NEAL CONAN, host:

Chef Jamie Oliver knows when a country's cuisine is unfairly maligned. He's one of the cooks who's helped change the idea that all English food is slop, and he knew that when he came on a quest for quintessential American food, he'd find a lot more than junk.

Jamie Oliver has just released a new cookbook that's the result of a wide-ranging American road trip. He hit New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Georgia, Arizona and Wyoming - a trip shaped by two major events, the election of the first African-American president and the disastrous recession. He joins us in a moment to talk about it.

We want to hear from you. What's the quintessential American dish that you cook? 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's on npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jamie Oliver is a chef and television personality. His new book is called "Jamie's America," and he joins us today from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JAMIE OLIVER (Chef; Author, "Jaime's America"): How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm very well. This is a very much a book written by a Brit. You point out your house is older than this country is.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah. I mean, I think, I've been working here for sort of 15 years now. And I just think the - it's funny, you know, obviously, living in England and Europe on the doorstep, there's such a lot of different cultures and sort of accents of food going on.

But America, to me, was fascinating because, obviously, most of the history of this country is being recorded beautifully. And really, it's just a beautiful melting pot of different waves of sort of immigrant migration, really. So, you know, looking at America as a country was an epic task. And the foods and the sort of stretch of foods is incredible.

CONAN: You said you went looking for the quintessential American food but didn't find it. In fact, you found a whole lot of different foods.

Mr. OLIVER: Absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, I think the kind of - the way to find beautiful food was more of a mindset, you know. I think, because like convenience is so easy and convenient is on every highway, you know, it was more of a mindset to sort of get off the beaten track. You know, ask the right people the right questions. And then, you know, when I did do that, you know, we were finding foods that were as (unintelligible) some of the very best stuff of Spain and Italy.

CONAN: And not necessarily white tablecloth foods either?

Mr. OLIVER: No, I mean, theres some really humble peel-back stuff. I mean, I remember being in Georgia and just having some of the most incredible pit-cooked pork, you know? And the hours and I actually worked the night with a guy, the pit master there. And, you know, the dedication and attention to detail and the kind of, you know, the 12 hours of cooking before, you know, it's the most humble shack really that it was being served from. But yeah, out the back was, you know, really in that love care and attention. But, you know, I think you can't really put your finger on quintessential American food. It's incredibly regional.

CONAN: And you learned the meaning of the American expression to go the whole hog.

Mr. OLIVER: To go the whole hog, yeah. Absolutely. There's big pork lovers here and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah. I definitely got to draw my fair share.

CONAN: And there are a couple of recipes from your book at our website, one of which is your take on the American classic dish macaroni and cheese.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah. Well, mac and cheese is kind of, obviously, you know, it's a classic dish back home, as well. But I think, you know, in this day and age, so much of it is being made out of packet now. So, you know, I'm always just kind of excited to sort of see it done properly and with real depth of flavor. And, of course, it's a really flexible dish that most, you know, families and kids love.

CONAN: And the other is - well, I do have to ask you. I know that one of your passions is - and indeed American junk food and the portions in which it is served in this country have contributed to the obesity problem. And I know you're very concerned about that. And you point out in your book, mac and cheese if you have it every once and a while is fine.

Mr. OLIVER: No. I don't think - there's - no one wants to be involved in a food Nazi, you know, and certainly the inspiration behind one of my other projects which was the "Food Revolution" that was on ABC last year, was basically, you know, the health statistics are terrible, you know, and in my country and yours. And it seems that government is slower than ever to respond. You know, there's many effective ways they can make change, and it's just really not happening.

So the food revolution really was the kind of about what we feed our kids on 180 days of the year at school, you know, and how we educate them in sort of how to shop, how to look after themselves, and just basic kind of life skills, really. So that's a massive passion of mine. I mean, it's something that I've been doing for seven years now in England and in America.

And, you know, things like burgers and pizzas, I love them and I eat them. And it's just, for me really, it's about, you know, just stuff like labeling and clarity, and the ability to give parents and kids, you know, just clarity when they're buying stuff.

CONAN: And there are recipes for rich dishes in this book. But there are also recipes for a lot of salads. And, for example, when you serve something like steak, you say and make a kick-ass salad to go with it.

Mr. OLIVER: Absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, that contrast of kind of having, you know, rich elements with kind of vibrant, electric elements, you know, salad. And, you know, certainly in East L.A. where there's a big kind of Mexican culture, you know, the kind of lime juice, citrus, lemon juice, herbs, crunch, softness, you know, that kind of contrasts of tastes and textures, is so important in getting the palate really working and fired up. And that, with a good bit of meat, is just great.

CONAN: We have this tweet coming to us from Monkey Minion(ph). Wait, Jamie didn't even stop off in the Midwest. KC-style barbecue, Kansas grass-fed steaks, deep fried everything - for shame.

