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robert brown

The American Way of Eating

70 posts in this topic

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.


Anthony Nicalo

Farmstead Wines

www.farmsteadwines.com

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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."

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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.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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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.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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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

bklapp@egullet.com

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Thank you Bill, and welcome to "us".

My two cents.

To quote you: “…….and relatively few Americans are interested enough to take up the search.”

And why is that?

Well you answered that, and I quote: “We have been conditioned to want what we want and want it now,….”

Only you should have said “We have been conditioned to want, what they want us to want we want, and want it now."

Again, your quote: “ 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.”

You said it; we were told, shown, led, conditioned and:

…”fulfilling the “we want you to want” desires that its own advertising machine has implanted in our brains!"


Peter

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Thanks, Peter. It seems to me that relatively few Americans "take up the search" because most live a lifestyle that, whatever its momentary pleasures, is inherently, albeit slowly, self-destructive. Of course, there are exceptions. There are Americans that eat, sleep and exercise properly and have plenty of time for family, friends, hobbies and interests. Unfortunately, most of those fall into one of two groups: "retired" or "independently wealthy"! We are an obsessive lot. It is not enough to jog, you must jog until you suffer incapacitating injuries from it. It is not enough to eat food that you like, you must "Hungry Man" and "Supersize" it. We are about good grades, the best jobs, the biggest raises, the grandest homes, the most expensive cars. We are about success, measured by outrageously wrong-headed standards. We are not about moderation, balance, perspective and appropriate prioritization at any cost. But I need to be done with this. At some point, it is no longer about food, and I believe that food could be part of the solution, rather than the part of the problem it is in America today!


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Craig Camp's Daily Gullet piece, Confessions of a Culinary Anarchist, draws some interesting comparisons between the American and Italian ways of eating. I refer you to the full article for details, but here's a choice quotation:

I knew I was in a different world when I ordered a salad with my pizza. My wife looked at my strangely, leaned over to me and in a hushed, slightly horrified and embarrassed voice said, "You don't have salad with pizza." Being raised to be a food anarchist I took this is a challenge to my food freedom and immediately ordered some wine to wash down my pizza and salad. Wrong again: Coca-Cola or beer is the rule for pizza.

I'm also reminded of another Daily Gullet essay that offers a non-Western comparison: lunches in India, delivered by couriers from homes to offices every single day. Can you imagine?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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For the record, I must respectfully disagree with a few points made in the course of the discussion.

First, I don't believe that Robert Brown is right about American food spending habits:

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.

These are problematic qualifications -- most surveys of national buying habits that I know aren't divided by income level and what is "meaningful food"? The basic problem is the very opposite, as a whole -- I don't think the income level distinctions are helpful -- Americans spend a much smaller percentage of their income on food certainly than the French and probably most other first world industrialized countries.

Second, Steve Shaw's claims about food studies in American academic libraries

... 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.

are simply wrong. I went to the on-line library catalogues of seven well-known institutions. Six of them, Amherst College, Boston College, Hampshire College, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, Wellesley College had no listings under the subject "food studies". The exception was the seventh, Harvard, which, as the largest university library in the world, has practically every book one can imagine, and accordingly also has the most powerful search engines of any university library catalogue. The Harvard search yielded 958 hits. For the Harvard catalogue, this is a tiny number.

I suspect that there are more academic studies on Buffy than there are on buffets.

The examples Steve cites, Carnegie and NYU, are the exceptions rather than the norm.

Actually the most interesting academic discussion of food that I have ever heard of was written up in the New Yorker about 5 or so years ago and is still going strong. It has been organized by Theodore Zeldin, a distinguished scholar of French history, who used to organize at his university, Oxford, an annual symposium on food. The following URL offers a foretaste,

http://www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/CentreFood...FoodCook01.html

I can't think of any American academic discussion at such a level. Nor can any piddling American pomo food play -- such as Steve is alluding to -- compare with the great traditions of taste and cooking founded by Brillat-Savarin and ongoing in France today.

Third, the issue of the insularity of American taste has been raised by Jonathan Day,

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.

