Two Looks At American Cuisine

As I mentioned in Nonfiction November, one of my favorite reading categories — food history and foodoirs — has been one of my least-read genres this year, and I ended up abandoning most of the titles I picked up.

Nevertheless, I did read a few good ones, especially looking at American cuisine. Let’s discuss!

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The best and funniest food writing I’ve read in awhile was Calvin Trillin’s The Tummy Trilogy. Published in 1994, it’s actually three short books in one (American Fried; Alice, Let’s Eat; and Third Helpings) that were originally published during the 1970s. New Yorker reporter Trillin wrote extensively and passionately about his food and dining-out obsessions, particularly in relation to the myriad cuisines of New York City and his travels nationwide.

I can’t resist any book about American cuisine, especially if it takes a regional focus, and I’ve read too many that didn’t quite deliver on what I wanted to know. Trillin is upbeat and irreverent in describing his experiences dining around the country, with heaps of love for the little establishments and fast-food delights of his native Kansas City — not exactly what comes to mind as a culinary or restaurant hotspot, but he makes a convincing case for it.

He writes about regional specialities he’s discovered, often with his patient wife Alice in tow, and his excursions searching out beloved local eateries and authentic international cuisines that haven’t been Americanized. A running joke is his endless quest to decipher the wall menus at Manhattan’s Chinatown restaurants that waiters refuse to translate for him. He has some of the weirdest but funniest food-related fantasies I’ve ever read, and it’s truly laugh-out-loud funny at times. Some is a bit dated, including some cultural sensitivity issues, but it’s clear that he never intends offense and is on the whole appreciative and respectful. 

Some of his sentences are a bit complex and meandering, which somehow manages to make the joke that’s usually coming at the end surprisingly hilarious (“Because the superior fried-chicken restaurant is often the institutional obsession of a single chicken-obsessed woman, I realize that, like a good secondhand bookstore or a bad South american dictatorship, it is not easily passed down intact.”).

There is a bit of repetition across the three books, and Trillin clearly has his favorite themes — the aforementioned Chinese food, a friend who lost and kept off a massive amount of weight even while running a beloved New York pizzeria, and Trillin’s bizarre daydream about escorting Chairman Mao on an eating tour if he visited the US (never mind that he was already dead — “He was dead when I originally wrote about the daydream. As I said, it’s complicated.”).

Having read Trillin’s serious and somewhat dry Killings last year, I couldn’t have been more surprised and delighted at how light, amusing, and silly but simultaneously smart this was. Underneath the humor and silliness, as he searches for the best roadside barbecue and drags his wife from meal to meal on vacation, it says so much about American cuisine and attitudes towards food, with lots of unexpected areas highlighted and dishes thrown in along the way. I didn’t want it to end.

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A totally different tone but similar topic is American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way, by Paul Freedman.

This reads somewhere in between mild academia and popular lit, and I found that combination really worked somehow. I thought it might end up dry in parts, but for the most part it pleasantly didn’t. Freedman ties topics together quite well and makes the important points saliently and memorably.

He identifies three long-term trends in the development of what we can call American cuisine: “the eclipse of regional food, the rise of an industrial system, and the notion that variety livens up an otherwise boring culinary landscape.”

Ah yes, the American obsession with variety that has led to the not-uncommon phenomenon of panic attacks in the supermarket. Freedman cites, for comparison, focus groups of French people and Americans where Americans consistently select choice over quality — namely, “as many options as possible,” whereas the French decidedly prefer limited choices of higher quality. I used to be obsessed with this idea of choice in food, and now returning to the US from abroad I feel mostly just overwhelmed, so learning about this particular perspective was illuminating.

What stands out about this book in a pretty saturated genre is how Freedman traces the roots of some of the peculiarities of American culinary culture. Like our massive supermarkets compared to scaled-down food shopping in Europe, for example: “[Supermarkets] displace picking up food daily on the basis of last minute decisions or on what looks tempting today, habits that persist in Europe because people there are more likely to live near stores and markets and travel to and from work by public transport.”

And fascinatingly, American diet culture and appetite for diet foods is rooted in Puritanism. This probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, and yet:

What all these diet recommendations have in common is that they identify most delicious foods as bad for you. An unlikely but widely believed explanation for this phenomenon is that the Puritan heritage of the northern colonies create a lasting mistrust of pleasure.

Freedman also has a penchant for fun and somewhat strange lists. Did you know that one of the Heinz 57 varieties is mock turtle soup (a squicky part of American cuisine: we used to eat so many turtles and terrapins; so, so very many).

