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What Americans eat

Progressive Cattleman Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 01 March 2016

I interviewed a gentleman in Kentucky who locally marketed grass-fed Belted Galloway beef farm-to-gate, as it were. He said he set up his beef cuts at farmers market stands and food fairs but wasn’t having the success he thought he would, even though the customers clearly specified a preference for grass-fed beef. He said simply, “The general public doesn’t know how to cook lean beef.”

And when the customers took home their nice lean steaks and roasts, they overcooked them and ended up with a tough chew. Then they blamed the producer.

This Kentucky producer had to rethink his marketing plan. He ultimately ended up supplementing the grass with grains, adding flavor and more palatable texture to the meat, and then took a hot plate and grill with him to the markets to show people how to cook it.

His experience isn’t unique. Last summer I toured a dairy and cheese factory and the owners also marketed their products locally by word of mouth, face-to-face sales pitches at grocery stores and farmers markets.

As the dairyman presented his palate of cheeses to the tour group, he also explained his marketing scheme, which included (no surprise) the need to pack a hot plate to the farmers markets to show customers how to cook.

The customers were specifically searching for these locally produced, specialty products but had no idea how to cook them. What’s a public to do when tastes have outgrown skills?

The New York Public Library launched a project to document the eating fancies of Americans. Their collection consists of about 18,000 menus dating from 1851 to 2008 from around the country.

Interestingly, appetizers presented on the older menus featured plates of cucumbers, celery, radishes, carrots and olives (as standalone or in combinations listed as “chow chow”) – much different than the hot wings or onion blossoms and other fried foods of today.

Here are a few interesting changes in our American tastes listed in the menu collection:

  • Tongue or liverwurst sandwiches (25¢ in 1933 at the Empire State Observatory Tea Room)

  • Green turtle (from the 1899 Pennsylvania Railroad dining car)

  • Fricassee of calf’s feet or ox tongue (from the steamship Lusitania in 1913, before the Germans sank it, dragging the U.S. into World War I)

  • Calf’s sweetbreads (or brains) and sardines, from the San Francisco Overland Limited (1925, for 80¢ or 60¢, respectively)

  • Turban of sheephead (and I promise you won’t get anything but confusion if you Google that one, but it certainly sounds suspicious; it’s from the New Orleans St. Charles Hotel, 1908)

  • Welsh rarebit soup (or rabbit, 60¢ from the Pig N’ Whistle California locations in 1948)

  • Home corned pig’s knuckle with sauerkraut (from Luchow’s Restaurant, 1965 in New York City, $1.95) and crisp goose cracklings ($3.00) or larded saddle of Canadian hare ($4.25)

  • Chopped chicken livers (from the New York Boardwalk Restaurant menu in 1958, $3.95)

That last entry might be misrepresented as an ol-timey taste. I consider that a taste developed from ‘Mom says we’re raising chickens and you’re going to help butcher them.’

Several of our publishing team members were at a symposium some months ago and went to Cracker Barrel one evening for supper. I ordered chicken livers (no one makes them better than Cracker Barrel), and one colleague said, “Seriously, you’re ordering chicken livers? I might have to rethink our friendship.” No kidding. I guess I can write him out of my will.

My point is, perhaps Americans ought to get back to the basics of cooking: sauté, puree, boil, bake, fry, roast, toast, baste, glaze, beat, boil, blend, whip and braise.

Sounds good in theory, but the problem is, we’re hungry right now. We don’t plan ahead. In fact as I write this, I’m hungry. Right now. Time to check the freezer to see what’s for lunch.

Come on, Marie Callender’s – don’t fail me now.  FG

Lynn Jaynes
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