Anthropologist Sidney Mintz set off a firestorm when he casually remarked to students during a guest lecture that America didn’t have a ‘cuisine.’ In looking back on the chagrin voiced by many in the audience, he realized that he had struck a nerve: if America didn’t have a ‘cuisine,’ so the students seemed to think, was did it say about America as a country? Was it culturally backward? Was it missing an essential thread tying its people together into a common identity? In searching for evidence of an American cuisine, Mintz rejected the fallback that American cuisine was defined by its ubiquitous fast food culture: he felt confident that no one would want ‘to call that array [of hots dogs, hamburgers, and pizza] a cuisine,’ and argued that a cuisine cannot exist, ‘unless there is a community of people who eat it, cook it, have opinions about it, and engage in dialogue involving those opinions.’ He thus defined a cuisine as those foods that are cooked and eaten regularly and customarily, and subject to discussion. America’s foodscape simply precluded a single American cuisine.
Paul Freedman is the latest to grapple head-on with the thorny issue of “American cuisine” in his most recent book, American Cuisine and How It Got This Way (2019). He meticulously documents how American foodways have changed since the turn of the twentieth century, with impressive narrative detail and vivid images that illustrate the evolution of American foodways. At our last in-person event before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Freedman highlighted key themes found in American Cuisine, starting from his basic, somewhat controversial assumption that American has “a cuisine.” Freedman endorsed Mintz’s idea that cuisines must be cooked and eaten regularly and customarily. But he then took a surprising deviation: rather than considering representative dishes, styles of cookery, or popular discourse, Freedman seemed to equate “American cuisine” with America’s foodscape, by which I mean Freedman seems to equate a “cuisine” with the foods broadly available, without consideration of whether these foods are markers of identity or makers of meaning within American culture. Before further evaluating Freedman’s argument, I will consider how food scholars and writers have defined and identified “cuisines;” the bottom line is that there is no universal definition of what we mean by a ‘national’ cuisine, nor are there universal ways in which such identifiable patterns in cooking and eating emerge.
Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (considering Carême’s post-Revolutionary France) and Michael Freeman (Song China) , viewed cuisine-making as a top-down process in which leisured, knowledgeable elites actively engaged in gastronomic critiques, ultimately melding the best of regional dishes into an eltie-driven haute cuisine. This class-based approach that established hierarchies of certain foods over quotidian habits, precisely contrary to Mintz’s on-the-ground approach. Others have seen national cuisines as self-conscious exercises in nation-building in a post-colonial world: Arjun Appadurai argues than an Indian national cuisine emerged only a generation after independence, when indigenous and mobile professional classes moved freely throughout the sprawling subcontinent and sought out consistent food habits regardless of locale. In the case of Belize, Richard Wilk sees its suddenly identified rice-and-beans ‘national’ cuisine as an effort by nostalgic expats and tourist bureaus to promote certain foods as the ‘national cuisine,’ both playing into diasporic identities and appealing to the tourist dollar seeking ‘authenticity.’
Mintz argued that the ‘impossibility’ of an American cuisine arose from four factors that undermine any claim to a ‘coherent’ cuisine. First, the country is simply too big, with diverse climates and foodstuffs, to fashion consistent culinary patterns. Second, successive waves of immigrants from all over the world have constantly recalibrated American palates; both the structure and content of meals thereby lack an established historical grounding that could be considered a cuisine (and signifier of national identity), rather than trend or fad. Third, this constantly shifting kaleidoscope of culinary habits creates more of a ‘salad bowl‘ than the (erroneous) ‘melting pot’ metaphor that would suggest a consistent culinary system. Finally, Americans tend to speak of regional styles of food, rather than over-arching foods (with the exception of that previous array of foods he deemed unworthy of the title ‘cuisine.’ Putting aside hyphenated cuisines developed here, such as the Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs, much of the serious writing about culinary culture in America has honed in on regional cuisines and specialities, such as maple syrup or gumbos, rather than an overarching American cuisine. Even when talking about common, popular foods, the discourse tends to frame debate regionally: Chicago versus New York pizza? Texas, Tennessee or North Carolina barbecue? Cincinnati chili?
Perhaps because food in America is so unruly, few journalists and scholars have felt confident defining ‘American’ cuisine. Ruth Tobias recently argued that American cuisine is a ‘mixtape’ of foreign foods that are deemed ‘foreign’ until suddenly they are not; how one determines when something is no longer foreign was not specified, nor does Tobias point to any through line that brings these new foods into the fold: it is an “I know it when I see it” definition that lacks coherence. Krishnendu Ray has looked at the role of discourse in defining American cuisine: while he sees enough historical ‘discourse’ about ‘American cuisine,’ he expressly declines to identify “about the kind of food that is imagined by some to constitute American cuisine.”* Very recently, anthropologist Amy Trubek takes what might be considered an heretical tack, at least according to the students who balked at Mintz’s proclamation that there was no American cuisine: she questions whether America needs to have a cuisine, but to the extent that cuisines help define identity, she sees American cuisine as defined at the intersection of agrarian, domestic and industrial production, with a special focus on regionality, exemplified by New England’s maple syrup, with its historical pedigree, that is available throughout the country, as well as the widespread farm-to-table movement that reinforces counterculture forces at work in American foodways that were famously identified by Warren Belasco in Appetite for Change.
