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"What is American Cuisine?"


Busboy
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Kiwichef has embedded a provacative question in this post, the relative portion of which is

I'm not sure where American cuisine fits into this debate. What is American cuisine, if it isn't a copy of French, English, Italian, or South American cuisines. Burgers, fries, and pizza?

Quite frankly, you aren't left with much, unless of course your'e talking commercially where they have been without question the most successful exporters of fast food to the globe, invading every other cuisine of the world, to our collective detriment.

So, I'm not sure American cuisine has alot ot be proud of. Obesity, diabetes, and cultural mastification perhaps. Well, that might be a little harsh. But in my mind the American culture requires fast food and the cultural makeup of France requires slow food, and until that changes the food in France will always taste better.

Now, I have many times spoken of my admiration for the French culinary world, comparing it favorably to the U.S. on more than one occasion. In fact I've been so pro-French lately that I'm getting a little tired of them, and am thinking of throwing my lot in with the Italians, or even the Brits, whom Tim Hayward speaks so persuasively in favor of.

However, I thought the question phrased above reflected such breathtaking ignorance, that I'd say a few words in favor of the home team.

Actually, my first instinct was to ask "what is New Zealand cuisine except mutton and that crappy Sauvignon Blanc that's gotten so inexplicably popular these days?" But, not having devoted a great deal of time to Kiwi Kuisine, I thought it better not to traffic in shallow generalizations.

So, what have we to offer the world, besides McDonalds and a few handy basics like corn, tomatoes, the peanut and potatoes? (This is why Southern Italian cooking isn't really Italian -- the tomato is ours.)

First, we have an extraordinary mixing pot of culinary cultures. Though I'm not saying it can't be made, I have yet to hear a credible case for the idea that any other nation has made so many foods its own. Why shouldn't that be so? As an immigrant nation, the idea that you can eat good Chinese food two doors down from an excellent Ethiopian spot is no stranger in an American city than an Auvergnese cafe being two doors down from a Provencal place would be in France. Dan-dan noodles and doro wat are as American as apple pie. (And, as any Italian or Chinese food afficianado will tell you, our versions are generally distinctively "inauthentic," or Americanized though often no less tasty for that). Get me a New York pizza any time. Certainly cities like London (and, for all I know, Wellington) have thriving ethnic communities and the accompanying restaurants and markets, but I'm confident that we do comparatively well in this regard.

Of course, we have some pretty good regional cooking, as well. Kiwichef seems more focused on the high-end, but that's only a small part of the picture. Like any number of countries that don't have a long tradition of haute cuisine, we have some great indigenous eating. The list is too long to go into, and I'm hoping that some of our regional champions will speak up for the (mythical :wink: ) Creole cusine of Louisiana or that good Tex-Mex stuff. Personally, I'm partial to Chesapeake Bay crabs and the good barbecue that starts showing up about an hour south of DC.

And we do some pretty good haute cusine these days. One faction takes advantage of the spectacular bounty of parts of America, doing modest things to glorious ingredients, proving less can be more quite deliciously. The other faction -- a bit more Frenchified -- uses traditional techniques on new ingredients and new combinations. I had a breathtakingly good meal at one of Washington's best restaurants a couple of months ago, and we had some Italian-ish stuff, a course that was distinctively Japanese inflected, a little French-ish, of course. But the sum seemed pretty distinctivley American to me.

Sure, we're too heavy. And we have that bad habit of selling people what they want (why do they want it? Ask them). Too many American choos convenience over quality or saltover flavor -- though we are hardly alone in this. And since no other nation on earth can cook a decent burger, it's easy to pick on our national dish. But, we do OK. Indeed, we have a great deal to be proud of, far more than than the cheap stereotyping would have one believe.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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There are of course many other great cuisines of the world, which you might argue also have a long history.  Chinese cuisine leaps to mind. Of course this is true, it does have an enormous culinary history, but then China was along way from Europe in the 17th century, and wasn't discovered until some years later.

Could be we're like China.

