American Regional Flavors Reflect Local History
Every nation has regional cuisine, but because of America’s large size and melting pot heritage, no other country’s cuisine has the wide swing of tastes found in the U.S. From the seasonal fresh flavors of the Pacific Coast to the steamy chowders of the Atlantic, the spicy flavors of Cajun country to the dairy-loving Midwest.
The first flavors to form as a regional cuisine in the “New World” occurred through the mixing of the Colonist’s English recipes with the traditions of Native American people. Dishes that we still enjoy today that come from the early days of America include johnny cakes, succotash, and baked beans. The colonists substituted the wildlife and seafood found in their new home, for the protein they used in England, while maintaining some of the same preparations. So roasted mutton became baked turkey, pottage became chowder.
Further culinary and cultural regions developed as new immigrants from new countries settled into America, often clustering together by nationality. Italians, Germans and Scotch-Irish are some of the nationalities that initially followed the English to the U.S. in the largest numbers. They brought recipes from their homelands with them, and like the Colonists, blended these dishes with the local ingredients found in their new cities. New Orleans famous muffuletta sandwich is actually Italian. America’s favorite picnic dish, potato salad, is an evolution of the German dish Kartoffelsalat. And our beloved Southern fried chicken – it was brought to the states by the Scottish.
Finding Memories in Meals
I was fortunate to experience many regional flavors when I was growing up. My family traveled often, however, we weren’t tourists eating in trendy restaurants, we were simply visiting loved ones who lived far away.
I was born in Indiana, but my parents moved us to Georgia when I was five. We didn’t have relatives nearby, so our vacations were trips to visit family. While my friends spent summers sight-seeing, I was cousin-seeing in Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, D.C., Texas, and California. In each destination, there were several dishes I would look forward to eating because it wasn’t something that we made in Georgia.
My family had roots in farming, so they knew how to limit waste and use every edible item at hand. One experience I remember with special fondness is visiting the tiny church in my grandparents’ Illinois farming community. The congregation totaled about 50 people, and after the service, everyone would exchange produce and homemade goods. The item I always hoped someone would share was squash blossoms – the orange flowers that grow on a squash plant. In my grandparent’s community, they were prepared simply by being battered and fried in a cast iron skillet.
My grandparents’ tiny Midwest town, where they cooked every edible thing they grew, was the only place I had encountered that dish, until recently. I was in a restaurant and on the menu I saw: Fried Squash Blossom Stuffed with Goat Cheese. Of course, I had to order it. The batter was lighter than the dish I loved as a kid, and stuffing the blossom was a step the farmers in Illinois skipped. So while the down-home taste I remember was offered in a more contemporary way, I still enjoyed it immensely and it brought back many fond memories.
It’s that sense of comfort that is part of the lure of regional cuisine on a restaurant menu – whether it summons a taste of home, or in my case a taste of childhood time spent with loved ones.
“It’s that sense of comfort that is part of the lure of regional cuisine on a restaurant menu”
Are American Regional Flavors Still Relevant?
So you might be thinking, this is a nice story, Elisa, but are regional flavors still a relevant culinary discussion? And my answer would be, yes, while regional flavors have a history in the U.S. that began almost 400 years ago, the tradition isn’t slowing. Regional cuisines are constantly evolving and absorbing new cultural influences and techniques. But what I think is happening now is that the term is more expansive – because it’s less expansive. Let me explain…
In the culinary world, when we talk regional we usually mean the larger regions shown in the above map. But for the consumer, they often think of regional in a smaller way. It’s a signature dish from their home state, or a deep-rooted hometown flavor – like a fried squash blossom.
Here are three regional items that have spread nationally in recent decades, and they all have a smaller state-influenced origin.
Late 1960s. Pacific Coast Cuisine.
Hidekazu Tojo is often credited with first serving this tasty morcel in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. This now popular sushi recipe used local California ingredients (avocado and crab) to make the exotic Japanese dish seem more approachable.
The traditional margarita on the rocks was likely invented in Mexico, but the frozen version was created in 1971 in Texas by Mario Martinez, a Mexican-American who was inspired by a Slurpee machine at his local 7-Eleven. He took an ice cream maker and altered it into the first margarita machine.
Cajun Fried Turkey
Cajun chef, Justin Wilson, began frying turkey in the 1970s, but the practice didn’t have much traction outside of his kitchen. In the late 1980s, the recipe started to spread through Louisiana, and then took off nationwide.
So Who’s Doing Regional?
Offering an American regional dish can make the diner feel daring and sophisticated without the fear of unknown flavors that can come with ethnic innovation. American regional is a more familiar and approachable way to innovate to a larger consumer audience.
One regional cuisine that seems to be a national favorite is Cajun. California Pizza Kitchen wanted to add Cajun flavor to their menu and they knew their core diner was looking for pizza or pasta. Their solution… Jambalaya Fettuccine. It’s a pasta dish topped with blackened chicken and shrimp, crawfish, Andouille sausage and Tasso ham in a spicy Cajun sauce.
Actually there are a lot of restaurants that have rolled out Cajun dishes nationwide – Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Cheesecake Factory, TGI Fridays and Zaxby’s, among many others – it’s a regional flavor that makes people feel adventurous, but the flavors aren’t too far out for mainstream diners. (And if you want a quick dash of Cajun spice on your menu, remember we have The Original Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce in volume for kitchen use, and tabletop bottles for diners.)
A few months ago, Jack in the Box, a restaurant usually associated with burgers, began serving all-day breakfast and one of the main dishes is a “Southwest Scrambler Plate” that features scrambled eggs seasoned with roasted peppers, diced green chiles, and pepper jack cheese. Also embracing southwest, and breakfast, is Burger King. Their southwest-inspired breakfast burrito blends sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs and queso together in a flour tortilla served with picante on the side.
Then there’s Longhorn Steakhouse, which is known as a southwestern restaurant, but they make room on their menu for a New England-style shrimp and lobster chowder, and a California-inspired “Napa grilled chicken.”
Are Regional Flavors Right for your Menu?
So I’ve shared a few examples of what some of the brands in our industry are currently doing, so now the question is – Are regional flavors right for your menu? I think you have to look at two things to determine if this is something you want to implement: consumer demand, and any supply-chain issues related to indigenous ingredients.
Consumer demand can be gauged through focus groups and competitive analysis, probably best done after menu gaps in the market and consumer taste trends have been identified. Another idea is to roll-out a homegrown-inspired item to a limited local area. So test market a dish prior and make sure the locals approve before rolling it out nationwide. Last year McDonald’s began offering Gilroy Garlic Fries in the San Francisco Bay area. The restaurant takes their signature fries and tosses them with garlic from Gilroy, California, olive oil, parmesan cheese, parsley and salt for a flavor specifically tailored to Bay Area tastes. I don’t know if a larger roll-out is planned, but that sounds like something I’d like to try.
Regarding ingredients, supply-chain must be considered, but many formerly “local” ingredients have become more widely available nationwide. (For instance, I can get Gilroy-grown garlic shipped to Georgia in a click.) Also consistency issues can be minimized if you look at coating systems and flavor boosts, as opposed to building a dish based on a specific ingredient.
Whatever you decide, rolling out a regional menu item can be challenging but rewarding. Just remember, if consumers associate your restaurant with a particular type of food, any deviation from that expectation needs to be a best-in-class dish to make an impact.
If American regional is something you want to explore, contact your local Southeastern Mills National Account Manager. We are here for you and excited to bring your American regional idea to life!