Matthew Gavin FrankThe Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour through America’s Food

Liveright, 2015

by Eric LeMay on November 29, 2015

Matthew Gavin Frank

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Let's say you had a curiosity about, maybe even a hankering for, Indiana's signature dessert, sugar cream pie. You might search for it and, on a typical foodie website, find this description, written in typical foodie prose: "As Indiana's state pie, this rich, nutmeg-dusted custard pie also goes by the name 'Hoosier Pie.' Born from Amish and Shaker communities that settled in Indiana in the 1800s, this "desperation pie"–a category that refers to pies made when fresh fruit wasn't available or money was short–is as simple as it is delicious."

Now, sugar cream pie may be delicious, but there's nothing delicious, nothing delectable, in that description. Compare that to the one Matthew Gavin Frank offers in his new book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour through America's Food (Liveright, 2015): "Our Hoosier Cream Pie is so soft we can cut it with our pinkies. So sweet, we can think only of how it moves us, speeds our hearts, allows us to run from towns called Amboy and Amo, Trafalgar and Troy. Running, we can think of all our dead aunts and uncles, all of the filled-in quarries, their ceilings waiting to collapse, the kinds of state histories buried beneath rock and dust and tablespoons of sugar we allow to burn, harden, lacquer the tops of our Hoosier Cream Pies."

Frank's description is no historical tidbit or bland factoid. It's something more like a tribute, though only if a tribute can embrace the sadness of what it celebrates, the troubled soul beneath its shinning surface. And, like the rest of Frank's book, it's wonderfully written.

Here's a food writer who cares as much about the words on the page as the food in our mouths. And the result of Frank's attention to both is a book that gives us a fresh look at America and its food. Frank takes up fifty signature dishes from fifty states in fifty essays, each as surprising and engaging as a dish cooked up by a half-crazed, half-genius chef who's determined that the best tastes make the familiar strange, but no less enticing.

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