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What Makes American Cuisine American?

• February 04, 2014 • 6:00 AM

American cultural icons. (Photo: Public Domain)

At its essence, American food began as a cuisine of survival free from the burdens of tradition and elitism. Little has changed.

Understanding what makes American food American is a task best initiated by considering the diet of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves.

The trash pit outside Monticello’s slave quarters has yielded an array of hacked up animal remains, flecks of intestinal debris, and the remnants of a carcass’ least desirable parts. All in all: a grim picture of culinary desperation.

From such desperation, American food—a cuisine essentially stripped of tradition—has gradually emerged. Indeed, a uniquely American conception of food, one that now lends cultural legitimacy to everything from The French Laundry to the fried twinkie, has developed around ongoing geographical and emotional displacement. The origins of American food might be innumerable and obscure, but they are ultimately rooted in a vast and undiscriminating foundation marked by acute hardship on the frontier of American life.

For slaves, the insulting Big House scraps led to oxtail soup, hominy, and chitterlings—the basis for soul food. But slaves were hardly alone in pursuing such culinary repurposing. Dozens of displaced and often systematically oppressed ethnic groups—not only English and West African, but French, German, Dutch, Swedish, Scots-Irish, Scottish, and Irish—settled North America and watched conventional eating habits dissipate in a resource-rich landscape populated by Indian tribes that seemed unimaginably “savage” in custom, appearance, and dietary habits.

European migrants weren’t especially quiet about the gustatory anxiety this dislocation produced. One German visitor to 18th-century Pennsylvania, being treated to a rare bowl of sauerkraut after returning from a trip among backcountry Indians, called the meal “a gift of costly medicine” due to this German staple’s virtual absence in the New World, even among German communities. Similarly, a Swedish traveler, lamenting the absence of familiar fare, wrote home about eating “the same perpetual meal of porridge made with corn-meal.” Settlers’ bellies may have been full, but they were quickly fed-up with the alien and redundant food options at their fingertips.

When struggling but ambitious people have a rare opportunity to turn themselves into upwardly mobile landowners, they tend not to obsess over codifying the exact terms of a proper diet.

Lamentations notwithstanding, European settlers didn’t do much about it. Nurturing dreams of cheap land and upward mobility, they decided that replicating culinary tradition wasn’t worth the hassle. There were too many other projects to undertake, too many remunerative goals to pursue. Naturally, settlers had to be fed and, calorically speaking, they were fed extremely well. North Americans almost never starved (with the exception of the first Jamestown crew). But, not unlike Virginian slaves, homesick settlers missing their sauerkraut, cottage pie, or potato dauphinoise chose to accommodate less culturally hidebound arrangements when they sat down—usually on tree stumps—to eat a meal.

Food production on the periphery of the British Empire thus became a slapdash means to an end, a casual and even cavalier afterthought to the more urgent business of establishing a proto-capitalistic society conducive to material progress. To an extent rarely appreciated (even by historians), middling white settlers to North America succeeded in making more of themselves than they would have had they stayed in homelands bound by privilege and hierarchy. The successful cultivation of cash crops for foreign markets was primarily what sparked early American economic ascendancy and, in turn, commercial agriculture became the basis for an unexpected meritocracy for white men. Familiar food, however, had nothing to do with this larger agenda, one that mitigated against the top-down formulation of a national cuisine and left the gates wide open for a cacophony of culinary change.

In this respect, what made American food distinctly American largely boiled down to not really caring much about what one ate. Although this idea might seem dispiriting, it animates America’s culinary ethos and, to a large degree, explains why we remain resistant to being told how we should eat. When struggling but ambitious people have a rare opportunity to turn themselves into upwardly mobile landowners, they tend not to obsess over codifying the exact terms of a proper diet. To the contrary, they tend to eat what’s convenient, doing so with minimal fuss.

Put differently, when a culture cares little about what it cooks, its culinary tradition becomes a non-tradition. When the opportunity for material gain is rife, as it was for white settlers on the early American frontier—not to mention their descendants—people will eat pretty much whatever makes it to the plate and keeps them in the game. In the American context, this turned out to be a remarkably eclectic and historically unprecedented mélange of food, some good, some not so good, almost all of it in unusual abundance.

A radically tolerant American palate drove the development of American foodways, necessarily requiring settlers—freemen, slaves, and servants; men, women, and children—to remain temperamentally open to any number of unexpected culinary influences that might, one way or another, quietly shape the national diet while citizens were otherwise preoccupied with more remunerative endeavors.

FIRST AMONG SUCH INFLUENCES were Native American eating habits. This intercultural influence was most evident in the South, where Native American/European interactions were especially common. Where else in the world, at this point in time (1712), could an English settler find himself eating, as the surveyor John Lawson did on the Carolina frontier, “raccoon and ground nuts,” a stew of possum and teal meat, and “two young Fawns taken out of the doe’s bellies and boiled in the same slimy bags nature had placed them in”? Veritably nowhere. And, notably, Lawson didn’t bat an eyelash at the experience. In fact, he generously deemed the preparations of his Indian guides to be “a new fashioned cookery.”

