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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Development of American Cuisine

Disclaimer: This is my Final essay for my English Composition class in college. Yes, Culinary school is work. Good news is, though, that I got a 60/60 for it, giving me a perfect 100% in the class. Yay me! (PS this isn't just to gloat. This is to put those Thinking caps on for some of you and perhaps help you figure out your own definition of American cuisine!)

The Development of American Cuisine

The development of American Cuisine has spanned over centuries of cultures colliding, melting together, and trying to define if there is a Cuisine out there that is truly American. North America as a nation – specifically the United States of America – has only a handful of things that truly belong to the homeland, versus the things it has acquired via immigrants and trade. The only thing that is truly American when it comes to cuisine is that it is simply a melting pot of cultures and, therefore, a melting pot of cuisines.
When one thinks of American cuisine, they think of things such as burgers and fries, or pizza, or ice cream, or soda. Hot dogs are things we think of when we think of American cuisine, and we also think of steak or mashed potatoes. Certain dishes are associated with American home classics might be lobster thermidor, pot roast, chili, macaroni and cheese, roast beef, turkey dinner, honey-glazed ham, chicken soup… the list goes on and on. One could argue that each one of those things can be traced back to its original homelands(France for lobster thermidor), but these things are American because of a few fundamental reasons, such as why they were made and how.
Hot dogs, burgers, pot roast…everything about American cuisine has been about ingenuity in some form or another. Hot dogs are emulsified sausages that are made by utilizing all parts of the animal you wouldn’t normally use. Pot roast is a simple slow-cooking method used by the New Englanders for years when they landed on Plymoth Rock. Macaroni and cheese, however, was something that’s almost truly American, being something that was served at the White House by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800s, who had his own ‘macaroni crank’ in his home.
American food isn’t something that the rest of the world necessarily holds in high regard. It is often seen as fatty and without any discipline or real technique. Nowadays, some would consider American Chefs to be up-and-comers in the Culinary world. With organizations such as the American Culinary Federation(ACF) in tow, American cuisine is gaining more and more reputability by the day.
Developing and understanding of American cuisine is very much like finding all the pieces of a puzzle that your cat knocked off the coffee table, with the box bursting wide open. One almost has to assemble the puzzle itself before being able to figure out if all the pieces are there. Every piece, though different, is equally important when trying to create a whole understanding of what the picture is.
The James Beard Foundation hosts an annual event called Taste America. It is a “national celebration of food, the arts of the table, and American cuisine.”(www.jbftasteamerica.com) In 2008, Las Vegas hosted the event in such hotels as the MGM Grand, Caesar’s Palace, The Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino, and more. There were over 100 Chefs at the event, as well as food critics, cookbook authors, et cetera, all to celebrate American cuisine. At the event, foods from these Chefs are served and judged, and only the best receive the illustrious James Beard Award. In 2007, Taste America was celebrated across 20 cities in the US.
The Chefs at this, and all other Taste America events, are an eclectic bunch that is considered to be, of course, some of the finest Chefs in the United States. They hail from Southern Arizona to the Pacific Northwest, from the California coast to New England. With all these Chefs who had studied in America and who-knows-where-else, one had to wonder if they were the authorities on what American cuisine was. After all, a Chef is a master of his/her own domain, and with that knowledge that comes with being a Chef, surely there must come knowledge of what American cuisine is – and each one of them said something different.
In 2007, the James Beard Foundation surveyed Americans on their Taste America Events website(www.jbftasteamerica.com) if they thought there really was such a thing as American cuisine. The results came in, and 90.8% answered Yes, with 9.2% saying No. The Taste America team also found that the speakers at the various foundations had their own things to say on what they thought American cuisine was. One speaker in Charlotte was Laura Shapiro, a woman who had extensively written and researched about the food industry and the way we cook and eat. She noted how the period between the 1950s thru the 1960s was a period which gave birth to the string bean casserole, and how it is crucial to American cuisine:
“It’s not our best cooking and certainly not our only cooking, but it is the most American cooking there is, and that’s the stuff we invented after WWII. I think that the American dish is string bean casserole that you make with frozen string beans, canned mushroom soup, and French fried onion rings on top. It’s entirely artificial and we invented it,” quotes Shapiro.
While this accomplishment is not entirely flattering, American cuisine has never been held in high regard until fairly recently, as Chefs across America are trying their best to teach Americans how to cook and eat. We must keep in mind, however, that this revolution of food and eating – catapulted by such talents as Julia Child and the Food Network – is something that’s developed solely within the last 30 years. Before that, American cuisine was something laughable. Even though we Americans have been cooking for centuries, there are few that find American cuisine to be anything but appetizing.
Isadora Duncan, a famous Russian ballerina, quoted “I would rather live in Russia on black bread and Vodka than in the United States at the best hotels. America knows nothing of food, love or art.” 
Henry Miller, the famous American writer, quoted “You can travel fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread.” He also said “Americans can eat garbage, provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, Tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, or any other condiment which destroys the original flavor of the dish.”
The favorite quote, however, comes from American author Mark Twain, a man who always had an interesting perspective on life. It is not so much a quote on how American cuisine is laughable, but more a quote on the lifestyle of the American eater versus the European eater. He said: “A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery would not starve to death suddenly in Europe, but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die.” What does this mean?
In Europe, almost nothing is processed the way it is in America. Good bread is served at nearly every meal, and the portions are much, much smaller. The European lifestyle also differs from American in the way that public transport, biking, and walking are often preferred ways of getting around versus automobiles. All in all, American lifestyle isn’t as healthy as it could be – and it is often reflected in our foods. But what is American food?
Going back to the topic of surveys by the James Beard Foundation, the question of how American cuisine was defined came into play. In the survey, 34.2% of the participants defined American cuisine as “regional”(The James Beard Foundation Taste America 2007 survey). This makes sense, because American is a very large country, and its cuisine varies greatly from region to region, depending on lifestyle, geography, and resource availability. This explains the other 16.2% of the participants that used the word “culture” to define American cuisine.
This, truthfully, doesn’t make much sense since food and culture goes hand in hand, and the term “culture” is entirely too subjective of a term to be used as a definition with anything. Food is a part of any culture, and not solely American. It is the opinion of the author that this just contributes to the fact that many Americans can sometimes be illiterate and uneducated, and can sometimes be just as ambiguous as can be.
In continuing on, 9% of the survey participants said “comfort” was a word that came to mind when American cuisine was put into play. Comfort food plays a huge part in what it means to be American cuisine. So what is comforting? That warm, fuzzy feeling when Mom pulls something out of the oven – the sense memory that takes one back to a simpler time.
A survey participant quoted “When I bite into a juicy cob of sweet corn grown from my parents’ farm in West Central, Minnesota, I taste America. The corn is home-grown and home-cooked by a farmer who provides food to our country.” Another survey participant quotes “American cuisine is the fast, easy, and common. The cereal, milk, and orange juice in the morning, the peanut butter and jelly for lunch, and the hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken and apple pie for dinner. These are American, and are associated with America.”
In the survey, participants were also asked to list five iconic foods that were quintessentially American. The results were as follows.

