A national or region cuisine?
Some food writers say it can be argued that there’s no national cuisine in America: rather, it’s a collection of regional cuisines. Others counter that if that is true of America, then perhaps it’s true of other nations, too: — Chinese, Italian and French cooking is actually all incredibly regional.
Still others say that trying identify a national cuisine by focussing on regional differences is the wrong way to go: you can spend so long looking at the trees that you won’t see the forest. You need, they say, to focus on the commonalities between the cooking in its various regions. Perhaps the core of such an American national “food” now is industrialized, commercialized food.American cooks in general don’t seem to catch on in the UK. It may be the “measurements” barrier, though UK cooks seem to be able to leap the barrier going the other way. Only a handful in people in Britain had ever heard of Julia Child.
Pizza is different as made in California, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
Much of American cooking, in terms of a universal cuisine, is actually French, German, Italian, Chinese, or food hearkening back to its original British roots.
Vinegar is used on fries in some parts of the north-west, and in random places such as Ocean City, Maryland, some parts of Pennsylvania such as Palmerton, at French fries in PNC Park in Pittsburgh (malt vinegar even), and in Maine. Americans, though, will have vinegar on their fries when they are at places serving English-style fish and chips, and salt and vinegar chips (aka crisps in the UK) are now available almost everywhere.
The results of 8th Annual Reader’s Survey, conducted by Bon Appetit, an American food magazine, were released in March 2005. The five food items least popular with their readership, which is mostly American, were Squab, Jerky, Rice cakes, Cardoons, and Quail Eggs. Readers in the North Eastern states also hated lima beans; readers in the Western States hated Brussels sprouts and ketchup, and readers in Southern States were more likely to serve cocktails before dinner, though they disliked soy sauce.
New Mexican Cooking uses a lot of hamburger. Chile sauce tends to be served on the side, or in some way that it is independent of the rest of the food being served.
Tex-Mex tends to use shredded beef instead of hamburger, and chile sauce tends to be an integral part of dishes.
Ordinary Americans tended to downplay enjoying fine food — some speculate because of a lingering Puritan ethic
The main vegetable crop in Texas is onions.
One source of American products in London is Panzer’s in St John’s Wood, in business since the 1950s.
There are actually no national holidays in the States. The President and Congress can only declare holidays for Washington, DC, and for federal employees.
The holidays are observed in all the states as well because the states have also declared these days holidays.
In 1995, special federal proclamations of special days was pretty much brought to a halt, as it had just become too time-consuming with everyone wanting their special cause to have a day.
Homogenized milk appears to have first been sold in the United States in 1919. It was offered by the Torrington Creamery of Torrington, Connecticut. But it really took off in 1932 when a William McDonald introduced it in Flint, Michigan.
There was a large battle in America between butter and margarine. In the early 1940s, the administration of Iowa State University backed down to pressure from dairy farmers and had a research report commenting favourably on margarine withdrawn.
During the Second World War, ice cream was thought to be a wholesome, nutritious food, and so was declared an essential food and makers were allowed to keep on making it.
Milk delivery started dying by the end of the 1950s, as supermarkets appeared and people had cars to get to them.
Cheese from sheep’s milk was not made commercially in America, it appears, until the late 1980s, when the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York State began producing it.
Under FDA regulations, cheeses made from raw milk must be aged for a minimum of 60 days at a minimum temperature of 35 F (1.5 C)
British food traditions remained the basis of American food for almost 200 years after the revolution. Everything else was just absorbed into it.
Up until the start of the 1900s, American food was based on tradition and American cooking had common national elements. By the start of the 1900s, American food was changed with industrialization, and mass immigration, and was fragmented by ethnicity, region and class. It became based on change, and on what’s new, instead of tradition. The Women’s Centennial Committee for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition surveyed women around the country for their recipes, and compiled the “National Cookery Book.” Few of these recipes, though they came from the grassroots, were being made 100 years later.
From almost the beginning, American colonists had been better fed than those who had remained behind in the Old World. By the War of Independence, American soliders were taller than any of those from Europe. In the late 1700s, it’s estimated that the average daily calorie intake in the newly independent colonies was 3,000 to 4,000 calories. But it was the “pre-leisure era”, when people burned that off just doing everyday household chores. Early Americans only had fish rarely, preferring heavier foods to fill them up, such as meat. Pork was popular as pigs were cheap to raise, and game was plentiful. Most of the people don’t have access to a lot of cooking equipment, so dishes were simple.
The big meal was lunch, a break from working on household chores or in the fields, which had started very early in the day.
