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The American Way of Eating


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#1 robert brown

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 09:49 AM

In the Food Media & News Forum I began a discussion (Click Here) about a brief article by Florence Fabricant in last Wednesday's New York Times Dining section.

Fabricant's piece was essentially an infomercial for Terrance Brennan's Artisanal Cheese Center, a new cheese aging facility located, appropriately enough, in Hell's Kitchen. I denounced the venture because it heralded itself as the first cheese aging operation of its kind, a breakthrough for the United States. But, I asserted, because of USDA restrictions on the import of raw milk cheeses the new center has little or no gastronomic significance.

Florence Fabricant and the Dining section's editors were well aware of the controversy over raw milk cheese regulation, but didn't even mention it in the article. I therefore accused them of perpetuating a kind of culinary fraud by not questioning the validity of Brennan's operation; instead describing the venture pretty much as Brennan's public relations firm presented it


Neither I nor other posters generalized the audacity of Brennan's conduct into a broader statement about the American culinary experience. But as I reflected on how American restaurants and higher-level food purveyors conduct themselves, it struck me that the Artisanal Cheese Center is a recent, but by no means unique, attempt to pull the wool over the food public's eye. It is just part of the downside of what can be called "The American way of eating".


What comes to mind are the practices that are peculiar to American gastronomy. For example, where else do you encounter waiters presenting in earnest, theatrical tones the ingredients and cooking method of each dish? How often in other countries do menus credit the purveyors of specific foodstuffs, e.g. "Niman Ranch Lamb Chops"? In the field of wine, America is the home of reducing quality to quantitative codification, a practice that makes many serious wine imbibers cringe.


On the opposite side of the ledger, middle and upper class Americans probably spend the largest proportion of their disposable income on meaningful food than any other nationality. In so doing, we exhibit a curiosity and willingness to learn about food and wine that gives me the impression that we are the nation most hungry for culinary knowledge and experiences. This results in a robust media, as seen in magazines, newspaper sections, restaurant reviews, cooking and culinary travel programs and Internet sites. Yet another by-product of our zeal is the introduction and importation in increasing numbers of many heretofore unknown and little-known cuisines, dishes, produce and wines that one can find in restaurants and retail outlets.


In the interest of leaving room for a variety of responses, I have left out other major characteristics. It would be interesting to hear what members like and dislike about the practices and culture of food and wine in America, and to make some cross-cultural comparisons. What other countries have you visited that you think have a different approach toward dining, drinking, and purveying food? Primarily, though, what, in general or specific terms, is positive and not so positive about our food culture--the "American Way of Eating"?

#2 jackal10

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 01:18 PM

Don't get me started. Whale there are many good things about American eating, there are some truely awful habits:

a) Strong liquor before dinner
b) Saying grace in a public place
c) McDonalds and the like
d) Salad as a seperate course before meat
e) Using a fork only
f) TV dinners and "grazing"
g) Six-packs (both senses)
h) Tasteless steaks and other food where size matters more than taste
i) Genetically modified soy, corn etc

#3 Katherine

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 02:33 PM

Snobbiness. Definitely. It's gotta go.

#4 Bill Klapp

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 02:47 PM

Robert: I am convinced that Murray's Cheese Shop is the only artisanal cheese center in NYC. I know that French exporters print up little stickers indicating that they have aged their cheeses the requisite USDA time to eliminate the raw milk curse, and then slap them on any cheese they like. And I believe that Murray's has the good sense not to question French labelling!
jackal10: Go for it! You hit at least 5 of my 10, seemingly without any effort at all!
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#5 Creeper

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 03:01 PM

Robert-

Your post raises a number of interesting questions, which will hopefully trigger a rather interesting thread. I have asked myself some of the same questions, and I think when viewed in a larger context, the "American Way of Eating" is as riddled with contradictions as any facet of American life. When viewed on its own, though, I think a lot of the nonsense surrounding our approach toward food can be explained.

First, I'd like to toss in my two cents regarding your discussion of Fabricant's coverage of Brennan. I think that claiming the Artisinal Cheese Center is an "attempt to pull the wool over the food public's eye" is a bit extreme. I imagine Brennan's attempt to bring quality cheese to his customers is a sincere one. But even Brennan is not immune to the USDA's inane cheese restrictions. It's foolish to think that in a three paragraph story announcing his new venture he would go out of his way to highlight the fact that, "Hey, by the way, I won't be carrying many of the world's best cheeses, just FYI." Nor do I think there was anything especially audacious with Brennan's conduct. However, the audacity of the NY Times' coverage is another thing entirely. Fabricant should certainly have brought up the issue of raw milk cheese restrictions and how they would relate to Brennan's shop. Of course, if Brennan manages to cultivate any serious customers, they're going to become aware almost immediately of such things. Any cheese book or online search will provide that information. (But that still doesn't excuse the Times.)

As for "The American Way of Eating," this could be a difficult topic to keep in check, especially considering how potentially broad it is. I'll try not to wander too much.

