United Choices of America: Ten American Favourites

At long last the American elections are over & with it, the dirty games, the name calling & the mutual insults; unfortunately, the hatred isn’t nearly over. What is it about politics that breeds so much hate? What is it that makes families fight bitterly for decades, refusing to speak to one another? What triggers it? It makes absolutely no sense to me. I watched these elections as an outsider looking in & was shocked, with the rest of the world, by the statements made by people like Richard Mourdock.

I was hugely amused, with the rest of the world, when Romney changed from Romney-the-ultra-conservative to Romney-the-moderate midstream and I was appalled, with the rest of the world, at the ease with which he lied and adapted the truth to suit situations. Now, after the elections and again, as an outsider looking in, I wonder if the Republicans didn’t put a noose around their necks when they climbed into bed with Tea Party, obliterating everything the founding fathers believed in just because they wanted another chance to rule the roost. Well, that’s all over now. America has spoken and the Democrats & President Obama have to find a miracle in a hat as he and his team try to rule a country despite a divided Congress where the Tea Party will do everything in their power to screw America because if they can’t be the boss of it, it can go to hell.

I lost something precious in these elections. I lost a good friend. He’s a member of the Tea Party and I rooted for the Democrats and whilst it never bothered either of us before, this time it seemed to have cut to the bone. It’s also possible that because I don’t take politics or politicians terribly seriously (you have to take that stance if you live in a country like South Africa which is currently governed by a team of corrupt incompetents) and he does, very much so, my attitude became unacceptable to him. For him, politics is very serious business and I think food is way more serious and way more important.

So, to mark these historical elections and my lost friend, I thought I’d look at ten truly American dishes that I absolutely love & see where they came from. Contrary to popular opinion, American’s don’t only eat hamburgers and hotdogs and they actually do have more than a few extraordinary chefs and even more extraordinary dishes.


In the late 1960’s two sushi chefs in California created this world famous roll in LA’s Tokyo Kaikan restaurant; they were Manashita Ichiro and his assistant Mashita Icori who changed the inside-out roll to suit American tastes and put the nori on the inside, the rice on the outside and substituted the Japanese toro (the tuna from the fatty belly of the fish & the best you can buy) with avocado.  at L.A.’s Tokyo Kaikan restaurant, which had one of the country’s first sushi bars, with creating the “inside out” roll that preempted Americans’ aversions by putting the nori (seaweed) on the inside of the rice and substituting avocado for toro (raw fatty tuna). Sushi took off!!


Recipes for pasta casseroles can be found very early on in the culinary history of Europe but the first one that was reasonably similar to Mac ‘n Cheese can be found in a 14th century English cookbook where a pasta casserole known as makerouns was made with freshly made, hand-cut pasta that was sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese. In the late  18th  century Italy & Paris, macaroni with a variety of sauces was hugely popular and so, when Thomas Jefferson visited Paris & Northern Italy, he came across it, loved it and drew a sketch of the pasta and how it could be made; in 1793, he commissioned William Short, the American ambassador to Paris at the time, to buy a machine to make it. Jefferson hated the machine because it didn’t work properly (macaroni machines are notoriously tricky) so he promptly imported both the macaroni and the Parmesan cheese so he could use it in Monticello. In 1802 he served Macaroni Pie at a state dinner. Later, Mary Randolph, Jefferson’s cousin, included a recipe for Macaroni & Cheese in her cookbook, the Virginia Housewife, in 1824. I would love to open a restaurant that has only a huge variety of Mac n’ Cheese on the menu but the dish is extremely expensive if you want to glam it up.


  • 340 g macaroni or penne
  • 80g pancetta or smoky bacon, diced
  • 1 small lemon, finely grated zest
  • 100g panko breadcrumbs
  • 100 g tiny mozzarella balls
  • 1 really large jumbo free range egg or 2 smaller ones
  • 1 good sized handful chopped fresh parsley
  • Cheese sauce
  • 40g butter
  • 40g plain flour
  • 1 tsp English mustard powder
  • 200ml milk
  • 285ml double cream
  • 200g dolcelatte
  • 125 g parmesan, grated
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


