Savor the Reign of Regional Foods
Place-based foods taste better—and are better for us, too. Learn about America’s regional foods and find out how to locate your own local bounty.
Consider Boston cod, Georgia peach pie, Florida’s Indian River grapefruit, wheat from Kansas, heirloom tomatoes from Colorado, Michigan sour cherries, Texas pinto beans and California wines.
While the definition of American cuisine is difficult to pinpoint, it definitely exists in regional form, say the Americans polled by the James Beard Foundation. It’s the particular tastes of the places we call home.
There’s a delicious reason why regional foods remain popular; as The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found, the average “fresh” food item on American dinner tables now travels 1,500 miles to get there—and often tastes like it.
Taste is All About Terroir
“Place-based foods have a unique taste, related to the soil, water, air and climate of a region, as well as the ethnic or regional heritage of their producers,” advises Rachelle H. Saltzman, folklife coordinator and director of the Iowa Place-Based Foods project. She notes that regional food might be considered a result of the happy pairing of nature and nurture.
Regional foods start with terroir, a French term that refers to a peculiar combination of microclimate and geography. If we draw a circle with its center in our own backyard, the area within the circumference of the circle that encloses the same climate and geography is the general terroir.
Although terroir is in wide use in reference to wines, it also applies to any food. Terroir accounts for the differences in flavor between mild orange blossom honey from Arizona, aromatic and pear-like tupelo honey from Florida, amber-colored and medium-flavored clover honey from Iowa and dark and slightly sulfurous sunflower honey originating in South Dakota.
“When you eat honey that local bees make, you’re eating an easily digestible, raw food full of enzymes, pollen, vitamins, proteins and minerals from the region,” says Tony Schwager of Anthony’s Beehive, in Lawrence, Kansas. Bees forage for nectar in nearby blossoms and then do all the processing in the hive. The result is a regional food yielding more than 300 varieties across the United States.
Even Vermont maple syrup can register the flavor changes from terroir, according to Amy Trubek, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences at The University of Vermont and author of The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir. Trubek is participating in an ongoing study of the character of small-batch maple syrups.
“Like Burgundy wines or Savoie cheeses, the terroir of maple syrups matters,” she says. For example, maple syrup—a whole food made only from the sap that rises in the tree only after a long, cold winter—can taste differently depending on whether the maple tree grows in areas rich in limestone (giving flavor notes of caramel, vanilla and bitter almond) or schist (where minerals yield a slightly moldy note), giving it a unique taste of place.
our children, Hailey and Loren, grew up. Aromas
of blackberries and bay leaves, like those that grow
along the spring-fed creek with subtle notes of tobacco,
smoke and earth, dance in the background, derived
from the soil itself.”
~ Janet Trefethen, of Trefethen Family Vineyards, in Napa,
California, about its HaLo cabernet sauvignon.
Before European settlement here, Native American tribes were often identified—and strengthened physically and spiritually—by the regional foods they ate, whether gathered from hunting or fishing in the wild or raised themselves. Early visiting explorers and naturalists noted such delicacies as wild strawberries growing along the New Hampshire shoreline, native persimmons in Virginia and beach plums on Cape Cod.
In Early American Gardens: For Meate or Medicine, gardener and author Ann Leighton chronicles which plants were native to New England and which ones the 17th-century colonists brought or had sent from England. The resulting cuisine evolved into a fusion of English recipes with New World ingredients.
Through many generations, regional cuisines developed along the Eastern seaboard, often featuring maple syrup, cranberries, wild blackberries, corn, pumpkins, Carolina gold rice, cod, clams, blue crab, shad and shrimp. Grafting new and old world plants produced the happy accidents of the Bartlett pear, Concord grape and Newtown Pippin apple. What grew in these innovative gardens naturally began to grace American tables.
“Native corn became a truly American food,” observes Lenore Greenstein, a food and nutrition journalist who has taught at several U.S. universities. “The corn of the settlers, however, was not the sweet corn we know today, but the field corn used to feed livestock and make corn meal, syrup and starches. Sweet corn was unknown until 1779, yet by 1850 it had replaced field corn on American tables.”
Beyond the land itself, regional foods continue to be influenced by the transportation routes followed in early trading ventures; the ways of the English homeland were soon joined by those of African slaves.