I think America's interest in higher-end dining and foods is tempered by a sort of anti-intellectualism that can also be seen in our country's attitude toward politics or academia or many other areas. I also think that attitude, along with a few other factors, such as convenience, can go a long way in explaining some of our country's unique gastronomical practices, like menus that advertise "Niman Ranch Lamb Chops" and the hesitancy of many to purchase a bottle of wine before finding out how some wine geek scored it on a 100 point scale. I think the answers to these questions can also explain why Food TV airs 9 hours of Emeril a day, while shows like David Rosengarten's "Taste" end up in the turdbox.

Even if someone is unfamiliar with the producer, seeing "Niman Ranch Lamb Chops" on a menu is going to have an impact on your average diner in a high-end restaurant looking for a high-end dining experience. They're going to think, "here's a $32 lamb chop that comes from a single, fancy-sounding ranch, and chances are it's better in quality than the frozen turds on a stick I picked up at that warehouse store last month." And they're right. They're able to enjoy the consumption of better food and the knowledge they're consuming better food without having to lead the perverse, detail-oriented life of your average E-Gulleter. :biggrin: In other words, details like that allow Americans to have a better dining experience without having to invest lots of energy, time, and brain-power into food outside of their regular dining hours.

Of course, others view such menus as pretentious nonsense, so what do I know?

Also, living in a country where the quality of food varies as greatly as it does, I'm often a fan of the details on a menu. When you're in Italy and order a tomato salad, chances are you're going to get a decent salad. In the States, chances are you're going to get a bowl of pink mealiness sprinkled liberally with some type of raspberry ass juice. On the other hand, when a menu says, "a Salad of Fresh Heirloom Tomatos from Boggy Creek Farm dressed in Ligurian Olive Oil," it's probably worth ordering.

I think people like wine rating systems for the same reasons. People can easily by a decent bottle of wine without having to invest much time in the subject... they can just go to the local shop and pick up whatever wine has a Wine Spectator 90 Point tag on it. Americans like wine ratings because they're convenient, allow you to choose a wine without appearing unknowledgeable, and it adds something of a competitive and interesting edge to what has traditionally been considered a rather dull subject by many Americans. Personally, I found ratings useful when I first started learning about wine. It now seems ridiculous not to talk with a shop's proprietor about what you're looking for, but a lot of people new to wine find that intimidating.

And of course, nothing can provoke an anti-intellectualism backlash like wine. I'm sure most of us have known people who would rather "have a damn beer" than do something as silly as flip thru a leather bound wine list.

As for our "robust media," how much of it is serious food discussion as opposed to light, food-related entertainment? Sure, there are tons of publications and TV shows that relate to food, but as far as I know, aside from books, there are only a handful serious magazines, TV shows, and Internet sites. People are interested in food no doubt, but most are more interested in watching the Food Channel than flipping thru the Oxford Companion to Food. People can casually watch TV or read a couple of food magazines a month and seriously improve the way they eat. You also run into diminishing returns pretty early on. Reading a couple of publications a month will certainly broaden your knowledge of food without taking up too much time. Spending the majority of your waking hours on EGullet will continue to increase your knowledge, but it will also peg you as a social outcast. :raz:

Of course, anyone who has traveled outside the country probably realizes how lucky we are to have the breadth of choices we do. If you travel to Japan ,you eat sushi. Travel to China, you eat Chinese. Travel to France, you eat French. Not just because these are the local cuisines, but for the most part they are the only cuisines worth eating in those places. To my mind, this is probably the biggest advantage America's food scene has. In many American cities, you can eat quality Japanese, Chinese, French cuisine any night of the week, along with hundreds of others.

Granted, it's a tradeoff. Sure, there are a lot of restaurants where the wine choices are limited to Columbia Crest Merlot and Oakville EXtreme-Oak Chardonnay. But where else can you enjoy Ouzo with a Greek platter on Monday, Lone Star with you BBQ on Tuesday, and a Mouton Rothschild with your steak on Wednesday?

-Steven

#6 hollywood

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 03:31 PM

I don't know much about the American way of eating, but I did have a (creamy) peanut butter and sliced dill pickle sandwich for lunch. (The trick I guess is that you dry off the pickle so it's really kinda crunchy without being watery.)
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#7 Nick

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 03:57 PM

American eating. It's an interesting thought and one which most Americans never consider as they eat their way through the fast food, the microwaveable frozen food, the take-outs, and the "family" restaurants. Then, of course, there are the people who just have to go to the latest upscale place, plunk down $100/plate and brag or complain about the meal.

American eating. I'm happy that we have black people that know how to do chicken livers, and Mexican people that know how to make a good bean burrito with chorizo.

#8 Fritz Brenner

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 05:26 PM

Snobbiness.  Definitely.  It's gotta go.