  • Preheat the oven to 200C.
  • Cook the penne or macaroni in a large pot until just cooked (you don’t want it overcooked because you’re going to bake it in the oven); drain, run through cold water & put back into the pot.
  • Fry the pancetta or the bacon until it just starts to become crisp, add the lemon zest & cook for another few minutes, remove from the pan & pop into the pot.
  • Now start the sauce: melt the butter, then stir in the flour & mustard powder and stir until everything has combined; remove from the heat & mix the milk and cream together, pouring a tiny bit into the flour & butter mixture in the pan & stir like mad; keep on adding the milk & cream mixture a little bit at a time to prevent the whole lot becoming lumpy.
  • Do not put the whole lot in at once.
  • If you want to be really sure that you don’t get lumps, take it off the stove each time you think it may be forming a lump and whisk like mad.
  • Make sure you get all the bits of flour in; when all the milk/cream has been added, turn up the heat and simmer, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens to the desired consistency at which point you add ¾ of the dolcelatte and all the parmesan; continue stirring until you have a smooth velvety sauce; season to taste with salt & freshly ground pepper and stir in all the parsley; now whisk the egg well and stir this into the sauce.
  • Next, add the sauce to the pasta & the pancetta & mix everything together; pour into individual ramekins or into a baking dish; hide the baby mozzarella in the dish and sprinkle the rest of the cheese and the breadcrumbs over the top.
  • Bake for about half an hour until it’s golden and bubbly on top.


The first one was, apparently, made by a lady known as aunty Sally who cooked for the millionaire ship salvager, William Curry, in the 1800’s. The ‘mixture; of key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks that thickened sufficiently without having to be cooked & made up the interior of the pie was the invention of the Florida sponge fishermen. This is Emma Crowhurst’s recipe and the only one I make because it’s so simple and so easy that there’s no reason to look for another recipe.


  • 375g sweetmeal digestive biscuits, crushed
  • 150g unsalted butter
  • Some finely grated zest plus the juice of 8 large limes
  • 570ml double cream
  • 1 x 400 g tin sweetened condensed milk
  • Crystalised lime zest, to decorate


  • Melt the butter in a small pan &  stir in the crushed biscuits; lghtly press into the base of a 23cm deep loosed-bottomed fluted flan tin, then cill while you prepare the filling.
  • To make the filling: put the lime juice into a large bowl, add the cream & the condensed milk; whisk for 1-2 minutes before adding the lime zest and stirring lightly; pour this onto the already prepared & chilled biscuit base and put it onto a tray, then allow it to chill in the fridge for 1-2 hours.


Sourdough bread is amongst the oldest breads but the one you find in San Francisco is something special and not only because it’s very sour. The bread was first made during the gold rush when pioneers carried the sourdough starter in pouches around their necks or hanging from their belts.



Day 1
75ml  fresh, live, full-fat, plain yoghurt
175ml skimmed milk
Day 2
120g white flour
Day 4
180g white flour
100ml water
40ml milk
Day 5
150g flour
150ml water


  • Day 1: heat up the milk in a pot over a gentle heat; put the yoghurt into a bowl & stir in the warmed milk; cover this and leave it in a warm place for 12-24 hours until it has thickened; stir in any liquids that may have separated.
  • Day 2: stir the flour into the yoghurt mixture, incorporating everything evenly, then cover it & leave it to stand at room temperature for two days; after this period, the mixture should be full of bubbles and smell sour (a nice sour, not a horrible sour).
  • Day 4: add the flour to the starter with the water & the milk; cover it & leave at warm room temperature for 12-24 hours.
  • Day 5: by now the starter should be quite active & full of little bubbles; remove half of it and throw this away (seriously), then add the flour &  the water to the rest of the starter and mix very thoroughly; cover it and leave it to stand at warm room temperature for 24 hours.
  • Day 6: today the starter will be ready to use; you can keep it at room temperature, but you will need to feed it daily; combine equal parts of the starter, water and flour and mix thoroughly; there’s a possibility that you have to discard some of the starter so that you don’t end up with too much; keep it covered and use it as you need it.
  • If you’re not going to bake too often, keep the starter covered in the fridge, feeding it once every five days or so by mixing equal parts of starter, flour and water (you can even freeze some of your starter as a back-up in case you need to start again)


It takes 2 – 3 days to make a loaf so you’ll have to plan ahead; a day and a half before you want to bake your bread, you need to remove the starter from the fridge; take half of it and to this you add the following:

  • 125 g bread flour
  • 250 ml water


  • Stir this for a couple of minutes (don’t use a metal spoon when you work with yeast, so dig out the wooden one) in order to get as much air as possible into the mixture so that the yeast develops; it should have the consistency of a thick gravy and if there are a few lumps, don’t worry about it, just put it in a warm, dark place to help the fermentation process; allow it to prove for about 4 – 8 hours, depending on the yeast. All sour dough starters have a peak point, after which they go dormant so you need to use it at it’s peak which can be anywhere between 3 – 8 hours.
  • Important: if you’re too late (and miss the peak point), your bread won’t rise (if you’re too early, it will be fine).