There’s always something negative to say about American cooking’s slant towards convenience and cutting corners with store-bought, ultra processed foods, and there are mixed feelings and mixed science on this. But to say that the US doesn’t have a unique cuisine of its own is such a fallacy, and one that continues to proliferate abroad. Freedman deftly shows how US cuisine is special because it’s divided so much regionally, each distinct area developing under different international, local, and cultural heritage influences, as well as a greater overarching national history and identity that infuses our way of eating and relationship to food and food culture.

It’s packed with photos and vintage ads and endless interesting trivia. It’s one of those books that you could open to any page and read something fascinating.

The great aspect about the United States generally is the exuberance of its people and, despite the many negative peculiarities of food in this country, that high-spirited approach is a saving grace.

What food writing have you loved this year?

19 thoughts on “Two Looks At American Cuisine

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  1. My most vivid memory was growing up on TV dinners (Salisbury Steak with apple sauce..as a big favorite!. Loved this look at American approach to food and cuisine…from my safe distance in Europe. I too love limited selections..but quality. I know when I visited my friends in CT…a shop at the locas Stop&Shop was such a treat. My girlfriend just took her cart and did her shopping…and let me roam wide-eyed through the 10-15 aisles! I prefer the second book by P. Freedman.

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    1. I think you’d like American Cuisine a lot. There was a lot in it about that era of TV dinners too. When I lived abroad and just visited going to the grocery store was SO exciting, I couldn’t believe how much there was, but it quickly became overwhelming once I was here again. I guess I still don’t understand why they need 13 different suppliers of the same product like canned tomatoes with little to no variation of what it actually is. Why does it really benefit a store to purchase all that? On the other hand, I love having easy access to international foods, spices, ingredients, etc. It’s a trade off!

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  2. Your review has nudged me to decided what to choose as my ‘Christmas Cooking Project”…I’ve never made crispy latkes! Sounds like the perfect comfort food with a dollop of sour cream or apple sauce!! What’s on your ‘lockdown Christmas menu?”

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    1. Ooh I love latkes! My favorite recipe for them came from this book: https://whatsnonfiction.com/2019/03/11/family-stories-and-recipes-from-belarus-to-brooklyn/

      He uses a mix of farmer’s cheese with herbs in the middle of two thin potato latkes. They’re incredible! Maybe you can find the recipe online somewhere. They’re my favorite.

      I’m not sure what our Christmas menu will be! The plan at the moment is to travel to Vienna next week, spend Christmas there and then on to Berlin a few days after because my husband’s taking a job there for now! So the menus will all be up to him, he only has a couple of meals he regularly cooks for himself so I’ll make whatever he wants during the time I’m there. What are you planning to make for your project?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the link…I’ll have a look at it. Vienna next week, how wonderful! The citiy has incredibly beautiful Xmas lights…huge read ornamets hanging across the shopping streets! Do tell how the journey goes (health checks, filght, lovely little airport in Vienna….) Still searching for more cooking projects…but a huge pan of Creamy Potato Bake (my fav is Rachel Khoo’s Gratin Dauphinois from her cookbook The Little Paris Kitchen). I can freeze portions for later.

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      2. I don’t know The Little Paris Kitchen, I’ll have to investigate that one! The potato bake sounds like something my husband would love.

        I know, Vienna is beautiful at Christmastime. I tend to take it for granted a bit though because I did spend 7 years there. The same decorations and atmosphere year after year, you get a bit tired of it. Maybe after being away for a year it will seem magical to me again…we shall see!

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    1. Oh yay, I’m glad I could convince you! It was an excellent read and some really fantastic recipes. I need to through my notes again and see if I can recommend any others, I think I made a few of them.

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  3. Oke, I missed your year of reviews about food, cookbooks etc. Time to browse before I finish my Xmas grocery list! What’s the weather like in NYC….here it is a gray, cold Friday…I’ve many scented candles lit to give the room a Christmas-y cheer!

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    1. It’s really cold here and we had our first snow on Wednesday. But at least today is bright and sunny! I’m not looking forward to the gray Central European winter, I definitely don’t miss that. Everything in Vienna and Berlin just feels so GRAY this time of year!

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  4. I’ve been meaning to reread my old 1970s copies of the Trillin books for a while — your review might be the push I need to do it. I really enjoyed them at the time, when food writing of that type was far more unusual. I’ve been reading his New Yorker articles for a long time also — really a great comic writer! I loved his memoir of Alice and how much he loved her after she died.

    I read Freedman’s book “Ten Restaurants that Changed America” and thought it was terrible: I thought of it as “Ten restaurants that didn’t change America very much at all.” So I guess I wouldn’t be too interested in reading anything else by that author.

    be well… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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