Yeah! :smile:
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#9 sumac

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 07:36 PM

America, the great melting pot, with pride for all our diversities and the same for our diversity of food. Even in Minneapolis we have excellent examples of restaurants from all ethnic backgrounds and all nations. I too love being able to eat at such a rich variety of restaurants. However, when I am dining at the finest haute cuisine places, Ive had lots of mixed reactions. In Europe (mainly France, but Spain a bit), the service of a meal is both better and worse than in America. In America I never worry if I might offend a waiter or somelier and have a rude remark or glance shot my way or be seated at a bad table because I am English speaking or be refused wine on the wine list as some someliers protect their best wines for their best customers. However, in France, the way my dinner is served is usually perfect. The silverware on the table is for that course only, so no need to wonder which of the 14 forks you should use. Each course is presented and cleared for all diners at the same time, unlike that over zealous American-working-through-grad-school waiter who can hardly wait to clear as one by one each finishes. The French Laundry is fabulous, but for me they cannot serve a meal as well as any 3 star and most of the 2 stars in France. But, hey, I am just lucky to be able to experience both and not worry about those details. I love our American way of eating and I love the French way and both for very different reasons. We go to France 3 times a year and have taken the time to get to know the chefs where we eat. We bring them gifts, write thank-you notes and when we return, they remember us and we are usually very well taken care of by them. On our last trip a 2 star chef and his wife invited to join them for lunch at their home on the ocean in Brittany on May 1st as everything was closed. That was our best experience of the trip. Was it better than Pierre Gagnaire 3 nights before? Is the caviar too cold?

#10 grill-it

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 07:52 PM

Interesting topic. :)

I have travelled through the US and met and dined with many Americans. And there are as many 'American' ways to eat, as there are surfers in California. :wink: That being said, one aspect of American eating has always stood out in my mind, as it differs greatly with my own manner of eating and my upbringing.

I find that for many Americans, eating a meal is merely an evil necessity; it's required for survival and that's about it. So, many don't take the time to enjoy a meal, nor the company. A meal may take anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes. Conversation? Family? Forget it.

As I grew up, I remember dinner time in my family's kitchen. We started late, (except for my mother, of course, who had been busy preparing the meal all day) maybe around eight o'clock, and we ate slowly, took out time between courses, soups & stews, meat & rice dishes, seafood, salads, cheeses etc... by the time we got around to after dinner tea - it was nearly midnight! These days, I don't necessarily have that much time to spend enjoying a meal. But that habit has stayed with me; I prefer to really take my time to enjoy eating, I relish the combination of good food and drink, good company, and good conversation. How Un-American of me! :wink:

#11 Bux

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 09:43 PM

How often in other countries do menus credit the purveyors of specific foodstuffs, e.g. "Niman Ranch Lamb Chops"?

All the time, if you're willing to consider the parallel examples of another society. In fact, I believe a good case can be made that identifying a purveyeor of food stuff is something we are doing to emulate the French. We don't have a label rouge or a certified designation such as poulet de bresse and the name of the purveyor is what we can offer instead.

I'd go one further and ask how many diners in France would be willing to order from a wine list that only identified a wine by it's AOC without also listing it's producer or at least a negociant. The French understand the gurantee of a brand name.

I though those were as close as I could come, but then I realized that if you order a St. Marcellin in Lyon, you're likely to be told that it comes from la Mere Richard and that's exactly what a restaurant here is doing when it tells you the meat is from Niman Ranch. So I don't think you've identified a difference between us and France, but rather an area in which our chefs and restaurateurs are imitating the French.

Let me pick on everyone else as well. :biggrin:

d) Salad as a seperate course before meat

Interestingly enough "salade" (greens only) was a separate course between the meat and the cheese for most of the last century in France. It still is in homes, but I can't remember the last time I've seen it offered in a restaurant. Now it's often a one course lunch in a saladier, or evolved into a first course at fine restaurants. I recall one of our early French haute cuisine cookbooks which laid down the rule--cold appetizer at lunch only, appetizer at dinner must be a hot course.

) TV dinners and "grazing"

I'll not dispute TV dinners as an awful habit, though I won't go out of my way to condemn those who partake. I will however defend grazing as an option. One of the things I am loving about traveling in Spain is the possibility of getting a tasty snack at any time of day and the ability to skip a heavy meal and still go out, meet friends, have a drink and eat some tasty food prepared with pride and care. In Jerez one evening my wife and I nursed a few beers and finos while ordering rounds of what I would describe as snacks, little more than cocktail hors d'oeuvres, each carefully arranged and sauced on a little saucer. We watched locals arrive, meet friends, stay for a different lengths of time and consume different amounts of food and leave. It really seemed so civilized that we had a new appreciation for grazing here in the US. Craft Bar in NYC is an excellent example or would be if a glass of wine or beer cost less then two bucks as it does in Jerez.

Murray's Cheese Shop is the only artisanal cheese center in NYC.

It might be if they weren't so willing to sell cheese that was past its prime. Unfortunately, I've found you have to know not only what you want, but how it should appear. In France, I've found I could rely on a small cheese monger to pick the cheese for me.

Creeper made a lot of good points. Too many to mention, in fact, but I suspect he didn't mean that "If you travel to Japan, you eat sushi" when he said it. One of the interesting things about dining out in Japan, is that the national restaurants take so many different forms that even if you were restricted to Japanese food, you feel are eating different cuisines. One doesn't have sushi in a tempura house, and a restaurant may specialize in serving nothing but eel, prepared one way. I may also have had my best Chinese meal in Tokyo.

Sumac expanded on the concept of our diversity, but what she did best, I think, is remind us all that even those who prefer the French style, can take a deep look and see not only what the French have learned from us in the past few decades, but what they can continue to learn. Grill-it speaks of our national heritage of not focusing on our daily meals, sadly this is something that's influencing the French today.
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#12 WHT

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Posted 14 May 2003 - 10:15 PM

For the most part I enjoy the eclectic blend of cuisine. Though there are some habits that irk me.

