Simon Majumdar is someone of whom I was only superficially aware before picking up his newest novel, Fed, White, and Blue. As my sister and her boyfriend marathoned Cutthroat Kitchen the evening after I received the book, I walked in, looked at the screen, and said “Wow, those ears really are quite large.” I had only gotten as far as Alton Brown’s foreward at that point and hadn’t quite believed his joke about this likable Brit’s unfortunate ears. For a man so passionate about food, a Pinocchio nose or globe-sized mouth would have been more appropriate. Looks aside, this is a book about discovering America through its food, a mission of which everyone should be envious (and if you’re reading this blog, I know you’re already green with envy as you think about it).
Taking on the cuisine of America is no easy task. There are 50 states, tons of chains, and a melting pot to consider. Thankfully, Simon isn’t dining at the places that put ahi tuna on the menu because some restaurateur knows it will sell; he’s visiting locations that represent the heart of American food.
From the Bronx to Nebraska to K-Town, the breadth, depth, and complexity of American food is highlighted. What Majumdar is able to convey in roughly 300 pages is that there are both good and bad aspects of food and food production in this country, but that behind all food we eat, there are the people. While the food is important, it’s these people who create it and those who eat it that make America what it is.
The biggest strength of this book is how much one can learn and experience through Simon’s words. I’ve spent years in Philadelphia and had no idea there was a huge event called a Wing Bowl. And really, I should have known because what’s more American than a wing eating contest in the city commonly associated with Ben Franklin? Not only does he dive right in to these kinds of events, he also takes the time to learn about the people who attend them. From trying to impress his wife’s family with Filipino food to fishing with a man called The Rebel, this journey pops when Majumdar examines the personalities that make America unique. Willing to explore all the diverse nooks, crannies, and dive bars, he underscores how all of the different aspects of America come together to create its blended culture.
Not only is he able to connect with the country and its food in a noteworthy way, he’s able to do it while poking fun at himself. He’s got that dry, self-deprecating humor that is normally associated with Brits, and it makes his journey all the better. Who wants to read about a guy who seamlessly travels around and effortlessly understands it all? Not I. He stumbles around a bit, sometimes looks like a fool, and has a great time doing so.
While Majumdar is clearly intent on connecting with American people and their culture, not all sections of the book are wholly engaging. The weakest chapters are those where Simon doesn’t know his hosts that well. His experience in Nebraska, while interesting for anyone who wants to learn more about the turbulent beef industry, feels impersonal. For all of the importance that the 4th of July holds, his celebration of the holiday in Minnesota doesn’t read all that exciting. He doesn’t quite connect with all the people he meets during the trip. It might be because he doesn’t spend enough time with them or the simple fact that we humans don’t click with everyone we come across, but either way, these parts detract from the whole. Luckily, these weaknesses don’t encompass the entirety of the book, and for the most part, I want to knock back beers and inhale some delicious kosher BBQ with Simon and the people he meets.
This is a quick read that will leave both Americans and foreigners with a desire to discover the varied food of the United States. Those who believe that Big Macs are the USA’s true blue food only need to pick up this book to realize otherwise. The man has a thirst for knowledge that I haven’t encountered before. He wants to taste it all, hear it all, and know it all, but somehow doesn’t seem pretentious. Whether you want to read it cover to cover or delve into specific chapters over and over again, Fed, White, and Blue highlights the culture of America through its food, and you’ll come away understanding the USA in a new way, which is a takeaway that makes the whole book a success.
Now, for the best part! I have a copy to use as a giveaway to one lucky reader (though I am not sure why anyone considered lucky is reading my blog). I thought I’d make it a little fun, so any U.S. resident who wants to enter should just leave a comment below naming the U.S. city that seems like it has the most interesting foodstuff to explore. Entries should be in by 11:59 PM EST on April 5, 2015. Good luck!
This book was kindly provided to me by Avery Books; All opinions are my own.