Mr. OLIVER: Well, you know, we kind of go around there. But, you know, it's obviously in we make six one hour documentaries. But we probably we went -you know, these states are so big. I mean, at the end of the day - like Wyoming, is the size of England. And England has got 73 you know, 68 million people in there. And I think there's only about 600,000 people in Wyoming. There are more cows than people.

But, you know, I think it was for me, it was just a tip of the iceberg. But, hopefully, when you look at the book, you know, hopefully you'll be proud of it. And it's, you know, it's a really positive, optimistic view on this incredible melting pot of cooking and cuisines. And, you know, for the aborigines of Arizona to, you know, the news of waves of immigrants into New York City and the Flushing's area. You know, always cooking with, you know it's a western Szechuan, Chinese people being in New York for seven days, you know. And there's just you know, it's this thing is fascinating, really, really fascinating.

And, of course, then you got some of the more you know, when we were in Wyoming, you know, you got the classics or Anglo-Germans' of influences on pickles and kind of the cowboy culture and beans and, of course, you know, hitting on some of those barbecue stuff.

CONAN: We're talking with Chef Jamie Oliver. His new book "Jamie America: Easy Twists on Great American Classics, and More." We want to hear your version of the great quintessential American cook food that you cook. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Teddy is on the line with us from Portland, Oregon.

TEDDY (Caller): Hi, there. Yeah. Portland, Oregon, here talking about a beer can chicken is my favorite dish. I take the chicken, put the rub on it, take a can of beer, half a beer, like a tall boy - I drink about half of it - and then insert that, put the chicken on top of the beer can and put that down into a Weber Char Grill and cook it with a mesquite charcoal and smoking chips.

CONAN: Teddy, you'll be and I'm surprised to find there's a recipe for beer can chicken in Jamie's book. Jamie?

Mr. OLIVER: It's damn luck he doesn't need it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: He's doing just find on his own, I reckon.

TEDDY: And I'd like pecan chips too. Those are my favorite kind of chip for chicken.

CONAN: What kind of chips, Teddy?

TEDDY: Pecan from pecan wood, from nut tree.

CONAN: Oh, I see. So the...

Mr. OLIVER: Pecan.

CONAN: Pecan, okay. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TEDDY: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to this is Patty, Patty with us from Cincinnati.

PATTY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Patty. What's the quintessential American food you cook?

PATTY: Sausage, gravy and biscuits.

CONAN: Sausage gravy and biscuits. There is a I know, Jamie, you have a recipe for grits. I don't know if you go for sausage gravy.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah. You know, I think, you know, when we were in Louisiana, there was a really great twist on that. And, of course, back home in England, we are big on our sausages as well. But, yeah, I like the little biscuits that they make, almost likes scones, and the mop up the juices just beautiful. And, of course, there every time you're go into a different area of America, sometimes you get similar elements but with - you know, when I was in Louisiana, there were peppers and a little chili through there, you know, these different accents coming in which is just exciting. And it's great.

PATTY: That's the reason I called. Everybody in my family makes it but they all make it a little bit different...

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah.

PATTY: ...according to their own taste. I know that...

Mr. OLIVER: And how do you do your gravy, babe?

PATTY: ...(unintelligible) put a little maple in it.

CONAN: How do you do your gravy?

PATTY: I crumble the sausage and cook it with a little bit of maple syrup...

Mr. OLIVER: Right. Just sort of glazing it.

PATTY: ...and then you put salt and pepper, and then a little bit more just at the finish...

CONAN: Hmm.

PATTY: ...just to give it a little bit of a salty, sweet, spicy flavor.

Mr. OLIVER: Yes. It sounds great.

CONAN: And which of your relatives, Patty, makes it - except for you - the best?

PATTY: Oh, that would be my mom. Second only to me, but my mom, who taught me that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And does she use the syrup as well?

PATTY: No. I'm the only one who came and does it. My husband liked it and so that's how we started doing it.

CONAN: All right. Patty, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Mr. OLIVER: That must have been...

PATTY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is Jay, Jay with us another caller from Cincinnati.

JAY (Caller): Hi. Hey, it's such a pleasure to talk with you. I appreciate so much what you're doing for cuisine. But my thing is breakfast burritos. I learned these in Austin, Texas, 25, 30 years ago. And basically, I take hash browns, make an omelet, put that inside a burrito and you can do all kinds of stuff with that - add refried beans, add raw or steamed vegetables, sausage, anything.

Mr. OLIVER: That sounds like a lunch and a dinner to me than breakfast.

JAY: Oh, yeah. Breakfast, lunch, dinner.

Mr. OLIVER: There must be some serious mining going on down there.

CONAN: Jay, what is your favorite addition that would make it distinctively yours?

JAY: Distinctively mine? The way that I do the hash browns is I put onions in them and drizzle some cheese on top of it. I probably put too much cheese overall into this whole thing. You know, cheese makes everything better.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Jay.