Freedman takes a very different approach to defining cuisine: rather than untangling the cultural processes and power dynamics by which a people come to see a style of cooking and eating as their national cuisine, Freedman defines American cuisine by three essential characteristics, two of which are market-driven. First, he acknowledges the obvious foundation that the many different regions, ethnicities, and climates contribute. Although he sees regionalism, and the inherent diversity that regionalism implies, as declining in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, a sense of regional distinction remains at the core of American cuisine. But two other factors distinguish American cuisine, and these contribute to the decline of regionalism. First is the standardization of what we eat, which has taken place through the consolidation of food producers into gigantic corporations. Juxtaposed against the industrialized, leveling food system is incredible variety. Variety is not the opposite of standardization. Rather, variety is made possible because of standardization. Major food corporations are the ones with the wherewithal to have deep benches of products offering the American consumer nearly endless choice.
The Danone conglomerate is a prime example of Freedman’s thesis, having a dizzying array of products in the dairy case, waiting to tempt the consumer. Taking just the example of yogurt (rather than beverages), Danone has different families of yogurt products targeting adults, plus two lines marketed to kids (Danino and Danimals). The original Dannon yogurt has a mere seven flavors, plus its unflavored full, no-fat, and low-fat versions, which adds three low-fat flavors; Oikos, a Greek-style yogurt line boasting eleven flavors, and probiotic Activia, the most diverse of the
yogurt product lines that includes single fruit, fruit combos, low-sugar, fiber-added, lactose-free, almond-milk, and Greek families, each with multiple flavor variations too mind-boggling to count), as well as a diet line, Light n’ Fit. Add to these the seemingly redundant Two Good (each boasting only 2 grams of sugar), plus Wallabys Organic (“Aussie Greek-style”), and the snackable YoCrunch, with candy mix-ins to to undermine all the health-food claims found elsewhere on Danone’s site, and there is a yogurt for every taste and dietary concern.
Freedman is bullish about food in America, seeing in the counterculture ethos of the 1960s and ‘70s the roots of a new approach to dining, with a focus on responsible stewardship of the land. From the emergence of the ‘New American’ restaurants of the late 1970s and ‘80s, where fresh, seasonal, and local were watchwords, the farm-to-table has become a national phenomenon, whether in restaurant dining or with ever-increasing farmers’ markets reaching home kitchens directly.
Gastronomic discussion, whether in traditional or social media or the narrative-style of cookbooks, is also part of the ‘food revolution,’ and foodie-ism has become part of the American vernacular. Yet I remain skeptical about whether these characteristics of a ‘new regionalism,’ industrialized production, and mind-boggling variety, all rightly identified by Freedman as forming the reality of food in America in 2020 , can help us define ‘American cuisine.’ Unlike many other ‘national’ cuisines which have a predictable structure to a meal (think of traditional ‘Italian’ cuisine with its antipasti, paste, secondi, and dolci; ‘Chinese’ cuisine with its anchoring rice bowl and multiple dishes shared among a group; or progression from soup to sweet, followed by coffee, of a classic French meal), the regional and ethnic diversities that contribute to our habits lack this coherence and predictability. When we chose to have Thai food one night, Mexican the next, and a celebratory steakhouse dinner, do we see all of these as part of American cuisine? Does the modifying adjective of Thai or Mexican remind us of the Otherness of the food, even if in a joyous and welcome way? Or do these adjectives just become a convenient identifier for a style of cookery that falls under the umbrella of American cuisine, much the way East Texas barbecue promises beef in a tomato based sauce, while Carolina barbecue signals pork in a vinegary sauce? If so, then the term ‘American cuisine’ seems drained of meaning: we don’t know what it is.
To circle back to Mintz’s point that no one would want ‘to call that array [of hots dogs, hamburgers, and pizza] a cuisine,’ I suggest that no one would want to call great variety within standardization a ‘cuisine;’ Freedman has nailed the salient characteristics of the American foodscape, but I must part ways over the conclusion that these make a ‘cuisine.’ It may be a quibble over language, but I am unconvinced that these characteristics con tribute to an American sense of identity.
* See Ray, K. (2008). “Nation and Cuisine: The Evidence from the Newspapers ca. 1830-2003.” Food & Foodways 16: 259-97. Ray includes a review of some of the scholarly thought contained herein.