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Interview: In 'Big American Cookbook,' Mario Batali and Jim Webster tackle regional cuisine

In Mario Batali's Big American Cookbook: 250 Favorite Recipes From Across the USA, a new book on American regional cuisine, the authors make a bold claim right up front, on the first page.

"The food of our religious and cultural celebrations, of our solemn moments, of our annual traditions, and of our family gatherings has often been the deepest well of our most profound memories," writes celebrity chef Mario Batali, who wrote the book with Jim Webster, a copy editor for the Washington Post and former food critic and copy editor for the then-St. Petersburg Times.

The theme for this week's Taste is the kind of regional fare Batali is referring to in that passage, dishes that are passed down through generations, that provoke arguments (no ketchup on Chicago hot dogs!) and remind our writers of home. We imagine that in a place like Florida, many of you have fond memories of or strong feelings for food from somewhere else.

We recently talked with Webster about Big American Cookbook, which came out Tuesday, and how certain foods come to be representative of an entire state or region. Often, these dishes follow the same pattern of tradition and heritage on their way to becoming inextricably linked to a certain place.

"There is a very common theme to how something becomes a regional food. ... Sourcing is a big part of it — whatever grows there will become a star," Webster said. "But it's more about the people. It's the melting pot concept."

Webster and Batali drew on their extensive travels around America to identify some of the most regionally specific dishes in the country, narrowing them down to the 250 recipes featured in the book.

"People get very parochial about their food," Webster said. " 'You can't have this unless you're here.' I don't buy that. That's why we wrote the book. If you want some of these dishes, you might have to make them yourself."

Here is an edited version of the rest of our conversation.

What did the research for this book look like?

We didn't do any specific traveling for this book, it was just built into the traveling we already do. Mario is from northern Michigan so he is familiar with that area; I go to the South a lot. We're both the kind of people who tend to find what's cool in the area, what's specific in the area.

For the last book, I spent three months going around the country. So when I ate, I wouldn't go to the fancy restaurant, I would find the local spots.

How did you nail down the dishes you wanted to feature?

At our first meeting, we sat down and (Batali) told me to come up with a list 10 dishes that are specific to an area. We did it by state, which is obviously tricky, because food doesn't define itself along geopolitical lines. But I came up with list and he came up with a list, and we sat down and compared notes. We had a list of 1,000 dishes, and we started winnowing it from there. And whittled it down to 350 recipes that we were super interested in, then eventually got it to 250 for the book.

From there, the list became the target (when I traveled). If we had anything on the list and I was going to be anywhere within 300 miles of it, I would check it out.

Anything we didn't know about, we tried to go in with an open mind. Though when Mario found out I had something called Iowa loose meat sandwiches on my list, he didn't know what it was, but he wanted it to be on the list.

What were some things you noticed about these regional dishes along the way?

Take something like roast beef sandwiches. It sounds common, but they are entirely different if you go to different states. You wouldn't recognize them as the same things, even though they are all roast beef sandwiches. It's a classic base, so it lends itself to interpretation. We sort of went through that with a lot of things. We told stories of foods that showed up in various places around the country in different places. Hand pies are another example. Hand pies in Tampa — devil crab. (Editor's note: He's referring to handheld crab croquettes that used to be popular on the streets of Ybor City.) I never had one even though I've lived here for 12 years because I didn't live in the area where they were popular. There's a place called Runza in Nebraska, where they sell the state's hand pies made with beef and sauerkraut. People who settled there were mostly Scandinavian. They were farmers back home, and they were farmers here, so they started creating the same dishes they had back home.

It was almost like we couldn't find a geographically specific food that didn't have a good story.

Were there places that stood out as having more of a connection to food than others?

When I think of food connected to an area, I think of three places. This was true before the book, and it bore out. That's the low country of the Carolinas, like Savannah and Charleston. New Orleans, which is just its own thing, that food isn't anywhere else. And New Mexico. I don't think people realize ... that's an area of the country that is fascinating. It's not trying to be copied like New Orleans food, but ... there's nothing else like it.

What about making regional fare outside of the region? Can it ever taste like the original?

I think it's fine to not try. If I make a devil crab with Chesapeake crab where I live in Washington, D.C., it's going to be fine, but I'm not going to have the Cuban bread they use in Tampa. If it's flavor you miss, go ahead and try. You know, there's enough intramigration in this country that's it going to happen, and it's totally viable. Depending on how good someone was at making it at home, they can maybe get away with it. ... But if I'm going to have beignets, I'm going to have them at Cafe du Monde.

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.

Mario Batali's Big American Cookbook: 250 Favorite Recipes From Across the USA

By Mario Batali and Jim Webster

Grand Central Life & Style, 512 pages, $40

Meet the author

Jim Webster will present Big American Cookbook at the 24th annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading. The festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, 140 Seventh Ave. S. It features a roster of more than 45 authors of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and more. For author biographies and other information, go to tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading.

Interview: In 'Big American Cookbook,' Mario Batali and Jim Webster tackle regional cuisine 10/03/16 [Last modified: Monday, October 3, 2016 11:53am]
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