If the French are snooty about their cuisine, they once had every right to be. And, if an Italian threw up his hands in horror at the crap Americans used to eat, you just had to agree with him. American cooks used to have a dreary larder of foodstuffs to work with, but since the 1990s we have moved neck and neck with Europeans, especially when FedEx and DHL leveled the playing field for obtaining great ingredients overnight.
Overall, Europeans still do have better chickens, shellfish, mushrooms, certain vegetables, shrimp and cheeses than you can find here, unless you work hard and pay plenty for some artisanal American products. French bread is still the paragon of quality and taste. (I know I’m going to get mail about a sourdough bread maker in Santa Rosa, a rutabaga farm in Ames or a cheesemaker in Boise, doing fabulous stuff, but spare me!)
But, what foods do Americans cultivate or fish that are actually better than anything the Europeans or Asians have? Here’s a proud list.
Nothing comes close to USDA Prime beef. Largely corn fed, it has a richness of well-fatted flavor and, at its best, aged for weeks in ideal conditions, it cooks up into a tender but not soft slab of sizzling holy goodness. The grading standards are not what they used to be, so the steaks at restaurants serving “Prime” beef often lacks the richness and minerality it once did. Still, European beef is grass-fed and barely aged at all. And Kobe/wagyu is just a gimmick, whose principal flavor is fat.
How big do you want to go? Five pounds? Not a problem. Homarus americanus is fatter, sweeter and richer in flavor than the puny crawlers in Europe, plus ours have massive claws with more meat in them than the bodies of any species they find in the North Sea. You need do nothing but steam an American lobster and dip it in some melted butter. What do they do in Europe with their lobsters? They cover up its anemic taste with cream and sherry sauces and truffles and artichokes and give it names like Thermidor. Much better to go with langoustines or crabs from the Mediterranean.
Southern Italy grows terrific tomatoes (which they got from the Americas), but in peak season, no tomato beats an American tomato, as sweet as candy (it is a fruit, not a vegetable), tasting of sunshine and acid and enough juice to make a pitcher of Bloody Marys. Now we have an abundance of heirlooms, too, with evocative names like Big Boy, Jubilee, Bouncer, Bonney Best and Beefsteak.
Europe and India and Thailand, the entire Far East, should get down on their knees in thanks for our sending them—as of the 16th century—fleshy sweet and hot peppers, from jalapeños to Bell peppers, and scores of others that completely transformed the dull flavors of the world’s cookery. We still have more varieties—Guajillo, habanero, pequin, cayenne, serrano, poblano—and we know just what to do with them. Montezuma even flavored his hot chocolate with them.
O.K., there are very good crabs in Asian and European waters, but nothing comes close to the American blue crab of the East Coast—in Latin called “savory swimmer”—and the Dungeness and King crabs of the West. Then there’s the well-named stone crab, whose shell, said Damon Runyon, is “harder than a landlord’s heart.” And, God bless us, the soft-shell crab is a miracle of seasonal flavor you wait for and gorge on, for good reason.
In Europe the only good corn dish they could come up with since they imported it from the Americas is Italian polenta, and even that needs a lot of help from other ingredients. American corn was called “Sacred Mother” by the Central Americans and up north it is so associated with the best of summer and fall afternoons that it’s worth remembering that Mark Twain said the only way to eat it was to drag a kettle of water into the cornfields
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