At this point the starter has peaked and it’s time to start kneading (that’s about 16 hours before you plan on serving the bread.

  • 375 g all purpose flour
  • 60 g of the prepared starter
  • 325 ml water
  • 8 ml salt
  • 1 tbsp butter (this increases the bread’s shelf life but it’ll be less crispy, so take your pick)


  • Combine the flour, the starter, the water & the butter if you’re using it and pop it in your bread mixer, start kneading on the lowest level and knead for about 5 minutes; the dough will look dry but if it’s too dry to work, add a little water and knead like mad for another minute and turn off the mixer (so the flour can absorb the water) for 5 minutes.
  • Turn on the mixer and start kneading again for a few minutes until the dough forms a really lumpy ball and barely stick to your fingers; if it’s too wet, you’ll need to add some flour (half a tablespoon should do the trick) and then knead again for another minute.
  • Wipe the inside of the bowl with a little olive oil and put the dough into the bowl, flip it over so both sides can be covered with oil and cover it loosely with plastic wrap to prevent the dough from drying out while it rises.
  • Cover the bowl with a dark kitchen cloth and allow to rise through the night in a warmish place overnight.
  • The ball should rise to triple it’s size so take off the plastic wrap & turn the ball upside down on a floury surface; if your ball plops down, don’t worry, just sprinkle the top with flour & start kneading until it’s flat and kneaded on both sides;
  • Now it’s time for the second rise if you like – it will make the taste a little more sour; if you want to do it, just repeat the process you’ve just completed.
  • Now form the dough into a ball, punching and kneading and shaping as you go.
  • Use whichever baking tin you like (artisans like to use stoneware bowls) but it’s up to you.
  • It is important that you oil the inside of the tin or the stoneware bowl and then sprinkle yellow corn meal in the dish and put the ball of dough inside it and allow it to rise.
  • Make a few slashes with a sharp knife across the loaf (oil the knife first) so that it doesn’t drag against the dough.
  • Put the oven on 220 C and bake the bread for at least half an hour until it’s a light brownish colour; then remove from the tin & turn down the oven to 190 C and bake for another 10 minutes until it’s a dark golden brown colour.
  • Remove and allow to cool on a wire rack.


The first one was made in 1937 by Bob Cobb, the owner of The Brown Derby when he made a salad from crispy lettuce, romaine, watercress, tomatoes, avocados, chives, cold chicken breast, crispy bacon, hard boiled eggs, cheese and a French dressing for Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Theatre.


Roasting a piece of meat in a pot certainly didn’t originate in America but using beef brisket or chuck, veggies & what-have-you and roasting it in beer or wine on top of the stove just has to be one of Americas favourite meals and really, so easy to make that I’m including it here.


  • 1.5 kg  beef brisket or chuck, ready and prepared for a pot roast
  • 10 small red onions, peeled but kept whole
  • 1 fennel bulb, sliced
  • 3 smallish turnips, peeled
  • 5 small carrots, peeled & thickly sliced
  • 2 lemons, finely grated zest
  • 2 heaped tsp coriander seeds, finely crushed
  • 1 tsp allspice berries, finely ground
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 5 tomatoes, peeled
  • 1 large handful Italian parsley, chopped
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 litre homemade beef stock
  • 300ml good red wine, a merlot is always good.
  • 100 ml good port
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Serve with baked potatoes and a pile of wilted baby spinach


  • Put the meat in the middle of a heavy casserole & pack the vegetables around it; sprinkle with the spices and the bay leaves; pour in the stock and red wine but leave the port for later.
  • Cover the pot and bring slowly to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer gently for 2-3 hours; in the last half hour, pour in the port & increase the heat slightly to bring to the boil, turn down the heat again.
  • Allow the meat to get quite cold & then remove any additional fat; reheat gently and serve with the vegetables.