Untrained wait staff.
Formula or Americanized foods.
Uncontrolled children in better establishments.
Center weighted presentation.
More rather than better.
Places that don’t take reservations.
Places that overbook reservations.
Living hard will take its toll...

#13 jackal10

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 01:21 AM

I think that much of the difficulty lies in what kids get fed.

In Europe, and especially France and Italy, food is fundamental to the culture. Families sit down to eat together, seasonal produce is locally produced, sold and admired.
In the US, by contrast, food is simply fuel for many kids. Of course the US is so big that there are many exceptions, but for most a food treat is not a wonderful piece of fresh fruit, or a long anticipated seasonal treat, but a trip to McDonalds. Wal-mart shifts a lowest comon demoninator inoffensive blandness.
The ready availability of restaurants also means that fewer people cook at home or appreciate the process - US homes I've seen have wonderful kitchens but practically unused. Even breakfast is eaten at the diner.
Combine that with commercial and "health" advertiisng pressures (eat this gloop as its good for you, or "unless you feed this gloop to your kids, you are a bad parent") an you have the road to perdition.

Of course there are a few brave souls, like Alice Waters, who re-introduce artinsal foods, and few isolated communities who have never eaten anything else, but they are exceptions, and mostly only cater to the intelligensia...with the current lurch to right-wing red-neck politics their time must be limited.

#14 Jonathan Day

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 01:54 AM

It's very easy to drift into a caricature of America that looks a bit like the restaurant scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil, where people scarf down tasteless green gloop while looking at photographs of fancy dishes.

And a corresponding caricature of France and Italy (think Peter Mayle, think Frances Mayes, think olive oil adverts here) where pure, natural food springs from garden to kitchen, people live a slow, reflective life, traditional foods are lovingly prepared and savoured by the family from great-grandmother to infant, sitting around a happy outdoor table, as the sun sparkles on the grass and a fountain burbles in the background. Oh! those freshly picked tomatoes are so delicious with just a bit of basil (from the garden) and olive oil (from the local mill). Life is beautiful.

In both cases the reality is different. Plenty of US homes have gardens, some of them very fine indeed. There are many skilled, passionate home cooks in America. I can assure you that the French eat at McDonald's, that French fast lunch joints are often full, and that frozen and pre-prepared dishes sell very well at French supermarkets. If most Americans eat their breakfasts in diners (I don't think this is true) plenty of French and Italians either breakfast on a cup of coffee or grab a croissant and eat on the run. I have been with Italian families who have eaten with the television playing, focused more on the football match than on the hastily thrown together food on the table. Yes, you can get lovely local vegetables in France, but the best are fiendishly expensive, and the peppers you pull off the shelf at the supermarket are likely to be hydroponically grown in some Dutch veg-factory and thus tasteless.

Having said all this, I strongly agree with Robert that there is a strong self-consciousness about American gastronomy. For many restaurants and diners eating well doesn't seem to come that naturally. It seems to call for a lot of rhetoric and discussion. The most powerful indictment of this I have seen is in John and Karen Hess's The Taste of America which condemned the national obsession with "gourmet" foods and recommended a return to traditional American dishes. The Hesses were experienced diners (they lived in Paris for many years and John Hess covered restaurants for the New York Times) and Francophiles. Their point was that the search for gourmetude often took away from a focus on what was good; at the time of their writing (early 1970s if I am not mistaken) "French" restaurants in America often took bad ingredients, cooked them sloppily, and then covered up for bad cooking with sauces, truffles and the like.
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#15 Fat Guy

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 03:05 AM

I think America's interest in higher-end dining and foods is tempered by a sort of anti-intellectualism that can also be seen in our country's attitude toward politics or academia or many other areas.

Some would say that America comes by its anti-intellectualism honestly, having watched so many failures of intellectualism in Europe in the 20th Century. Nonetheless, America is a nation of contradictions: not only are we the anti-intellectualism capital of the world, but also we are an intellectual capital. No nation today can compete with the US in terms of production of intellectual literature, expansion of university research facilities, and academic innovation particularly in the sciences. Even when it comes to the culinary world, who is producing a body of literature comparable to what the US is producing? The US is surely the world leader in the academic study of food. This is my way of saying that anti-intellectualism probably doesn't explain much about America's relationship to food. If anything, too many Americans fall into one of two camps when it comes to food: 1) Totally ignorant; or 2) Overly intellectual.

In my opinion, the primary issue is anti-hedonism rather than anti-intellectualism. America is still strongly influenced by its Puritanical roots. And that's not always a bad thing. But it is a bad thing when it comes to food and wine. The caricature of the snooty tuxedoed French waiter still controls the American consciousness. Indulgence in cuisine is still considered vulgar by many.

The secondary issue, I think, is America's tendency towards change and innovation. In Europe, people are slower to accept cultural and technological change than Americans are. This I think harks back to the American frontier/expansion mentality, as opposed to the European mentality derived from living within limits. Thus, America, already handicapped by its Puritanical anti-hedonist traditions and therefore lacking a serious food tradition, had its culinary scene completely wrecked by society's enthusiastic embrace of modern food technology especially in the post-War era. Europe, with its traditions more entrenched and its populations more culturally stubborn, didn't accept these changes as quickly. Which isn't to say Europe rejected them wholesale -- as Jonathan points out, McDonald's is quite successful indeed in Europe, and there's plenty of indigenous European junk food that makes McDonald's look good by comparison. But Europe has managed to preserve its traditions and therefore has a core culinary culture that the US lacks. Thus, we are in the process of creating that culture. And by "we" I mean us, literally, this group right here.

