In search of real American cuisine

A cookbook out of New Jersey evokes the true American cooking we lost and haven't rediscovered yet.

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Canal House Cooking's new vol. 6

A cookbook out of New Jersey evokes the true American cooking we lost and haven't rediscovered yet.

A new cookbook came out last week, Canal House Cooking, Volume No. 6, an interesting antidote to Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine. CH6 is a linen-covered soft bound title for $26 and the Mod Cuisine is six volumes for $600, CH6 is an indie production and Mod Cuisine is an exMSFT/Avatar-like corporation. The CH crew of two works out of an old brick mill building in Lambertville, New Jersey; Mod Cuisine headquarters in Redmond as a corporation called Intellectual Ventures, where the subdivision called The Cooking Lab has a 20-person staff, stainless steel tables, centrifuge, laser, particle accelerator, and white jackets.

CH6 is a dinghy to the Myhrvold flotilla but a brave and remarkable one. The task of a cookbook is to help — to help you understand, to help you design, to help you prepare and perform, and, perhaps most difficult, to help you give a damn. A true cookbook can rescue your cooking heart from the ingredients of winter, or the decay of repetition, or the flatlining of not wanting to cook at all.

One primary fuel for Mod Cuisine is the technique sous vide, French for "under vacuum." But for Canal House, a primary fuel might be called "under pressure," referencing not a way of cooking, but the act itself — the pressure that you are the one, and, how, on God's beleaguered earth, will you be able to make something, like it, and finally even be pleased. And do it again.

For that task, for that emotional specific, Canal House Cooking is quite remarkable. We are a fluttered land, this America, battered with such doubts and abuses of our food that we barely have our own cuisine. We have now almost-brilliant Italian versions or re-enactments, we have Thai basil where there was not even basil, we have fish sauce and coriander and quinoa and we can pronounce foods we cannot spell. But behind the new theme-park restaurants or a mile away from the new food shop it is a desert for food in the home and in the dinners, a desert of lost history and reputation and inspiration.

I know a grandmother who told me that when she was 20 years old, she knew, and all around her knew, the look and feel and smell and use of 20 different apple varieties, how they combined, which ones went in a pie in September and which ones in November and why. Now the 20 varieties are nearly extinct, and the oral history with it. But the apples, in true variety, they seem to be coming back and maybe the discrimination and judgment will come with them.

And, in a true way, that is Canal House Cooking: judgment and use and sense and humor. It is not American cooking, yet it is cooking that could only grow here, that could only form around polyglots and aunts who ran off to France and grocers who never left New Jersey and Turks that never will leave the Lower East side. A cuisine that can only grow after the regional cuisine has been devastated by fast food and  process food and all manners of modernism.

Canal House parades proudly in with beets and cabbage and sardines and peas and potatoes. But they are as easily stacking cans of clams, frozen fava beans and frozen puff pastry. They are in with both feet, both hands and for the long haul, this meal and the next one, Easter, but Tuesday lunch as well. And Saturday when you thought it was nothing and a three pound chicken would do but four more people have shown up with your sister.

They love dried beans and they love meat and they know asparagus is only true for a month and cabbage is gassy and fried fish, if the cod is fresh, can rescue your notions.They publish a new book three times a year, the coming of spring, the bounty of summer, the resolve of fall and winter, different colors each, slanted to the season. They are loyal to the truth that it be wonderful, that it not be dumb, and that it be a pleasure. And there is no place on earth they would not take parts from, past or present. 

Every book starts with a story, then drinks (it's always 5 o'clock somewhere), then crackers and soups and vegetables, meats and fish. And they each finish with desserts, subtle ones that grin just enough to lure. Proper often, never prudish, always mindful that it be a pleasure.

Lincoln Center in Manhattan has just opened its first on-location restaurant. High Italian style, with each item in English translation on the menu. A wonderful accessory to the opening of Marriage of Figaro at the Met. But Lincoln Center is the very pivot of American culture. It will be a hopeful sign if, one day, the restaurant is more Canal House than Fiore di Latte.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of