Please join us for a live cook-along event as part of the 2020 U2 Conference. Our American Pie session will be on Saturday at 3:30pm EST. Registration is here. A recipe for preparing in advance to make Gary Stevenson’s U2’s American Pie is here.
Nothing says America like Apple Pie and Fried Chicken. Combining those two classic American dishes would be all you would need to capture the culinary soul of America. But just like U2’s music, there is much more to this dish than meets the eye. Inside it’s America.
U2’s American Pie: A Culinary Reflection
If the long messy journey of what we now know as America becoming America had a flavour, what would it taste like? What would it look like? What dish would capture the complex and diverse Soul of America? I was inspired to ask these questions soon after Scott Calhoun invited me to design a dish that communicated the struggle of America becoming America for the upcoming U2 Conference.
I love a challenge and this has to have been one of the most conceptually challenging dishes I have ever created. How do you communicate the wonderful yet messy struggle of America becoming America through one dish? Especially when you are not even American?
As a Canadian, I have a unique perspective of my neighbors to the south. We are greatly influenced by American culture, American media, American food and dare I mention American politics! As a Canadian I do share many of the same values as my American friends, such as the idea of a free, democratic society with liberty and justice for all. But over the past few years, much of what I have witnessed through the American news has made me cringe. After 244 years, America (much like other free democratic countries) is still struggling to find itself. In many ways, America still hasn’t found what it’s looking for.
This struggle is what U2 sings about in many of their songs such as Bullet the Blue Sky, New York, Get out of your own way, and American Soul to name just a few. U2 loves the idea of America, but they are also not shy in calling out the injustices that the world witnesses in America. Lately those injustices seem to be almost daily.
This dish is not meant to critique America, as the idea of America is something that all humans can identify with. It’s a culinary reflection on the struggle and the pain of social and racial injustice that continues to haunt America, and the drive of Americans to uphold the ultimate goal of America: liberty and justice for ALL!
This explanation for this recipe might seem a bit long, but this is the only way I can explain the true inspiration behind this dish as it has many layers, flavors and stories to tell us, just like U2’s music, and just like America.
Scott and I had a Zoom meeting and discussed a number of U2 songs inspired by America as we searched for some culinary clues within U2’s American canon. One song called Drunk Chicken America, an Allan Ginsburg poem from the B side of The Joshua Tree Deluxe Album, was the only obvious choice. The poem is a raw critique of America contrasting it’s unquenchable drive of capitalism as a Drunk Chicken. With this as my starting point, I began to think, pray and reflect on this culinary challenge.
As I began to listen closer to a selection of U2 songs, the first that stood out to me was In the Name of Love. The song is primarily about the life, death and legacy of Martin Luther King Junior. His April 4th, 1968 asassination was a tragic day in American history. Dr King was in Memphis to speak at a civil rights rally the next day. As I dug deeper into the story surrounding his death I discovered that Dr King was not only a world changing civil rights leader and electrifying preacher, he was also a big foodie. He particularly loved the southern cooking that he grew up on. Dishes such as fried chicken, catfish, black eyed peas and sweet potato pie.
Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, a pastor at Monumental Baptist Church and an associate of King, stopped by his Memphis hotel room to take Dr King to his home for dinner. He was a little early so they spent some time chatting in the hotel room before they left. In an interview, Kyles was asked what they spent their last few minutes talking about. Dr King wanted to know what was for dinner!
Rev Kyles’s family had prepared a spread of Dr King’s favourite foods including Fried Chicken, black eyed peas and sweet potato pie.
It was just after 6pm on April 4, 1968 as Dr King stepped out of his Hotel Room to go to dinner when he was shot. The dinner was prepared but never eaten. It is now remembered as “The Dinner That Never Was.” Now, many people celebrate Martin Luther King Day by preparing his favourite foods. Dr King’s Dinner that Never Was is represented in the fried Chicken and in the Sweet Potato pie.
Even though the combination of Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato pie might be all I would need to capture the culinary Soul of America, just like U2’s music there are many more layers to this dish. Each layer contributes to the story and struggle of America.
