History has a flavor, says Sarah Lohman.
She should know—as a food historian, she not only studies but recreates historical dishes from every era in US history. In her new book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, she traces eight core flavors that have shaped U.S. culinary history, using their integration into the national cuisine to tell a wealth of stories about culture, economics, and the waves of immigration and migration that have always shaped this nation.
Lohman chose black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and Sriracha. (She excluded coffee and chocolate since so much has been written on them.)
Wait. Curry? Soy sauce? Sriracha— these are quintessentially American flavors? It sounds surprising, but Lohman makes a convincing case. Each flavor showcases a historical shift, a change that’s economic or political in origin but that moves people and commodities around, introducing new ingredients, cuisines, and ideas—and permanently changing the way we eat.
Lohman begins with black pepper, a pantry staple the reaches as far back as the colonial period. It was grown in India and Southeast Asia and imported to the Americas by the British East India Company, where cooks combined it with other seasonings to create heavily spiced sauces and even cakes—as part of her research, Lohman bakes Martha Washington’s recipe for “Pepper Cakes That Will Keep Good in Ye House for a Quarter or Halfe a Year.” Before refrigeration, cooks took advantage of spices’ antimicrobial properties.
After the revolution, the newly formed nation cut ties with the British and the ubiquitous spice became rare for a time—until a sea captain and importer from Salem, Massachusetts, John Crowninshield, found out where the British were getting their black pepper: Sumatra. He offered local traders double what the British were paying, began importing black pepper to the U.S., and became fantastically rich.
As for vanilla, we have three people to thank for its introduction: two of them were enslaved, and the other was a slaveholder. Edmond Albius was only twelve and was enslaved to a botanist on the French-owned Île de Bourbon (now Réunion), an island in the Indian Ocean. There, he discovered the hand-pollination method that is still used today to produce all vanilla beans grown outside Mexico (the insects that naturally pollinate the plant only live in some parts of Mexico). Vanilla became popular in France, where Thomas Jefferson—then Minister to France—fell in love with the flavor of vanilla ice cream.
Jefferson brought back a vanilla ice cream recipe to Monticello with the help of his chef, James Hemings (brother of Sally). Hemings was enslaved in Virginia but free in France, where Jefferson paid him wages; he stayed on in France for a time but agreed to return and work for Jefferson on the condition that he would be a salaried free man. Tragically, the stress of life as a free black man in a slave state overwhelmed Hemings, who committed suicide at 36. The culinary innovations he brought back from France remained part of President Jefferson’s table and had a massive influence on U.S. cuisine—macaroni and cheese and gelatin-based desserts were also introduced there.
Lohman makes a point of telling Hemings’s and Albius’s stories alongside Jefferson’s, pointing out that neither man usually receives the credit he deserves. Later chapters also tie beloved flavors to ordinary Americans. The chapter on chili powder traces how Mexican and German culinary influences met and blended in San Antonio, Texas, where the famous Chili Queens served outdoor dinners in the plaza. Texas was part of Mexico until the Mexican War—“soldiers from America invaded Mexico and then lived there, sampling the local food. They returned home with a taste for spicy Mexican cuisine, including chili,” she says. It was a German immigrant, William Gebhardt, who managed to put the flavor of chili into powder form in the 1890s, then gradually began marketing “Southwestern” food to the rest of the US, where it quickly caught on.
In the curry chapter, Lohman tells the fascinating tale of Ranji Smile, a charming, rather mysterious, and apparently devastatingly handsome chef from Karachi (then part of India, now in Pakistan). He introduced South Asian cuisine to the sparkling dining rooms of New York City, and is now considered the first celebrity chef. Garlic became popular as Italian Americans began assimilating into U.S. culture after generations of being considered dirty, smelly foreigners, with the smell of garlic a telltale sign of foreignness.
The stories of soy sauce and MSG, meanwhile, are tied to narratives of Chinese and, later, Japanese immigration to the West Coast, where Asian Americans cooked for diners who loved “chow chow” restaurants and chop suey but regarded the cooks themselves as unsanitary, suspicious, not entirely human, and possibly capable of chopping up and cooking rats and cats. Racism was once official policy, between the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II. In later years, though, bias against Asian Americans
became subtler, with the same undertones of suspicion lacing a public panic around MSG, which many white diners insisted made them ill with “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” The “syndrome” was debunked—MSG is a naturally occurring and totally harmless ingredient—and the flavor of umami has since come to be recognized as a fifth sense of taste that makes foods deeply satisfying.
Sriracha, the eighth flavor on Lohman’s list, is its most recent addition and perhaps the one that most encapsulates the concept of the United States as culinary melting pot. She notes it “combines cuisine from France and Thailand with the dreams of a Vietnamese refugee named David Tran, but is produced entirely in Southern California.” Colonization, immigration, war, entrepreneurship, and viral fame—it’s all there in the red bottle with the rooster, the one that once graced mostly immigrant tables but is now ubiquitous in restaurants and home kitchens of all kinds.
“The American is not static,” writes Lohman; “it’s cumulative, and it evolves.” As a country changes, so does its cuisine, and each new group that arrives has something important to offer. What was once terrifying and foreign to some becomes familiar and friendly, a part of American culture so basic that it’s hard to imagine this country without it.