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#16 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 05:07 AM

I think America's interest in higher-end dining and foods is tempered by a sort of anti-intellectualism that can also be seen in our country's attitude toward politics or academia or many other areas.

Some would say that America comes by its anti-intellectualism honestly, having watched so many failures of intellectualism in Europe in the 20th Century. Nonetheless, America is a nation of contradictions: not only are we the anti-intellectualism capital of the world, but also we are an intellectual capital. No nation today can compete with the US in terms of production of intellectual literature, expansion of university research facilities, and academic innovation particularly in the sciences. Even when it comes to the culinary world, who is producing a body of literature comparable to what the US is producing? The US is surely the world leader in the academic study of food. This is my way of saying that anti-intellectualism probably doesn't explain much about America's relationship to food. If anything, too many Americans fall into one of two camps when it comes to food: 1) Totally ignorant; or 2) Overly intellectual.

In my opinion, the primary issue is anti-hedonism rather than anti-intellectualism. America is still strongly influenced by its Puritanical roots. And that's not always a bad thing. But it is a bad thing when it comes to food and wine. The caricature of the snooty tuxedoed French waiter still controls the American consciousness. Indulgence in cuisine is still considered vulgar by many.

The secondary issue, I think, is America's tendency towards change and innovation. In Europe, people are slower to accept cultural and technological change than Americans are. This I think harks back to the American frontier/expansion mentality, as opposed to the European mentality derived from living within limits. Thus, America, already handicapped by its Puritanical anti-hedonist traditions and therefore lacking a serious food tradition, had its culinary scene completely wrecked by society's enthusiastic embrace of modern food technology especially in the post-War era. Europe, with its traditions more entrenched and its populations more culturally stubborn, didn't accept these changes as quickly. Which isn't to say Europe rejected them wholesale -- as Jonathan points out, McDonald's is quite successful indeed in Europe, and there's plenty of indigenous European junk food that makes McDonald's look good by comparison. But Europe has managed to preserve its traditions and therefore has a core culinary culture that the US lacks. Thus, we are in the process of creating that culture. And by "we" I mean us, literally, this group right here.

One of the better posts I've read lately. Thanks Steven...I agree wholeheartedly....

#17 Katherine

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 07:02 AM

I agree with Steven's post, and I would like to add that the technological purge of traditional cooking in America has been followed by a medical/nutritional/food police purge. For a generation we have been bombarded by the messages that all traditional cooking is bad for you, accompanied by fixations on 'good' foods and 'bad' foods. The message has been that we need to continually re-engineer our diets, or our lives will be in peril. Much of the data these messages are based on is preliminary and based on test tube studies, not controlled population studies. (Hey, guess what? Soy is only a food, not a miracle food, and eating it doesn't have most of the effects we told you it would.)

Most people I know (both at work and at college) have become so confused by these ever-changing expectations that they have made a few minor changes in their diets and otherwise given up trying. So they eat less meat, while consuming uncontrolled quantities of ice cream, chips, crackers, and soda, and no fresh fruits or vegetables. Where I work I am the only one who brings in meals. People look enviously at them, but consider preparation of food on even an occasional basis to be unachievable. (Don't say these people are too busy from working, none of them works overtime, and they watch hours of TV every day.) The only things they eat that might resemble meals are delivered by pizza joints.

You may have many friends who do not eat like this, but you and I are a minority.

I think the pundits have to answer for this degradation of American eating.

#18 Creeper

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 07:51 AM

Wonderful post, Steven. Anti-hedonism definitely plays a role in explaining America's relationship with food. And much like anti-intellectualism, it raises a number of contradictions and questions. I think one of the more interesting contradictions comes from your conclusion that "indulgence in cuisine is still considered vulgar by many." Agreeing that "too many Americans fall into one of two camps when it comes to food: 1) Totally ignorant; or 2) Overly intellectual," I think often what each group considers vulgar is the indulgences of the other group. For instance, someone from group one may have a habit of ordering a triple cheeseburger for lunch. Surely an indulgence, maybe not in terms of cash, but certainly in terms of fat, grease, and sheer volume. Group two may indulge in the occasional meal at Ducasse. The amount of food, especially stretched over three or four hours, isn't necessarily extreme, but the price surely makes it an indulgence. Both groups indulge, but each sees the other as being vulgar.

Of course, we're dealing with relative extremes here. There's a huge class of people between these groups who would neither make a habit of triple cheeseburgers nor fork over the money for Ducasse.

On your secondary issue, while I agree that America's embrace of change, technology, and innovation, esp Post-war, damaged our country's food scene, I think those same tendencies are going to be partly responsible for creating the "core culinary culture that the US lacks." Take the Food Network. Even though many of its shows are obnoxious, it is introducing its viewers to foods, concepts, and customs that they otherwise might not have discovered, thereby nurturing a group that's more adventurous and knowledgeable about food than they would have been otherwise. I'm hopeful that as the general level of food knowledge continues to increase, it will be reflected in our culinary culture.