The point is well-taken, but its implications are more complex. While Americans are remarkably parochial -- certainly non-Hispanic native-born Americans are the least polyglot of any people in the world -- the United States probably has the most ethnically diverse immigrant population. As a consequence it has greater access to a diversity of foodways than most other cultures. However it is not at all clear that necessarily produces a great cuisine, though it certainly has made American food better.

In many respects France is a much less tolerant and pluralist society than the US, in the name of a parochialism that claims to represent universalist values. Multiculturalism is far more controversial in France than it is in the US -- witness the struggle over Muslim headgear. On the other hand no one would claim that a certain lack of cultural openness has yielded an inferior cuisine. Probably no country in the world has a higher percentage of passport holders and a greater degree of foreign travel than Israel. That still has not created a great Israeli cuisine.

I think there are two central related problems with the American way of eating. One is economic. The other is historical.

The economic problem is that since the nineteenth century and the expansion of the country westward into the great grain producing bread-baskets of the midwest, American policy in both the private and the public sectors has been committed to the production of abundant and cheap food. This is hardly a problem, given the centuries-old scourges of famine and starvation that have wracked humanity, but it does have certain implications. One implication is that a system of food production that places the priority on the greatest abundance at the least price does not allow for much emphasis on quality and refinement. The latter goals are not impossible to achieve, but they are not the priority. Instead we have a priority that favors a restaurant culture of gargantuan portions, sagging all-you-can-eat buffet tables, and a population of staggering obesity: Oncore, Hungry Man frozen dinners, eat three get one free.

The historical problem is that -- for better or for worse -- we lack a heritage of lavish court life. The great cuisines, notably, the French, the Chinese, the Indian and the Turkish, all drew upon an extravagent and luxurious tradition of ostentatious and indulgent court cuisine, established by the Bourbons, the Ching and Manchus, the Mughals, as well as the Ottomans. Not all imperial dynasties reached such culinary excellence so wealth and power alone do not suffice -- consider the Hapsburgs -- but having such advantages can help create and foster a vibrant food culture. Peasants -- with all due respect to the romance of the terroir -- cannot alone achieve that. Cabbage and potatoes alone don't make a great cuisine.

America to a great degree is the product of successive peasant immigrations fleeing poverty and starvation. For them cheap abundant food was overwhelmingly the goal. Today for the fortunate proponderance of Americans those primal concerns are too distant to be recalled, but the institutions established to meet those needs still dominate how we are fed and how we feed ourselves.


Edited by VivreManger (log)

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My point about travel and passports -- which I didn't make very clearly -- was that an insular nation will have more difficulty accessing culinary traditions of other countries and hence developing a body of consumers who are critically aware and demanding of quality. Local variants of a traditional cuisine will not be rejected and may become popular.

This can be, as they say, "a bad thing" or "a good thing". Some superb dishes developed as a result of the French influx into Louisiana. Some Italian-American cookery is very good. But there has been a tendency in the US (and in Britain, to some extent) to seize on some salient aspect of a "foreign" cuisine -- the Italians' use of pasta, for example, or the French penchant for sauces -- effectively substituting that for the real thing. It is a substitution of a part for the whole, as if a Martian landed in New York, went to hear a symphony concert and decided that wearing fancy clothes, waving a wooden stick in the air and bowing after the performance were the essence of the lovely music.

I find it striking that "real" Chinese and Italian cuisine (as opposed to chop suey, etc.) did not become widely accessible in US cities (excluding New York, perhaps) until at least the late 1970s. Good French cuisine arrived a bit earlier, perhaps, but I am guessing that most "French" restaurants in 1960s America were pretty bad.

I would like to re-emphasise the points made earlier about technology, which connects strongly with the economic theme that VivreManger and others have raised. In the 1960s, "instant" was good -- and even better if "instant" had a high-technology connection. I remember being given "Tang" (a hideous chemical drink made from a powdered mix) because "the astronauts used it", and it was therefore good for children. For a lovely analysis of this aspect of the period (focused more on design than food, but relevant nonetheless) see Thomas Hines's Populuxe -- click here to order, or here to see the author's website.

