Something to Read: American Food Writing


A good story is as good or better than a good recipe, but a good story that ends in a recipe is about my favourite thing, because it means you can take the story with you and re-tell it, in a way, every time you make a dish. I like stories.

With food in particular, I like to know why things are the way they are. I mean, it’s all well and good to find a nice recipe for scones, but why do the scones exist in the first place? Are they the fancy scones your grandmother would always make on Sunday to go with tea? Tell me about tea with your grandmother. The scones will taste better if they are not just any old scones. I want to be biased. I want to believe they are exceptional.

Good writing about food fills most of my emotional voids (the rest are filled with cheesy carbs or over-buttered popcorn). Which is why I was delighted to find American Food Writing: An Anthology, edited by Molly O’Neill, at a local bookstore that was tragically set to close but then was bought/rescued by another local bookstore and then everyone lived happily ever after. The book is a collection of 250 years of American writing on food, from writers as diverse as John Steinbeck, James Beard, Madhur Jaffrey, David Sedaris, and Emily Dickinson, among others. It’s food writing and writing about food excerpted from longer works, and there are recipes.


There’s a recipe for a clambake to feed 500 people (and 125 workers) that requires 200 pounds of sausage and “1 1/2 tons of stones about the size of a cantaloupe melon;” there are recipes for risotto and chowder and hoe cake and Chicken Marbella. There are stories of “primal bread” and “enough jam to last a lifetime” and “adultery” and “The Toll House Cookie.” It is, as it turns out, both a pleasant incremental read and a reference book, and I am pleased to have it in my collection and to recommend it. I honestly can’t choose an excerpt because I can’t narrow one down. Borrow it from the library; if you agree that it’s wonderful, buy yourself a copy.

Here’s a recipe for Lady Bird Johnson’s “Pedernales Chili,” because this is the kind of thing the book contains and isn’t that fantastic? There’s definitely a story behind it. The recipe originally appeared in a 2004 book by Robb Walsh called Tex-Mex Cookbook. I’ve excerpted it here in its entirety; you can find it on page 711 of American Food Writing: An Anthology.

During the ranch era, the Dutch oven and cast-iron skillet became common cooking utensils. The new cookware made it possible to brown the meat before cooking the chili, which improved the color and flavor. Here’s a classic cowboy chili recipe that Lady Bird Johnson used to give out. (Page 711)

Pedernales Chili

(Makes 12 cups.)

  • 4 pounds chili meat (beef chuck ground through the chili plate of a meat grinder or cut into a 1/4-inch dice)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp. chili powder
  • 1 1/2 cups whole canned tomatoes and their liquid
  • 2 to 6 generous dashes of liquid hot sauce
  • Salt

Saute the meat, onion, and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook until lightly colored. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes, hot sauce and 2 cups hot water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about 1 hour. Skim off the fat while cooking. Salt to taste.

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