#19 hollywood

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 08:08 AM

In my opinion, the primary issue is anti-hedonism rather than anti-intellectualism. America is still strongly influenced by its Puritanical roots. And that's not always a bad thing. But it is a bad thing when it comes to food and wine. The caricature of the snooty tuxedoed French waiter still controls the American consciousness. Indulgence in cuisine is still considered vulgar by many.

Bullseye (sadly).
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#20 Bux

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 08:34 AM

I think that much of the difficulty lies in what kids get fed.

In Europe, and especially France and Italy, food is fundamental to the culture. Families sit down to eat together, seasonal produce is locally produced, sold and admired.

Yeah. A decade and a half ago, my daughter was staying with a French familiy in Provence. One day her host familty joined with another family and too a few kids to town--town being Avignon. They dropped the kids off at McDo--not at all to make her feel comfortable--while the parents ate elsewhere. When she returned home, she told us how she looked up across the street at Hiely, then a starred restaurant, where she had eaten with us the previous year.

It's not a wasteland and the overall experience was good enough for her to try another program the following year and she hit a family where the father's favorite wine was Guigal's La Mouline. I think the point you make is still generally true, but I also think it's less true than we think it is and no matter how true, it's not a black and white situation.

The hypermarches in the provinces are wiping out the mom and pop shops, but they also carry a far wider selection than our supermarkets. Traditional markets in the larger towns and cities are still strong and active, but EU regulations are slowly driving out some of the small artisanal producers. This is not to say the traditions we admire in this thread, are lost in Europe, but they don't dominate the way they may have earlier.
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#21 Bux

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 09:02 AM

But Europe has managed to preserve its traditions and therefore has a core culinary culture that the US lacks. Thus, we are in the process of creating that culture. And by "we" I mean us, literally, this group right here.

Much of what you say is right on target, or at least I agree 100% (which may cause you to rethink everything you said :biggrin: ). However, I wonder how well Europe, or at least France, has managed to preserve it's traditions and how well it's served by what it still sees as its core culinary culture.

Almost every Frenchman I've met in forty some odd years of traveling there has an opinion on food and wine from the first fisherman near Bordeaux, who in the sixties told me that Entre-Deux-Mers was the best wine in the world. I took that with a grain of salt and learned why producers of a good Graves, not to mention le Montrachet could command higher prices for "inferior" wine. :biggrin:

I used to meet young French chefs who would tell me that America knows nothing about eating as evidenced by our creation of McDonald's. My rely was that we know everything about business and that McDonald's was growing faster in France than in the states at the time, and that said all I needed to know about French taste. I would toss in the kicker than Loiseau was quoted as saying haute cuisine wouldn't survive without foreign diners. France's confidence as well as its all too rigid tradition has allowed Spanish chefs to capture the imagination of the culinary world. That's still Europe, I know, but El Bulli's manager was pretty forthright in telling us that Adria looked more towards America than to France for influence.

All of this, by the way, is coming from a Francophile. I am a booster of French cuisine but for a long time I've seen trouble in the middle and now see it at the top and bottom. If you read John and Karen Hess's The Taste of America, as Jonathan says you will understand that this is not yet America's golden age of food and dining. In some ways, what I've seen as a borrowing from France and Europe, particularly Mediterranean Europe, is a renaissance of cooking here and I see signs of France's declines being reversed as well with regional efforts akin to our small farmers producing heirloom fruits and vegetables.
Robert Buxbaum
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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.
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#22 Jonathan Day

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 11:22 AM

I agree with almost everything in Steven's post, which I found clear and convincing. Just a few points to discuss:

Even when it comes to the culinary world, who is producing a body of literature comparable to what the US is producing? The US is surely the world leader in the academic study of food.


What US programmes or literature are you talking about here? There is actually a lot of serious food writing in France, although some of it goes under categories other than gastronomy -- e.g. anthropology. There is a deep tradition of academic food writing in the UK, again, under a range of disciplines.

The caricature of the snooty tuxedoed French waiter still controls the American consciousness...the American frontier/expansion mentality, as opposed to the European mentality derived from living within limits.


Living in Europe you quickly become aware of the idea of "one's station". A lot of European restaurant culture is patently hierarchical, or at least a throwback to a (recent) time when who you were, rather than the money you were able to muster, determined entirely whether you were admitted to a club or restaurant and the treatment you got once inside. It is debatable whether this is better or worse than a system where good treatment depends on $50 bills slipped to the maitre-d'hotel, but that's another topic.
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#23 Fat Guy

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 11:41 AM

Jonathan, if you go to the Web site of any academic library you'll likely find a page of "food studies" links that will absolutely astound you once you start to follow some of the trails of research to see just how much time America's professional intellectuals waste on this stuff. I'm certainly not saying this kind of research, publishing, and teaching is worth anything -- I think most of it is junk, just like most of what passes for academia in the university system. But food studies is a huge discipline in the US. You can even get a degree in it at NYU -- not an anthropology degree, but an actual advanced degree in food studies.

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#24 hjshorter

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 11:46 AM

But Europe has managed to preserve its traditions and therefore has a core culinary culture that the US lacks. Thus, we are in the process of creating that culture. And by "we" I mean us, literally, this group right here.