One last example, which may be tangential but seems apropos to the discussion. The film Dinner Rush has a revealing scene in which the "star chef" of a trendy New York restaurant is in deep trouble: the place is full, his sous-chef has walked out, there are gangsters in the restaurant, and the nastiest restaurant critic in New York has arrived. So he whips together a hideous looking dish: he deep-fries cooked pasta into a sort of raft -- this is an Italian restaurant, so there's lots of pasta around -- and boils two lobsters. He makes a stack of lobster shells with the pasta raft between them. To achieve greater vertical height, the stack is positioned with radio antennae of vanilla pods. Then lobster and rock shrimp surround the stack, and the chef festoons the whole (shells and the raft as well as the food) with a sauce that looks like vomit but is supposed to contain champagne, vanilla, lime juice and shallots; and then he scatters caviar over everything.

Nasty Critic, of course, is overwhelmed. "You are a culinary genius", she burbles to the superchef, as she licks caviar and pasty-looking sauce off lobster shells.

My point is that "gourmet" ingredients (lobster, caviar, champagne, etc.) and a "gourmet" presentation have been substituted for a dish that might please a real gourmet. The owner of the restaurant keeps asking the superchef (his son) for "real food". Not without reason.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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The same factors that give shape to our prejudices, our views of society and the world in general, our likes and dislikes, must have a direct bearing on what we eat. Genes, parental upbringing, education (or the lack thereof), the environment and immediate society in which we grow up and live. It should not be surprising that the average American eats as he/she does, given the lack of exposure to quality and the degree of exposure to mediocrity.


Gerhard Groenewald

www.mesamis.co.za

Wilderness

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Steve Shaw's claims about food studies in American academic libraries
... 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.

are simply wrong.

By "simply wrong" you must mean that not any academic library has a page of food studies references. But did you look under nutritional anthropology, culinary history, "foodways," or any other permutations? Not everybody gives it the same name. The point, however, is not that university libraries index this material -- it is that there is so much to index. If you actually look at those Carnegie links and see where they go, their paths lead to many other universities across the nation and projects they're doing with regard to the academic study of food. I can't imagine that, quantity-wise, anybody is competing with the US in this regard. But I'd certainly defer to somebody from inside the world of academic food studies on this issue, if we have any such lurkers out there.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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are simply wrong. I went to the on-line library catalogues of seven well-known institutions. Six of them, Amherst College, Boston College, Hampshire College, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, Wellesley College had no listings under the subject "food studies". The exception was the seventh, Harvard, which, as the largest university library in the world, has practically every book one can imagine, and accordingly also has the most powerful search engines of any university library catalogue. The Harvard search yielded 958 hits. For the Harvard catalogue, this is a tiny number.

On-line catalogues are not always upto date. We have been converting our Online-Catalogue NOTIS based on old CICS/MVS to distributed system and it has been going for over two years - 5 million+ Mark-records, and yet much more newer material to be added. Card Indexes still rule supreme :smile: and "food studies" is not under which it will be catalogued - Try Nutrition, Health etc. Hunter wll have it under Nutrition as well as health, which CityTech which has a Hospitality degree might use another keyword, and not to talk about CCNY which might have it multiple listing including Health Education. Oh Well !!! :rolleyes:


anil

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In my opinion, the primary issue is anti-hedonism rather than anti-intellectualism.

FG, I'm wondering if you might agree that you've presented a bit of a strawman by lining up American intellectualism with the American academy?

I don't really disagree with the poles of intellectualism & hedonism--though it would be interesting to see this proceed in a dialectical manner.

Rather I'm wondering if Petits Propos Culinaires might not be a better benchmark for "intellectualism" in the food world?

If one agrees, this conversation might take a quite different path.

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I find it striking that "real" Chinese and Italian cuisine (as opposed to chop suey, etc.) did not become widely accessible in US cities (excluding New York, perhaps) until at least the late 1970s. Good French cuisine arrived a bit earlier, perhaps, but I am guessing that most "French" restaurants in 1960s America were pretty bad.

If one goes down the social scale, real Chinese noodle dishes were readily available in San Francisco in the legendary Sam Wo's half a century ago, served by the formidable Edsel Ford Fong -- not to mention those Chinatown establishments, serving their own people, that go back to the previous century.

As for France, Karen Hess notes in "The Taste of America" that Thomas Jefferson was much enamoured of French cuisine. There was a substantial influence from the Huguenots who fled France around 1700 and settled in various parts of America. And of course there was the Creole influence from Canada which came all the way down to Louisiana and never disappeared.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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The historical problem is that -- for better or for worse -- we lack a heritage of lavish court life...Cabbage and potatoes alone don't make a great cuisine. 

