is there such a thing as american cuisine? -- 11/30/16

Today's selection -- from Ten Restaurants that Changed America by Paul Freedman. We all recognize the cuisines of places like France, Mexico, and Thailand. What is America's cuisine?:

"Is there such a thing as American cuisine? In many countries the very idea provokes amusement because Amer­icans are assumed to be uninterested in any food that doesn't come from McDonald's. More knowledgeable foreign observers admire the variety of American 'ethnic' restaurants but are mystified about what, if anything, native to the United States underlies this diversity. Even in a country like Germany, with a multitude of Italian, Greek, Turkish, and Thai restau­rants, there is a strong sense of regional and national ingredients and recipes -- something missing from the modern United States.

"In the nineteenth century, the United States presented considerable regional culinary variety, from Chesapeake Bay terrapin (turtles) to New Orleans gumbo; from Low Country (South Carolina) perlou (a rice dish) to Western bison and other game. The twentieth century witnessed the ero­sion of regional distinction caused by a decline in the number of farms and the rural population; the degradation of the environment, thus endanger­ing local specialties; and the proliferation of burgers, pizza, doughnuts, and other fast-food items that are the same from one end of the country to the other. ... Antoine's [Restaurant in New Orleans] ... exemplifies the most robust of American regional food traditions -- that of Louisiana and particularly New Orleans. Apart from isolated areas of the country, however, there are few other places that have preserved their culinary legacies except in an artificial and commercialized sense, as found in Texas chili cook-offs, Maine lobster festivals, and the like.

Antoine's New Orleans

"Dividing the country into culinary regions is too weak to support a unified concept of American cuisine, however, and so dining out in the United States might better be considered in terms of an eclectic collection of options, particularly with the availability of dozens of different ethnic restaurant types. As early as 1873, the indefatigable and celebrated French writer Alexandre Dumas observed that, after Paris, San Francisco had the most restaurants and that unlike Paris, there were restaurants represent­ing the cuisine of every country, even China. Twenty years later, L. J. Vance, writing in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, could boast of New York's culinary internationalism, where it was possible to 'breakfast in London, lunch in Berlin, dine in Paris and have supper in Vienna.' In 1892 San Francisco was again singled out for its variety. A reporter named Charles Greene, writing in The Overland Monthly, said that San Francisco provided the gastronomic equivalent of a grand tour, and he was a little more adven­turous than his New York colleague in including Chinese, Italian, Jewish, and Mexican possibilities.

"A correspondent for a magazine called The Steward in 1909 declared that with regard to food, as with much else, 'Europe lives on tradition, America lives on variety,' a perceptive remark that shows a fundamental difference between what Americans look for in food in contrast to the approach of almost everywhere else. To take just one example: Lucknow, India, has a local specialty called shirmal -- a flat, leavened bread flavored with saffron. Derived from Persian influence, this bread is found elsewhere in northern India but is associated particularly with Lucknow, where, in fact, there is a street whose shirmal makers are renowned. On that single lane crammed with shirmal vendors, one stand is generally regarded as producing the best example (in terms of taste and texture) of something that can be found everywhere on this street, in the city, and throughout this part of Uttar Pradesh. The shirmal has only a few ingredients, but it requires skill in preparing, resting, and baking the dough. Factors affecting the quality of the shirmal include the difficult process of incorporating the ghee (clarified butter) into the dough, where to place the dough in the tandoor oven, when to splash on the saffron milk, oven temperature, timing, and so forth.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana

"This fanatical attention to basic products is not what built the culinary world of the United States. True, there are examples of local competition for a specific dish. In New Haven, Connecticut, the rivalry between Pepe's and Sally's for thin-crusted, charred pizza is legendary, and aficionados line up on either side. Generally, however, the United States has been about choice, not craft. Even in this special pizza sector, Pepe's now has branches outside of New Haven, and New Haven-style pizza is available in New York and elsewhere.

"The erosion of regionalism and the standardization of food supply and preparation have tended to promote variety rather than comparison among different kinds of the same thing. Instead of discussions over who can best make tortellini in Bologna, or dosas in Chennai or rice pilaf in Isfahan, the American scene has offered mass-produced products in many flavors. The yogurt might not be very good, since it is produced in a fac­tory and consumed hundreds of miles from where it was prepared, and weeks afterward, but it is available in dozens of flavors; the orange juice in the market comes to processing plants in trucks and then is sealed in plastic-coated paperboard cartons, but it can be purchased with pulp, added calcium, without pulp, or mixed with grapefruit juice. Providing options is a way of diverting the subject away from quality."



Paul Freedman


Ten Restaurants That Changed America


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2016 by Paul Freedman


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