Food writer and “food expert,” whatever that means, Simon Majumdar relocated from his beloved England to Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend. Some time after their marriage, he was faced with the decision of becoming a US citizen.
This unleashes a torrent of silly non-issues, like does he have to give up being British, either via passport or notion of identity?! (No.) Does he have to stop saying “maths” and “sport”? (No.) But as food is the most important thing to him and his wife, he reminds with plenty of examples of hangriness, he decides to learn more about American cuisine by traveling the country and sampling various iterations of it. Then he’ll really know whether he wants to become American? Apparently. He has ways of putting it more interestingly, but that’s the core idea.
I knew from all my previous travels that the moment you talk to people about the food they eat or, better still, ask to eat with them, they open up not only their kitchens but also their lives, allowing you to experience a side of them that you might never normally be allowed to see.
As you may have noticed, I felt many burblings in my reservoir of annoyance reading this (Ross Gay would probably be unhappy with my repeated use of this line from his book celebrating the delightful, but it’s too perfect for describing when something starts going wrong in my liking of a book.)
This one went wrong early, in the foreword written by Alton Brown. It’s so fawning of a piece about how extraordinarily clever, impossibly talented, and all-around wonderful Simon Majumdar is that I wondered if it was a joke he’d authored himself. Then downhill further: Although it had some truly brilliant moments, and gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I consider my own identity – personal and national – through food, my annoyances piled up.
On his Fed, White, and Blue tour / journey (yes, he calls it that, and often, much to my chagrin), Majumdar covers many of the usual suspects – barbecues both classic and Korean, Maine lobster rolls, sampling Midwestern hot dish, salmon fishing in Alaska, beer-making, Wisconsin cheese, Central American food in the Bronx. Despite some frequently treaded ground, these had educational moments – I liked learning about the lobsters and why it’s such a precious commodity, for one.
Yet he doesn’t take the opportunity to highlight regional specialties like Wisconsin cheese curds, but rather, how Wisconsin cheesemaking is becoming more gourmet and European, commenting that it still has a long way to go to catch up but it’s getting there! What’s the point of celebrating what’s uniquely American about our food if it’s only a vehicle for complaining about how America’s efforts aren’t as good as European standards?
Why not highlight what’s quirky but delightful and meaningful for Americans of a region, and show us what that means for identity, culture, immigration backgrounds? He tries a little, but it’s all about him – overeating to the point of discomfort with a lot of judgment of others (and a competitive eating chapter that feels unnecessary – they’re cultural, sure, but are they really part of a broader culture in terms of what it means to be American? With a little shoehorn about paying for college with the competitions in there? It seems an extreme, not a norm.)
In the center, elevated from its counterparts like Excalibur rising from the lake, was the cheese which had won the coveted prize as Best in Show.
To be fair, that gave me a good laugh.
He frequently laments how tired he is from traveling the country eating, how many emails he has to catch up on, and how brilliantly wonderful his wife is, but how cranky when she doesn’t get the food she’s craving immediately, and the various fights they and other members of her family have over getting the last piece of meat on a plate (some iteration of this fighting-over-food story happens multiple three times, each unfunnier than the last).
All of this sounds bad, but I should clarify it’s not an altogether terrible book without redeeming attributes. It did introduce me to an interesting dish here or there (hello Korean corn cheese, which I can’t wait to make – no recipes here, which was fine). I think overall I didn’t like the author’s humor or writing style and sensed pretentiousness, plus the gimmickyness of the project instead of working towards deeper meaning bothered me. He writes that he had more than a hundred flights and visited 39 states but we see comparatively little. I would’ve liked something more well-rounded (most of the trips seem coordinated by famous chef or restaurateur friends) with less navel-gazing.
Then there are his descriptions of food, something that had turned me off to food memoirs for a long time. He praises things for having “clean tastes”. What does that even mean? And uses a formula repeatedly until I could sense it coming. Example: “the softness of the tortilla and the brain combining beautifully with the crunch of the salsa and the acidity of the lime juice.” Another: “the crunch of the onions, the acidity of the tomatoes, and finally, the main event…” It’s basically crunch of X + acidity of Y + (sometimes) texture of Z = main event [star ingredient]. Lazy TV cooking judge-speak.
“If one is going to write about the relationship the United States has with its food, it’s never going to be a completely rosy picture. I always knew that there would be darker aspects to experience if I wanted to get a true impression of Americans and the way they eat.” He does some due diligence regarding problematic aspects of American food culture in looking at the cattle / meatpacking industry and volunteering at a soup kitchen, and opines on the oversimplified emphasis on eating local, all-natural, etc. I appreciated this, but it felt undercooked, and uncomfortable since elsewhere he describes overstuffing himself.
He also does some kind of Southern fast-food experiment, but only writes a paragraph about its gross effects instead of examining anything more meaningful or illuminating about our fast food proclivities. I like vignettes, which these are, but think I might’ve liked it better if there were more vignettes from more locations and cuisines and less detail at each stop, as that’s where the bad jokes and grating commentary muscle in.
And occasionally, he incorporates a fascinating, if queasy, bit of science or history, like where cheese began: “No one is quite sure how this process was discovered, but many historians believe that, as some of the earliest containers for liquid were made from animal stomachs, there is a good chance that the first cheeses were created when the bag’s contents of milk accidentally became heated in the sun.”
Interesting concept, I didn’t gel with the writing style or voice. I did love what it made me consider, in terms of what cuisine means to me, culturally, as an American. 2.5/5
Fed, White, and Blue:
Finding America With My Fork
by Simon Majumdar