America to a great degree is the product of successive peasant immigrations fleeing poverty and starvation. For them cheap abundant food was overwhelmingly the goal.

Thanks for the interesting ideas. In his book the "Philosophy of," Andy Warhol notes that people from the highest strata in the USA drink coke and eat burgers. I think the agility with which our lo/lo culture flips, to hi/lo and lo/hi, is its richess: from McDonalds Mesclun and to the new (haute?) Snackbar (17th bet 6/7.) Or sidling between say chinatown and 66 or Jefferson.


Drinking when we are not thirsty and making love at all seasons: That is all there is to distinguish us from the other Animals.

-Beaumarchais

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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?

I would also recommend American Appetite very highly. And I would add that along with Julia Child, the World's Fair of 1939 brought a lot of culinary talent from France and heightened America's interest in French food.

A.A. also highlights the importance of the Immigration act of '68-- explaining all the Vietnamese restaurants that popped up in the 70s -- and does a good job in connecting xenophobia with culinary backwardness. Brenner also mentions that Alice Waters' parents grew a Victory Garden in WWII, which might have made an impression...

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FG, I'm wondering if you might agree that you've presented a bit of a strawman by lining up American intellectualism with the American academy?

. . . .

I'm wondering if Petits Propos Culinaires might not be a better benchmark for "intellectualism" in the food world?

Do I think most academics, everywhere in the world, haven't earned the label "intellectual"? Yes. Do I think some of the best "intellectual" work in print occurs in non-academic arenas? Yes.

But what of it? The US has both a strong academic tradition and a strong intellectual tradition. I just don't see the anti-intellectualism of US pop culture as being related to rejection of good food. That PPC has been published in the UK since the days when the culinary situation there was far less impressive than it is today indicates to me that the quality of food in a nation can easily be unrelated to the quality of that nation's writing and thinking about food at the academic or intellectual level.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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We're going to start a separate thread on "The British Way of Eating", so let's focus this one on the American way...


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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I also would recommend the Leslie Brenner book. I'm surprised that no one yet has mentioned the effect of the Domestic Science movement on the way Americans see food. Brenner mentioned this in her book, and I personally think that it may be one of the larger influences on the American infatuation with processed foods and the way Americans see food as fuel or nutrient carrier rather than as a pleasure. Any thoughts?

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But what of it?

FG,

I wasn’t too clear in what I was asking yesterday, so I’ll go quite a bit further while moving in a different direction.

I especially liked your earlier post as it succinctly laid out a fundamental issue surrounding a number of discussions on eGullet. The issue, as I see it, centers on this question: Why do we feel that we can make judgments about food that are more than mere exercises in solipsism or subjectivism? Your invocation of an “anti-intellectualism/anti-hedonism” dichotomy evokes several dichotomies or dualisms bequeathed to us by Platonic philosophy: mind/body, fact/value, subject/object, etc.

I think we’d all agree—at least to some extend—that when Athens & Jerusalem collided and produced Christianity that these bewitching dualisms found their way out of rarified philosophical discussions and into the very fabric of Western culture. Unlike Hebraic monism, the dualism of Pauline Christianity could not account for the value of the “flesh” & the “world” other than as a “stage” for life after death.

And, yet, how does this matter for a forum such as eGullet?

I put forward—tentatively & in interest of promoting dialogue—that it matters because we do wish to make judgments about food, food judgments that can find agreement with others. In other words, we desire mutual understanding even in this “foodie” area of our lives.

