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Americans' Inferiority Complex about cuisine


roger desmond
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I am researching literature about food, American cookbooks in the 18th through 21st. centuries, and related topics. I have found evidence that since the earliest writing about food and cooking, Americans have displayed a sometimes blatant, sometimes veiled apology about their cuisine, as compared to their European counterparts. Please send me any references or ideas that support or refute this claim.

Thanks, and Happy Holidays!

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I am researching literature about food, American cookbooks in the 18th through 21st. centuries, and related topics. I have found evidence that since the earliest writing about food and cooking, Americans have displayed a sometimes blatant, sometimes veiled apology about their cuisine, as compared to their European counterparts. Please send me any references or ideas that support or refute this claim.

Thanks, and Happy Holidays!

 

 

Can you post some references?

 

 

Thanks!

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~Martin :)

I just don't want to look back and think "I could have eaten that."

Unsupervised, rebellious, radical agrarian experimenter, minimalist penny-pincher, and adventurous cook. Crotchety, cantankerous, terse curmudgeon, non-conformist, and contrarian who questions everything!

The best thing about a vegetable garden is all the meat you can hunt and trap out of it!

 

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 I think its fair to say that although there are notable regional US cuisines that are home grown eg cajun or southwestern, but most regional tastes are derived from immigrant's home countries.  Considering that the immigrants tended to be poor, the level of cooking that they brought was not elevated or, by today's standards, attractive.

 

Pennsylvania Dutch (German) dishes where I grew up and live near now are fatty, floury, potato-y piles of calories. Stick to your ribs stuff. Can this stuff be jazzed-up and made classy? Of course, but then it isn't the real thing, its something derived from it.  Hard for the real local cuisine to stand up against Italian, French or Chinese food as far as taste or appearance.

 

Inferior?  Yup.

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I think there are quite a few other factors that need to be considered in the whole scheme of things

 

1) Geographical "challenges".  A huge land mass that was sparsely populated up until the early 20th century

 

2) Most European countries had(and still have) food related guilds and apprenticeships.  This is quite an intrastructure when you think about it, and has all sorts of influences on the public.

 

3) European exports.  Most European countries were exporting food products like cheeses, wines, cured meats, oils, etc. a long time before the N. Americans started to get into the game 

 

4) I politely disagree with your "High end culture".  Common English food, like meat pies, treacle tart, bangers and mash, desserts like spotted dick and fool are well known.  Ask any Swiss what typical Swiss food is, and Roesti (potato pancake) and fondue come to mind.  Going across the US border to Quebec--which is fiercely French, and you find more common, but well prepared dishes.

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America had lousy food, until Thomas Jefferson made an effort to change that.

 

It is simply impossible to classify what is American cuisine today. Here in NYC, in Jackson Heights, we have wonderful Indian food. Flushing , Chinese food, Brooklyn, Polish food -------------------------------.

 

The kind of food that I consider truly American, cross cultural, cross ethnic,  are, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's, McDonald's, Starbucks, White Castle -----------.

 

dcarch

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http://www.foodtimeline.org/

Have you been using the above as a research tool? If not, have fun - it will keep you busy for a lifetime.

I just did a survey approach and opened a single link from there: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924003522103;view=1up;seq=27and I can see there is a lot of reading that might help you in your assessment. I began to read at around page 5 (and I can't quote because it is a scanned in googlebook), looking for any evidence of what you are implying - and I just don't see it there. But, I am sure if you delve further in that one - or others linked in the timeline, you may find something to support what you are saying - though I would bet that a LOT of attitudes came from books (and were slow to be passed around), more than anything else back in those pre-internet days.

'Wonder' at (and interest in) new ingredients and techniques perhaps, but, 'apology' for what was 'invented' and/or served at home in America? ... not sure that is really what most people thought/did, etc.

I agree with the probable issue being perhaps the concept of a class-system and envy issues maybe, if there was anything at all - in terms of what the general populace thought/thinks.

Edited by Deryn (log)
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Deryn-

 

Thank you so much! The food timeline is fascinating, and so are the other references. You rock! You are quire correct; the majority of references and evidence are in places like the references in old cookbooks, but even 1950's Gourmet mags have notes about it. I really appreciate your help!

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Just read an article (on a so-called 'news media' site, so take that with a grain of salt) about (at least some) Europeans being up in arms because of the EU-US trade agreement in the works - claiming that they will have to eat our 'frankenfood' ("chlorine chicken and bionic broccoli") if it is signed. Maybe we should make our apologies now?

Edited by Deryn (log)
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I didn't mean to take Roger's thread off topic. Perhaps we can debate this in another thread? I am sure there will be a lot of interest both from our US posters and those overseas (and I am not sure I could disagree with some Europeans though I am not totally certain they know exactly what they are already eating either) - but I guess (other than my quip about making apologies) it doesn't really belong here. Sorry.

Edited by Deryn (log)
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My gut reaction is that any of the "apology" writing is older and perhaps rooted in a feeling that French food is "fancy" whereas American cuisines (we are a huge diverse country as noted with so many immigrant traditions) are more the food of the people. I honestly do not think this exists anymore. I find parallels with Australia - also a land of immigrants who have embraced the glorious food diversity. 

