James Beard’s big, fat American Cookery seemed unstylishly chauvinistic in 1972, when we foodies still looked to France’s truffle fields for cuisinary epiphany. Frank Valenza bought live chickens in Chinatown to braise and serve bruised with black truffles in his mannered (and astonishing) Palace. From devotion to Julia Child recipes in New Paltz, Barry and Susan Wine brought a Gallic cheese trolley and a library of serious après-dinner digestifs at the transplanted Quilted Giraffe on Second Avenue. Even Alice Waters saw Chez Panisse as an homage to Provence, though, soon enough, word trickled east about her home-grown herbs, the foraged mesclun, her appeal to farmers to grow the lettuces she dreamed of, creating a revolution in the American larder.
Buzzy O’Keeffe insists he was already thinking American for the River Café when Larry Forgione arrived, lured away from searing smuggled foie gras at Regine’s. Forgione proposed a menu written in French. “I threw it on the gangway and said, ‘I hired you to cook American,’ ” O’Keeffe recalls.
And thus Forgione found his mission: to stalk, cajole, and support the best of America’s harvest. He found and financed a farmer willing to raise chickens the old-fashioned way and dreamed up the name free-range. “The first brood was full of flavor but tough, so we pot-roasted them,” Forgione recalls. “Potted free-range chicken with Great Lakes chestnuts, chanterelles and wild rice,” was how it read on the fall 1979 menu.
Forgione quickly became obsessed with the celebration of Americana. His menu mimicked a Rand McNally road map: Peconic bay scallops, Smithfield ham, morel mushrooms and wild huckleberries and farmed buffalo from Michigan, fresh shrimp from Key West, Belon oysters and periwinkles from Maine. Soon stalkers and divers were calling him.
“One day,” says Forgione, “My mycologist, who harvested wild mushrooms for me, began bringing me wild greens—lamb’s quarters, wild mustard greens, purslane, wild parsnips.” The field salad with wild edibles, lettuce, and flowers was a first for New York.
Forgione’s list of purveyors was a roster of pioneers, boutique farmers, and fussy fishermen. A van parked outside River Café made regular trips to the airport to pick up the chef’s groceries. It cost O’Keeffe a fortune, but he paid.
By the time Forgione left to open the first, small An American Place on upper Lexington in 1983, cooking American had become a source of national pride. The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park unleashed waves of neophytes nurtured on the philosophy that homegrown was better. California cooking migrated east along with Creole, Cajun, Memphis, Tex-Mex. Mesquite, kiwi tarts, and blackened red fish came and, mercifully, went.
Through good times and bad, Forgione stayed true to his cedar-planked Atlantic salmon, his Maine lobster-and-corn chowder, and the double-chocolate pudding even when New Yorkers moved on to wasabi pizza and sea-urchin sorbet. He and his sons are dishing up those same classics at the latest incarnation of An American Place at Lord & Taylor. And the biggest miracle of all: Home cooks share in the harvest Forgione seeded, not just in the Greenmarket but at Fairway, Citarella, and Eli’s, too.
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