American Culinary Traditions, by State

by Joe Taylor
CulinaryEd Columnist
May 19, 2011

Chicago's Mighty Beef Sandwich

One of the greatest ongoing debates in Chicago may be who makes the best Italian beef sandwich. From those chefs with the best culinary educations to young children, every Chicago resident seems to have a favorite vendor of this traditional ethnic fare.

The history of this sandwich is varied, but all stories point to Italian immigrants first selling their beef sandwiches in Chicago in the 20th century. The sandwich became popular wedding cuisine, where the beef was sliced so thinly that it would feed all of the guests. Today Chicago's sandwich is served dripping with beef broth on white bread.

The Historical Cake of Connecticut

When the U.S. was celebrating its first century of democracy, Connecticut linked its festivities with its famous "Hartford Election Cake." Baked by Connecticut housewives who were revered for their cooking skills, this cake closely resembles English sweetened yeast bread.

The Hartford Election Cake tradition waned in the early 1900s as election days became less unique and immigrants brought new traditions to Connecticut. Recipes for the cake, however, are still widely circulated, and the treat is an important part of Connecticut's history. Students earning a culinary school degree may run across an Election Cake recipe in their studies of the nation's oldest cookbooks.

Denver's Breakfast Sandwich of Champions

The pioneer women who invented the Denver sandwich used techniques now valued in top culinary careers. They improvised with the ingredients on hand, mixing onions with eggs for the sandwich to mask the flavor that eggs took on during long journeys west.

The Denver Sandwich has been embellished over the years, and ingredients can now include bell peppers, chopped ham, and bacon. The idea of slapping an omelet between two pieces of bread has been a staple in sandwich shops since at least 1918. The sandwich, sometimes called a Western sandwich, has become an integral part of culinary tradition in Denver.

One Sweet Pennsylvania Legacy

It's hard not to think about chocolate in Hershey, Pennsylvania. From Hershey's kiss-shaped streetlights to the smell of chocolate wafting from the town's chocolate factory, this town is built on chocolate.

Anyone pursuing a culinary career or culinary school degree focusing on baking may want to visit Hershey, Pennsylvania. Milton Hershey developed a milk chocolate recipe in the early 1900s that spawned one of America's largest chocolate factories. This Pennsylvania town will be forever linked to its chocolate roots, where locals enjoy the legacy of Milton Hershey's work and, of course, abundant chocolate.

A Slice of New York

While pizza is often attributed to the Italians, New York has given this favorite a twist of its own. Contrary to the fine meals produced in New York's culinary schools and five-star restaurants, the popular New York style pizza is often best known for the river of yellow grease that drips off the crust.

New York-style pizza has been traced to the 17th century, when Spanish soldiers occupying Naples, Italy, enjoyed snacking on soft, crispy bread with local toppings. While the secret of New York style pizza is sometimes attributed to the city's hard water, this dish traditionally has a thin crust, light sauce, and lots of high butterfat cheese.

Picking Oregon's Best

Oregon's Willamette Valley is known as one of the best berry-growing locations in the world. It is home to a number of thriving berry crops, including raspberry, blackberry, and the famous local marionberry, that are used by chefs and cooking schools throughout the United States.

Marionberries were first grown in Marion County, Oregon, and are renowned for their intense blackberry flavor. The berry was introduced in the U.S. in Corvallis, Oregon, by G.F. Waldo in 1956. Annual production has since increased to 33 million pounds, and the berries are sold fresh between July 10 and August. 10. Frozen berries are available by the bag throughout the rest of the year.

Starting to Rise in San Francisco

One connection that has yet to be severed with San Francisco's pioneering history is the famous "Mother Bread." Saved even from the great earthquake of 1906, this sourdough bread starter and the sourdough traditions of San Francisco have been preserved for more than 100 years.

Long before cooking schools and culinary school degrees, French master bakers in San Francisco recognized the importance of the sourdough culture in San Francisco. The bread originally traveled west with pioneers, but the Boudin family made the bread famous in their San Francisco bakery. Sourdough first gained popularity during the gold rush and remains a San Francisco culinary mainstay today.

Smokin' Hot Texas BBQ

You won't find the best barbecue in central Texas anywhere near a cooking school. The cooks who purvey this famous Texas dish get their culinary education smoking barbecue over hot pits in locally owned restaurants.

The roots of Texas' famous beef barbecue can be traced to German butchers who settled in central Texas in the mid 1800s. Mexican vaqueros taught them to use beef rather than pork, and the butchers learned that rubbing the meat with spices and slow cooking it over smoking hickory chips produced heavenly results. Texas barbecue has since broadened to include other kinds of meat, such as goat, sausage, and spare ribs, and other cooking methods.

Virginia Ham, an American Tradition

Smithfield ham and red-eye gravy have been culinary staples of Virginia meals for more than 100 years. Hogs came to the United States with some of the nation's earliest settlers, and Virginia has long claimed to produce the best ham in the world.

Hogs thrive in Virginia's climate, and hams have been made here since the 1600s. One Virginia ham cured in 1902 is billed as the world's oldest ham. Only a few farms are now licensed to produce authentic Smithfield ham, and ham slices can be found in everything from mountain cooking to culinary schools' worthiest gourmet meals.

Best of the Bunch: Washington Apples

There's a good chance that apples used everywhere from culinary schools to family fruit baskets come from Washington state. Washington produces more than half of the apples grown in the U.S. for fresh eating. People with culinary expertise prize Washington apples for their taste and freshness.

Apples first came to Washington in the early 1800s when John McLoughlin of the Hudson Bay Company planted an apple seed in a Vancouver greenhouse. Pioneers soon discovered that the terrain in the Cascade Mountains was excellent for apple growing, and the first orchards were established in the late 1800s. Today Washington exports apples to 50 states and 40 countries.


About the Author

Author and business coach, Joe Taylor Jr. helps professionals change careers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Communications from Ithaca College.
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