American Classics, Straight Up with a Twist

Old favorites never die; they’re just reinvented with new ingredients.

Have we seen the end of meatloaf and fried chicken? Are American diners sick of French fries? Have hamburgers gone out of fashion?

To anyone who knows anything about classic American favorites, these questions seem downright ridiculous. More than likely, hamburgers will never go out of fashion, and there will always be room for fried chicken and macaroni and cheese on the menu. But because these items have become so ubiquitous, the trick to attracting more customers is adding a twist and putting your stamp on these foods.

“What’s comfort food?” asks Ken Cardone, associate director of the award-winning dining services department at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. “It depends. We have a diverse student body, and that means everything from Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches to macaroni and cheese. We offer them but we put a spin on things.”

Fry frenzy: Case in point is the school’s French Fry Frenzy Bar, which is featured regularly in each of the college’s two facilities, Moulton Union and Thorne Hall. The bar offers several types of fries, including sweet potatoes, with toppings and condiments. “Some people like cheese, some people like gravy, some people like ketchup,” notes Cardone, “so we offer variety,” including the in-house creation: cumin-flavored ketchup. The fact that the French Fry Frenzy also represents a vegetarian option is another selling point.

Rather than depending upon a strict cycle menu, Bowdoin’s dining services staff takes its cue from the students, along with the natural rhythm of the seasons. “We have a comment board, and if we see a few requests for any one thing, we’ll try to offer it,” notes Cardone. At any given time, the menu will run the gamut, from grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches to a grilled mozzarella and tomato panini with pesto, Kung Pao shrimp stir fry to Southwestern sloppy joes. There are also plenty of healthy options, such as Winter Wheatberry Salad with dried cranberries and fresh herbs.

Still, nothing beats favorites like macaroni and cheese. “A parent sent us a great recipe for mac and cheese made with a blend of gouda and cheddar, plus Canadian bacon and broccoli,” says Cardone. “It was such a success that we kept it as part of our repertoire even after the student had graduated.”

FoodService Director - Menu Features - American ClassicsAnother favorite, mashed potatoes, takes on many guises, including a version made with a two-to-one ratio of sweet potatoes to white potatoes, simmered in dark beer with onions and garlic, and finished with cream and herbs. Other variations include smashed red potatoes with herbs, or salsa mashed potatoes.

Bowdoin’s foodservice department also takes seasonal inspiration from its garden. College volunteers have tended a garden about a mile from the school for several years, but last year a second plot was established adjacent to the campus. Planted organically and using sustainable guidelines, the new garden saw its first crops this summer.

Garden variety. “It’s nice having it so close that we can pick fresh salad greens and herbs,” says Cardone. This year, a bumper crop of basil meant that large batches of pesto were made and frozen for later use. And Cardone and his staff are looking forward to the time when the garden’s three dozen high-bush blueberries begin producing berries for classics like pancakes and muffins: “It’s really exciting to have the freshest possible ingredients available for your menu.”

Baptist St. Anthony’s Health System, in Amarillo, Texas, may have a new dining center with lots of added capacity—and menu capability—but that hasn’t sent old favorite menu items packing. “One of our most popular menu items is the pot roast sandwich. We started serving it two years ago and it’s still the most popular thing on the planet,” says Diane Dyess, director of nutrition services for the hospital. She admits it’s not that healthy—sliced pot roast on sourdough bread with muenster cheese, horseradish sauce, and lettuce, tomato and red onions, served with steak fries—“but, boy, is it good.”

With the new BSA Dining Center in Ware Tower, which opened this June, visitors and staff now have nine different venues to choose from (compared with four before), including two display cooking stations: World Flair (which alternates between Italian, Asian and Mexican items), and a Chef’s Station with a Mongolian grill dispensing sizzling salads and other made-to-order specialties. Other options include Buffet Classics, a bakeshop, deli, grill, soup, salad and a mini-buffet featuring build-your-own selections like a potato bar. “We not only increased the number of seats, but also the variety,” notes Dyess, “and the display stations allow us to show off a bit.”

No matter how many ethnic options the kitchen may add, however, Dyess says there’s always room for favorites like fried chicken, roast pork, chopped steak, and local specialties like carne guisada and King Ranch chicken (a casserole of tortillas, chicken, vegetables and cheese). “We also try to offer something healthy, like rotisserie chicken and steamed vegetables, or low-fat mashed potatoes made with skim milk. Mashed potatoes are delicious any way you make them.”

Home is Where the Heart is

Two decades on, Georgia’s A Taste of Home still has a strong flavor.

Fill in the blank: “My mom makes the best _________.” That’s the lure of the A Taste of Home program at the University of Georgia, now in its 20th incredibly successful year. Launched in 1987 as a tribute to Mother’s Day, the program has since taken on a life of its own, with a competition every fall and an entire day in December devoted to showcasing 125 winning recipes. More significantly, perhaps, is that over the years, the program has resulted in more than 2,400 traditional family favorites being featured on menus.