Part of the reason the US lacks a "core culinary culture" is our diversity, and mobility. People do not stay in the same place, cooking and eating the same things that their parents and grandparents did. And what are the odds that the average American has foreign-born parents or grandparents?

My mother's family is from New England. There are dishes I grew up eating, and still cook for my family, that are traditional to that part of the country - Boiled Dinner, Harvard beets, chowders, brown bread, baked beans with salt pork, etc. My husband grew up in New Orleans eating red beans and rice, corn bread, okra and gumbo. We both like cooking and eating a wide variety of cuisines. What would you call the culture we are raising our children in? The family recipes are not the core of it, although they will be passed down. What I hope we are instillling in them is not only a reverence for the past but an abiding curiosity about things that taste good. We do that by cooking and eating with them every day, feeding them what we eat, and exposing them to as many tastes as we can. We take them to restaurants that offer more than jungle gyms and cheeseburgers. Once they are a little older we will travel with them to other places and let them try things.

While I don't want to get into a debate about families with two working parents, I think it's important to mention that the sorry state of American food culture has come to pass because in many families dinner is put together in the 15 minutes after everyone arrives in the house at 6:30pm.
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#25 Jonathan Day

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 02:44 PM

Perhaps one further cause of "The American Way of Eating" (both positive and negative) is that the vast majority of Americans don't leave their country that often. Most Europeans (and virtually all Australians) hold passports from a very early age; I'll bet that the proportion of Americans who hold passports is, by comparison, very small.

Hence, except for those who do go abroad, fewer opportunities to taste "foreign" food in situ and more of a chance for "Americanised" versions of French, Italian, Spanish cuisine to develop in idiosyncratic ways.
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#26 the other tony

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Posted 15 May 2003 - 11:27 PM

Those of you interested in further reading on this subject would enjoy Brenner's treatment in American Appetite. She gives a thorough and evenhanded account of the evolution ("revolution") of American cuisine and food culture. While there are clearly hundreds of examples of the lack of a developed food culture in America, there is a sustained movement which seeks to raise food to a level of respect within a society which is still young in historical terms.
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#27 Jonathan Day

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Posted 16 May 2003 - 01:24 AM

Tony, a warm welcome to eGullet and Symposium.

Could you say a bit more about how sustained the American food movement really is? Are we talking decades here? Julia Child's first cookbook appeared in 1961. Some people said that it sparked something of a revolution that has been gathering energy since then. Or would you go back further?
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#28 Fat Guy

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Posted 16 May 2003 - 02:58 AM

The whole concept of a "movement" in this context implies counterculture. If something happens as a natural result of the culture, there is no overwhelming need for a movement to promote it. That Europe now needs movements like Slow Food says a lot.

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#29 John Whiting

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Posted 17 May 2003 - 11:32 AM

I denounced the venture because it heralded itself as the first cheese aging operation of its kind, a breakthrough for the United States.

Here's a postscript to this comment. It came to me from a distinguished London cheese merchant:

I received a pr newssheet from the Agency dealing with Terrance Brennan
a while back on this venture. Also Brennan came to our shop in Highbury
a few years back when he was starting up Artisanal to see how we ran
things and got all sorts of info out of us.  To top that Daphne Zephos
contacted my affineur Eric a month or so ago and asked him to come and
work for them at the new venture.  I was absolutely shocked and angry
that someone could be so blatant - phoning in the middle of a working
day -  She has followed it up again with another call.  And I have now
sent Brennan a letter telling him how I feel about all this.

I hope he does well but if he goes about his business in the same way as
he goes about getting staff then he needs to learn a few basic rules.


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#30 Bill Klapp

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Posted 17 May 2003 - 12:46 PM

