Opinion

It's Restaurant Week in Lorain County. If you are not already planning to head out to one of the area's outstanding restaurants to try some of their mouth-watering fare, here's a friendly nudge.

Can you really resist boneless short rib over bacon blue cheese mashed potatoes and a cabernet demi glace at Avon's Nemo Grille? Sorrento's in Sheffield Village is offering shrimp risotto and Sapori in Avon Lake is offering potato-crusted walleye, in case you need a fish dish on Friday.

Let's not forget dessert. North Ridgeville's Bistro 83 features Earl Grey creme brulee, while Avon's Veranda tempts with homemade lemon cheesecake. If chocolate is your thing, Parker's has Belgian double chocolate mousse.

Eleven restaurants are offering three-course meals for just $30. In addition to the restaurants in the 2presspapers readership, 1833 in Oberlin with its emphasis on sustainable foods and several restaurants in Amherst have stepped up with sumptuous menus to lure foodies and the just-plain-hungry to their establishments through Sunday, Mar. 11.

So all the talk about food resurrected a comment I heard last week from one of the participants at Sheffield Lake's Cooking Club. She had offered to make an American dinner for her new Turkish Muslim friends and she struggled with the question, "What is American food?"

She settled on chicken paprikash. I suspect those with Hungarian ancestors might think differently.

Curiosity piqued, I went in search of "American" food.

The first cookbook printed in America was titled "American Cookery." Published during the country's infancy in 1796, it was authored by Amelia Simmons. Some say she was an orphan and, in order to survive, she learned to cook for others. Others have suggested Amelia never existed and the cookbook is a compilation of recipes from several people.

Regardless, the book gives a snapshot of what was appearing on American dinner tables in those days. Early settlers in New England and Williamsburg carried vegetable and spice seeds and brought animals with them from Europe. Native Americans introduced them to corn, squash, including pumpkin; fish, including lobster, cod,or quahog; wild grapes or berries including cranberries; and nuts, including chestnuts. There was some variation depending on the region where they settled.

Simmons' cookbook highlighted indigenous foods, including pumpkin custard, spelled with an "o" instead of a "u" and which eventually became pumpkin pie; Johny cakes and slapjacks, with cornmeal as a key ingredient in each recipe.

Some suggested the cookbook contains the elements of Thanksgiving Dinner - stuffed, roasted turkey, squash, cranberries and pumpkin pie.

Supposedly, early settlers wanted to break with England in anyway possible. Simmon's recipes for cookies were called by one, ”a uniquely American borrowing from the Dutch koekje , meaning ‘little cake’ as opposed to the English ‘cakes’.”

Simmons offered recipes for gingerbread and a Christmas cookie, which she declared would be "hard and dry at first, if put into an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old."

Dutch settlers, including children, most often drank weak beer because the brewing process killed contaminants, making it safer to drink than water.

In those days, Americans did not “dine out” much apart from taverns. America's first tavern was established on March 4, 1693 in Boston by Samuel Cole and named Cole's Inn. One of the interesting stories associated with Cole's was that the Governor of Massachusetts brought a group of Native Americans to the establishment for a meal. Uncomfortable sitting in chairs, the group reportedly sat in a circle on the floor with a pot of meat to share in the middle.

In a separate article about bars in The Smithsonian, an interviewee suggested that, because taverns often served as community centers, many discussions that created change began over a beer. Is it possible that American democracy and happy hour are vitally linked?

Weary travelers found a warm place to sleep at inns. If they were lucky, they would get a bowl of whatever was being cooked up in the back, usually stew. No substitutions. Obliging innkeepers were happy to provide a warm fire and something to eat and drink to townspeople who had just spent several hours in unheated churches. Ah, American entrepreneurial spirit.

Restaurants with menus were still decades away. It wasn't until 1826, the Union Oyster House opened in Boston. It’s still there.

So, where are we? What is American cooking? Is it limited to the foods Native Americans introduced to colonists?

I'm not one to dismiss steak houses, burger joints, fish houses or diners. I think they are pretty uniquely American, too. But, that's me. So, while you give this some thought, I'm going to head to the refrigerator and after that, I’m making reservations.

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