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Hell, America is called the Melting Pot for a good reason.  We also seem to have the knack of making foreign food into something all our own.  Drag classic Latin American food across the border, give it a twist and-boom- Tex Mex for your dining pleasure.  Same with Chinese.  Watch the crews we brought in to build the railroads eat.  Get a serious case of envy and before you know it, we have our own version  in dishes like chop suey. And  don't forget those super American fortune cookies.  And don't get me started on the way we have made Italian food our own.  

 

We are probably the only country that has had the opportunity to create a food culture from scratch and we are still growing and evolving with each new wave of newcomers.   Personally I can't wait to see what takes center stage on the table next.  

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Thomas Jefferson was a Francophile.  While he enjoyed French cooking and wines he tried to introduce corn to the French without much success.

 

There was American cooking and food before there was the Declaration of Independence. With the advent of cookbooks and cookbook authors came -in my opinion- apologists for the way people cooked and what they ate before the industrial age and fueled by the love affair some Americans had with English and French cultures.

 

American food included fresh water fish and seafood, corn, hominy, corn bread, turkey, cranberries, wild rice, raccoon, venison, squirrel, rabbit, beans and nuts. There were cooking influences and traditions that were American Indian, African, English, Creole & Cajun to name a few.  PS Oh yeah, BBQ style cooking was introduced here before the United States became a country. BBQ pork has evolved into pretty much an American food IMHO.

 

I would argue against anyone who wants to classify American food as being not good. 

Edited by Norm Matthews (log)
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... introduce corn
and, drum roll please, two hundred years later, corn was _still_ 'cattle feed'
the concept of 'sweet corn' has been exceedingly slow to catch on in Europe - despite the apparent use of corn/sweet corn in the 'new world' before Europe got out of diapers.  I send a German classmate an assortment of corn cob holders every other year or so - they did California for spell - they eat corn - but cob holders are unknown in their area.

"....sometimes veiled apology about their cuisine, as compared to their European counterparts."
uhmmm, was that a veiled apology or a contrasting blatant bragging? 

you cannot go to another region, much less country, in Europe and not hear the 'dissing' of (uhmmmmm) anything not cooked 'here.'  not unusual; see "redneck"

lived in/on both continents - years and years long.  not a "if this is Tuesday it must be Belgium" based opinion.
and sorry to opine, English /British / UK food - home of the colonists - does not get very far up my scale. 

 

when living in Europe, I made a point of flying into and out of UK before needing a major meal.  lunch I could handle.  after that it was time to go home.

I've had really good food in USA, I've had really good food in Europe - Arctic Circle to south of the equator.
I've had really bad food in USA, I've had really bad food in Europe.

I have a seriously big time disagreement with gfweb's assessment that (USA) poor people could not cook good.
they used the ingredients of the day.  for example, rich pre-revolutionary cooks did not do "gluten free" or transfat free or sugar free or HFCS free ir GMO free - basically everyone on the social scale used the same ingredients.  it's just that poor people did not have a staff of twenty in the kitchen to expend all day making some tasty morsel from the same stuff that only occupied half a fork.  hence, hoe cakes.

it must be a typo-thought, but johnny cakes are not from New England.
 

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I have a seriously big time disagreement with gfweb's assessment that (USA) poor people could not cook good.

they used the ingredients of the day.  for example, rich pre-revolutionary cooks did not do "gluten free" or transfat free or sugar free or HFCS free ir GMO free - basically everyone on the social scale used the same ingredients.  it's just that poor people did not have a staff of twenty in the kitchen to expend all day making some tasty morsel from the same stuff that only occupied half a fork.  hence, hoe cakes.

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Roger, I think you should not look for evidence that supports your claim, but for more hard information on how Americans viewed their cuisine. Did they really think of our cuisine as inferior or is that an opinion you have formed based on your study to date?

Barbara Wheaton, who has worked with the cookery books collection at Harvard and Radcliffe, used to do a week-long program on how to read a cookbook. She has an incredible knowledge of the history of food and cooking. You might see if you can find material she has written or even see if she still offers her program.

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I think in any country, during any stretch of history, you'll find a significant portion of people who have an inferiority complex about their country and another portion that has a superiority complex. The issue is sufficiently complex that it's hard to reduce down into a simple throughline.

Some factors of note that play into this though include:

1) From it's founding, America's always stood out for it's bounty. Meat for every meal for the middle class was a relative novelty and much of America's culinary traditions have focused on an emphasis on quantity over quality. Everything from Thanksgiving feasts & cornucopias to modern portion sizes to "Everything's bigger in Texas" reflect America's bountiful culinary traditions.

2) It's pretty widely agreed that America's post war prosperity led it head first into an embrace of modern "convenience foods" and agricultural supersizing that was a pretty dire time for America's culinary tradition and a general dumbing down of the American palate (c.f. Lileks). Europe, because of it's post war poverty, managed to avoid a lot of those same mistakes.

3) Despite what's happened in the past, I don't think anyone is really in dispute that present day America is an incredibly exciting place for food and that there's emerged a distinct "New American" cuisine that rivals any other country on the world stage. America's restaurants regularly top world "best of" lists and the quality of dining up and down the entire spectrum is improving at a rapid clip as people become more invested in the food that they're eating.

PS: I am a guy.

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