I’ve been reading American Cuisine: And How it Got This Way by Paul Freedman. It delves into the history of “American” cuisine and how it was shaped by the country’s history. As can be imagined, there are many factors involved in this evolution, from the various cultures and backgrounds that are the heart of America’s melting pot, to technology advances and changing tastes and preferences. It really made me think about what types of foods can be defined as typically American.
This is not a new concept. Back in the early 1870s, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia visited the United States and later claimed that American cookery was nonexistent and the best American cooks “were all French.” Incensed, Philadelphia Chef James Parkinson of (The Thousand Dollar Dinner fame) wrote an editorial published in the Philadelphia Press and later as a stand-alone pamphlet called American Dishes at the Centennial. In this lengthy essay, Parkinson extensively sang the praises of the numerous “exclusively and distinctively” American foods and dishes, meticulously pointing out the duke’s inaccuracies. It was two years before Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition (America’s first official world’s fair), and Parkinson declared that the rest of the world would see and taste the true excellence of American cuisine at this celebration. “American dishes at home, at the great fair in 1876, will lead to American dishes abroad,” he predicted. “America, therefore, should become, and may become, the fashion.”
Parkinson wasn’t wrong, but ironically in a different way. He wrote mainly about America’s plentiful native game, fish and produce, for example, referring to American oysters as “not the peanut, copperish caricature of France or England, but the large, sweet, delectable, and glorious American oyster—the envy of the world.” But today it is fast and processed food that is typically globally defined as American cuisine, with huge corporate entities such as McDonalds, Starbucks and Coca-Cola now available throughout the world.
And part of this has to do with portion sizes. When Europeans first arrived in America, they marveled at the bountiful size of its fish, oysters, wild turkeys and squashes. That was the beginning. As a result of all this abundance, portion sizes of dishes in the U.S. were typically big and just kept increasing. Flash forward to today where many restaurants offer platter-sized portions.
Another factor is that Americans have always embraced technology. So when food processing really took off at the end of the 19th century, Americans were all in. Canned and boxed goods were convenient. They helped free up women’s time in the kitchen, allowing them to work outside the house. Packaged foods could travel much further distances without spoiling. Railroads and steamships could transport staple foods around the country.
Both technology and convenience also played a huge role in the rapid acceptance of fast food chains. As the “land of opportunity,” America has typically been an “on-the-go” culture, eating quick meals for sustenance. Europeans visiting America in the late 1800s were rather appalled at how fast Americans gobbled down their meals. So no surprise “fast food” became ubiquitous starting in the 1950s, especially as the American highway system expanded.
When I hear the phrase “American cuisine,” I think of all of these factors, plus the fact that the U.S. is such a geographically large nation that each region has its own specialties, a fact Freedman highlights in his book. In addition, America encompasses such a vibrant mix of cultures that have impacted what we eat. I am personally grateful for this as I love trying new flavors and cooking techniques. What about you? I would love to know what comes to mind when you think of American cuisine!
For further reading try:
- Food in the USA: A Reader
- What Makes American Cuisine?
- European and American cuisine
- Eight flavors: the untold story ofAmerican cuisine
- Eating history: 30 turning points in the making of American cuisine
- Bound to the Fire : How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine.
- Food in time and place: theAmerican Historical Association companion to food history