'Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine'

Dec 15, 2016
Originally published on December 19, 2016 1:34 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

What defines a cuisine?

SARAH LOHMAN: When you think of food from anywhere on the planet, you can think about what spices, what flavorings are a big part of that cuisine.

CORNISH: Sarah Lohman is a culinary historian. She was introduced to the idea back in high school when she worked at a living history museum. Back then, it was a summer gig she did in costume and in character.

Now she's written a book about American cooking. She studied local archives, looking over cookbooks and handwritten recipes to find the flavors that make up our cuisine and how they came to be so popular. The book is called "Eight Flavors: The Untold Story Of American Cuisine."

Hey.

LOHMAN: Hello.

CORNISH: Hi. How are you?

LOHMAN: Good. How are you?

CORNISH: Last week, we met to talk more about it at Bazaar Spices, a local spice shop here in D.C.

LOHMAN: Oh, my gosh. It smells amazing.

CORNISH: Great.

LOHMAN: Walk inside.

CORNISH: Let's go in.

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CORNISH: The walls of the shop are lined with shelves stacked with autumn-colored powders in tiny plastic bags - Afghan saffron, dried black lemon and Jamaican scotch bonnet peppers. But we're looking for some of Lohman's eight flavors, the ones many of you can't cook without - chili, curry, garlic, to name a few, and of course black pepper.

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LOHMAN: So different black papers have different qualities.

CORNISH: One flavor down, seven to go.

LOHMAN: We have the section all about vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, monosodium glutamates.

CORNISH: You're saying the science name, but everyone will remember MSG.

LOHMAN: And then Sriracha.

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CORNISH: And with eight flavors in hand, we sit down for a tasting.

All right, so Sarah Lohman, you have done your shopping, so to speak.

LOHMAN: Yes.

CORNISH: We've found our spices.

LOHMAN: Yep.

CORNISH: And there's actually a counter here at Bazaar Spices, which is awesome. So let's take a seat.

LOHMAN: Great.

CORNISH: The book starts with black pepper...

LOHMAN: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Which goes way back to basically, like, the birth of America...

LOHMAN: Yeah, yes.

CORNISH: ...In that way. And you write that, number one, Americans actually like spicy foods (laughter).

LOHMAN: Yes, we do. It's true.

CORNISH: But number two, like, there is this idea that after Americans rebelled from England, we didn't know where to get black pepper from, which is crazy to me.

LOHMAN: Yes.

CORNISH: What happened?

LOHMAN: England had a monopoly, and they were charging us a lot of money to import things to the colony. So Revolutionary War started. We win the war. We win our independence. But then we didn't know where a lot of these commodities came from.

So essentially what happens is, one of our traders, a family out of Salem - they were in Indonesia. They were in Sumatra, and they got, like, a hot tip that black pepper grew on the northwest coast of Sumatra. So they came back, and they got a voyage funded to go to Sumatra. And it was the first direct shipment of peppercorn to America. This was in the 1790s.

CORNISH: It's, like, pepper espionage.

LOHMAN: Yeah, it really was.

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CORNISH: Some of our first millionaires made their fortunes with black pepper.

LOHMAN: Yeah.

CORNISH: And now we have some in front of us.

LOHMAN: We do.

CORNISH: And describe what we're looking at and why I have to grind it.

LOHMAN: The minute a spice is ground, its major flavorings, essential oils, chemical components - they're evaporating. And in front of us, we've got a bag of whole peppercorns as well as a bowl of freshly ground black ones. You want to give it a smell?

CORNISH: Yeah.

LOHMAN: (Unintelligible).

CORNISH: I'm not sneezing somehow.

LOHMAN: I'm going to open up this bag. OK, so here is regular black peppercorn. Do you just want to give it a chomp?

CORNISH: Sure. Is this unwise?

LOHMAN: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Not too bad.

LOHMAN: Not too bad - well, give it a second.

CORNISH: I mean it definitely feels like a plant.

LOHMAN: Now are you getting the heat?

CORNISH: Yeah, now.

LOHMAN: Yeah.

CORNISH: I would say.

LOHMAN: There it is.

CORNISH: Yeah, OK, all right.

LOHMAN: So we should get some ice cream out because that fat is the best thing to counteract that heat.

CORNISH: How are you doing this?

LOHMAN: I'm just grabbing a little bit of this ground pepper from the bowl and sprinkling a tiny bit on.

CORNISH: OK.

LOHMAN: And fat decreases heat. So you're all going to see how the fattiness of this ice cream mellows out our experience of this hot black pepper.

