The story of American eating begins and ends with the fact that American food, by most of the world's standards, is not very good. This is a rather sad note considering the "land of plenty" the first American settlers found, and even sadder considering that with the vast knowledge of food we possess, we have still managed to create things such as the TV dinner and "Finger Lickin' Good" chicken. Nevertheless, America's eating habits, the philosophy behind these habits, and much of the food itself are deliciously fascinating. Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont, in a style that is rich, tasty, and ironic, chronicle the history of American food and eating customs from the time of the earliest explorers to the present. In writing this chronicle on American food, Root and de Rochemont have in fact created a fresh and commanding history of the United States itself. Eating in America is an erudite, sumptuous, witty, marvelously readable study; truly a book to feast on time and again.
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In 1776, "the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled," adopted the Declaration of Independence, predated July 4, like an overdue check it was, indeed, long overdue. It was actually signed, on the installment system, beginning on August 2, 1776, and ending only in 1781, when Thomas McKean, who had been in the Congress on July 4 but not on August 2, was authorized to add the last signature to the document.
The Declaration ended only one sort of link with England, and specifically said so: "We...solemnly publish and declare...that all political connection between [the United States] and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved." America did not declare, did not desire, and did not attain independence in many other domains.
The fledgling nation did not declare independence of a legal philosophy which included such safeguards as trial by one's peers and the writ of habeas corpus. That newly created political entity, the American, had no desire either to dissolve his linguistic connection with England, a more lasting bond and a profounder one than that represented by any ephemeral political regime. Some Englishmen would certainly agree with H. L. Mencken that the American language has since acquired a degree of independence from the English language, but the Declaration was still saying "mankind are," a use of a plural verb with a singular collective noun which no American would write today, though an Englishman might. Such differences are minor;on the whole America, like England, remains heir to the mighty literary tradition of the English language.
English law and the English language are almost universally admired. There is another facet of English culture for which it would be difficult to say as much: the United States, in the exercise of its "inalienable Right...[to] the pursuit of Happiness" might very well have seized the opportunity to declare its independence of the English cuisine. As a matter of fact, in 1776 it was already too late. The eastern coast of the United States had been occupied by English-speaking colonists for a century and a half, and they had made their choice. They had re-created in the New World the sort of cooking to which they had been accustomed in the Old. It must have taken a certain amount of obstinacy to do so. The foods they had been eating in England did not exist in America when they arrived there. The foods they found in America were unknown to England. A new and independent cuisine could have been built upon them. The colonists did not choose to do so. They turned their backs on most of the new foods, often refusing to eat them until after Europe had accepted them and reimported them to the land of their origin. The colonists brought over their former foods and overcame, with admirable persistence, the difficulties opposed to them by a hostile climate. American native cooking would remain thereafter a branch of English cooking. Americans might eat in French or Italian, Greek or Chinese restaurants, but at home, except at moments of deliberately exotic exercises with foreign cookbooks, the American housewife would maintain her cherished dependence on British traditions. Her cooking would remain, according to a well-worn saying, "as American as apple pie" a dish imported from England.
Why did America miss the chance to achieve independence from one of the least admired institutions of the British Isles? It certainly never occurred to Thomas Jefferson, gourmet though he was, that he was answering that question, or even considering it, when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence:
All experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they arc accustomed.
The power of the forms to which one has been accustomed! This generalization has since been applied specifically to gastronomy by other writers: William James: "Few of us are adventurous in the matter of food; in fact, most of us think there is something disgusting in a bill of fare to which we are unused"; Peter Farb: "All cultures are much more likely to accept a change in a minor aspect of culture, such as a toy, than in something as major as a food crop"; Naomi Bliven: "Food preferences, like language, are obstinate cultural traits." Must we deduce that a change of governors, which America was willing to accept, was less important than a change of food, which it was not? Americans did not want independence from English cooking, however unappetizing it may have appeared to Frenchmen or to Italians. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington employed French cooks, but Washington in this respect was not the father of his country, or if he was, his offspring were unfilial. Probably he had no desire that his countrymen should follow this example. A French cook in the White House is simply a matter of prestige; at the moment of writing there is a French chef there who turns out, it appears, excellent milk shakes and double hamburgers. Americans admired French food, but for everyday use they preferred meals in "the forms to which they are accustomed." Their English fare could not even be described as a sufferable evil. They did not suffer from it, though some early French visitors to America did, just as they suffered from it when, instead of crossing the Atlantic, they crossed the Channel.
In resisting unfamiliar food, even unfamiliar food which most outsiders considered superior to that which was familiar, Americans were only perpetuating the example of their English ancestors, who, from time to time, had shown signs of a desire to profit by foreign example, only to revert quickly to comfortable conformity with the cooking to which they had been accustomed. "English cooking, after its first triumphant flourish in the early fifteenth century, became incurably domestic," Richard Barber wrote in Cooking & Recipes from Rome to the Renaissance...