Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Emmy-winning producer David Page about his book, Food Americana, a fun journalistic blend of food culture, pop culture, nostalgia, and everything new on the American plate.
What incited you to write Food Americana?
It was a natural process. Given my appreciation for food, first developed while working internationally as a journalist many years ago, it’s been gestating in my head for a very long time. It was just the right time to put it all down chapter by chapter. Also, every tv producer thinks he or she can tell a story without pictures. I was no different.
What is your definition of Americana? How does it apply to this book?
Americana is the bits and pieces that tell the story of us as a country and culture. It applies to this book because it describes and explores how those bits and pieces developed into a unique cuisine.
What exactly is Grandma pizza? What’s your favorite regional variety of pizza?
A grandma pizza is a rectangular pan pizza, with a little thinner crust than Sicilian and generally more garlicky, usually with the sauce on top of the cheese, probably first made on Long Island, though some say it began in New York. My favorite regional variety is Napolitano, though I was stunned by how good Old Forge-style white pies are.
In the sushi chapter, you caution: “While gas station sushi is still a punchline for many people, the joke has long been fading all across the country.” With what other foods is the joke fading? How so?
Nothing comes to mind I’m afraid. Attitudes toward previously regional foods have changed though with, for example, different regional barbecue styles now available all over the country and New England lobster rolls now a national menu item.
What’s on the cutting room floor from this project? What food or foods did you want to include but couldn’t for whatever reason?
There’s a mountain of information from every chapter that I couldn’t jam in. I’m looking to use some of it in magazine articles and such. Especially in the world of barbecue. And I’m working on a sequel that will include foods of interest that I concluded were not sufficiently national to be a part of a widespread American cuisine.
If you had to pick one food to represent the U.S. in a Eurovision Song Contest for food, what would it be? What would the American contestant’s attributes need to be?
If I had to pick one food, it would be a bagel with lox and cream cheese. The American attributes should encapsulate the fusion nature of American food. The bagel from Poland, then modified to become chewier in the U.S.; cream cheese, a failed attempt at duplicating French Neufchatel; and lox, representative of American ingenuity in figuring out how to ship salmon from the Northwest to the East Coast after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad by packing it in salt, which preserved it, thus creating lox.
You include so many historical tidbits that I wanted to read entire articles or even books about — like the advent of sushi bars in 1930s Japan, for example. What are some of your favorite tidbits of such food history? What were the most surprising?
There was a tremendous amount. The fact, for example, that Mexican food became Americanized not initially through immigration but as the result of the Mexican American war. America seized half of Mexico and drew a new border, leaving a huge population north of it that was suddenly American. And it was their regional food of Northern Mexico that was the basis for the evolution of Mexican American cuisine.
The fact that America at one time was the world’s largest producer of caviar.
That there were fried chicken wings sold in Buffalo before the Anchor Bar first created the one variety that would become known as a Buffalo wing.
The fact that it was not McDonalds that launched the concept of the fast food burger chain—it was White Castle.
On a disappointing note, the degree to which African American pitmasters have been overlooked in telling the story of barbecue’s history and recent re-birth.
Has Instagram shaped or reshaped American tastes? How so? Do you ever Insta your food?
It has certainly placed a heavier emphasis on presentation. Has that changed what we eat? Probably not. And no, I have not Instagrammed my food
Like Brood X cicadas, we in the U.S. are emerging right now from quarantine. What food trends born of the pandemic do you see sticking? What trends do you see emerging?
The experts I have consulted tell me that the practice of getting restaurant food to eat at home will remain elevated to some degree from pre-pandemic levels. In short, drive-through, pickup, and delivery will be a more important element of restaurant economics, even for restaurants that did not participate in that form of service before. Also, ghost kitchens, virtual restaurants with no bricks and mortar locations that only do delivery will be an increasingly important sector of the restaurant world. Which is not good for the hundreds of thousands of servers and other front-of-house employees who lost their restaurant jobs during the pandemic. On the other hand, restaurants are having a very difficult time staffing back up and there are many, many jobs available.
What’s next? For this book? For you as an author? For you as “one of those who lives to eat”?
I’m already working on another book, not exactly a sequel but in the same genre. For me, as a person who lives to eat, I’m excited to get out and eat with other people, which is such an important part of life. Vaccinated, my wife and I visited dear friends, also vaccinated, at their home a few days ago. We hugged! We enjoyed apps and wine together. Then a terrific meal. I’ve missed that and I’m delighted to get it back.
David Page is the author of Food Americana and two-time Emmy winner who changed the world of food television by creating, developing, and executive-producing the groundbreaking show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Before that, as a network news producer based in London, Frankfurt, and Budapest, he travelled Europe, Africa, and the Middle East doing two things―covering some of the biggest stories in the world and developing a passion for some of the world’s most incredible food.
Once back in the states, Page pursued his passion both personally and professionally. Show-producing Good Morning America, his substantial food coverage included cooking segments by Emeril Lagasse. Creating “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and hands-on producing its first eleven seasons took him deep into the world of American food―its vast variations, its history, its evolution, and especially the dedicated cooks and chefs keeping it vibrant. His next series, the syndicated “Beer Geeks,” dove deep into the intersection of great beer and great food. It is those experiences―that education, the discovery of little-known stories and facts―that led Page to dig even deeper and tie the strands together in Food Americana.