After working as a chef in the United States for many decades, I have mixed feelings about people who are not familiar with America's rich culinary history. I have great pity for them because I know what they have been missing in their lives, as I was once missing it myself; I also have great delight because I know the wonderful journey that awaits them as they turn back the years and discover the nation's rich culinary history.
Originally, I made the assumption that early American life was full of rough-hewn people who had little time for refined dining. Many years later, I learned I had not scratched the surface. By 1993, I had traveled throughout the United States and the world, forging ahead with my own global culinary consulting firm, Concepts by Staib, developing original culinary experiences, when a unique opportunity arose to run Philadelphia's historic City Tavern Restaurant (www.citytavern.com). The original City Tavern was built in 1773, the same year as the Hotel Post, and the property had come under the stewardship of the National Park Service, which required congressional approval of any proprietor. As I prepared for the approval process, I began researching the history of the tavern along with America's culinary history. Slowly my eyes opened to an amazingly rich and colorful national heritage.
Imagine my surprise when I learned about the grace and genteel nature that developed over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Already a melting pot of a nation, Colonial Americans blended European, Native American, African and Caribbean flavors and dishes into a unique culinary culture, one that incorporated exotic recipes into the realities of regional food availability. I felt a true connection to the past, not just as a chef interpreting recipes for the patrons of City Tavern, but on a personal level. I felt a direct connection to the men and women who built this nation, based on experiencing the same flavors, textures and aromas as they once did. The immediacy of that shared experience brought into focus what paintings, films, books and television shows always fell short of doing. By preserving our culinary history, we are able to have an authentic connection to our forefathers and mothers.
Needless to say, I discovered America's rich culinary history a bit later in life. As a child in Germany's Black Forest, and well into my adulthood where I worked at the finest hotels and restaurants in Europe, American history, much less American culinary history, was not something that I remotely considered. America was significant to most Europeans, especially in the era after World War II. But the country's past paled when compared to Europe's collective thousands of years of history. As a young chef, I studied Old World culture to guide my culinary vision as I began my formal training at the historic Hotel Post in Nagold, Germany. The traditions of such a relatively new nation seemed insignificant to me.
My journey began in 1969, when I was beckoned to the U.S. I thought only of the culinary future of this great nation, never giving much thought to its culinary past. Even Americans didn't seem to have much enthusiasm for the subject, beyond an affinity for the recipes of their grandmothers. But to know a region's food customs beyond a few generations is to understand where the people came from. To preserve and carry on their traditions is to know them, and ourselves, in a more vibrant way. Whatever your background, I urge you to dig deep into the culinary history of the U.S. and share it with those around you. You and your patrons will be all the better for it.
Chef Walter Staib is a renowned restaurateur, consultant, author and host of the Emmy Award-winning A Taste of History (www.atasteofhistory.org), which explores the lives of the founders of the United States through the dishes they served.