In Conversation

Yale historian pens book defining what, exactly, is American cuisine

In his new book, “American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way,” historian Paul Freedman gives readers a window into American history through its food.
Paul Freedman and his book American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way

Is there such a thing as “American” cuisine? And if so, how is it defined? Is the nation’s palate limited almost entirely to hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza?

In his new book, “American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way,” Yale historian Paul Freedman gives readers a window into understanding American history through cuisine spanning more than 200 years, debunking the myth that American cuisine does not, in fact, exist.

Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, approaches his study of American cuisine not by identifying a list of specific national or regional dishes, but rather by looking at the interactions among regionalism, standardization, and variety.

A specialist in medieval social history, Freedman teaches “The History of Food,” the only undergraduate course at Yale dedicated to the history of cuisine. The course, which he has taught for 10 years now, investigates the development of food and culinary styles from prehistory to the present, with a particular focus on Europe and the United States.

YaleNews recently spoke with Freedman about the evolution of American regional cuisine; the three core characteristics of American cuisine; and how the advent of the internet reshaped modern restaurant reviews.

What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How has your interest on the study of food and cuisine evolved over the years?

I’ve become more interested in two related questions: Is there such a thing as American cuisine? And if so, what is it? That is the purpose of both the “Ten Restaurants That Changed America” book that came out in 2016 and this present book. What excites me most about the book is the ability to tie together so many things that I’ve experienced and noticed, but out of the corner of my eye.

What is American cuisine? What are its characteristics?

Regionalism, standardization, and variety are the three characteristics of American cuisine. In contrast to other nations, the United States does not have a repertoire of recognizable dishes, such as coq au vin for France, saltfish for Jamaica, or Yorkshire pudding for England. An American restaurant could mean anything: It could be cheeseburgers, or new American dishes that no one has ever seen before, or it could be heavily influenced by Italian cuisine. One of the things that sets American cuisine apart is eclecticism and experimentation, not obedience to tradition or rules.

One way to understand American cuisine is through its regions — and the regional traditions that underlie the history of American cuisine. New England, the South, and New Orleans Creole are the regional cuisines of America. Examples of New England cuisine are “Yankee Pot Roast,” the lobster roll, and clam chowder. Southern favorites include grits, collard greens, okra, fried tomatoes, and sweet potato pie. Louisiana’s signature creole dishes are jambalaya, gumbo, and étouffée.

Regionalism in food has faded in the last 125 years, but there are some regions that are still distinctive — New Orleans is among those. Prior and during the Civil War, New England cuisine was thought of as the quintessential and most important U.S. cuisine, while Southern food — which has survived better — was dismissed.

Why did regionalism in cuisine fade over time? What was it replaced with?

Processed industrial food and the homogenization and standardization of American taste are what led to the demise of regionalism in food. If you are inside a supermarket, you cannot tell if you are in Key West, Florida or in Boise, Idaho. If you are on a highway off-ramp, the food offerings could be the same anywhere. The compensation for that standardization — or at least what the food companies and the food and restaurant industry have offered — is variety. In my opinion, variety is what the food companies offer you in lieu of quality. At least in certain aspects, quality is impossible in an industrial food system.

Americans love variety. Americans’ experience of being able to choose among international restaurants is part of the overall story of American cuisine. In America, the phenomena of eating at a different style restaurant every night dates from the 1890s when there was a big craze first for Chinese food and second for Italian food — the same as it is now. This love for variety was not really imitated by the rest of the world until very recently. That taste for experimentation in cuisine is not entirely the result of immigration. Other countries have had lots of immigrants, but the native population tended not to interest itself in their food.

Up until the 1970s, when a shift towards farm-to-table cuisine occurred, the American model was industrial food quality and lots of variety. The standardization was geographical and across the seasons. The variety was simply flavors. Alice Waters, founder, owner and chef at Chez Panisse, was a vanguard for the farm-to-table movement. Waters is important not because she is the first person to serve more healthful food but because she insisted that healthful food tasted better. There was also a movement against the additives and chemicals in industrialized food, and a movement towards eating local, seasonal food because it tastes better than industrial fare.

How have social media and popular culture changed Americans’ attitudes towards food and dining?

They have democratized them. There used to be hundreds of newspapers with restaurant reviews. Very few remain. There were also “going out” magazines such as Time Out and Cue. You would look in them for reviews of everything from restaurants, to theater, to movies. They were essentially your cultural guide to the week. In the 1970s, the Zagat guides — consensus reviews by people who dine out frequently — came out. Duncan Hines was a traveling salesman who began writing up a list of places with good, homemade food — places where they still made their own pies — where you could eat if you were driving across country. This became a guidebook in the late 1930s that was updated annually.

Today Yelp ratings have made restaurants susceptible to booms and busts. Often the booms are as bad as the busts because if enough influencers say “this is great,” then restaurants have more people than they can handle. And then they disappoint a lot of people and the influencers say “this place is ruined” and that’s it. Social media has made the industry volatile in terms of fame and popularity, and as with much of the internet, it has democratized things but it has lowered standards, in my opinion.


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