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As American as cinnamon toast?
To be honest, when I first saw a copy of Mimi Sheraton's new book, "1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die," my initial thought was that the illustrious former restaurant critic for the New York Times really wanted to call her book "1,000 Foods I've Eaten That You Haven't."
In fact, I immediately began scanning it, looking for the hoity-toity, esoteric foods from distant lands that she included as a way of establishing her culinary superiority. Things like sanguinaccio, a sweet blood pudding from Italy, or cervelles au beurre noir, a French dish of lamb brains in black butter.
I even carefully paged through the book, keeping count of how many of the items I have actually eaten. Four hundred and seven, as it happens, which is a lot more than I would have guessed from a book that includes sweet blood pudding and lamb brains.
American foods: But then I got to the section in the book about American foods, and I was instantly hooked. What foods would Sheraton pick as quintessentially American? Which foods would she recommend to people on these shores and those from distant ones that they should eat at least once before they die?
How about cinnamon toast? Or chocolate cream pie? Or a hot fudge sundae?
These are not foods that we immediately think of as being distinctly American. No one says "it's as American as cinnamon toast." Though, come to think of it, she does include apple pie in the book, too, calling it "the most American dessert." The closely related apple brown betty also gets a mention, along with apple pandowdy, which dates to colonial days and which, as far as I can recall, I have never eaten. Or heard of.
I won't be the wise guy who points out that apple pie was originally English. We have certainly made it our own, and there are few things we can eat that are more genuinely American. Hamburgers and hot dogs, maybe, and both of those German imports are also in the book.
As for cinnamon toast, chocolate cream pie and hot fudge sundaes, all of them are truly American. All of them should definitely be eaten before you die. And for all I know, the concept of sprinkling cinnamon and sugar on buttered toast may be as foreign to someone from, say, Sweden, as eating sweet blood pudding is to us.
Sweet: Toasted marshmallows, too, make the list, with no argument from me. Here is what Sheraton has to say about them: "Beguiling even plain, marshmallows reach their apotheosis roasted over an open fire." That makes you want one right now, doesn't it?
Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies are definitely a must for the book (did you know that Toll House Inn co-owner Ruth Graves Wakefield invented them when she ran out of baking chocolate and decided to try breaking up a bar of semisweet chocolate that had been given to her by a friend, a man named Andrew Nestle?).
And then there are the pies: Along with apple and chocolate cream, she lists pecan (my personal favorite), shoofly, lemon meringue and key lime, which seems too exotic and tropical to be American but, of course, comes from the islands of Florida. And she also includes perhaps America's greatest contribution to the world of desserts — the Oreo.
That's just the sweets. Among savory dishes, southern fried chicken makes the grade; it would have been unthinkable if it did not. But what about tuna salad sandwiches? Or turkey sandwiches?
I am not, myself, a huge fan of either tuna salad or turkey sandwiches. Both are unquestionably American. But do they really belong among the top 1,000 things from around the world that you should eat from before you die?
I feel the same way about saltwater taffy, which is in the book, and Indian fry bread and hoppin' John. All are good, but I would rank them well below the top 1,000.
I give more credence to Sheraton's inclusion of soft-shell crabs, gumbo and jambalaya. And you can't argue with the snack foods that made the grade: potato chips, popcorn, soft pretzels and Moon Pies.
A total of 128 items from America are featured in the book, ranging from bacon, baked potatoes and BLTs to sweet Georgia peaches, Vidalia onions and watermelon. It's an extensive list, and well thought out. And I am happy to report that it includes my favorite American food of all time: peanut butter.