“It has been absolutely fantastic for us,” says Mike Floyd, director of food services at the University of Georgia. “Every year, we get 600 to 800 recipe submissions. The kids love it, and families get excited about it.”

Gearing up for A Taste of Home takes the better part of half a year, with solicitations for recipes beginning before school even begins. “To get such a great response, we have to talk it up to the parents at summer orientation and in the newsletter,” says Floyd. For each featured recipe, the parent receives a foodservice production recipe for 8,000 servings and a University of Georgia Food Services A Taste of Home dinner plate. “We have one mom who will get her fifth plate this year—she’s had two kids here—and her goal is eight.”

As part of the selection process, the department’s chefs, managers and nutritionists sift through the recipes, categorizing them by dish, and build possible menus. A computerized recipe production system helps to accomplish the critical scale-up step. “Sometimes the recipes are great, but they just can’t be produced in our environment, or for such large numbers of people,” says Floyd.

A Taste of Home has garnered significant press attention through the years, including a 10-page feature, complete with recipes, in “Southern Living” magazine—invaluable publicity for the school and its foodservice department. For the department’s chefs, A Taste of Home is like the best R&D program in the world, resulting in hundreds of recipes with proven appeal for college students. It also represents a great opportunity to involve parents in their kids’ lives—even though they’ve left for school.

Nice touches: “We’ve come up with lots of nice touches to make this a complete package, not just a recipe contest,” notes Floyd. Parents whose recipes don’t make the cut get a letter with two meal passes. “This year, we sent out 480 notifications,” Floyd adds.

And for those families whose recipes are selected, the school pulls out all the stops with a letter, batch recipe, family passes and commemorative plate, which is sent home with the student at Christmastime. “Many folks frame the recipe,” says Floyd. “Since it’s for 8,000 portions, it’s a great conversation starter, and really helps spread the word for UGA.”

The best of the recipes turn up on the menu again throughout the school year in UGA’s four dining halls, designated by an icon to indicate that they are A Taste of Home items—from Savannah Gumbo (Jennifer Dempsey, 2004) and Poppyseed Chicken (Carol Sasso, 1990) to Chicken Chalupas (Kathy Adams, 2006) and Applesauce Muffins (Diane Giordano, 2004), representing a diversity of family traditions.

Sourcing in the U.S.A.

American foods just aren’t the same unless you use local ingredients.

With American consumers becoming increasingly more concerned about food offerings that are organic and sustainable, foodservice directors are finding ways to source and promote these products on the menu. Maria Simmons, manager of patient food service at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago, has spent the past year engaged in this process, and she’s not through yet.

“It’s been a very educational process to start sourcing organic products, but also a very exciting one. We were lucky enough to find a purveyor (Goodness Greeness) that was able to provide organic items at a price that fit in with our cost structure, and we’ve been able to gradually add more organic products on the patient menu as time goes on. They have also been willing to educate us on how to make choices, working within the seasons to help keep our costs down.

We started with produce, and have been able to systematically convert about 90-90% of our fruits and vegetables to organic. We use organic whole wheat flour and baking powder in our baking program. We are the only Chicago hospital affiliated with Planetree (a nonprofit organization working with hospitals and healthcare centers to develop patient-centered care in healing environments).

About 50% of our cereals are now organic, and we just added organic dairy products, including milk, sour cream, cream cheese and cottage cheese. As a short-term goal, we would like to have about 75% of our groceries organic, including frozen vegetables.

Right now, we are looking at organic bread, as well as pasta. The products are out there; we just need to access them, at a price that we can afford. We have to pick and choose for price before we can make the decision to add an organic product.

Even before this, we developed a relationship with TallGrass Beef Company to add grass-fed beef. We looked at our patient menu to see what beef dishes we could change to use grass-fed product, and it turned out that we could replace all our ground beef and stew beef to their product at a price that we can handle. We’d like to add even more beef items if possible.

Using grass-fed beef is a big challenge, because the cooking time is different. We have to be more conscious of the fact that the grass-fed beef is much leaner, and needs to be handled differently. But the reaction has been very favorable. We include a card on patient trays telling our customers what it is, and why it’s healthier. We’ve had a lot of feedback that our beef dishes now taste like beef should.

Our biggest success is the Swedish meatballs, which have been a house specialty for years. We’re also using the grass-fed beef in other stewed and braised meat items, and ground beef specialties, like beef stew, meat loaf, Dominican stewed beef, Salisbury steak and spaghetti sauce, which also incorporates organic tomatoes.

As more items become available and affordable, we’ll add them. As dietitians and nutritionists, none of this was part of our original education, so we’ve had to learn on our own. I’ve gone to local food fairs and met some of the farmers, and learned to use their products. When you can put a face to a name, and know who produces the food you’re using—that’s when all of this becomes so meaningful.

We know that high-quality, healthy food can enhance a patient’s recovery. While grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs may be a little more expensive than their counterparts, we feel it’s worth it.”

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