Regional Differences in Food

I hear a lot about regional differences in cooking and eating throughout America. I won’t dispute that there are marked differences between the kind of food you’ll find in large, metropolitan cities and what you’ll get in small towns. Although anyone here would probably be hard pressed to find someone unfamiliar with Julia Child, I’m willing to bet I know people who haven’t a clue who Alice Waters is.

Besides the changes that started in Berkeley in the 1970s, changes that created the divide between big city and small town cooking, there are foods unique to different areas of the country. Scrapple is a staple in Pennsylvania. It’s not only hard to find anywhere else, but most people outside of PA have never heard of it. In the south, both grits and hush puppies can be found pretty much anywhere, and all will agree that they’re southern food. You might be able to get them in other parts of the country, but I’m not sure they’d be worth eating.

I think there’s a case to be made, however, that there are as many similarities throughout the US. Because I spent most of my life in Pennsylvania and I now live in North Carolina, my comparisons are focused on Central PA and The South. The south is famous for its fried, heavy food, and is often the target when someone goes on a rant about unhealthy eating in the US. But anyone who’s spent time in PA Amish country knows the food available there is similar: It’s heavy on starch (not carbs. Starch. None of them there fancy names for us), a full meal is considered meat and two or three vegetables, and there’s a lot of food on your plate. Butter and cream play a big part in both types of cooking, and lard makes a regular appearance. Desserts are mandatory, and, in both places, the sweeter the better. You’re not going to find tiramisu in a restaurant serving this kind of food. In PA, you’ll find shoo-fly pie. In the south, you might want banana pudding or red velvet cake*.

The south supposedly has a corner on biscuits, but I can attest that biscuits made by a good Pennsylvania Dutch cook can stand up to any good southern cook’s biscuits, crumb for fabulous crumb. Watching the Amish women in Harrisburg’s farmer’s market make biscuits was like watching an artist at work. Thirty seconds of barely touching the dough, no rolling pin in sight, results in biscuits that could make you cry. And down here, there’s a restaurant that serves biscuits fried in butter. Biscuits that are no doubt made with lard. (Oh, Heaven, your breakfast spot is a place named Big Ed’s.)

However, even with these similarities in cooking, there are differences in the terms we use. The classic argument over “sub” and “hoagie” (an argument that will never end) is a good example. In NC, and perhaps all the south, cheese crackers are referred to as “nabs”. It apparently comes from Nabisco, although it’s used for any brand of cheese cracker. And in a good part of PA, if you want a Yuengling Lager, you just ask for a lager. The bartender will know what you mean.

This is the one I find most interesting. In the south, there’s a dish called chicken and pastry, which is chicken stew with egg noodles. The same dish is popular in Central PA, but, up there, it’s called chicken pot pie. If ever there was an example of a food colloquialism, chicken pot pie is it. Growing up there, I assumed that’s what everyone called this dish. I was in my 30s before I realized it was peculiar to PA, and was mighty confused the first time I heard it used to describe a thick chicken stew that’s covered with pie crust and baked in the oven. We called those meat pies, and they came in a box marked “Swanson’s”. I actually had an argument with someone over what food “chicken pot pie” referred to. She was very strident, while I, naturally, was the picture of logic and objectivity.

I love that there are foods that can only be found in certain parts of the country (although that love didn’t extend to my inability to find Yuengling Lager for the first few years we were in NC. We would return from trips to PA with as many cases of it as we could fit in the trunk.) America is often criticized for its proliferation of fast food joints and its dependency on products like Lunchables and Hamburger Helper. It’s good to know that people still cook pierogies and collard greens, and that you can try food you’ve never had before, whether you’re in Pennsylvania, North Carolina or Alaska. But regional differences aren’t always as cut and dried as the food world would have us believe. Try some chicken pot pie, and you’ll see what I mean.
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* The origins of red velvet cake are a mystery, but it is considered to be primarily a southern dessert.