Ultimately, I’m saying that we might have something to learn from currents within philosophical aesthetics that eschew ill-fated dichotomies such as mind/body, fact/value, & subject/object. I’d argue that these dichotomies must be dispensed with if we are to ever have a “rational” foundation for our gustatory experiences. Some of this work has been done. For instance, Glenn Kuehn produced a dissertation entitled “Tasting the World: An Aesthetics of Food” in 2001 for the Ph.D. in Philosophy at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Two chapters of that dissertation—“How Can Food Be Art?” and “Tasting the World” can be found at: http://www.grafics.com/glenn/Aesthetics/ha...ts/handouts.htm

Toward the end of his dissertation, Kuehn sums up his final conclusions concerning the intersection of philosophical aesthetics & food. He writes,

"Although there are many areas in which philosophical issues concerning food have already been taken, such as animal rights and environmental ethics, I offer three directions which result from situating the importance of food in terms of physical interaction in an environment:  ( a ) an interactive view of the body involved with its edible environment offers stomach-oriented philosophical perspectives by showing how food is ontological and has meaning in the context of the transformative relationship of incorporating the other into one’s self; ( b ) a community-reinforcing aesthetic function through eating with others that builds and reinforces communal meanings through the connection between aesthetic and religious experience; and ( c ) an analysis of how food symbolizes an unique method of engaging life.”  (http://www.grafics.com/glenn/Aesthetics/handouts/foodart2.htm)

I find Kuehn’s “stomach-oriented” arguments pertinent to a discussion concerning “The American Way of Eating.” Not only because he engages deeply with the work of an American philosopher—John Dewey—but also because Kuehn establishes a philosophical foundation for the enjoyment of food as well as a basis by which we can reach agreement with others concerning our judgments about food. Furthermore, this “stomach-oriented philosophy” avoids the pitfalls of unnecessary dualisms that pull us away from everyday experiences.

So am I stating that the weaknesses of an “American Way of Eating” are simply philosophical problems? No. Rather these weaknesses—as they display themselves via “intellectual/hedonism” & “mind/body” dualisms, etc.—are deeply embedded in ways of life that cut across all, or nearly all, of our American culture.

On the one hand, I believe that American anti-intellectualism has roots not only in Christianity—especially in many of its current evangelical forms—but also in the strong desire for egalitarianism. Taken to an extreme, egalitarianism leads to weak democratic impulses, impulses that generate sentiments such as “I don’t know much about philosophy, art, or haute cuisine [choose one] but I know what food I like.” Or to put it another way, “I like the food that I like because I like it.” Hardly the stuff by which to generate agreement—whether it is political, moral, or culinary agreement.

On the other hand, I believe that American anti-hedonism has roots not only in Christianity—especially in many of its current evangelical forms—but also in an acquisitive consumer culture (“he who dies with the most toys wins”) that attempts to avoid the mortality & finitude of one’s own life. The upshot of this acquisitive lie is that we all too often reject our immediate experience. Yet to truly enjoy food we must savor & ingest decay in order to lengthen the timeline of our own bodily decline. This is the immediate experience of eating.

Yet again, how does this matter for a forum such as eGullet, especially in a discussion about “The American Way of Eating”?

First, the tremendous amount of money that Americans spend on food is not necessarily a good sign nor is it necessarily a bad sign. The question to ask might be, “When we spend money on food are we doing it in order to have a singular & heightened experience (as well as sustain our bodies) or are we doing it for some other reason?” One would hope that our economic power—as it compares to the rest of the world—would also allow for greater reflection in the midst of our consumption.

Second, we might ask ourselves why we are so recalcitrant to adopt something akin to the American culinary tradition that John & Karen Hess called for in The Taste of America? For instance, why are the traditions that we adopt so often tied to the Mediterranean as Bux pointed out?

Third, why do we avoid our finitude—and, thus, avoid our bodies—with such alarming regularity?

Fourth, why do we tend to value epistemological egalitarianism over mutual understanding & agreement (and—ultimately—connection to others)?

Fifth, what do the rest of you think?

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This is an excellent thread with three stars contributions and I have printed it out to digest it later at leisure.

The only thing I would like to add that having lived here for 20 years what amazed me most in the American way of eating is POLARIZATION. There are several dimensions to this. There is a small elite(not necessarily an economic elite) which gives importance to eating but for the great majority it is just fuel. Second there are only a few cities where good restaurants are concentrated but the vast majority of the country is a culinary wasteland. I lived in New Jersey in 93 at Princeton and we could not find a decent place to dine out. Third, the restaurant scene in gastronomic destinations is also polarized more than the case elsewhere. You can eat great or very poor food in San Francisco or New York but it is hard to eat that well or badly in many other cities in Europe and the Middle East that I have been to. Another dimension of polarization is that even the eating habits of "sophisticated" Americans are polarized. Many of these individuals appreciate good food and on occassion they eat very well but most of the time they get too lazy and satisfy themselves with tv dinners and packaged supermarket food.