WARNING: This post deliberately chooses to ignore the upside (to the extent that the same exists) of the American way of eating.
I am a child of semi-rural America of the 1950s. I had a classic Leave It to Beaver childhood. I can remember the taste of warm, unpasteurized farm-fresh milk. I can remember beef that tasted like, well, beef. I can remember climbing up in my grandfather's apple and sour cherry trees and eating myself sick. I can remember the tastes of stringbeans, peas, corn and tomatoes that were picked minutes before from my grandfather's garden. I can remember the taste of my grandmother's homemade yeast rolls fresh out of the oven and the sweet-sour tang of the farm butter I slathered on them. I can remember the taste of country ham on buttermilk biscuits hot out of my grandmother's oven, as well as the pinto beans and kale at Sunday dinner, seasoned with the hock from that ham. And I can remember a poor woman named Pop Bottle Annie (as in soda pop) who, to supplement her income from finding and redeeming soft-drink bottles for the deposits they yielded, picked 5-gallon buckets full of blackberries and raspberries in the woods and sold them door-to-door. I did not think any of that was all that special in the 1950s. As Joni Mitchell so aptly pointed out, "You don't know what you got 'til it's gone." In spades, as it turns out.
Yet, until about five years ago, I was fine with my plight. My wife and I are both good cooks, and I am a relatively good shopper. We also learned to keep an eye out for the best new restaurants wherever we were living. I took up wine collecting as a hobby, and got a big kick out of wowing friends with successful wine-and-food pairings. Yes, overweight, underexercised and working too hard, but prosperous enough, all things considered.
And then the freight train that is the American Dream suddenly seemed to me to run off the track. Serial killers sprouting up everywhere. Columbine and its progeny. The O.J. trial. The movie "Wall Street", which we did not know until several years later was one of the greatest works of non-fiction of the 20th century. Osama Bin-Laden. 9/11. Saddam Hussein. And so it goes. Surely, this state of affairs had been decades in coming, but it came home to roost with me all at once. I began looking hypercritically at many things American, and the closer I looked, the less I liked what I was seeing. I often wondered if at least a handful of Romans did not feel this way just before the collapse of the empire. And nowhere was the deterioration of the American way of life more evident than in its eating habits.
Allow me a little Joycean stream of consciousness: TV dinners. MacDonald's. "Better" eating through chemistry, on vegetables and fruit and in livestock. Artificial flavors and colors. Mushy USDA prime-in-name-only beef in Cryovac plastic packaging to avoid losing an ounce of saleable weight.
Fruits and vegetables from Florida and California on every supermarket shelf, picked unripe and either gassed with an inert gas to simulate ripeness, or allowed to change color, but not flavor, in transit. Endless combinations of carbohydrates and sugars to snack on. Obviously, this stream could go on forever.
Certainly, it is not true that good food cannot be had in America. It is just that finding it has become damn hard work, and relatively few Americans are interested enough to take up the search. We have been conditioned to want what we want and want it now, without delay or inconvenience. And by and large, we make enough money to pay a premium for instant gratification (although, thankfully, a relative few of us choose to pay our premium for the slow gratification of the fresh, the natural, the best and the "old-fashioned"). And God bless good old American capitalism. It is simultaneously at its best and worst when it sets about fulfilling the desires that its own advertising machine has implanted in our brains!
A couple of modest examples. Let's start with the chain, Arby's Roast Beef. One of my favorite metaphors for s*** happening, foodwise. Through some quirk of fate worthy of Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions", my path crossed that of the guys from Youngstown, Ohio who dreamed up Arby's. In the late 60s, I was looking for a little extra spending change in high school, so I took a part-time job at the first Arby's to open in the suburban Washington, DC area. There was great focus on that store, so the big boys from Youngstown showed up with great regularity to spout the corporate philosophy to us kids. Like all of the best food concepts, theirs was simple: lightly season and slow roast top rounds of beef medium to medium-rare, slice it paper-thin, and plop 3 1/2 ounces of it on the ubiquitous sesame seed roll that had been spread with a butter-flavored oil (real butter was too much to expect, even then) and toasted, all for just 69 cents. You could also get their patented Jamocha shake (coffee and chocolate together being pretty radical stuff in the 1960s), soft drinks and a bag of chips. No other sandwiches. Only chips, no fries. (We were told that fryers jacked up insurance rates, and besides, fries had a low profit margin.) That sandwich was a fast-food triumph, not unlike the original MacDonald's (real beef, real fresh-cut fries). And then it came undone, one irrational, painful step after another. American beef prices spiked, so they started using South American beef with a decided off-flavor. Then, they discovered that, while the cooked beef sat in a holding oven, it lost weight as the jus drained out, and jus is money, as they say. They also miscalculated the American love of fries. Thus, Arby's was reincarnated. The beef was replaced with a bologna-roll product that did not lose weight in the holding oven (thanks to the binding power of soy, I presume). Fries appeared, but not even frozen ones. Instead, they bought a high-tech device that mixed water and dehydrated potato flakes, extruded something that vaguely resembled French fries, and dropped them directly into hot oil, all with the touch of a button. I haven't eaten in an Arby's since.
On a brighter note, consider the American classic, the Snickers bar. I will not whine about the shrinking-size-for-ever-increasing money issue, which is really about the intersection of marketing and greed. And a Snickers, lo and behold, still tastes like a Snickers. If you have watched it closely over time, however, you would have noticed that the thickness of the caramel, nougat and chocolate layers, and the number of peanuts per bar, are in a state of constant flux, depending upon the relative prices of sugar, corn syrup, chocolate and peanuts. That is the American way in action!
Why does it so seldom occur to corporate America that Americans, of all people on earth, are best positioned to pay a premium for fresh, first-quality, naturally-flavored foodstuffs? I find it a mystery. And worse, since we now have not one, but several generations who grew up eating the crap on our supermarket shelves, properly aged beef tastes weird, even rotten to them and fresh vegetables have too much crunch to suit them. But Fritos, that's another story.
I have neither the time nor energy at the moment to compare and contrast eating around the world with the American way of eating, but I leave you with two thoughts: Have you ever noticed how often relatively poor people in America eat as well as or better than those with greater wealth (barbeque in my neck of the woods, fresh seafood in Louisiana, green chilies in the Southwest, etc., etc.)? Is it a function of the proximity to the freshest and best ingredients, born of necessity? And lastly, have we vastly undervalued the social importance of tradition of the family dinner table? Families seem to hang together a whole lot better elsewhere in the world where the tradition is maintained. If Harris and Klebold were made to come home and wash up for dinner every night, would there have been a Columbine? For the record, I'm not a communist, despite my views on capitalism. But I am beginning to believe that I am a reactionary! Rant over!
Bill Klapp

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