Monday, June 29, 2009


Did you ever wonder, what food is "American Food"? You know, like the Italians eat Italian food, and the Mexicans eat Mexican food, and the Chinese eat Chinese food, so, what is American food? When we signed up to host our first exchange student, a boy from Denmark, I went straight home, pulled out my recipe files and a clean tablet, and started thinking about what to feed him when he arrived. An hour later, I was still staring at a blank tablet. I had plenty of great recipes to choose from, but unfortunately, they were mostly all either Italian, Mexican, or Chinese!

Where were those recipes that were representative of our culture? The ones like some of my friends have, that had been taught to them by their mother or grandmother. The ones that were part of an oral tradition which represented the accumulated knowledge of all the generations that came before - the knowledge of how to eat and live well, using seasonal ingredients indigenous to the place where they were rooted. After a moment or two, it finally came to me: the only people I knew with recipes such as these, have mothers or grandmothers who migrated here from other countries.

Over the years, after reading books like On Mexican Time, Under the Tuscan Sun, and A Year in Provence, I came to realize just what was missing here in America, but I still didn't understand why. What went wrong here? It wasn't until I read this book, the one I am about to award to one of you, my dear readers, that it finally became clear. The book's author asked many similar questions, such as "How did supermarket vegetables lose their palatability, with so many people right there watching? The Case of the Murdered Flavor was a contract killing, as it turns out, and long-distance travel lies at the heart of the plot. The odd notion of transporting fragile produce dates back to the early twentieth century when a few entrepreneurs tried shipping lettuce and artichokes, iced down in boxcars, from California eastward over the mountains as a midwinter novelty. Some wealthy folks were charmed by the idea of serving out-of-season (and absurdly expensive) produce items to their dinner guests. It remained little more than an expensive party trick until mid-century, when most fruits and vegetables consumed in North America were still being produced on nearby farms. Then fashion and marketing got involved. The interstate highway system became a heavily subsidized national priority, long-haul trucks were equipped with refrigeration, and the cost of gasoline was nominal. The state of California aggressively marketed itself as an off-season food producer, and the American middle class opened its maw. In just a few decades the out-of-season vegetable moved from novelty status to such an ordinary item, most North Americans now don't know what out-of-season means." Or what in-season tastes like. Or how exquisite anticipation can be.

Fortunately for us, the author doesn't just tell us what's wrong. She shows us how families like hers are putting the kitchen back at the center of family life, and diversified farms at the center of the American diet, and how people across the country are working to build a genuine food culture. Care to join in? Then leave a comment any time this week, and I will throw your name in the hat, for a chance to win this wonderful book!


Judie said...

You know, you're right. Our heritage is different for everyone. Maybe because our ancestors moved around quite a bit. My grandmother's recipes were a mix of mid-west and west coast with a helping of WWII money and basic food supply savings. Others have old recipes from other countries. I wonder how many histories through recipes have simply been lost.

musingegret said...

Hmmmm, provocative topic. A first reaction was "Oh, american food is what both of my grandmothers fixed, you know, just regular southern food. Lots of vegetables (greens, peas, beans, squash, tomatoes,sweet potatoes, mashed white potatoes), cornbread or biscuits or yeast rolls (as a special treat), and fried chicken, fried fish (bream, bass, crappie--pronounced 'croppie'), fried pork chops, pot roast.

Then I realized, as Judie observed so cogently, that 'american food' covers all the spectra of the immigrants to this country and their contribution to regional cuisine. Many times the regional has gone national (Tex-Mex, Cajun, Southwestern). Our uniquely 'american food' is always evolving. Here's a great article about the Vietnamese sandwich Banh Mi and its evolution in Southern California.

And from the NY Times, over in Brooklyn:

Beck, do you ever cook Indonesian food? Now that my crop of basil is growing 'great guns' I've been googling recipes for that wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup, pho, that is served at the 888 restaurant over on east Oltorf.

Healthy and deee-licious! Next I intend to tackle homemade spring rolls! My dear departed grandmas never ate those dishes! I wish I could introduce them to them.

Hill Country Hippie said...

Yes, it's strange. My mom had given up cooking by the time my kids came along, so they were never exposed to her foods, and they hated what they called "chunky meat" - pot roast, steak, pork chops - which is the only thing my in-laws cooked. To them Asian, Tex-Mex and Italian were "normal." When we moved back from Indonesia, our next door neighbors were Korean, and their son was Austin's best friend, so Austin eats Kim Chee like most kids eat pickles! My only regret about not hiring a cook in Indonesia, like everyone else did, was not being exposed to more of their native dishes. All we had was a part-time housekeeper, but she did teach me to make Nasi Goreng and Mie Goreng (fried rice and fried noodles). We go to Singaporean/Malaysian/Indonesian restaurants every chance we get. My son and husband also adore Pho, and we go to Thai restaurants a lot, too, thanks to Houston's bountiful Asian population!

By the way - Judie and ME, you have both been added to the drawing for our mystery book, and I am still "musing" over what else I might through in to go with it!

Hill Country Hippie said...

OOPS! I mean "throw" in!

musingegret said...

I adore kimchi and recently found this recipe for homemade. I bet Austin would love this!

Hill Country Hippie said...

I'll make sure he sees this!