American Cuisine and How It Got This Way
Paul Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History
For centuries, skeptical foreigners — and even millions of Americans— have believed there was no such thing as American cuisine. In recent decades, hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza have been thought to define the nation’s palate. Not so, believes food historian Paul Freedman, who writes that there is a diverse American cuisine that reflects the history of the nation itself.
Freedman underscores three recurrent themes — regionality, standardization, and variety — that shape a novel history of the United States.
From the colonial period until after the Civil War, there was a patchwork of regional cooking styles that produced local dishes, such as gumbo from southern Louisiana, or clam chowder from New England. Later, this kind of regional identity was manipulated for historical effect, as in Southern cookbooks that mythologized gracious “plantation hospitality,” rendering invisible the African Americans who originated much of the region’s food.
As the industrial revolution produced rapid changes in every sphere of life, the American palate dramatically shifted from local to processed — such as canned peas, baloney, sliced white bread, and jarred baby food. By the early 20th century, the era of homogenized American food was in full swing. Bolstered by nutrition “experts,” marketing consultants, and advertising executives, food companies convinced consumers that industrial food tasted fine and, more importantly, was convenient and nutritious.
The 1970s saw the zenith of processed-food hegemony, but also the beginning of a food revolution in California. What became known as New American cuisine rejected the blandness of standardized food in favor of the actual taste and pleasure that seasonal, locally grown products provided. The result was a farm-to-table trend that continues to dominate.