The best summer reading makes kids hungry to learn more. Enter Gabrielle Langholtz's charmingly illustrated United Tastes of America (Phaidon). It's a sea-to-shining-sea food tour with history lessons, recipes, and fun facts they'll love quizzing you on. Two that'll whet their appetites: Vermont cows make enough milk every year to fill 16,000 swimming pools, and in Connecticut, pickles must bounce to be called one. Langholtz, who also wrote America: The Cookbook, chatted with us about her new children's book.
Langholtz was inspired to write this book after traveling the country with her own parents when she was growing up. Her parents, both college professors, valued the experience of visiting a new place and fully immersing themselves in the community. "My research process has gone on my entire life. I had been to nearly every state in my childhood…literally, I went to kindergarten in Alaska and high school in Manhattan. I've always loved to get to know a place through food—the history, the people who live there, the weather, the geography, the identity," says Langholtz.
When it was time to start writing, Langholtz got to know each city by reading church cookbooks and eating at the hole-in-the-wall diners; she also spent time getting to know her main demographic—elementary school-aged children. "My daughter just turned 10 so all of her friends were eight and nine when I was writing the book. My recipe tester also has a daughter, my project editor has two kids, so we were very much meeting with the experts," she says laughing.
The importance of inspiring parents and teachers to get their kids excited about food was central to Langholtz's mission. The recipes in the book are designed to be things kids would want to eat, and be a bit of a challenge as well. "My daughter and I make fresh egg pasta all the time and it's almost like Play-Doh; kids love noodles so it's really fun when they can make their own. I think doing so is so important to richness of life. And they have so much fun when they cook it themselves, so much pride and excitement."
Beyond just encouraging kids to cook, Langholtz of course wanted to teach them about the history of American food. "What I most wanted to do with this book was myth-bust. American food really has a reputation for being bland and fast food only. But when you really get on the ground, you see the true regionalism of a place," she notes. And in a polarized political era, appreciating the culinary contributions that immigrants have made to our country is central to Langholtz's writing. "America is a nation of immigrants. If you asked someone to describe immigrant food, they might say sushi or Thai food but so is pizza and hamburgers and macaroni and cheese. It was enormously fun and meaningful to shine a light on stories that local people do know but get glossed over in this narrative of what is American food," she says
After traveling to every corner of the country, Langholtz notes that there are more than a few regional culinary specialties that stand out to her. "I love the steamed burger in Connecticut, the Guanábana milkshake in Florida, Banh Mi in Washington, D.C., and Nashville hot chicken. I'd walk through fire for Louisiana Po'boys."
Within the hundreds of colorful pages containing fun graphics and appetizing recipes, there is a deeper meaning—to acknowledge and celebrate our history and diversity in a way that kids can understand and appreciate. Langholtz's advice for doing so is simple—"make it fun!"