Before I start, I’d like to point out that fortune cookies are nothing like the O-MIKUJI cookie made in Japan which is bigger, made of a darker dough that contains sesame & miso and not vanilla and butter like the fortune cookies. The only similarity is that they both contain a fortune – in the Japanese version it’s wedged into the bend of the cookie and not stuck inside the cookie. The first person in the USA to serve the American version of fortune cookie was Makoto Hagiwara of Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco in the 1890’s & they were made by a San Francisco bakery, Benkyodo. Until the Second World War, the cookies were called fortune tea cakes but after the war, these initially very Japanese cookies, were taken over by the Chinese. The theory is that this was due to the Japanese American internment during World War II when 100,000 Japanese-Americans were put into internment camps & amongst them, all the bakers that produced these cookies. Enter the Chinese. Before the early 20th century, the cookies were all made by hand but then a man by the name of Shuck Yee of Oakland in California invented a fortune cookie machine which made it possible for these cookies to be mass produced and that’s why they’re not so expensive anymore and available at almost all Chinese restaurants as an after dinner treat. Today the cookies are found at Chinese restaurants around the world but not in China.


To a biltong loving South African the American jerky which is essentially very dried, shrivelled up meat that is popularly believed to have descended from the Indian pemmican (mixed fire-cured meat and fat), is terrible let down (we like our biltong a little less dry) but to the Americans it’s a protein rich strip of pure pleasure. Different strokes for different folks. Unlike the South African biltong which is only ever made with beef or venison, jerky is made from just about everything they can lay their hands on: chicken, turkey, venison, buffalo, alligator, yak, emu and beef. It can have a cadzillion flavours (jalapeno, lemon, teriyaki and chilly and it can be peppered or hickory smoked or honey glazed) because they’re American and they can.


I had my first Banana split in Cape Town in the company gardens and my dad bought it for me, telling me this was an American thing. I was very impressed made a mental note to find out more about it, little knowing that my life would revolve around the history of food. Be that as it may, Americans are rather partial to banana splits which were, so the story goes, first made by David Strickler in 1904; he was only 23 and an apprentice pharmacist at Tassel Pharmacy in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and loved coming up with new ideas for sundaes at the store’s soda fountain & at some point invented the banana-based triple ice cream sundae. The first one cost only 10 cents and was twice as expensive as all other sundaes but the students at the nearby college loved them!  Three years later in Wilmington, Ohio a restaurant owner by the name of Ernest Hazard also made one which is why the annual Banana Split Festival is held here each June.


This is the dish from the Hank Williams song, Jambalaya, that was written in 1952 & which I heard for the first time when Creedence Clearwater Revival covered it! Jambalaya was born in the Caribbean Islands and in all probability originated from the Spanish paella but adapted and changed to become the dish so well loved by Americans. Creole jambalaya comes from the French Quarter of New Orleans (the original old European sector) when the Spanish tried to make paella in this new strange land without paella which was ridiculously expensive; in time, the French population in New Orleans grew & with the spices from the Caribbean, jambalaya became something unique. Today the dish has evolved with the red jambalaya found in the New Orleans region & the brown further afield. Cajun Jambalaya (brown Jambalaya) comes from Louisiana’s rural, low-lying swamp country which is why it’s made from all kinds of meat like duck, turtle, crawfish, boar, venison and even alligator! It has a smokier and spicier flavour. The first time the word jambalaya was used in the English language in America was in the May 1849 issue of the American Agriculturalist (if you’re going to look for it, turn to page 161) where Solon Robinson gives a recipe for something called ‘Hopping Johnny (jambalaya)’. The first time it appeared in a cookbook was in 1878 in the Gulf City Cookbook  put together by the ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Church – they speak about something called Jam Bolaya. It’s not a difficult dish to make & traditionally made in 3 parts with meats & veggies, then finished by adding stock and rice; there are 2 main ways of making  it but many adaptations:

  1. Creole jambalaya, aka Red Jambalaya:  meat (usually chicken or sausage like andouille or any smoked sausage) is added to the trinity of celery, peppers, and onions; next, the vegetables & tomatoes are added & lastly the seafood. To complete the dish, rice & stock are added in equal proportions and the whole lot simmers for about an hour, depending on the recipe. Some recipes require the jambalaya to be baked at the end.
  2. Cajun jambalaya, aka Brown Jambalaya: this is more typical of southwestern & south-central Louisiana and it contains no tomatoes (to remember, the further away you from Louisiana, the less often you’ll find tomatoes).  Here the meat is browned in a cast-iron pot & the bits of meat that stick to the bottom of the pot gives the jambalaya it’s brownish colour. If there’s not enough fat in the pot, a little veggie oil is added and the usual trinity of half onions, quarter celery & quarter green or red sweet peppers is sautéed until soft & golden. Now the stock is poured in with some seasoning & the meats are returned to the pot so the whole lot can simmer for an hour or even longer until the meat is nice and soft; finally rice is added & covered so that it can simmer for about 30 minutes without stirring; when the rice is cooked, the jambalaya is ready.

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