A Cali Girl's Identity Crisis: Potato Cake


In my post introducing Amelia Simmons’ "American Cookery,” I explained why this text is considered the first American cookbook. I do not believe that I was mistaken when I claimed that Simmons’ cookbook represented what “American food” was on the Eastern Seaboard during the period, particularly for white Americans… but the story is more complicated.  This month, I made the Potato Cake. While it was tasty and comforting to eat, I definitely would not have made this dish had it not been for this project. I had never actually heard of this kind of potato cake before and it definitely has never been in my repertoire of “American food.”

    I’m not making my post today about the obvious fact that foods of a country can change. Living in the age of McDonaldization globalization, I think we are all pretty aware that the kinds of foods people are eating are not necessarily native to their region… and this is not to say that globalization of food is entirely new, as Sidney Mintz (Sweetness and Power), Mark Kurlansky (Salt), Alfred Crosby (The Columbian Exchange), and Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff (Africa’s Botanical Legacy) would beg to differ.  Other writers like Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Hooker, David Kamp have all tried to define what it is for food to be American and have traced American food-ways. These projects are all, to different degrees, focused on the scale of food as a national identity. Today, I want to reflect on this issue on a more personal scale; namely, what is my experience with American food and what does it mean for me then to be an American?

    I have never eaten a hamburger in my life. True story. I was raised as a pescatarian. So am I even able to comment on “American food” when a burger, fries, and a Coke seem like the quintessential American meal? Right now I am not interested in the kinds of foods that we package as our national identity, as an easy identifiable commodity for global consumption. I care about what I think American food really is to me—the kinds of foods I cooked with my family, the foods I eat when I go to a restaurant, and the dishes I made in my college dorm with friends.

    My favorite meal is: two charbroiled fish tacos a la carte, one shrimp taco a la carte (all on soft corn tortillas), a side of guacamole, and a giant Diet Coke filled with ice and a wedge of lime. For dessert I like frozen yogurt—usually a combination of espresso, chocolate, and vanilla, topped with carob chips. When I visit my mother in California I eat this meal as much as possible. On my day-to-day basis in Montreal, I eat lots of rice, beans, corn tortillas, and flour tortillas. I also regularly eat pumpernickel with lox and cream cheese, caprese salad, really any type of mixed greens salad with no dressing, and pasta. Is the food I am making in Montreal, American fare because I am an American citizen or due to my location is it Canadian? I am obviously using ingredients from around the world (as much as I try to buy local products, winters in Montreal require grocery store purchases), a variety of culinary traditions, but I am using my pans. Am I appropriating other cultures? Are my choices a reflection of the American melting pot or the Canadian mixed salad?  Again, these are important questions to think about in more detail later, but the reason I brought all of this up is because I used to classify my cooking as American—but more and more I categorize it as Californian.

    Many Californians and many Americans would probably take issue with this claim—maybe as much as I had a problem with a book that claimed that the essential Californian dish is pumpkin tamale. I am mostly interested in why I have made the change of considering my food from being American to being Californian—and I think this has much more to do with how I view myself than the actual food.

    Moving to Canada, made me feel far more like an American than living in the United States ever did—not a surprising phenomenon as many of my American friends remark similarly that being away from our home country makes one identify with it more clearly. Yet at the same time, when I go back to the States, I am not entirely comfortable, because when I am there, I don’t feel wholly American. Part of this has to do with the political and economic climate—the amount of gun violence when I now live in a place with very little gun violence has become intimidating—the conservativeness of the federal politics is disheartening—and the lack of universal health care sucks. I realize that I have slowly distanced myself with the identity of American and more firmly identified as a Californian. I miss the prevalence of the Spanish language everywhere, I miss being able to wear my flip flops year round, and I miss the wonderful produce available every season.  I am the fifth generation of women in my family to have lived in California, so that’s definitely part of it….but again it is more complicated. California feels like home—despite all of its problems, I grew up on its beaches, spent the first 18 years of my life there, and most pertinent to this post, I learned to cook and eat food there. I have found that I bolster my identity as a Californian while living in Montreal to others through the foods that I cook and eat. However, I don’t live in Cali anymore and these foods and techniques are far more globalized.

Thus when it came time to make this potato cake, I took Simmons’ at her word that to her this dish was American—as others take my word that what I cook is Californian. I’m not saying that food origins don’t matter—because they do. But the ways ingredients, techniques, and dishes move around the planet, shift in their nature, and are consumed differently is hard to track. Sometimes the question is not the “truth” of the origin or the identity, but the question is “why” –whether correctly or incorrectly—an individual identifies their dish as a certain identity, and ultimately how that individual identifies. So rather than saying that Simmons’ cookbook was American because of the produce she used and the dishes she made, like I had in my earlier post, I will respect the idea that her book is American because she called it American.

If you want to cook this cake that caused my introspection, I recommend that you use my directions rather than just Simmons’.

Simmons tells you to:

"Boil potatoes, peal and pound them, add yolks of eggs, wine and melted
butter work with flour into paste, shape as you please, bake and pour
 over these melted butter, wine and sugar."

I used the following:

1/4 cup unsalted butter
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup champagne
3 large potatoes
1 cup flour

1/8 cup champagne (leftover from a post-comps celebration- yay I am now ABD!)
1/8 cup sugar
1/16th a cup butter
put it in at 350 degrees for one hour and ten minutes

I completely guessed at the proportions but due to my last few baking experiments for this blog I am starting to get better at winging it.

The dish tastes best when it is still hot after you have poured on the glaze!

(post by Alex Ketchum)