If you were an English chef who wanted to get a handle on the vast expanse of ideas that make up American cooking, where would you travel? Jamie Oliver, whose best selling cookbooks and popular television shows feature hands on and do it yourself ideas that let natural the flavors of food come through, wisely decided that in one book he could not hit every note. He chose to explore two cities he was familiar with, New York and Los Angeles, and four other areas: Georgia, Louisiana the Wild West (Wyoming, mostly), and Arizona.
The book Jamie’s America is filled with recipes, of course. That is the center of what’s going on, and interesting and creative recipes they are. Another center of what’s going on is bits and pieces and small slices of American life seen through food. It’s not that Oliver is a food historian or ethnographer — not at all. His recipes are his own and derive at times from traditional ones and at other times take off in all sorts of directions. His occasional narrative essays, and the short head notes for each recipe, along with David Loftus’ photographs of the food and his photo essays of landscape and people done through collage give more than a taste of one man’s explorations into vivd aspects of American life, parts of that life that are rooted in community and culture, and shared through food.
For the New York part of his trip, Oliver offers a recipe for a potato latke breakfast, one for Peruvian ceviche, and an Egyptian stuffed flat bread. In Los Angeles, it’s breakfast tortillas and stuffed zucchini flowers. In Arizona there’s Navajo flat bread and peach cobbler, chili cheese cornbread, rabbit stew, and pine nut and almond cookies. Red beans and rice are at the table in Louisiana, along with popcorn gator and aoli and jambalaya surf and turf. He isn’t sticking to traditional food ways here, but you some things learn about those along the way, and meet the people who teach him about their food, as well. Turkey stew, venison, southern pecan and apple salad, rich grits, and what Oliver calls his epic barbeque sauce liven things up on his trip through Georgia. Out in the wild west, painted hills potatoes, chili con Jamie, trout and salsa, and cowboy Cornish pasties are part of what’s going on.
It seems not so much a collection of recipes — though it is that, and if you like to cook you’ll find a lot of ideas– as a chef stopping in on friends across a range of American landscapes to talk about food and the fun that might be had with it. In a rather subtle touch, too, he begins the journey with a recipe for hamburgers and ends it with one for apple berry pie.