SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Apple pie isn't American in the way that people often mean. Every ingredient - from apples to butter to nutmeg and cinnamon - came from somewhere else. But then, so did most Americans. Libby O'Connell, the chief historian and a senior vice president for the History Channel and A&E networks has a new book that traces the history of American tastes from pemmican to Coca-Cola to what are now called molecularly modified foods. Her new book is "The American Plate: A Culinary History In 100 Bites." Libby O'Connell joins in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
LIBBY O'CONNELL: It's my pleasure, Scott. Thank you for inviting me.
SIMON: We often think of Thomas Jefferson as the guy who brought an elevated appreciation for food and wine....
O'CONNELL: And that's true.
SIMON: ...To a young, harscrabble America. But apparently he is also in addition to writing the Declaration of Independence, the father macaroni cheese in this country.
O'CONNELL: He is. He brought in macaroni from his travels in Europe and liked to eat it with a cheese sauce. He wasn't maybe the first person, but he definitely popularized it. And it reminds you of the song "Yankee Doodle." He put the feather in his cap and called it macaroni. Now, why is that - why would you call a feather in your hat macaroni? It's because macaroni was a code word for a Dandee. So when the British soldiers came to the British colonies and they thought everybody was so rustic, they made fun of them by saying that all they did was stick a feather in their hat and thought they were macaroni.
SIMON: I realized a couple years ago, our daughters are growing saying pasta.
SIMON: I only said spaghetti.
SIMON: Once upon a time in the United States, spaghetti with red sauce was Italian food.
O'CONNELL: It was Italian food. And it had garlic in it - lots of garlic. And there was a time in the late 19th century when those intense Italian flavors were scoffed at by people who had arrived in the United States a generation before the Italians. And they had this taste towards foreign foods of immigrant groups - is a tradition in this country.
SIMON: And yet your book is entirely about the way...
O'CONNELL: It is.
SIMON: ...Those plates become...
O'CONNELL: They become so accepted in America. And it was really within a generation that Americans start thinking Italian food is so great.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, it occurs to me each and every plate that you describe in this book says something about - at least a little something about America.
O'CONNELL: Well, that's...
SIMON: ...How the dish got developed, how it became accepted, popular. How it kind of left the rails from being popular among one group to being just considered American.
O'CONNELL: Well, that's one of the things - that's my goal in "The American Plate." So I may have left out some foods that people think wow, that's such an interesting history of that food because I wanted to choose either a food or a drink, sometimes, that told a special story of America.
SIMON: Graham crackers.
O'CONNELL: Yeah, that's a great story.
SIMON: They were once considered therapeutic...
O'CONNELL: They were.
SIMON: ...If you catch my drift.
O'CONNELL: They were very therapeutic.
SIMON: Tell us the story.
O'CONNELL: OK. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Sylvester Graham, decided that America was ridden with lust and terrible thoughts. And that if everyone ate whole grains and a more vegetarian diet, they would become more peaceful, less lustful and their digestive tract would be working very well every day with great regularity. And...
SIMON: Oh, I catch your drift, OK, yes.
O'CONNELL: He was - he was a high fiber type of guy.
O'CONNELL: And he really advanced the cause of eating this diet that today many people today would think was very healthy. But he was really something else, wasn't he? He's a very exceptional guy and quite focused on trying to get lust out of America's soul.
SIMON: And he thought the graham cracker would do it?
O'CONNELL: That would help - at least that would help, yeah.
SIMON: Libby O'Connell, who is chief historian and senior vice president for the History Channel and A&E networks. Her new book "The American Plate: A Culinary History In 100 Bites." Thanks so much for being with us.
O'CONNELL: Scott, thank you so much. I enjoyed every minute.
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