We were talking about food, as we often do. At one point, my friend, who was not born in the United States, said, "Well, there is no real American cuisine."
"Of course there is," I responded with some heat. But when I proceeded to attempt a definition, a short answer did not come easily. If it’s true that we are what we eat, then we Americans are a strange and contradictory bunch. Are we a fast-food nation, hell-bent on ingesting as many processed carbs, fats and chemicals as we can in as little time as possible? Judging from the proliferation of fast and convenience foods, the answer is yes—except when we’re crowing over 18 varieties of lettuce at the local farmers market, buying organic or chanting the mantra of "fresh, seasonal." Are we still a nation of steak and potatoes, as the recent comeback of the steakhouse might suggest? Yes again, though that doesn’t take into account our love affair with pasta, pizza and all comestibles Italian. Or our historic reliance on that most American of foods, corn (especially in the South; think daily fare like grits and cornbread, as well as spoonbread, hush puppies and ashcakes). Or our long-running romances with Chinese and Mexican food. Or our reverence for French cuisine. Or our more recent fascination with what the trend-watchers call the "emerging" cuisines brought to our shores by fast-growing immigrant Hispanic and Southeast Asian populations.
What is American food? How did it get to be so complicated? And where is it headed next?
Food writer David Rosengarten offers an answer to these questions in his most recent cookbook, It’s All American Food (Little, Brown and Company, 2003). The title sums up his thesis: The disparate elements that comprise the way we eat—the traditional foods, the convenience foods, the regional foods and the ethnic foods—all add up to American food. He agrees, however, that a simple definition can be elusive, first, because the U.S. is so large and contains such a variety of geographies and climates, and second, because of the very nature of our body politic—we’re a nation with no royal tradition.
"Before the age of quick communications, there was no strong central tradition in the U.S.," Rosengarten said in a recent interview. "There’s always centralization in a country where there’s royalty, but there was nothing like that in America." He contrasts the young American republic with the royal courts of France, Spain and Italy and the Imperial Court of China, each of which attracted the most talented cooks and the most tantalizing dishes from their respective hinterlands, and each of which evolved an "haute" food system that would eventually trickle back to the masses.
American cuisine remained, until recent times, a collection of distinct regional and ethnic cuisines. It originated, according to Rosengarten, from three sources: the foods of the Native Americans, the English colonists and their African slaves. By the end of the 19th century, later immigrants were adding their own food traditions to this foundation—particularly the Germans (with their burgers, wursts, noodles and potatoes), but also the Italians, the Chinese and countless others.
Rosengarten rejects the idea that these various ethnic contributions are not American food, and he dismisses the notion that they are merely watered-down imitations of the food of the immigrants’ homelands. They are American food, he contends, and when prepared with care, they’re worthy of the utmost respect. "The Italians who came here were not able to make Italian food," he said, explaining that the ingredients they found here were different from those of the Old Country. "They made adaptations. It’s not what you get in Italy, but it’s great food. All the good chefs [today] want to build ever-higher piles of radicchio anointed with balsamic vinegar. I want veal parmigiana, man!" So, too, of other immigrant groups’ adaptations. "We have to stop thinking of it as foreign food," he said. "It’s American food."
Peruvian-style Lingine with
What finally gave American food some cohesiveness was not royalty, but science and industry, according to Laura Shapiro, author of Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (Random House, 2001) and Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (Viking, 2004). "In the early years of this country," Shapiro said in a recent interview, American food "came from the earth. It came from the land and the sea and from the traditions people brought with them. People were cooking and eating by the seasons, by what they could afford, and…whatever they had grown up with." The Industrial Revolution changed that. In Perfection Salad, the former Newsweek food writer tells how, in the 19th and early 20th century, innovative processed foods such as baking powder, coupled with the then-new discipline of home economy, introduced consistency and "science" to American cookery. The transformation really took hold after World War II, when the food industry, aided by the food media, pushed for greater use of packaged and processed foods. She put it this way in Something from the Oven: "This cuisine was detached from the usual sources of culinary invention—the weather, the crops, the special occasions for feasting, the daily needs of home cooks." As she told me, "We took food out of the land," she said, "and we’re paying for it."
To be sure, the transformation was never complete. Shapiro writes that although the food industry tried its best to feed us a diet of packaged fare, American home cooks stubbornly clung to their fresh foods—embracing the from-scratch tenacity of Julia Child and later, the fresh-and-local credo of restaurateur Alice Waters, while simultaneously incorporating convenience foods into their menus. I asked Shapiro if our acceptance of convenience food wasn’t part of a larger aspect of the national character—the aspect that prizes efficiency, speed, and getting from point A to point B with as little fuss as possible.
She agreed. "It’s part of modernism," Shapiro said. "This sense of science and efficiency took over the kitchen."
