When someone asks you to describe “American cuisine,” what comes to mind? For many of us, the answer is sadly industrialized, packaged or processed foods—from peanut butter to frozen pizza. Yet long before the systematic cuisine of Ford-inspired fast food empires, the United States boasted a nascent culinary culture, rich with native ingredients that ranged widely from region to region.
Championed by such writers and cookbook authors as James Beard and Edna Lewis, the recognition of American heritage cuisine largely began in the South and continues today under the guise of such chefs as Sean Brock and Vivian Howard. Yet beyond biscuits and collard greens, catfish and pecan pie, a new generation of chefs is applying this Southern-born curiosity to other regions of the United States. Among them is Jeremiah Langhorne, a D.C.-native credited with conjuring the Mid-Atlantic cuisine of our forefathers at The Dabney in Washington D.C.
“I have a theory on American cuisine,” Langhorne explains.
“If you reflect—historically and globally—what has developed very good cuisines is extreme poverty over long periods of time. From across Asia to the countryside of France, you can see endless recipes that were developed out of sheer necessity. Take fish sauce, for example. In times of poverty, even rotting fish remains have a value—and that condiment is now one of the most clearly identifiable ingredients in Asian cuisine.”
Further following Langhorne’s hypothesis, American cuisine has faced several specific issues. First and foremost, we rejected the ingredients and practices of the Native Americans who had cultivated this land for centuries. Instead, we proudly imported cultures and cuisines from all over the world under the guise of “mixing pot” diversity. Nonetheless, a native cuisine did begin to take root, most recognizably in the South, through the ingenuity of slaves striving to endure and humanize their lives on plantations.
Following the Civil War, extreme poverty did help to further solidify a national cuisine, but by the 1900s, the focus on the World Wars would abruptly end that era of culinary “progress.” The development of canning, freeze drying and other industrialized preservation processes—while beneficial to the troops overseas—soon became the death knoll of a regional and seasonal American cuisine. As Langhorne puts it: “In my research, I have seen that we had the beginnings of a really great food culture, but we didn’t have the time to develop it. We modernized so quickly that nobody looked at what was in their backyard anymore.”
This question of native ingredients, in particular, drives Langhorne’s cooking at The Dabney. “In 1850, if you wanted cinnamon, you had to be very, very wealthy. By 1950, it’s easy for everyone to access cinnamon, so we no longer needed to use local ingredients like spicebush—which tastes similar to allspice—in our cooking and baking.”
Spicebush still grows wild throughout the Mid-Atlantic, which Langhorne sources with the help of The Farm at Sunnyside in Little Washington, VA. Just 90 minutes from downtown D.C., this small organic farm has a naturalist on staff who roams the property’s 400 acres in search of native ingredients. Langhorne applies their spicebush in applications ranging from hollandaise to ice cream—and today, his fellow D.C. chefs can even find the ingredient at the downtown farmer’s market.
Bloody Butcher cornmeal is another ingredient Langhorne has helped introduce to the District: “When we work with a farm, we often are buying out their entire crop for the year. These ingredients are typically harder to grow than commodity crops, so we expressly designed The Dabney to operate with a much higher food cost than other restaurants. We want our relationship with farmers to be mutually beneficial, and sometimes that means we are helping them grow their businesses alongside our own.”
In other cases, Langhorne is simply making room on his menu for ingredients that were previously wasted. “Sugar toads,” a local variety of puffer fish, were previously thought of as “trash fish” or bycatch. Since adding the fish to his menu, Langhorne has seen more and more chefs featuring them across the city. “When ingredients become popular, unfortunately, nature has to deal with the brunt of that. We try to focus on things that are abundant but not popular, so as not to cause a burden to the local ecosystem, and sometimes we have to re-evaluate when there is an influx of interest.”
Of course, Langhorne also isn’t chasing run-of-the-mill ingredients. For example, while white turnips are grown throughout the region, Langhorne prefers the less common Gold Ball variety. “There’s nothing wrong with a white turnip, but you can find varieties that are much more intense in their depth of flavor,” he explains. “We also research beyond the ingredients themselves, to learn how they were historically prepared. One of these adapted recipes is a favorite at The Dabney, where we serve grilled baby turnips with their tops, tossed in a dressing of hot bacon fat with a little sorghum and vinegar.”
Speaking of sorghum, you’ll find the unprocessed sweetener throughout Langhorne’s menu. With a local growers’ association in nearby Virginia, D.C. chefs have easy access to sorghum grain and milled flour, as well as a liquid alternative to cane sugar syrup. “We go through at least 100 gallons of sorghum molasses a year, using it in preparations where you might typically find refined cane sugar,” says Langhorne. “Our theory is that, if we fill the restaurant with ingredients that are historically relevant to the region, when we create our dishes, they’ll have no choice but to reflect our area. It’s a way of making sure we don’t cook ‘outside the box.’”
Yet despite these devoted efforts to stay “inside the box” of Mid-Atlantic cuisine, when you dine at The Dabney, don’t expect a history lecture. “We don’t list our farms on the menu or necessarily discuss our philosophy with guests,” Langhorne notes. “That’s because we believe sourcing this way should be a baseline for a good restaurant. It should not be special, unique or something to brag about. Of course, we’re happy to engage in deeper conversation with guests who take an interest, but we want you to have such an enjoyable meal that you simply experience it as great hospitality.”
Written by contributor, Carly DeFilippo from Life & Thyme.