Greenstein relates that New Orleans’ famous gumbo comes from the African ngombo, for okra, its principal ingredient. The thick stew gets some of its distinctive flavor and smooth texture from gumbo file powder made of dried, wild sassafras leaves. In other parts of the South, a cuisine that became known as soul food grew up around dishes made from produce that slaves could grow in their own kitchen gardens: boiled peanuts, sweet potato pie, boiled greens and black-eyed peas.
Immigrants from Ireland who arrived in the New World during the potato famine of the 1840s and those Europeans promised free land under the Homestead Acts of the 1860s brought garden seeds, favorite plants and ethnic food traditions with them, further enlarging our country’s collective eating repertoire to include sauerkraut, coleslaw, cheesecake, cinnamon rolls and potato salad.
Mennonite farmers who had emigrated from the Netherlands to Germany and then on to Russia, as their pacifist views clashed with the prevailing governments, finally left the steppes of the Ukraine for the similar terroir of the Kansas prairie in 1875. (This was around the same time that cowboys were herding longhorn cattle from Texas along the Chisholm Trail to railyards in Abilene, Kansas.) The Mennonites brought bags of Turkey Red winter wheat seeds that helped transform the wild prairie into the cultivated “breadbasket” it is today.
In a similar fashion, Italian families coming to California brought their love of wine to a hilly region that benefited from moisture granted by the fog rolling in from the Pacific. They knew how to make the most of a climate with a spring rainy season followed by a dry summer—great conditions for growing wine grapes.
Good for Us Food
Foods naturally suited to their environment grow better, taste better and are packed with more nutrients, reports Sustainable Table, an educational nonprofit working to build healthy communities through sustainable eating habits (SustainableTable.org). When grown and consumed locally, foods escape the degradation of being irradiated for longer shelf life. When they come from organic farms, they’re also grown without pesticides and herbicides.
Consider also that milk from dairy cattle raised in areas where they can eat grass for most of the year has a better flavor and contains more beneficial nutrients than milk from grain-fed cows. Jeni Britton Bauer uses regional Midwestern ingredients—including organic milk from grass-fed cows, local goat cheese, foraged wild foods and organic berries—for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. “We couldn’t believe the difference in flavor in milk from grass-fed versus grain-fed cows,” she says. “It’s because grass-fed cows produce milk with more conjugated linoleic acid, a cancer-fighting compound, as well as healthful omega-3 fatty acids.” Local examples such as hers illustrate the larger truth.
Good for Our Community
Growing and eating regional foods is equally beneficial for our communities. According to Larry West, a writer for E/The Environmental Magazine, most farmers on average receive only 20 cents of each food dollar spent on what they produce. The remaining profit gets consumed by transportation, processing, packaging, refrigeration and marketing costs when their crops travel far and wide. Farmers who choose to sell their foods to local customers see a better return on their investment. When neighbors choose to eat locally, it supports local agriculture and encourages continued use of area land for farms, keeping development in check while preserving open space.
this far north on a commercial scale. The weather
fronts come in from the west over the deep lake.
The lake becomes a climate modifier,
giving the fruit its character.”
~ Justin Rashid, of American
Spoon Foods, a grower of
sour cherries, apricots and
peaches in Michigan’s Upper
There are even more benefits. Research by Duncan Hilchey, a senior extension associate at Cornell University, and his colleagues in upstate New York found that regional agriculture contributes to the local economy, provides fresh food and a secure food supply, and plays a role preserving our rural heritage. In Goût de Terroir: Exploring the Boundaries of Specialty Agricultural Landscapes, he concludes that “Agricultural landscapes, and the regional cuisine and foodways [culinary practices] to which they contribute, offer powerful expressions of place.”
As Greenstein sums it up, “Regional food is better, however you look at it.”
Judith Fertig is a freelance food writer in Overland Park, KS; for more information visit .
Primary sources: Tony Schwager at; Lenore Greenstein at ; Rachelle H. Saltzman at ; Duncan Hilchey at ; Justin Rashid at ; Amy Trubek at ; and Jeni Britton Bauer at .
Also, Culinaria: The United States, A Culinary Discovery, edited by Randi Danforth, Peter Feierabend and Gary Chassman; and Early American Gardens: For Meate or Medicine by Ann Leighton