The very bottom of the pie is inspired by a classic Apple pie. Apple pie has been a culinary icon of American cuisine since the late 1700’s when John Chapman (Johnny Apple Seed) sowed appleseeds to the early American settlers. However with this recipe I have made it a savory apple pie, by including sweet onion, fennel, Asian pear, ginger and Harrisa. While the Asian Pear and ginger give the Apple layer a nice crunch and a warming depth of flavour, they also represent the growing Asian American population. Harrissa is a Middle Eastern spice blend that adds a pop of heat while representing Middle Eastern Americans.
Next is a layer of corn Tortillas. The Tortillas represent the Latin Americans who have immigrated to America. Corn is also a staple of American agriculture since the indiginous people farmed the American plains long before Christopher Columbus and the first pilgrims landed on American shores.
The middle layer is a Mulligan (Irish for “everything”) Stew made up of Italian Sausage, a classic Mirepoix (French) of diced carrots, celery, and onion. Then I added some diced potatoes and chopped up an ”everything” bagel. The diced potatoes represent the Irish immigrants who came to America during the great potato famine, and the everything bagel represents the Jewish Americans. The everything bagel also represents the various cultures I have missed. America is made up of people from everywhere. All cultures, all ethnicities and all faiths. America is a little of everything, and that’s really what makes America great.
The top layer of the pie is steamed sweet potato with some tarragon, basil, a pinch of cayenne and some chili powder. This layer is in honor of Martin Luther King and the Dinner That Never Was, as sweet potato pie was one of his favourite dishes.
I then add a sprinkle of honey roasted nuts to the sweet potato layer, this is a nod to the line from U2’s New York lyrics:
“Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics
Religious nuts, political fanatics in the stew”
Also in honor of Martin Luther King, the chicken is fried, but it’s also drunk. Before frying it, I soaked it in a simple brine with Bourbon, Apple juice, cayenne pepper, brown sugar and some salt. Adding the bourbon to the brine brings a nice flavour to the chicken as it pays homage to Allan Ginsburg’s Drunk Chicken/America poem from The Joshua tree.
I then make a spicy Honey Bourbon glaze which I baste the chicken with once it comes out of the fryer. It adds that Mr. Macphisto kick and an extra burst of flavour that ties everything together when it’s drizzled over the chicken and pie when serving.
I then use a star cutter to cut out a simple pattern of 25 stars on the pie crust. Then add the cut stars for a total of 50 representing each state. I wrap the top of the pie with a simple twist of 2 strands of pie dough to represent the stripes on the American flag.
Overall this American pie is really a Mulligan stew. A sweet and savory reminder of how a hodgepodge of cultures can bring out true harmony in a culture when they all work together to achieve the american dream. The drum and bass of America is it’s diversity. Diversity is the soul of America.
You are Rock & Roll!
Gary Stevenson’s Bio
Gary Stevenson is a university chaplain, a life long U2 fan and founder of Theo’s Feast. Gary was inspired to start Theo’s Feast as a way to illuminate spiritual truth and inspire meaningful conversation amongst students through a unique shared meal. After closing a feast with a quote from Bono, one of Gary’s students suggested that he should invite U2 to a feast as they would appreciate his metaphors and symbolism. This inspired Gary to create the U2 Feast that uniquely shares U2’s spiritual journey through a 5 course meal.
Gary has since created 7 themed feasts and has hosted well over 2000 dinner guests. Gary has also recently published a cookbook and corresponding video series. Gary is now helping people become better cooks and storytellers through his new online initiative called Theo’s Feast Academy.
Gary, is happily married with 3 kids and lives in Vancouver, Canada. When he is not creating new dishes in the kitchen, he enjoys off-road motorcycling. You can discover more about his unique take on food and story telling at Theosfeast.com
Gary’s COVID pivot is teaching online cooking classes similar to our U2 American Pie workshop
Gary would love to host a virtual U2 Feast and teach U2 fans how to experience U2 like never before.
You can email Gary and let him know if you would like more information about the U2 Feast and his ministry at firstname.lastname@example.org