Water was not trusted greatly for drinking. There were outbreaks of disease that people suspected, often rightly, of being caused by the water. The first settlers drank little beer. English-brewing techniques, making stuff such as ale (top-fermenting) didn’t always work well in the American climate. Top yeast got contaminated with wild yeasts that made the beer bitter.
Corn, as a vegetable or grain, was seen as more for ordinary people. The richer people preferred wheat.
In the eastern US, native plants that were domesticated for food included cranberries, jerusalem artichokes, and sunflowers. The colonists grew beans, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, cucumbers, potatoes, radishes, squash, and turnips. Both meat and vegetables were pickled to preserve them.
Squash, beans and maize were grown by different native groups in different areas. Despite the modern myth of those three being the “three sisters” that all natives grew, only a very few of the First Nations actually did grow all three. Some people argue that in some native groups, far more important than the “three sisters” were the three “f’s” — fish, flesh and fowl.
By the 1850s, special rooms to eat in — “dining rooms” — were still considered something for the wealthy.
As in the UK, the 100 years between 1830 and 1930 brought a great deal of change to the American kitchen. Knowledge of canning to preserve foods came over from France, which helped to broaden the diet in off-seasons. More and more labour saving devices, even labour saving ingredients such as baking soda and baking powder. The number of kitchen gadgets multiplied, and in cities, power such as gas and electricity was used to power them. A kitchen wall holding a fireplace and hearth was slowly replaced by a metal cooking range. Cooking on a stove was less labour intensive than by a fireplace, and you didn’t get as dirty, and it was safer.
In the mid-1800s, Germans introduced lager (made with bottom-fermenting yeasts), and consumption of beer doubled between 1870 and 1885 alone. By 1890, half of the alcohol consumed in America was in the form of beer, but wine consumption remained negligible. Wine was expensive. Almost all wine was imported, with high duties. The California wine industry had an early start and was producing some wines that were considered of good calibre by the turn of the 1900s, but Prohibition, introduced in 1919, and largely driven by the middle-classes and imposed on the working-classes, killed the fledgling wine industry there. Only 100 wine makers survived Prohibition in the entire country, by making wine for churches, grape juice and wine that was salted to turn it into cooking wine.
What was popular by the late 1800s were soft drinks at soda fountains. Soda water was accessible in price to all.
In the 1890s, internal mobility within America began, with people leaving their hometowns for the big cities.
Upton Sinclair 1906 Novel “The Jungle” exposed the poor conditions in which much of the nation’s meat was being handled, and put people off hamburger. In 1933, Arthur Kallet condemned hamburger again in 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, saying that it was like getting your meat out of a garbage can.
During the depression of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s, American housewives had to be very frugal. They would use thick cotton animal feed and flour sacks to make aprons, quilts, and even hats.
In May 1944, war rationing ended for most meats except for beef steaks and beef roasts.
By the 1960s, US was classless as far as food went — though people with more money might purchase and consume the same food items but in different forms.
Americans gave to the world self-service restaurants, completely standardized restaurants, and chain restaurants.
One of the earliest, most important restaurants was the City Tavern in Philadelphia, opened in 1883. It even had a ballroom on the third floor (the building was destroyed by fire in 1854.)
Prohibition killed off many fine restaurants in America. They needed the profits from alcohol to stay in the black. The ones that survived had to learn new marketing techniques. Some, for instance, had operated by giving out free sandwiches along with a beer.
Of those that survived prohibition, many more collapsed after the stock market did.
When Winston Churchill toured America during prohibition, he got his doctor to write him a prescription requiring the medicinal use of alcohol particularly with his meals.
© Chartwell Trust
The first drive through restaurant, where you ordered and received your food from a window while still in your car, was “In-N-Out Burger”, opened by Harry and Esther Snyder in Baldwin Park, California, in 1948.
By the 1830s, food abundance taken so for granted that the first movements to avoid some foods began under Sylvester Graham (1794–1851.) He renounced meat and became a vegetarian. Many including Henry Thoreau and Joseph Smith tried his diet. Graham’s food values were absorbed into Seventh Day Adventism.
By the 1890s, with huge immigration from Europe, the American upper-classes all had servants to serve elaborate meals. But, a new wave of food diets had begun in reaction to the fin de siecle elaborate foods. Science had discovered calories, protein, carbohydrates, etc. The middle class thought they could use this science to teach the immigrants and the working classes how to eat better in terms of health and household budget. One thing they wanted to do was to teach them to save money by eating beans instead of beef, which they had learned had just as much protein. But, immigrants hadn’t come to the land of plenty of keep on eating beans.