Simply not discovered till some years later. :smile:

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I had a Korean roommate one summer semester at college. She asked me at one point what American food was. I told her it depended where your family was fun. For instance, I grew up on both spaghetti & meatballs and brisket, as well as more "American" fare such as hamburgers and simple meats w/ veggies. Maybe that's what we do best? The bounty and variety from such a large land simply prepared. Steaks, roast chicken, pies (just fruit in a crust).

Joanna G. Hurley

"Civilization means food and literature all round." -Aldous Huxley

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What is American culture? Is there some vaguely universal aesthetic?

Oh, you don't really want to open that can of worms, do you?

Trying to rope this back in: Let's start with the proposition argued by many that jazz is America's indigenous form of high musical culture, then ponder what would happen if you played jazz with food.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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What is American culture? Is there some vaguely universal aesthetic?

You're not going to bring up Foucault again, are you?

I am cracking up right now, because I once again took myself too seriously. :smile:

However, I like the jazz analogy because through its diversity we see the spectrum of American culture and American food. Scotch and milk anyone?

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[...]Dan-dan noodles and doro wat are as American as apple pie.[...]

Maybe so, but hardly as widespread.

I agree with your post, though.

And I think New England has some pretty darn good local cuisine, too. Plus, there's a California style which is really not like anything else, partly because the excellent local ingredients have unique flavors, I suppose.

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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"There is no American food. When we begin to list American foods, either we talk about regional things like lobster or shrimp Creole, or we talk about spaghetti and pizza and hot dogs...One could argue it's what makes us great. The fact that we don't have a cuisine is a measure of our democracy and of our ethnic heterogeneity."

-- Sidney Mintz, Anthropologist

source for this quote

I rather like this phrase: our ethnic heterogeneity :wink:

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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"There is no American food. When we begin to list American foods, either we talk about regional things like lobster or shrimp Creole, or we talk about spaghetti and pizza and hot dogs...One could argue it's what makes us great. The fact that we don't have a cuisine is a measure of our democracy and of our ethnic heterogeneity."

-- Sidney Mintz, Anthropologist

source for this quote

I rather like this phrase: our ethnic heterogeneity :wink:

I agree, although I retain my proclivities. :wink:

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I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you want to begin to understand American cuisine you need to start by reading 18 books. The Knopf Cooks American series, the brainchild of the brilliant Alfred A. Knopf editor Judith Jones, includes volume after volume on American regional cuisines. It would be conceptually impossible, after reading even just one of the volumes, to say there's no such thing as American cuisine -- unless you're making the point that there's no single American cuisine (which could also of course be said of France, Italy, China, etc.)

To Busboy's list of "corn, tomatoes, the peanut and potatoes" I'd add chocolate and capsicum peppers. No discovery of the New World, no chocolate in France, no spicy food in China. However, many of the New World crops are from South America, not the territory that is now the United States.

In terms of haute cuisine, there's a global style of haute cuisine that is French-derived (which, historically, is Italian-derived, etc.) and found everywhere from Paris to London to New York to Las Vegas to Sydney to nice hotels in major Asian cities -- a few of the most successful chefs are practicing in multiple cities around the world. But if you dine in several of these cities, you're not going to walk away saying the food is exactly the same in all of them. The local ingredients, approaches and restaurant styles create differentiation. Even Alain Ducasse's restaurants in New York and Paris are identifiably different.

America also exports a lot more than junk food, and I'm not just talking about the fact that the pasta in Italy is made from American and Canadian wheat. I mean the top restaurateurs in France and elsewhere look to America for inspiration. They know food, but we know the restaurant business better than anyone. I assure you, if you ask any top chef from any country in the world if American restaurants are serious, you'll have that question answered in the affirmative -- if you don't get laughed at for even asking it.

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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Simplistic reply. Salads and sandwiches.

Although neither originated in the states I think we have made both our own.

There is nothing in my experience quite like the American sandwich; nor does anywhere else (unless deliberately copying) offer anything approaching an American salad bar with it's plethora of ingredients and dressings.