Even staid Puritans managed to embrace something as foreign as Indian corn, a food used back in England as a common animal feed. “Food fit for swine” was what one contemporary agricultural writer called it. Despite corn’s association with Native Americans, whom the Puritans gradually deemed incapable of complete civilization, New Englanders made bread from it, brewed beer with it, and, instead of wheat or rye, planted their fields with it. In 1662, John Winthrop, Jr. delivered a lecture to the Royal Society of London on the sublime virtues and versatility of Indian corn, urging his countrymen to grow it and eat it with gusto. They didn’t. But the effort spoke volumes about Puritanical adaptability in the New World.

Slaves in the Deep South also had a role to play in this subtle process of culinary adjustment. With masters shuttling between Lowcountry rice plantations and Charleston townhomes, and with slaves making up over 65 percent of the population, a bastardized West African diet introduced the region’s backcountry whites to a range of strange flavors that further unhinged Europeans from their gustatory heritage and opened their palate to even more change.

Masters might have provisioned slaves with modest amounts of maize and a few scraps of cattle carcass after a profitable exportation of rice to the old world. But more often than not it was slaves who were provisioning masters, with okra, guinea fowl, snake root, cowpeas, “guinea melons,” beans, peanuts, and a variety of line-caught fish, including shark, which was not, alas, line-caught. Lawson recalled how slaves “go naked in the water with a knife and fight the shark and very commonly kill him.” It was harder to get much further away from the dignified British table and, one surmises, dignity itself must have taken a hit when masters showed up on the slaves’ doorstep, hat in hand, seeking a peck of provisions.

A final defining quality of the developing American foodscape was a near constant reliance on hunting esoteric game in forests of unfathomable density. Contrary to popular conceptions, Europeans were not inveterate or even especially talented huntsmen. If anything, hunting was considered more of an elite sport rather than an acceptable way for commoners to acquire an honest meal. That was accomplished through diligent domestication, something that early Americans who were obsessed with cash crops conspicuously neglected until the middle of the 19th century. So downplayed was domestication that wayward hunters often ducked into the woods to track down their own cattle, which had gone semi-feral. These were not proud moments for the average European.

With the American forest harboring a thrush of wild game, settlers joined Native Americans—or more often than not hired them—to track and trap anything that moved. We’ve already seen reference to raccoon and opossum, but settlers also tucked into deer, moose, elk, bear, wolf, alligator, and snake. European travelers to the wild and wooly periphery were frequently taken aback by the gaminess of the proffered options. When a team of European traders was treated to a meal of “entrails of deer,” one member remarked that he had never seen “such eatables made use of before by mankind.” Another simply called it “a curious ragoo.”

TODAY, DESPITE THE FORCES of globalization and industrialization, little has changed when it comes to the character of American cuisine. In a relatively benign sense, you could say that the inherited DNA of our young food culture—radical flexibility, constantly shifting standards, a lack of tradition, an emphasis on convenience, a penchant for innovation, and an unwavering dedication to any and all “curious ragoos”—has mutated into an upgraded food system that playfully incorporates haute cuisine with TV dinners, fast food with slow food, local with global, anything with everything. The pragmatically democratic nature of American food has allowed me to enjoy, as of this morning, a cup of coffee brewed from Ethiopian beans, organic kale from California, yellow beans from Peru, and oatmeal from Ireland. All in all, not a bad deal.

But, in a less benign sense, you could also argue that we’ve been reduced—in a culture dominated first and foremost by commercial progress and material advancement—to innovating with the cheapest scraps doled out by the Big House of agribusiness. Sacrificing authenticity to the imperatives of economic profit, we’ve sold our most fertile agricultural land down river, using it to grow row crops—genetically modified corn and soy—that we don’t eat, but, like our early American counterparts, send abroad. Pathetically, we’ve invested authenticity in ersatz ethnic restaurants that offer “Italian” and “Chinese” and “Indian” food that no self-respecting Italian, Chinese, or Indian person would tolerate. Tragically, we’ve allowed Spam to enter the culinary lexicon and, weirdly, shown pride in that accomplishment.

In the end, the most hopeful quality about American food might be its potential to become what it’s not. Like an adolescent, our young food culture is growing quickly but suffering from an identity crisis. It’s still a work in progress and, even if it’s dominated by cheap processed crap that we keep demanding and consuming, that can change. In many respects, the culture wars that we wage over what food means in America today come down to how our diet might mature into something dignified, authentic, and readily identifiable. Historically, we’ve been open to everything that commercial culture sends down the pipeline. Perhaps it’s time to become more discriminating. Perhaps its time to send back the scraps and start from scratch.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications.

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