What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

Tater Tot Hotdish, Minnesota Soul Food

My Home State’s Favorite No-Fuss Meal Is a Tribute to Its No-Nonsense Spirit

Ostlund on hotdish LEAD

By Lori Ostlund
February 29, 2016

I am a Minnesota writer. I realized this only after my first book was published in 2009. One reader called it “a crash course in being Minnesotan.” Reviewers noted that my characters were oddly formal, obsessed with grammar, wanting to connect with others but unsure how to do so—all traits that I had grown up surrounded by and passed on to my characters. A friend said that she would never want to break up with one of my characters because …

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The Japanese-American Flower Growers Who Made Phoenix Bloom

Post-WWII Gardens Like My Family’s Found Beauty in Stony Ground

Nakagawa ART Lead WIMTBA

By Kathy Nakagawa
January 14, 2016

When my high school orchestra teacher found out my family owned a Japanese flower garden in Phoenix, Arizona, he made a confession: He had once snuck into those fields. He stole flowers to propose to his wife. To this day, I meet other people who share with me equally vivid memories of the farms. One friend told me: “I would drive my mom there every weekend!” Although all of the flower fields are gone now, they’re still an important part …

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I’ll Have What She’s Having

Jewish Delis Are Noisy, Crude Eating Places That Turned the Idea of the Restaurant on Its Head

Merwin Jewish Delis Lead Image

By Ted Merwin
November 23, 2015

My maternal grandparents, Jean and Lou Kaplan, did not keep kosher. That was their ancestors’ way, the path of slavish adherence to the stringencies of Jewish law. But old habits die hard, and they never ate the foods they had not consumed as children. They would sooner have taken off all their clothes and danced naked in front of their neighbors in Flushing, Queens, than down ham, clams, or even a cheeseburger.

So when we went out to eat with …

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Why a 30-Second Gun Fight in 1881 Still Captures Our Imaginations

The O.K. Corral Is a Human-Sized, Emotionally Satisfying Revenge Drama That Affirms Our Thirst for Justice

Russell OK Corral

By Mary Doria Russell
October 13, 2015

On October 26, 1881, nine armed men faced one another in a vacant lot near a livery stable in the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona. Four sworn officers intended to arrest a handful of civilians who were carrying guns within city limits without a permit. The officers were the brothers Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp, along with their friend John “Doc” Holliday. The wanted civilians were Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. Almost without warning, …

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Springfield, Birthplace of the American Character

This Massachusetts City Has Gone From Farms to Drug-Ridden Streets, but Hope and Hard Work Still Guide Its Soul

Gaskill downtown Springfield

By Malcolm Gaskill
July 27, 2015

According to official records, more than 150,000 people live in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, but during a recent research trip there I didn’t see many of them. The downtown streets were almost deserted. It seemed as if every other store had closed down, and those that hadn’t had signs in their windows that read: “No hoodies, no loitering.” I kept glancing over my shoulder as I walked to the archives at the city museum, worried about who might be …

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Who Invented the Chimichanga?

In Tucson, Arizona, Giving Birth to the Deep-Fried Burrito Is a Point of Pride

Mi Nidito in Tucson

By Cary Kelly
May 1, 2015

One afternoon while I was navigating the clogged freeways of Phoenix, a fierce argument erupted in the back of my car.

“Of course the chimichanga was invented in Tucson!” yelled one Tucsonan.

“No way,” replied the Phoenix native. “I am positive it’s from south Phoenix.”

“Perhaps it’s from Mexico?” chimed in an ever-neutral Illinois transplant in the front passenger seat.

I sat behind the driver’s wheel lost in thought, stumped by our chimichanga standoff. What is essentially a fried burrito was …

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The Puritans Didn’t Have ‘Mudrooms’

The Modern Obsession With a Spotless Home Ignores Early Americans’ Dirtiest Traditions

The Puritans Didn’t Have ‘Mudrooms’

By Jim Garman
April 28, 2015

It’s late at night, and I’m staring at seed catalogues while the scripted tones of a reality real estate show—my favorite soporific—drone on in the background. An earnest young couple with a mind-blowing budget is searching for a house in an unnamed North American suburb. Their must-haves: open-concept living (does anyone enjoy living in rooms anymore?), a three-car garage, and above all a mudroom, because their three sons play hockey and have the heroic amounts of gear that kids lug …

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Where Lincoln Was President and Conqueror

The Commander-in-Chief’s Surprisingly Humble Journey into Richmond, Virginia, After the Confederacy’s Fall

Lincoln statue in Richmond

By Jamie Stiehm
April 10, 2015

April 4, 1865. The conqueror entered Richmond, Virginia, on a rowboat with his son Tad, after nearing the fallen city by military steamer. President Abraham Lincoln was escorted and guarded by Union Army officers, but the victory scene was far from triumphal. He slipped in unannounced, to bear witness, not to preside over the vanquished.

Lincoln simply strode up the hills of Richmond, the enemy capital, passing the pearly state capitol building designed by Thomas Jefferson. He sauntered into the antebellum …

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A Family Saloon Serving Stiff Drinks and Second Chances

Generations of Immigrants Sought Refuge in Grand Rapids, Michigan Taverns. So Did We.

A. Wolfe, Mike Konkle, bar

By A. Wolfe
March 24, 2015

I grew up in my family’s dive bar in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city now affectionately and appropriately called Beer City, U.S.A. I was surrounded by a makeshift family of beer-swilling, goodhearted customers with crooked jaws and scars across their cheeks, people who hopped up on their stools at 6 a.m. and stayed until the afternoon girl counted in her till.

I thought Cheers was a family sitcom. I saw the know-it-all postman, the work-averse accountant, and the salty server in …

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What Exactly Is Appalachian Cuisine?

Spam, Soup Beans, and Cornbread Define This Hardscrabble Region

Appalachian soup beans

By Fred Sauceman
March 13, 2015

On the first day of my foodways of Appalachia course at East Tennessee State University, I always play a one-minute audio recording. It’s the voice of Marilou Awiakta, a Cherokee poet and storyteller.

Marilou grew up poor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about two and a half hours away from Johnson City, where the university is located. A Sunday baked ham, she recalls, was a rare luxury. Instead, her mother would score a Spam loaf in a pretty crosshatch pattern, coat it …

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