Ever tried stewed moose face? Sarah Lohman has: The writer, who just spent years trying to figure out which flavors best represent American cuisine, once served moose face at a dinner party.
After finding the 19th-century moose recipe, Lohman wrestled with butchering an Alaskan moose carcass, trying to break it down and cook it. "At the end of the day, people showed up and ate it, someone actually liked it, and then we ordered a pizza," Lohman told NPR's The Salt.
Food-writing "research" can be code for "eating and drinking everything in sight," but sometimes it also means cooking a moose. And no, stewed moose face ultimately didn't make the list of the eight most important American ingredients that she writes about in her new book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.
What Lohman did find—as she scoured cookbooks, historical sources and Google's Ngram Viewer to discover the flavors that made the most frequent appearances in food made and served in the U.S.—are eight that stood out the most during the period she studied, 1796 to 2000.
What were the most popular flavors? If you guessed certain obvious ingredients like bacon, beef, chocolate, potatoes, corn and the like, you'd be wrong. None of those made the list. The eight flavors that do are, drumroll.... black pepper, garlic, chili powder, vanilla, curry powder, soy sauce, MSG and Sriracha.
While some of those won't come as a shock (vanilla, garlic), others are more of a surprise. Black pepper? The taken-for-granted spice has played a starring role in American food throughout history, even showing up in a Martha Washington cake recipe that called for as much ground black pepper as flour.
Chili powder has become a household spice in the U.S. ever since it "spread across the country because of entrepreneurial Texan-Mexican women who fed soldiers and tourists—and a clever German immigrant who was looking for a culinary shortcut," Lohman reports.
Sriracha, which has only been around since 1980 (yes, that long!), makes the list because it's managed to find its way into everything—everything—in the past nearly four decades, making up for the fact that it wasn't around for the first couple of centuries in America.
Sriracha's story begins with an ethnically Chinese refugee from Vietnam named David Tran, who came to the U.S. onboard a Panamian ship called the Huey Fong and started making hot sauce for a living, the same job he had in Vietnam. He started a small hot-sauce company in California, called it Huy Fong Foods, and now sells more than $60 million in Sriracha every year.
When she started researching the book, "I didn't realize I was going to be telling the story of disenfranchised people in America throughout history," Lohman told NPR. She describes her book as an "ode to these people that have affected our history in this country just as much as the establishment" but whose contributions are often overlooked. "Food is something that is often accepted in this country before we accept the immigrants themselves."
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