The middle-class health foodies also had some bad advice. The science at the time felt that for the most part fruit and vegetables had nothing useful in them. Consequently, the health foodies advised immigrants to not bother with fruit and vegetables for the most part. But the Italian immigrants just ignored their advice and kept on eating fruit and vegetables.
In 1906, the Pure Food & Drug Act was passed. If you made health claims about your product, you had to provide proof.
By the late 1920s, enough was known about vitamins that it influenced thinking about nutrition.
Natural foods in the 1970s came out of the hippie movement. In the 1960s, there had been movements against big business or the establishment that failed or petered out, so the activists changed their attention to food and the environment. In response, the big food processors labelled their products “natural” or “farm fresh.” So, the activists shifted their focus again, this time from what to eat to what not to eat, and the “negative nutrition” school of thought took root.
Literature & Lore
The following is a spirited defence from the 1870s of American food at the time, after criticism of it by the Russian Archduke Alexis (1850 – 1908), who was 21 at the time he began his tour of America:
“The Archduke Alexis, son of the Emperor of all the Russias, and James W. Parkinson, son of nobody but his plebeian father and mothers are at issue. The Archduke Alexis had, in the description of his travels in America so far forgotten the dignity of his high position as to touch on American cooks and kitchens, and not in a way flattering to either. James W. Parkinson, of Philadelphia, for forty years an American cook, restaurateur and caterer to the gastronomical tastes of the inhabitants of the City of Brotherly Love, has come forward as the champion of his country, his country’s cooks and kitchens, and demonstrated how little an Archduke may know about cooking.
Snatching a few moments leisure from the arduous labors of his profession he has entered the lists against his imperial antagonist and come out the victor. Indeed, after reading Mr. Parkinson’s defense of American dishes, we feel a just pride in our national cookery. The Duke is no match for the cook when the scene of the contest is the kitchen; and he fares about as well there as Parkinson would before a Russian needle-gun. The Grand Duke had the rashness to say that in America there are no American cooks and no American dishes. What a terrible awakening he must have had from his imperial slumbers when Parkinson sallied out of his restaurant in Philadelphia and appeared in the panoply or print, a living American cook, determined to convince Alexis of his existence and the existence of others like him. Alexis has now very good reason to believe that there are American cooks — at least that there is one, Mr. James W. Parkinson, of Philadelphia.
The Duke had said that he frequently requested the proprietors of American hotels to set before him some peculiarly American dish. But the peculiarly American dish was never produced. His hosts assured him that the American cuisine was like that of France, and that the cooks in all the principal hotels were Frenchmen. Mr. Parkinson tells his Imperial Highness that he went to the wrong source for the information he needed. “What do hotelkeepers know about cooking? The proprietors or keepers of American hotels are not cooks, but capitalists. They are not men who, like the keepers of restaurants in France and Germany, have graduated in their profession, who have risen through all the degrees of cook, up to the dignified position of hotel-keeper. The qualities that distinguish them are not a knowledge of the virtue of dishes, but a knowledge of business and remarkable organizing and executive ability. Of the art of cooking they know just as much and just as little as bankers, manufacturers and other capitalists.
Parkinson grants that in most of our hotels the cooking depart is under the charge of French cooks — of curse, for the most part, however, as were not able to get along in the business in their own country. This he says accounts for the fact that hotel tables frequently present such wretched far, while the tables of wealthy private gentlemen afford such excellent eating.
As far as French cookery goes, the French get the credit for a great deal that does not belong to them at all. They have a wonderful capacity for adapting and appropriating to themselves the dishes of other nations. It is too frequently a weakness of which foreigners are guilty, to give French names to their dishes, and thus a great many dishes not French at all come to be regarded as such. Only by a comparison of the dishes of the various nations can their relative merits be ascertained, and Mr. Parkinson proposes that, at the Centennial Exposition to take place in Philadelphia, such a comparison should be instituted, the result, he predicts, would be that many of our own best dishes would be rapidly introduced to the favor of other nations.
To convince the Russian Grand Duke that he was not rightly informed as to the merits of the American cuisine Mr. Parkinson displays a bill of fare made up of American dishes which ought to make his noble mouth to water when he thinks what there is in store for him should he be so fortunate as ever to visit these shores again. In the first place there is the American oyster, large, sweet, delicious, glorious, unlike its pigmy caricature called by the same name in France. And then Mr. Parkinson presents them prepared in the various ways — all of which are peculiarly American — fried, roasted, stewed, scalloped, panned, boiled, griddled, and spiced.
