Before Emeril came along and kicked everything up the same notch every night with the most repetitive, hypnotic TV program since Murder, She Wrote, the star of the Food Network was most definitely David Rosengarten and his half-hour show Taste. Rosengarten, a college theater professor turned enthusiastic foodie, brought a sense of showmanship and performance to the cooking show. Preparing his recipes on a stark, undecorated white set, Rosengarten blurred the line between cooking and performance art in a way that wasn’t seen again until Alton Brown’s Good Eats debuted in 1999.
By that time, Rosengarten was already on his way out at the Food Network. But he’s hardly been silent since, publishing a couple Manhattan-oriented foodie newsletters, and continuing to crank out cookbooks. His first was The Dean & Deluca Cookbook, which just coincidentally happened to feature a bunch of recipes whose ingredients could only be purchased from a certain Manhattan food store. It was a good read, though. Taste, his next book was a collection of recipes from the show, interspersed with anecdotes about how he discovered his favorite dishes and how he made the transition from the world of theater to the world of food. He closed that book with a lengthy divagation on wine, which is reason enough to recommend the book: It’ll make you look a lot smarter if you commit his wine recommendations to memory.
His most recent book is It’s All American Food: The Best Recipes For More Than 400 New American Classics, and it does not disappoint. Rosengarten’s personality comes through loud and clear on every page.
Do not assume that Rosengarten is here to celebrate “new American cuisine.” Fans of Charlie Trotter and Dean Fearing should look elsewhere. He has humbler fare in mind, the sort of stuff the average American buys for lunch or fixes for dinner when pressed for time. There’s no nouveau meat loaf made with ground pheasant and goat cheese, although there are a few interesting riffs on established classics.
There are three main sections to It’s All American Food: “Ethnic America,” “Regional America,” and “Classic America.” In the first, Rosengarten presents unapologetically-American versions of our favorite ethnic foods and, as such, means this is probably the only cookbook published in the last twenty years with recipes for such debunked classics as duck a l’orange and chicken chow mein. I’m sure this has cost him serious points with the foodies who used to adore his restaurant reviews for Gourmet magazine, but I for one am glad to have a workable recipe for General Tso’s Chicken in print.
The “Regional America” section focuses on standard specialties that have been anthologized before: New England clam chowder, New York deli food, Brunswick stew, oysters Rockefeller, Cincinnati chili, crab Louis, and the like. Any cookbook enthusiast already has multiple recipes for all these things, but it’s nice to see them all together in the same book. (Well, the same book that’s not the joyless food catechism The New Joy Of Cooking is, anyway.)
The last section, “Classic America,” is pure comfort food indulgence. And “indulgence” is not too strong a word, either: Rosengarten’s “Ultimate BLT” calls for four to six tablespoons of mayo on a single sandwich. Of course, he notes that you can add “more to taste.” But then, since he calls for a four-to-six-inch-thick pile of tomatoes on that single sandwich, that’s perhaps understandable.
This was an ambitious undertaking for Rosengarten. Nobody, to my knowledge, has attempted to capture all the ragged glory of the American palate since Jane and Michael Stern’s long-out-of-print Real American Food. Indeed, there’s considerable overlap between the two books. But, while neither Rosengarten nor the Sterns are trained chefs, Rosengarten is talented enough to add his own spin to several American classics–and I mean in more ways than just adding gobs of mayo to a tomato-sodden sandwich. However, the most significant ways the books overlap is that both Rosengarten and the Sterns are excellent food writers, and both books are good reads even when you’re not hungry.