When Simon Majumdar decided to become an American citizen, he knew he needed to learn more about his soon-to-be adopted country. He didn’t just open a history book. Instead, he undertook a grand, cross-country journey focused on food, drink and the people who make them. He also got his hands dirty along the way. Among his many adventures, Simon made cheese in Wisconsin, brewed beer in Washington state, and cooked for a tailgate party in Texas. He writes about his discoveries in his book Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork. He spoke to our correspondent Joe Yonan, food and dining editor of The Washington Post.
Joe Yonan: When you set out in your book to find America, why did you decide on food as the path?
Simon Majumdar: Food has always been a central part of my family’s life. It’s the way we’ve gauged just about everything we do and every reference we have in our family. I’m sure a lot of people are like this; we can say to each other, “Do you remember when we went here?” The family goes, “Not really.” And you go, “Yeah, you do. Remember, we ate this?” And then everybody remembers. Food is one of those great signposts of our life as Bengalis. My father is from Calcutta, my mother was from Wales, and I’m from England. When I wanted to look at becoming an American, it was a decision. I’m a very proud Brit and was a green card holder; I could have stayed here forever like that. But I wanted to become part of this extraordinary country, a full part. Before I made that rather big decision, I wanted to go out and meet as many Americans as possible. I think sharing a meal with someone, when you’re breaking bread, it tells you something about a community and people that you will never get any other way.
JY: Before you started, what preconceived notions did you have about America and American food?
SM: I’m not sure that I had any negative preconceived notions, but I didn’t know that I was going to meet the extraordinary number of people. I also didn’t realize how much I’d have in common. We often sit in these polarized times and I think, “Here I am on the West Coast, and I’m a very liberal guy. I’m going to have nothing in common with someone down in the Deep South.” And yet, I found the more I travelled around this country, the more the same we are than we are different. That was the biggest surprise to me.
JY: You were coming at this as a consummate outsider. Do you think that affected how you approached things and how people reacted to you?
SM: I hope I took an open-minded view. I was given more opportunities because of my profile on social media. I think people were a bit surprised that I would want to come and share their experiences. What happens is we don’t realize how good we are. We’re looking at all the dark sides and our arguments, politically or religiously. Sometimes you need an outsider to come in and go, “You know what, this is a great place!” I went into my journey with that thought, and I came out of it even more inspired about what I think America is.
I’m the perfect example of what America can be. Here I was: a forty-something year old Brit who had a nervous breakdown, travelled around the world, met my wife who was from Los Angeles, moved over here, ended up writing books and being on the Food Network. That’s a genuine American story. I found lots of those as I travelled around the country.
JY: You used social media to determine where you would go?
SM: I did. It’s a great resource. I went on there and said, “Hey folks, what should I do?” The invitations came by the thousands, and it still goes on. Every year my wife and I do this trip called “Give Us a Bed, I’ll Cook You Dinner,” which we do on Twitter as a hashtag. People invite us all over the country. We go to stay with them and cook them a meal as a thank you. And it’s just our way of meeting as many Americans as possible.
JY: You’re absolutely welcome to come to Washington D.C., and I will take you up on that offer.
JY: The book is a lot about food but also about people. Can you tell us about some of the characters you met along the way?
SM: I got invited to share a Sabbath meal with a Jewish family in Overland Park in Kansas City. At the same time, the gentleman who invited me said there was a kosher barbecue festival going on. Who knew? I was invited by the organizer, this remarkable chap called Mendel Segal, who’s a Lubavitch Rabbi and a barbecue nut. He makes his own barbecue rubs and his own kosher barbecue sauces, all of which are rather good. I got invited to this rather fantastic event and judged 40 different teams. It’s done under the Kansas City Barbecue Society umbrella but keeps absolutely kosher rules. The meat is prepared on a Thursday and kept in a cooler. Everyone then goes off to celebrate the Sabbath. A Rabbi will come out and look at the stars in the sky and say, “There are three stars in the sky. Now you may start cooking.” The Mashgiach will go and light all of the fires so that they can start together. What happens the moment they do that? There’s the first pop of a beer bottle, and it’s like any other barbecue competition you go to. Obviously not cooking with pork, but cooking with turkey and beef. Mendel was one of the great characters.
