Monday, November 25, 2019

Books: Paul Freedman On "American Cuisine" - Yes, there is one

American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way
By Paul Freedman
Liveright; hardcover; $39.95

Just in time for your Thanksgiving turkey and indulging at holiday parties comes a look at how food in this country has evolved over time.

For centuries, skeptical foreigners, as well as plenty of Americans, have believed there was no such thing as "American cuisine." In recent decades, the items that have fit into that category are hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza.

Food historian Paul Freedman disagrees, and in his new, lavishly produced book, American Cuisine, he demonstrates that there is an exuberant and diverse, if not always coherent, American cuisine that reflects the history of the nation itself.

With a combination of historical rigor and culinary passion, Freedman underscores three recurrent themes - regionality, standardization, and variety - that shape a completely novel history of the United States. From the colonial period up until after the Civil War, there was a patchwork of regional cooking styles that produced local standouts, such as gumbo from southern Louisiana or clam chowder from New England.

Later, this regional identity became magnified for historical effect, as in Southern cookbooks that mythologized gracious "plantation hospitality," rendering invisible the African Americans who originated much of the region's food.

The industrial revolution brought rapid changes in every facet of American life, and the American palate changed from local to processed. A new urban class wanted convenient, modern meals, and the freshness of regional cuisine disappeared, replaced by package and standardized products, such as canned peas, baloney, sliced white bread, and jarred baby food.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the era of homogenized American food ramped up. Bolstered by nutrition "experts," marketing consultants, and advertising executives, food companies convinced consumers that industrial food tasted fine, and, more importantly, was convenient and nutritious. No group was more susceptible to the outlandish claims of advertisers than women, who were made to feel that their husbands might stray if not satisfied with the meals provided at home. On the other hand, men wanted women to be svelte, sporty companions, not stuck in the kitchen.

Companies figured out that the solution was time-saving recipes using modern processed helpers. Men supposedly liked hearty food, while women were portrayed as fond of fussy, colorful, but tastelesss dishes, such as tuna salad sandwiches, multicolored Jell-O, or artificial crab toppings.

The 1970s was the zenith of processed-food hegemony, but also the start of a food revolution in California. What became known as New England cuisine rejected the blandness of standardized food in favor of the real taste that seasonal, locally grown products produced. The result was the farm-to-table trend that continues to this day.

As much as Freedman details the evolution of food in America, he writes: "The search, then, for a set of classic American dishes continues. Almost two hundred years after Amelia Simmons's effort, Phillip Stephen Schulz in 1990 published a cookbook with the appropriate title As American as Apple Pie. In it he presented 20 dishes (including apple pie), each prepared 12 different ways. A peculiarly American emphasis on options and variety informs this repertoire - one cannot imagine a French cookbook with twelve ways to prepare pot-au-feu or boeuf bourguignon. Schulz's list includes pot roast, chili, fried chicken, baked beans, meatloaf, potato salad, and chocolate chip cookies. Ignoring for the time being the fact that chili is of Mexican-American origin and potato salad was introduced by Dutch and German settlers, these dishes are recognizable, but not all of them are commonly consumed anymore. When did you last eat pot roast or bread pudding, let alone prepare them at home? Many of these dishes are eaten predominantly at restaurants, often under the rubric of another distinctly American sobriquet, "comfort food" - i.e., foods you could cook at home but don't. Some, like fried chicken, are not whipped up in home kitchens to the extent that they were fifty years ago. For baked beans not from a can, one would have to go back to before the Great Depression."

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