Next come our American softshell crabs, our turtles and terrapins, of which Europe lives in blissful ignorance. Canvas-back ducks, the finest game in the world, and our turkeys, so far superior to those of Europe, follow after. Among our fish there is the shad, the sheep’s-head, rock-fish, codfish, halibut, brook and lake trout. Wild duck, squab, grouse, quail, reed-bird, plover, prairie-chicken, the buffalo, antelope, bear opossum, mountain sheep, the rabbit and woodchuck are mentioned as samples of our game. In the vegetable kingdom, among our specialties are the tomato and cranberry.
In the region of ice-cream, sweetmeats and desserts we beat the world. Nor will the champion of the American cooks and cookery allow that we are wanting in originality in our dishes, as is proved by the New England chowder, our pumpkin pie, buckwheat cakes, corn mush, corn-starch pudding, White Mountain cake, Washington cake, etc, etc. — Chicago Tribune.” — Our Cuisine. In: Sioux County Herald. Orange City, Iowa. 15 October 1874. Page 2.
“A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery would not starve to death suddenly in Europe, but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die.” — Mark Twain
“American cooking suffers from American nervousness, exactly as American nerves are suffering from American cookery.” — Adelaide Keen. With a Saucepan Over The Sea. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1910. Page 23.
“Americans are just beginning to regard food the way the French always have. Dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else. Dinner is the evening.” — Art Buchwald
“Americans will eat garbage provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup.” — Henry Miller
“I despair of the Republic! Such dreariness, such whining sallow women, such utter absence of the amenities, such crass food, crass manners, crass landscape!! What a horror it is for a whole nation to be developing without the sense of beauty, and eating bananas for breakfast.” — Edith Wharton. (American writer. 1862 – 1937)
“We all have hometown appetites. Every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or in the hometown he or she left behind.” — Clementine Paddleford (American food writer. 1898 – 1967)
“If you’ve spent all your meat stamps and haven’t any more, Eating chicken is a pleasant way to help to win the war.” — Prudence Penny. Coupon Cookery. US Department of Agriculture. WWII.
“Announcement that the Office of Price Administration has suspended the point-rationing system for all kinds of meat, with the exception of choice cuts and roast of beef, brings to an end one of the least glorious battles on the home front – the battle of the butcher shop….In a world which was visibly tottering under the weight of an atrocious assault on free institutions, a world in which whole races were being systematically exterminated and in which whole innocent and unoffending nations had been overrun and starved, the self-appointed spokesmen the American people acted as though the worst atrocity of all time was a system which limited their right to buy as much meat as they chose and at as high prices as they could afford.” — Franklin, Jay. Meat Rationing Is Called Least Glorious Experiment. Harlingen, Texas: Valley Morning Start. 12 May 1944, page 4.
“And now the good news. In the 1980s, the United States will emerge as a major world power in a new field — gastronomy. The ingredients necessary for this to happen are three: knowledgeable and adventuresome cooks, consumers who recognize quality and are willing to pay for it, and access to superior foodstuffs. All are available and in increasing quantities.” — Rice, William. Revolution – In the Kitchen. Syrcause, New York. The Post Standard. 10 January 1980. Page A-7. [Originally in the Washington Post]
 Trout, G.M. Official Acceptance of Homogenized Milk in the United States. Department of Food Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing. Journal of Dairy Science Vol. 46 No. 4 342-345. 1963.
Batterberry, Michael and Ariane. On the Town in New York. New York: Routledge. 1999.
Demers, John. Cooking Colonial: Celebrate the 4th with a look back to early recipes. Houston Chronicle: Houston, Texas. 2001.
Jekanowski, Mark D. and James K. Binkley. Food Spending Varies Across the United States. In Food Review: Volume 23, Issue 1. January – April 2000.
Linder, Larry. As American as… salt pork? Somerset Medical Resource Centre: EBSCO Publishing. 2006. PDF article retrieved from http://www.somersetmedicalcenter.com/124850.cfm October 2006.
Rader, Jim. American Food Folklore and Culinary History: Buffalo Wings, Reuben Sandwiches, and Caesar Salads. Retrieved from http://www.rowlandweb.com/reuben/history.asp 17 January 2006.
Stein, Nicholas. Would You Like Cheese With That? Fortune Magazine: New York. 2 April 2001.
Trillin, Calvin. Home Cooking. The New Yorker: New York. 30 August 2004.