But in the end the food scene is a microcosm of the larger system. The American society is polarized along all dimensions of social and intellectual life. At the Borders book store in Atlanta I have attempted several times to buy Lindt chocolates. 3 cost a dollar. When I put nine on the counter they could not figure out that this costs $3. i had to divide the pieces into groups of 3 and show that it is $1 times 3. This happened twice with different people and my wife had the same problem with a third person. One actually was a junior college graduate. I also have problem when I ask in a grocery store, say, two thirds of a pound of something. This is a difficult concept for quite a few salespeople. The educational level in my country, Turkey, is lower than the States but we do not find there the type of extremes I have described.

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I have had the same experience both in Britain, and even more recently in Russia: three of us were travelling from St Petersburg to Moscow on the night sleeper train (the St Petersburg airport had closed because of the summit).

As we settled into our compartments, a young woman came through the carriage, carrying a basket with bottles of beer. She didn't speak English, but she could say "Stella", and "Bud". We asked the price, and she took out a notepad. 150 roubles (about US$5) a bottle.

No, we said, too much. OK, she said, and scribbled on the notepad: 30 roubles for a Stella, 40 for a Bud. We took 3 bottles (total 110 roubles) and handed her 200 roubles. She then took out a calculator and carefully worked out the change: 200 - 110 = 90.

So much for Russian proficiency in mathematics...


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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I also would recommend the Leslie Brenner book. I'm surprised that no one yet has mentioned the effect of the Domestic Science movement on the way Americans see food. Brenner mentioned this in her book, and I personally think that it may be one of the larger influences on the American infatuation with processed foods and the way Americans see food as fuel or nutrient carrier rather than as a pleasure. Any thoughts?

Sorry, but I really don't know this. What is/was the Domestic Science movement?

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I believe "Domestic Science" was another term for what was called "home economics" during the 1960s and 1970s. According to one source,

Home economics covers both the influence of science and technology on women's work in the home (particularly the introduction of "labor-saving devices") and the development of the discipline of Home Economics (known alternatively as Domestic Science, Family Resources, Consumer Sciences, and other names). The home economics movement attempted to apply scientific principles and discoveries to domestic labor.

For the complete reference, which includes pointers to articles, click here.

For an example of a British Domestic Science exam from 1972, click here. The latter is interesting because it includes the menu plan written in response to the following question:

It is necessary to plan meals carefully in order to include a sufficiency of vitamins and mineral salts.

Prepare, cook and serve

(i) a two-course mid-day meal for two teenage girls, which would be suitable to eat in hot weather and which would supply an adequate amount of ascorbic acid,

(ii) a two-course mid-day meal for two school boys which would supply the vitamins and mineral salts necessary to their diet.

For the first meal, the examinee prepared:

  • sausage rolls (this included preparation of rough puff pastry)
    salad (lettuce, tomatoes, watercress, cucumber, hard boiled eggs, spring onions, beetroot)
    fresh fruit salad (apples, oranges, banana, mixed grapes)
    cold custard (made with custard powder)

And for the second:

  • fish pie (potatoes, haddock fillet, onion, streaky bacon, tomato)
    carrots
    brussels sprouts (but this dish was crossed off the exam paper)
    apple cornflake crunch (cooking apples, sugar, butter, cornflakes, evaporated milk, golden syrup)

The "theory" section of the exam had questions like the following

Make a list of eight of the chief types of fat and oil available for cooking purposes and state the origin of each one.

Suggest, giving reasons, fats suitable for each of the following:

(a) "One-stage" pastry

(b) cooking omelettes

© frying chipped potatoes

(d) making flaky pastry

(e) making Christmas puddings

(f) roasting a piece of sirloin beef

Give a scientific explanation for each of the following

(a) a dark ring formed around the yolk of a hard boiled egg

(b) a pot of marmalade in which the jelly has set at the bottom and the peel risen to the upper part of the jar

© a tough piece of grilled fillet steak

(d) the blowing of the safety valve of a pressure cooker when the ooker is being used

(e) a vacuum flask may be used to keep hot liquids hot and cold liquids cold.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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