Cookbook Review: New American Table by Marcus Samuelsson: One Nation, Undercooked

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Photograph: Helen Rosner / Eat Me Daily

Consider the notion of "American cuisine." Go past the checkered-tablecloth nostalgia answers, the burgers and fried chicken and fruit pies, and what's left tends to be something on the order of "everything." French food can be American, so can Italian, African, Asian, Indian. And that's not even touching on the domestic stuff: barbecue, Wonder Bread and mayo, Chicago dogs, egg rolls, pastrami burritos, anything from Alice Waters's garden. The exhaustive inclusiveness of American food is truly a material demonstration of the American dream: You found it here? It's American. You invented it here? It's American. You brought it here? It's American. We'll take it all. It's all ours.

So identifying a food as "American" is easy. The conventional wisdom, however, is that what's more difficult (and both more valuable and interesting) is taking those literally millions of edible moving parts, editing them down to a meaningful few, and teasing a story out of them. In his cookbook New American Table (Amazon), chef Marcus Samuelsson tries a new approach. Instead of taking a tiny cross-section of American cookery and holding it up as a mirror to everyone else, he goes full melting pot: chimichurri next to sambal olek next to tamarind-soy vinaigrette next to grilled tomato-mint salsa, an exuberant symphony of regions, cultures, and histories that, taken as a whole, deliver a complete portrait of American cuisine.

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Photograph: Helen Rosner / Eat Me Daily

If everything's American, does American matter?

But there's a reason the customary approach to American food is to go for the microcosm — it's what works. If we can assign the property of "Americanness" to everything, and when it comes to cuisine we pretty much can, then it loses any importance as an attribute. To get philosophical, it's a meaningless utterance, about as helpful as pointing out that all liquids are wet. (A friend once experimented with picking up guys using the line "Hey, we both have belly buttons," a Hegelian romantic approach doomed to failure for similarly over-inclusive reasons.) By throwing everything together under one cover without any real link holding it together, New American Table flounders. We need a thread. A narrative, a philosophy, a menu, a conflict, something that will help us know what to expect and why it matters.

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Photograph: Helen Rosner / Eat Me Daily

The unexpected chore of finding a recipe

This book's disorganization really is too bad, because it detracts from the recipes, nearly every single one of which I want to make. But absent an accessible rubric, New American Table loses much of its usability. Without sitting down for a cover-to-cover read (or maybe playing the old fortune telling let-the-book-fall-open-where-it-may game) you'd never know that this was the book on your shelf that had recipes for mussel-artichoke tart and cured buffalo on sourdough and quick beef curry with avocado and plantains. They don't have anything in common except for their ephemeral, meaningless definition as "American," and that's not enough. It doesn't help that the book's three hundred-odd recipes are divided among seemingly arbitrary chapters — what separates the salads in Breakfast and Brunch from the salads in Salads? Why is sesame-fried tilapia in Holiday instead of Fish and Seafood? — a mess that isn't much cleaned up by the bare-bones index.

And once you find a dish you'd like to make, the recipes themselves are not ideal. Despite often extensive headnotes explaining the geographic or cultural origins behind a dish, Samuelsson is spare in his recipe writing — this isn't a cookbook for the absolute beginner, as the steps in many of the recipes are elided, and demand a home cook with enough experience (or confidence) to fill in the gaps on the fly. (Should the "thinly sliced" fluke in the fluke-apple salad be cut with or against the grain? Just how thin is "thinly," anyway?) Still, even when it's not clear why a recipe is American — the tuna with parmesan risotto is attributed dually to Japanese influence and the recipe of an Italian chef — it sounds (and in this case tastes) spectacular.

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Photograph: Helen Rosner / Eat Me Daily

It's more than just hamburgers

Samuelsson's ambition is to blame here, but his enthusiasm does deserve praise. The Ethiopian-born, Sweden-raised chef is an American citizen, but it's clear from this volume that he still views his new home with wonder. In his introduction, he talks about the food of the United States as if he truly is introducing us to something new and wondrous — In America, Europeans come to New York and San Francisco just to eat! In America, ethnic food can be elevated to haute cuisine! In America, it's more than just hamburgers!

In its enthusiasm, its visual cacophony, and its disarray, New American Table's is reminiscent of any other ambitious travelogue-cum-cookbooks that attempts to capture the complete experience of an entire country between two covers. In fact, reading this book I felt many of the same frustrations that I did with Samuelsson's earlier cookbook The Soul of a New Cuisine (Amazon), a pan-African cookbook undercut by the fact that Africa, like America, is a massive, multifaceted landmass with more culinary variety than a single volume could ever do justice.

Passion, minus constraint

It's arguable, in fact, that America's sheer square mileage is the real culprit here — or at least that, plus the fact that the U.S. has been, historically, a relatively attractive destination for immigrants. If Samuelsson had wound up moving to and falling in love with the cuisine of, say, Portugal, we'd have a much more manageable volume on our hands. But it's America that we've been given, a country that is, perhaps, as haphazard and inconsistent (and intermittently beautiful) as New American Table.

There's no doubt that Samuelsson has plenty of passion for the food of his adopted homeland, but arguably it's when passion is constrained — formal poetry, Victorian sexuality, Humphrey Bogart monologues — that it is expressed most eloquently. This could have been three or four great books, but instead it's one big messy one. Just like America?

Helen Rosner

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  1. MrB

    Bogie and Bacall in Casablanca are clearly the Launcelot and Guinevere of our time. Except with more self-control.

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