CORNISH: It definitely makes it easier to eat...

LOHMAN: To eat.

CORNISH: ...Than when I just took a pepper ball.

LOHMAN: (Unintelligible) We were coughing...

CORNISH: Yeah.

LOHMAN: ...And I was hiccupping.

CORNISH: That was not a good system.

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LOHMAN: You know, we do not think of pepper as being hot, but believe me. It is. There's a chemical called piperine, and it's triggering receptors in our mouth which are the same receptors that are triggered when we're actually eating something hot. And it's sending essentially, like, danger signals to our brain, and our brain in response is releasing endorphins. So one of the results of eating spicy food is that you start to feel quite good. And then that's actually a little bit addictive.

CORNISH: That's how you end up carrying...

LOHMAN: Hot sauce in your purse.

CORNISH: ...Hot sauce in your bag - yeah.

LOHMAN: Yep.

CORNISH: OK, so this brings me to chili powder because it's something that Americans kind of really embraced.

LOHMAN: Yeah.

CORNISH: And I didn't realize that it had its roots, again, after a war - right? - the Mexican War. What happened?

LOHMAN: So war is a great propagator of new culinary traditions in this country because it means that Americans are going to live somewhere else, around people who are not like them. They're eating those local foods, bringing a taste for that home. And then in general, after wars, people move to this country. They immigrate.

CORNISH: Right, so soldiers and also refugees.

LOHMAN: Exactly.

CORNISH: So I've always thought chili powder was, like, some shady, generic red powder that was in the grocery store. I love the taste, but I'm never quite sure what is the mix of things that are in it.

LOHMAN: Sure.

CORNISH: So can you just give us the quick - like, what's in chili powder when we say that?

LOHMAN: It's proprietary, so most people are going to keep it secret. But about 80 percent are chili powders. That can be a one-chili powder. It can be a blend of several, too.

CORNISH: So just grinding up a dried chili.

LOHMAN: Dried chili - and the man who invented chili powder didn't want to have to grind all those chilies. So he created this dried sort of flavorful, pulverized chili powder to be used as a shortcut in Texas-Mexican cooking.

That then also allowed the style of cooking to spread to areas where chilies themselves - fresh chilies - weren't indigenous.

CORNISH: Now, can I...

LOHMAN: Do you want to smell it?

CORNISH: ...Taste this with ice cream?

LOHMAN: Yeah.

CORNISH: I just like the idea of that.

LOHMAN: It looks beautiful.

CORNISH: Yeah. It's very impressive.

LOHMAN: The red chili mixed with this, like, turquoise bowl here.

CORNISH: OK, oh, that's cool.

LOHMAN: Yeah, I like it. This chili blend is not heavy on garlic. Like, these are really fruity chilies, and I think it's kind of a nice pairing.

CORNISH: What do you think are the two or three factors that lead to a flavor really spreading into American cuisine?

LOHMAN: Yeah, there are three that I've discovered by looking at these stories. One is some sort of turning point that creates an interest in this flavor, something like Jefferson bringing vanilla ice cream from France and making it really fashionable. So there's this desire.

Then there's a turning point that creates an increased availability. In terms of the vanilla, it was an enslaved man in Reunion, an island near Madagascar, that figured out how to hand-pollinate vanilla. You know what? I said man, but he was 12 years old at the time. So his discovery made vanilla available and cheap in a way it wasn't before.

CORNISH: 'Cause all of sudden you could fertilize a lot of it...

LOHMAN: A lot.

CORNISH: ...And make it more available.

LOHMAN: And the last thing I've noticed is we often have a biological preference for these flavors. There's something magical about humans and vanilla. We can detect it in very, very small amounts both through smell and taste. But we also still love it at very, very high amounts. So when these three things come together in the right combination, you have something that becomes American.

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CORNISH: So you know, you're a long way from stirring the food on the colonial stove in high school...

LOHMAN: Yeah, yeah...

CORNISH: ...(Laughter) that isn't at the Living Museum.

LOHMAN: You know what? I loved it because I saw how easily food makes connections. And when someone is eating - as soon as they're consuming and smelling and tasting, they started asking questions. That's what I've always noticed. So I love to eat on one level, but I love the conversations that spring from food even more.

CORNISH: Well, Sarah Lohman, thank you so much for introducing me to all these flavors. This was really great.

LOHMAN: Thank you. Thanks for talking to me today.

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CORNISH: Sarah Lohman is the author of the new book "Eight Flavors: The Untold Story Of American Cuisine."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.