Admittedly not the pinnacle of fine dining, but then I would contend (sweeping generalization) that we are not a nation of fine diners.

The sandwich and the salad, it seems to me, suit our national character. (whatever that is!)

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Since America is a melting pot of sorts I have to agree with the assessment that what defines what American food depends on where you are from and even your ethinic background. Being from the part of Northern Ohio that I live in, we have a varied ethinic community, the three big ones are the Polish,Middle Eastern and Hungarian. The Hispanic community and even the Asian and Indian communities are growing too. That in turn has caused small ethnic markets to pop up, creating awareness of new cuisine and expanding our reparte, if you will beyond things like hamburgers,hot dogs and fast food. ( although I do admit to liking these things, the fast food only once in a while.) With time, while they are ethinic in nature, they become just as much a part of the American landscape of cuisine.

At the same time the influence of people like Ducasse, Robuchon etc. cannot and should not be minimalized. They are important because they make people aware of what is out there. But homegrown talent like Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz are taking what the French have taught us and even turning it into a new form of American cuisine that is just so cutting edge and in many ways redefining what American cuisine is.

Edited by kristin_71 (log)
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To Busboy's list of "corn, tomatoes, the peanut and potatoes" I'd add chocolate and capsicum peppers. No discovery of the New World, no chocolate in France, no spicy food in China. However, many of the New World crops are from South America, not the territory that is now the United States.

Thank you for that. Chocolate and peppers immediately sprang to mind when I read Busboy's post. I would add turkey, some interesting varieties of beans, some squashes, and sunflower to the list of exports with important culinary influence as well.

I would beg to differ on crediting the bulk to the South American continent, though. Chocolate of course is the big hitter there, but remember that large parts of the Southwest were Mexico at one time not too long ago. Most of the other items were being cultivated anywhere there was arable land from the Great Lakes all the way down to the tip of South America. Native Americans were preparing hominy and cornbread in the eastern US since long before the Americas were discovered. If you want the "oldest" American food it would almost have to be some form of cornbread or a corn porridge concoction - tamales would be a great example of early American fast food. Prepared in advance and portable, the Mississippians ( the mound builders who were widespread all over the eastern Americas) have left tamal evidence in mounds that are thousands of years old. Interesting that tamales were "reintroduced" into the Mississippi Delta by Mexicans in the early 1900s.

A nation of wanderers - both indigenous and imported. It certainly shows in the food.

Edited by annecros (log)
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what is New Zealand cuisine except mutton and that crappy Sauvignon Blanc that's gotten so inexplicably popular these days?

OK so you decided to pick on a cuisine that you may have no idea about. Have you been to NZ and have you experienced their cusine. One must ask these basic questions before making generalisations about a counties food. Mind you I do not hail from NZ and am instead an Australian......but i suppose you would like to put us all in the same box.

A little research goes a long way when trying to answer a global question from a neibourhood base.

Regards Mark :raz:

Smell and taste are in fact but a single composite sense, whose laboratory is the mouth and its chimney the nose. - Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

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However, I like the jazz analogy because through its diversity we see the spectrum of American culture and American food. Scotch and milk anyone?

And I like the jazz analogy because through that form we are free and even encouraged to do "riffs", intensely full of personal style.

I also like the jazz analogy because there is (or was, initially) a sense of rebelliousness. Things don't have to be done the way they always have been done. Tradition can be thrown high in the air and tossed around to make different shapes.

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"There is no American food. When we begin to list American foods, either we talk about regional things like lobster or shrimp Creole, or we talk about spaghetti and pizza and hot dogs...One could argue it's what makes us great. The fact that we don't have a cuisine is a measure of our democracy and of our ethnic heterogeneity."

-- Sidney Mintz, Anthropologist

source for this quote

I rather like this phrase: our ethnic heterogeneity

I love the fact that you brought in Mintz. Dont forget however that he also argues very cleverly against the existence of National Cuisines as a whole. I have to say I find his arguments compelling although he admits to the existence of National cuisines in a textual sense.