Hamburgers and Cheeseburgers
Fried Chicken
Mac’ n’ Cheese
Apple Pie
Source: The James Beard Foundation’s Taste America Survey 2007

While all of these things can be prepared in about a thousand different ways depending on the region, these are the things that are considered to be quintessential American cuisine. American cuisine – while still technically undefinable – is something that isn’t static. American cuisine is Mom’s cooking. American cuisine is regional and adapted from many different cultures. American cuisine is comforting and wholesome. It is the meat-and-potatoes type of food that we’ve had since we began this wonderful country.
James Beard himself said “We have a great tradition of home cooking and restaurant cooking that spans three centuries. We are now, I hope, in a new epoch of gastronomic excellence that, with a liberal seasoning of common sense, will draw on the best of old American cookery as well as on the technological advances of the new.”(“’American Cooking’”, 311) It is with this quote in mind that we can begin to push forward and truly pioneer what American cuisine is and can become in the coming years.

1.       “State of American Cuisine”, Mitchell Davis, Anne McBride, James Beard Foundation; July 2008
2.       “Trying to Define American Cuisine,” Chef John Mitzewich,
3.       “American is the New Ethnic”, Gigabiting, Open.Salon.com; December 12, 2011
4.       “The New American Food Culture.”, John Ikerd, Professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, 2005
5.       500 Years of Food, KeyIngredients.org
6.       “Guns, Germs, and Steel”; http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/

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