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Food historian serves up course on American cuisine

Virginia Bartlett takes students on culinary ‘trip’ across U.S.

Created date

May 21st, 2013
Native red corn

Virginia Bartlett s inspiration for her latest lifelong learning course came from a conversation with a friend who had just returned from a road trip across the United States. The friend, who hails from England, remarked about the exorbitant amount of fast food she had eaten along the way. I thought, Dear heaven, is this the way we re going to be remembered? Virginia recalls. The food historian, who lives at Linden Ponds, knew better. In her spring course Eating Our Way Across America, Virginia set out to answer the question, Is there a truly American cuisine? Virginia is well qualified to tackle the question. Food was the subject of the Pittsburgh radio show she hosted and saw turned into a book. Food was often the subject of her television production work, and it is the center of her column Food for Thought in Linden Ponds electronic magazine LIFE @Linden Ponds.

History comes alive

Virginia s six-week course scratched the surface. She covered the country s culinary gems by region, taking the class on a journey from New England to the northwest. She discussed the impact of immigration on food and stories of early settlers who shared a desire to recreate the food of their home countries. If you re going to talk about food in America, you re talking about history, she says. By Virginia s definition, American cuisine should refer to dishes that can be found on any menu nationwide. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and ice cream may fit that bill, but they didn t all originate here. There s never going to be any agreement, Virginia says of her initial question. But, she points to one key staple of the American diet believed to have originated here: corn. There s so much of it, and we use so much of it in different ways, it s mind-boggling, she says, adding that the Mayans cultivated corn, and settlers used cornmeal for cooking in lieu of wheat flour.

Community treasures

Virginia does much of her research in her Linden Ponds apartment home, where her dining table is splayed with books offering a glimpse of early American cuisine. Though her spring course ended, she continues work on a book surveying early community cookbooks from across the nation. I think they re an important contribution to regional food and the closest thing to finding what people are really eating, Virginia says. It tells a lot about America and a lot about women. Virginia notes the changing approaches to cooking as ovens and techniques evolved, as well as the references to cooking as a wife s means of keeping her husband happy. Among Virginia s favorite finds are an Eskimo cookbook created by an Alaskan school, with recipes for walrus stew and caribou with gravy; a book created by the cast of the musical Les Miserables, with recipes based on song lyrics; and a Boston suffrage cookbook assembled by a women s association in 1886. Despite her research and writing about food, Virginia says, It s possible to look at food as a separate entity without getting hungry. But when she is hungry for comfort foods, she calls upon one of her favorites: smoked salmon, tuna casserole, Girl Scout cookies, or blueberry pancakes (for dinner).