'American Terroir': The Art (And Fun) of Crafting Truly American Food

The last decade has seen a food revolution in the United States, with the rise of locavorism spreading from the west to the East Coast. Farmers markets are booming, and people are rediscovering local flavors. nelea33/Shutterstock

The last decade has seen a food revolution in the United States, with the rise of locavorism spreading from the west to the East Coast. Farmers markets are booming, and people are rediscovering local flavors. This is not a new concept, and in fact terroir — or the idea that certain foods grown in an area have a specific flavor due to the specific climatic or soil conditions there — has long been a part of cooking and eating in Europe. Rowan Jacobsen, author of "American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters and Fields," had a feeling that North America was no different and went in search of truly American foods with tastes that are amplified by where they’re grown or raised.

MNN: You looked into what makes foods “taste like place,” from Vermont maple syrup to Nova Scotian potatoes to Panamanian coffee and Vermont cheeses. Besides sticking to North America, how did you choose the foods and drinks you covered in your book? Did you leave any out that you would have liked to have included?

Rowan Jacobsen: Because I was introducing the concept of terroir to people, I looked for foods and drinks where the influence of place was not subtle — where anyone could tell. And I looked for foods that had a good story, because partly what I hoped to do was get at the essence of each food by understanding how it responded to the world. Thus, salmon is the flavor of a fish bulking up for a marathon upstream swim, apples are a cold-climate device for getting animals' attention, and so on. I definitely left out a lot of great subjects, because I simply didn't have the info/stories on hand at the time I went to press to make a good case. I wish I'd been able to include Black Dirt onions (from the New York mucklands), La Quercia pork, Peconic Bay scallops and lots of others. Maybe in a sequel, or a website!

Your book's premise reminded me of a line from Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" that reads: "Will Americans ever have a food culture to call our own? Can we find or make up a set of rituals, recipes, ethics, and buying habits that will let us love our food and eat it too? Some signs point to 'yes.' Better food — more local, more healthy, more sensible — is a powerful new topic of the American conversation." Were you inspired by her or other writers? Who are they, and what kind of further reading on the subject of terroir would you recommend?

The biggest influences were on the wonky side. Ed Behr has been digging deep into terroir for 20 years in "The Art of Eating." And the book that most got me thinking about where flavor comes from is Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking." It's the bible for any terroirist. I'd also highly recommend Gary Nabhan's "Renewing America's Food Traditions."

Wine, chocolate, coffee, maple syrup, honey: So many of the foods you cover are distillations of drugs (fat, alcohol, stimulants, sweetness). Did you cover them by design or happenstance? Either way, why do you think these consumables best represent terroir?

Yeah, food is really just a delivery device for various awesome drugs. I think it's impossible to separate the rush of well-being we get from the drugs from the flavors of the foods. (This is why decaf coffee and tea just don't cut it.) I think because foods that deliver alcohol, caffeine, sugar, etc. are such a turn-on, we've put way more energy into paying attention to them. Thus, it's not that wine, coffee, chocolate, etc. are more strongly influenced by terroir than, say, potatoes (less, I suspect), but nobody out there is going to go to the trouble to grow single-estate potatoes, and even if they did, nobody would pay enough of a premium to make it worth it. The money follows the drugs (legal or otherwise).

Speaking of alcohol, you cover mead, wine and hard cider's origins and local flavor. What do you think is the secret to a great drink?

I've reached a point where I honestly can't swallow typical American red wine, even expensive ones. It's undrinkable. It's got the same taste profile as barbecue sauce and about as much subtlety. More and more, I need lightness in a drink — a kind of ethereal quality that plays nice with food and allows whatever mysterious things are going on in the vineyard or orchard (or cellar). I guess I'd say the secret of a great drink is that it doesn't come on too strong. (This kind of touches on my sometimes-maligned stripper metaphor in the book's wine chapter.)

By and large, the personalities of the people who are truly passionate about food are quite unique (Marina Marchese, the honey lady and Francois Broillard, the mushroom man, come to mind immediately). Do you think it takes a certain disposition to devote one's palate to terroir?

That's a great question. There's definitely a sizable faction in this country that is uncomfortable with paying too close attention to food. I think it seems fussy and French to them. But the people I know who work with food on an intimate level (whether gathering, producing or savoring) are always extremely down to earth and favor simple pleasures, simple food — which is more French countryside than Paris. The difference between the two is lost on most Americans. I guess the people I know who are working with these foods are all looking to partner with nature in some way, to recapture a meaningful relationship that's been lost in a country of supermarkets filled with Chilean lettuce in January.

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Jacobson hasn't created the website for "American Terroir" just yet, but you can keep up with his books and his plans on his website.