundae glass or bowl.
  2. Spoon over hot fudge sauce. Add whipped cream and nuts
  3. Pop the cherry on top and dig in!
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