Matthew Gavin Frank’s previous book was about the discovery of the giant squid, and he has also written memoirs of working at a marijuana farm and an Italian vineyard. Given that unconventional publishing history and his background—he spent 20 years in the restaurant industry but is also a poet and creative writing teacher—it’s no surprise that his new book about America’s signature foods is no straightforward, one-genre affair. Instead, Frank describes The Mad Feast (Liveright; November 9, 2015) as a “spastic, lyrical anti-cookbook cookbook of sorts that also may be a fun and digressive revisionist take on U.S. history.”
Indeed, it is the off-the-wall blend of memoir, travel, history and fiction that makes the book unique. This is the cookbook David Foster Wallace might have written. Frank proceeds region by region, choosing for each state one beloved dish and interrogating its origins as well as its metaphors and associations. It’s a mixed bag of familiar foods (Mississippi mud pie and the Philly cheesesteak) and ones that only locals are likely to know about (Alaska’s halibut sandwiches, called “Buttwiches”; Washington’s “Aplets,” an apple and walnut confection).
This book is a treasure trove of random facts. Who knew that in 1965 Florida passed a bill decreeing that any restaurant whose Key Lime Pie contained no actual key lime juice would be fined $100? Or that in some Maine hospitals patients who have had their tonsils removed are fed liquefied whoopie pies? You’ll learn about West Virginia’s roadkill cook-offs, the history of smoked meats like Wisconsin’s bratwurst, and the variety of savory pastry pockets out there —not just the pasties consumed by Michigan’s copper miners, but also Kansan Bierocks (beef, onion and sauerkraut parcels). Frank also gives alternate names for dishes and explores their etymology. For instance, “bagel” comes from the Yiddish for ring, while South Carolina’s paella-like “perloo” is derived from Indian pilau rice.
The chapters are enriched with photographs and other illustrations, and each one ends with a recipe for the signature plate, whether from a Lutheran church or a posh restaurant. You can’t get more down-home than hot dish, a Minnesota casserole made with canned soup, hamburger and tater tots. However, Frank features a gourmet version with brisket, béchamel sauce and truffle oil. In this way, the dishes range from those easily reproduced at home (New Mexican chile sauces or Alabama’s Hummingbird Cake) to ones you might prefer to purchase (the Boston cream pie recipe has 19 intensive steps).
Frank’s digressive, anecdotal approach, based on made-up stock figures like “Uncle” and “your aunt,” takes some getting used to. His gleeful free-association games lead him down strange alleyways, as when he riffs on autoerotic asphyxiation because Louisiana’s crawfish étouffée literally means “stifled.” One chapter on the New Jersey Ripper — a deep-fried hot dog — is composed entirely of Google searches. If you enjoyed J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest and appreciate the style of writers like Geoff Dyer, Maggie Nelson and Will Self, this should be your next food-themed read.
3 cups flour
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup oil
3 bananas, chopped
1 cup crushed pineapple
1 cup pecans
Mix first five ingredients in mixing bowl. Beat eggs and then add to flour mixture. Add oil to mixture followed by bananas, pineapples, and pecans.
Bake at 350 degrees for 25–30 minutes or until golden brown.
Excerpted from The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food by Matthew Gavin Frank. Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Gavin Frank. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.