I will dig up my stuff on National cuisine when I get into work tomorrow morning.

Cheers,

G

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what is New Zealand cuisine except mutton and that crappy Sauvignon Blanc that's gotten so inexplicably popular these days?

OK so you decided to pick on a cuisine that you may have no idea about. Have you been to NZ and have you experienced their cusine.

Dude, that was exactly the point. :wink:

Dave, I like the idea of the sandwich being our national food, but can we really take the credit for it?

Annecros, many anthropologists consider the domestication of maize from teosinte (or from varieties of wild maize and teosinte, it's still being debated) one of the greatest feats of selective breeding in the ancient world. And since much of the Southwestern USA was part of Mexico until relatively recently, I feel comfortable in saying "We did that." :biggrin:

Edited by hjshorter (log)

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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Well I give up .............. a sandwich as a national food. How proud I would be...................

Smell and taste are in fact but a single composite sense, whose laboratory is the mouth and its chimney the nose. - Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

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Well I give up .............. a sandwich as a national food. How proud I would be...................

I think you might need an irony supplement. Maybe a little winky thing after my sentence would have helped? Read the last para of my post again.

DocG, I read Mintz's book on sugar (the name escapes me) but I can't say I'm familiar with much else. My focus has been paleo and not socio-cultural anthropology. What else can you recommend? (Although the idea of National cuisines existing in a textual sense but not as a whole sounds a little PoMo and Busboy might get hives if Foucault comes up again. :wink: Maybe we should take that discussion to a new thread?)

Edited by hjshorter (log)

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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Well I give up .............. a sandwich as a national food. How proud I would be...................

I think you should fix yourself a mutton sandwich and celebrate your open mindedness and appreciation for the diverse culinary cultures of the world.

:biggrin:

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what is New Zealand cuisine except mutton and that crappy Sauvignon Blanc that's gotten so inexplicably popular these days?

OK so you decided to pick on a cuisine that you may have no idea about. Have you been to NZ and have you experienced their cusine.

Dude, that was exactly the point. :raz:

Dave, I like the idea of the sandwich being our national food, but can we really take the credit for it?

Annecros, many anthropologists consider the domestication of maize from teosinte (or from varieties of wild maize and teosinte, it's still being debated) one of the greatest feats of selective breeding in the ancient world. And since much of the Southwestern USA was part of Mexico until relatively recently, I feel comfortable in saying "We did that." :biggrin:

Yep, that one is "ours." hehe

I'll just pop some corn, and keep the score up to date.

Edited by annecros (log)
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we are not a nation of fine diners.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a nation of fine diners. I suppose France comes the closest, but even there I doubt most people have much experience of haute cuisine. Historically most French people ate the peasant cuisines of their regions.

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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what is New Zealand cuisine except mutton and that crappy Sauvignon Blanc that's gotten so inexplicably popular these days?

OK so you decided to pick on a cuisine that you may have no idea about. Have you been to NZ and have you experienced their cusine. One must ask these basic questions before making generalisations about a counties food. Mind you I do not hail from NZ and am instead an Australian......but i suppose you would like to put us all in the same box.

A little research goes a long way when trying to answer a global question from a neibourhood base.

Regards Mark :raz:

Ideed, that was the point - to hold a mirror up to Kiwichef's post. Bit of irony, doncha know.

(Australia -- aren't you the ones who gave the world Outback Steak House? :wink: I'd rather have a sandwich.)

I love the fact that you brought in Mintz. Dont forget however that he also argues very cleverly against the existence of National Cuisines as a whole. I have to say I find his arguments compelling although he admits to the existence of National cuisines in a textual sense
.

I don't know the details of this so I won't comment extensively except to say that arguments like that tend to get so wrapped up in their beauty of their own academic logic that, like the Aristotelians and the Pope, they never actually drop the balls off the Leaning Tower, lest reality interfere with theory. China, India, France, Italy -- all have great regional varieties to their cooking. But walk blindfolded intoa restaurant and you'de likely be able to tell the difference even before the blindfold came off.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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