JAY: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: And Jamie Oliver, you were talking about discovering the joys of cooking out on a campfire.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah, man. I think, you know, whether it's Wyoming and the whole kind of, you know, cattle ranching and being on the wagon back in the day. And, of course, you know, back home in England, you have fields and you have fences. But, you know, out in Wyoming, you've got hundreds and hundreds of thousands of miles of open land, you can't really control it. So, you know, cooking over a big cast-iron pot, you know, just like in Louisiana back in the day when they were settling there, you know?

It's interesting both, you know, Wyoming and Louisiana. Nearly every man said that they cooked. No, absolutely, men cook. Oh, completely, men cook, you know? And it's interesting because you could go to a totally different part of America were, no-no, the women cook, you know? We go and do the work, you know? They cook. So it's interesting kind of seeing how the way, you know, whether we're talking 100 or 150 years ago, this sort of, you know, the way that people landed in different parts of the states, you know, they actually used to cook in, you know, have stayed. And to this day, you know, young Louisianan boys are still cooking and proud of it. So, very exciting.

And then, of course, there's nothing like open-fire coals, you know? Even if you're making a stew or a soup, you know, you've got the smoke just slightly kissing that liquid and you get that incredible, almost like it's almost like a seasoning that's disappeared these days in sort of, you know, the way we conventionally cook with stainless steel boxes and, you know, coil elements to heat it up, you know? It's so bland. So even when you do basic stuff over a campfire, it tastes great.

CONAN: We're talking with Jamie Oliver. Again, the book is "Jamie's America: Easy Twists on Great American Classics and More." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION FROM NPR News.

Linda is our next caller. And Linda on the line from San Mateo.

LINDA (Caller): Hi, Jamie. I'm a really big fan. We love your orange chicken with all the cloves and all that good stuff. I think that the quintessential food is barbeque, of any kind, in America. We use it as this way of, you know, socially gathering, and you're able to cook quite a, you know, big quantities -you're hosting parties, like my husband and I and our family do. I think our favorite meal that, you know, our friends enjoy that's our signature dish is a lamb burger with an aioli garlic, aioli mint, you know? And then a mint jelly on the other side that we layer in with toasted buns that everybody enjoy.

Mr. OLIVER: Wicked. That sounds absolutely amazing.

LINDA: It's really delicious. And we...

Mr. OLIVER: And it's interesting that you're majoring on lamb, because, you know, lamb is probably, by a long, long way, one of the less - least popular meats in the states.

LINDA: Yeah. But, you know, we like to do things that are a little bit different. We always try to push the envelope, try to do things, try to you know, the only way you're gonna find some new, fabulous creation is to just mess around and tinker until you get it.

The one thing that we've really taken inspiration from you that I think has changed, you know, part of the way that we cook is the whole idea of the fresh ground spices, that you don't get them in a jar and you don't have them in the can sitting forever. And it's a little bit of a commitment with a family of three young children under the age of nine in my house, to try to make space for all that with all the things.

But back to your point about the health issue. I mean, we make it a really big point. I it's I definitely get on my soapbox. I'm, like, the PTA president on my school. We - I try to push this along to other people. But, I mean, my six-year-old knows how to check the grams of sugar on the box of a cereal. She knows what's appropriate. I mean, these are things that kids are capable of learning. And I think that my most proud parenting moment was when my eight-year-old was at a party for school and they were giving out all these treats and all these things in a buffet. And my son said he didn't take any of the cookies or anything. And the teacher said, well, Sam, I'm sure, you know, you should you know, your mom would say it's okay. And he said, oh no, it's fine. It's just that it's my grandmother's birthday and we're gonna be having cake later. And so I just, you know, I'm kind of pacing myself.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's the thing.

LINDA: And the teacher was shocked, you know? But I was like, oh, thank God. It's getting through.

Mr. OLIVER: Yeah. But you know what, I think the interesting thing is, you know, the clarity of labeling and honesty of labeling isn't great over here, you know? And I think also the - you know, what you're allowed to say on adverts on TV as far as the nutritional benefits of things or even medicine and drugs, I mean, is - would be illegal in my country. I mean, that's the interesting thing, you know? I mean, I work almost equal on the food revolution in the States and then in England. But there are some similarities and there's a massive differences as well. But I think that's great, you know? One of the most precious things you can give your child is just the kind of ability to be a bit more streetwise about food, where it comes from. And I always say, if the back of the pack looks like a NASA science lesson, don't buy it.

CONAN: Linda, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

LINDA: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: And Jamie Oliver, thank you very much for you time and good luck with the book and the television series.

Mr. OLIVER: Lovely. Take care.

CONAN: Jamie Oliver's book is called "Jamie's America." You could find recipes for the killer mac 'n' cheese and a chocolate mole tart on our website at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

News coming in from Capitol Hill that John Boehner has been elected as the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. So he's now the Speaker of the House-in-waiting.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, Lawrence of Arabia, far more than the man on the movie screen. We'll talk with Michael Korda on his new biography of T.E. Lawrence called "Hero." Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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