YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ketchup? He wrote the book

But Andrew Smith's knowledge of all kinds of American food and drink is encyclopedic.

July 04, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

ANDREW SMITH is talking about hamburgers. He's got a hamburger book coming out later this year, and he's got burgers on his mind.

He's already the ketchup guy, author of "Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment." And the peanut guy ("Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea") and the popcorn guy ("Popped Culture"). And the chief editor of "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink," which is the book he should really be talking about, since it was just published last month.

But Smith, 61, one of whose earliest food memories is eating at a tiny burger stand in Sunland, Calif., just likes talking about hamburgers. And demolishing myths about them.

Forget anything you may have heard about hamburgers being served in 1834 at the famous New York restaurant Delmonico's. It was a German restaurant at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, Smith says, that popularized the idea of the fried ground beef patty under the name hamburger steak.

It wasn't quite the burger we know -- the patty was mixed with onions and garlic, and it was served on a plate, not a bun. The hamburger sandwich didn't appear until 16 years later, when it showed up simultaneously in Los Angeles, Chicago, Reno and Honolulu.

Yes, in 1892, Reno and Honolulu were out on the fast-food cutting edge alongside L.A. and Chi-Town.

"The hamburger is a fascinating subject," Smith says. "At food conferences, people will be talking about local produce and the whole high-minded Alice Waters thing, but if you get them offstage and mention hamburgers, all the gourmets have a favorite hamburger place -- they'll write down the address and thrust it into your hands.

"I'm also fascinated by the globalization of the hamburger. The Hungry Jack chain in Australia spun off from Burger King, and it has some Australianized burgers -- one of them is a mixture of beef and lamb."

Smith is a big guy and has gotten involved with some big books, such as that "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink," which clocks in at 641 pages. It's basically a condensed, updated version of his earlier "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America," a two-volume work totaling 1,454 pages -- which he originally planned at 5,000 entries before Oxford made him pare it down to 1,000. Smith is not only the editor but also the chief contributor to the book.

We tend to take American food for granted, but the "Oxford Companion" is a reminder of what a remarkable food heritage we have.

If you just look up the mint julep entry, you may well find yourself reading on about mock foods (mock angel food to mock venison), molasses (it turns out unsulfured molasses simply hasn't been bleached), Robert Mondavi, monkfish and the Monte Cristo sandwich. You may not stop until you reach popcorn, Popeyes (not named after a famous sailor man, it turns out) and Popsicle.

Peppered among the entries are bits of strange food lore. Most American presidents -- even that rugged frontiersman Andrew Jackson -- have relished French food. Life Savers were born when Clarence Crane noticed a hand-operated pill press being used in a pharmacy, and they didn't become popular until bars started selling them as a way of concealing liquor on the breath. (The original Life Saver was mint-flavored.)

The entry on TV dinners includes Gerry Thomas' inside story of how he invented the frozen dinner in 1954. Thomas created the classic three-compartment tray, he writes, because he'd always hated the way foods ran together in the one-compartment mess gear he'd had to use in the Army.

Smith took a curious route to becoming an expert in American food lore. He started as a teacher of international relations.

In the 1970s, he got a teaching grant from UNICEF. "I'd shot my mouth off that you can teach anything to anybody if you know the structure of the subject," he says. "So they told me to teach international economics to 4th-graders."

He noticed that using an example about food always got the kids' attention. So he developed a wall chart showing all the international products that go into making a chocolate bar.

"It was one of the most successful things I've ever done," he says. "UNICEF printed up hundreds of thousands of copies of the chart and translated it into all sorts of languages."

In the process, he proved something about teaching that he hadn't planned: "I found I could teach any group of people if I used a food angle."

That experience was what got him curious about food. He started slowly -- his book on the tomato took 10 years. After his sons graduated from college, he started writing in earnest and he's now published 12 books on American food. He also teaches culinary history and food writing at the New School in Manhattan.

For the last 25 years, he's lived in Brooklyn. "The city, and especially Brooklyn, has been reviving," he says. "There's an explosion of markets, bakeries and restaurants -- the food is incredible. There are about 400 chichi restaurants within a mile and a half of where I live."

Perhaps not among the chichi is the Brooklyn fish and chips shop that invented -- Smith's research makes him reasonably confident -- the deep-fried frozen Twinkie.

"It's pretty good," he says. "It turns the Twinkie into something else. But you have to be open to new tastes."

Los Angeles Times Articles