There’s another wonderful character vaguely related to barbecue. I was invited to an eating competition in Philadelphia called Wing Bowl. It’s one of the craziest competitions: 26,000 people in the stadium where the 76ers play, six o’clock in the morning on a freezing day, watching 25 people eating wings to win $20,000. I was invited by this guy called Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, who now runs a great barbecue restaurant up in Hartford, Connecticut. He was extraordinary. He won the competition by eating something like 400 chicken wings in half-hour, which is just mind-boggling. He was using that money – and money from other eating competitions – to put his kids through college and to fund this new business that he was starting. That was another great American story. It was about finding something that you do brilliantly well and using that to fund your American dream. I think that spirit of improvement and moving forward all the time is something that I found constantly throughout this country, in lots of different communities.
JY: At the end of the book, you have a list of your Top Ten Best Eats of the Journey. [Ed. Note: see complete list below interview.] Tell us about some of your favorites.
SM: Some of the meals on the list are because the food was delicious, others because they were either surprising or they had a particular personal appeal. One of them was a cheese in Wisconsin, which I actually helped to make at Pleasant Ridge Reserve. It’s Hatch Farms, and I’d been for the American Cheese Festival. To put this into context, a while ago when I used to write snarky things on food chat boards like Chow Hound back in the day, I once wrote something on there saying, “America is where good cheese goes to die.” That’s a thought that I’d had about American cheese for a long time because cheese that traveled here from Europe often wasn’t well-kept; cheese that was made here was probably made with more enthusiasm than experience because it was a craft that had been lost for a long time. That’s certainly not true now. America is making world-class cheeses, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which is a previous winner of the best cheese at the American Cheese Conference, is one of those.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to every state in the U.S., and Wisconsin is one of the most gorgeous I’ve been to. I went there to make cheese with Andy Hatch, one of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met in any craft business around the world. We made the cheese together, and it is a wonderful cheese. I do recommend people going out and trying some cheeses – whether it’s from Vermont or Wisconsin or the West Coast, wherever you are.
Where better to eat a lobster roll than in New England? It’s always going to be perfect, and the people who made it for me there did an exquisite job. We went out on the boats to catch the lobsters.
Making a beer with American Brewing Company in Edmonds, Washington. I made a beer called Fed, White, and Brew that was entered into competition at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival. We ended up winning a bronze medal, which when you think there were 4,500 beers and only about 250 won a medal, it was a real achievement. I still have that medal hanging up in my living room.
JY: As the book title states, you spent a year trying to “find America with your fork.” What did you learn about America?
SM: It’s a great question, and one I’m still working on. I definitely learned some food things. I believe we’re on the edge of a great golden age of food in America with the influence of immigrant population, the rise of the craft movement, and the fact that we’re seeing great food coming from all over the country. What I really found out was about the people. It showed to me that Americans are all kinds of different people, and it’s very hard to define what makes an American. It can be whatever you want it to be, but the one thing we all have in common is we all eat.
Simon has written Fed, White, and Blue. Joe Yonan’s latest book is Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook.
See the list below to learn Simon’s Top 10 American eats from his epic cross-country journey.
Top 10 Eats of the Journey
Lobster Roll at The Pearl Restaurant in Rockland, ME
Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese from Uplands Farm in Pleasant Ridge, WI
Carnitas El Momo food truck in Los Angeles, CA
Smoked salmon in Alaska
Kare Kare at Salo Salo Grill in West Covina, CA
Roasted Green Chilies in Santa Fe, NM
Fed White & Brew ESB at American Brewing Company (Edmonds, WA)
A Simple Salad at Love Apple Farm (Scotts Valley, CA)
Fresh Clams in Egg Harbour Township, NJ
St. Louis Ribs at Phat Jack’s in Lincoln, NE
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