"There’s no reason to be ashamed of convenience foods," said Rosengarten. "America does rely on convenience and processed food to a greater degree than other cultures. That’s part of the picture. There’s lousy convenience food out there that you wouldn’t want to embrace." But, he said, the best of the lot free us from drudgery while yielding some great meals.
Clark Wolf, a New York-based restaurant consultant and food trendwatcher, is quick to dismiss "mass-produced" foods that are making us "fatter and sicker." But, he says, "the rise in the farmers’ market—that’s a great thing, and it’s [happening] all over."
Wolf himself was present for the food community’s rediscovery of the treasures of the farmers’ market. As manager of the Oakville Grocery in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he sourced and sold many of the ingredients popularized by Waters and her culinary comrades-in-arms in the greater San Francisco area. It was a moment that many consider the beginning of the renaissance of American food, a movement that led not only to our rediscovery of the farmers’ market, but to countless other innovations in our food culture. "We were learning together," he said recently, recalling fondly the first sales of American goat cheese, of bringing arugula to California, and selling hand-gathered wild mushrooms side by side with black truffles from the Périgord. "We were in a crusade. There was a notion that it would have a great impact on our community."
Wolf and his friends proved to be right. The 1970s and ’80s marked a culinary turning point in many ways, not the least of which was the realization that American food—or any national cuisine—could be as sublime as French. Before that, it was taken for granted that French food was the greatest of all cuisines.
The assumption of the superiority of French food "goes back to Jefferson," Shapiro said, "and the French would tell you it goes back to God. It was not just a standard in this country; it was a bludgeon with which to assail other kinds of cooking."
This attitude hasn’t died; to some extent, it has gone underground. Much of the professional culinary training in this country is based on French technique, and another result of the food renaissance—an increase in the number of chefs who have attended culinary school—has ensured that French cooking methods will pervade the restaurant scene.
"For young chefs trained in cooking schools in the U.S. or Latin America, French techniques are preeminent," agreed Cuban émigré Maricel Presilla, a culinary historian, cookbook author and chef-owner of the pan-Latin restaurants Zafra and Cucharamama, both in Hoboken, New Jersey. "That’s the language of haute cuisine everywhere. Is it the right approach for a chef interested in fostering the cause of Latin cooking? Not necessarily. Traditional Latin cooking does not require reductions, chiseled vegetables nor the dexterity of a samurai when cutting ingredients. We grind them with a molcajete [mortar and pestle] or grate them with graters. In other words, Latin cooking has its own special techniques."
Mai Pham, who came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon and went on to become chef-owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, California, as well as a cookbook author and teacher, sees less reliance on French technique: "Chefs are traveling quite a lot; they see how food is handled in its home country."
Whether tinged with French technique or as authentic as possible on American soil, there’s little debate that the two big entries into the American kitchen in the near future will be Asian- and Latino-style food. The U.S. Census Bureau reported a 72 percent increase in the number of persons of Asian or Asian/ other origin and a 58 percent increase for persons of Hispanic origin between 1990 and 2000. In the same period, the U.S. population as a whole grew by just 13 percent.
The result of these population trends on the food we eat can’t be denied. "There’s a whole world of new foods and flavors that is coming in big time," said Presilla. "What I see is that things are changing in a place where it matters—in the supermarket. I see Asian stuff. I see [Latin ingredients like] yucca, queso blanco, Scotch bonnet peppers, in a place where I couldn’t even find avocado."
"It’s interesting for me as a chef," said Pham. "When I first came here there were two brands of rice. Now there are 24."
Hispanic and Asian cuisines are ideally suited to move more and more into the mainstream of American food, said both Presilla and Pham, because they are, in Pham’s words "exotic enough, but still familiar." In the case of Southeast Asian food, it resembles the more familiar Chinese food, and it offers plenty of comfort items like noodle soups, stir-fries and rice, lighter salads for the low-carb crowd, and yet lots of vibrancy and exoticism through the use of citrus, chilies, fish sauce and combinations of intense flavors, textures and temperatures. Latin foods, said Presilla, are as varied as the climate zones they span, but all are infused with an Iberian accent. "Always there is the overwhelming presence of Spain and Portugal," said Presilla. "It was a colonial empire. The basic grammar of the cuisine is the same."
Besides these two trends, where is American food headed? Rosengarten predicts a return to simpler styles of cooking. "We have reached the Roman Empire days of crazy food creativity," he said. "It won’t be long before someone will prepare a dish of thrush tongues. But I see chefs who say I’ve had enough foams, enough drizzles, I want a great roasted chicken."
Wolf, who is often consulted both by the trade and the media for his take on food trends, sees the table of the near future "covered with smaller plates—not miniatures, just smaller, more complex but casual, with livelier flavors. There’s a focus on ingredients brought mainstream—the kind of tomato and where it comes from. We’re exploring the foods of micro-regions. We’ve stopped being a melting pot. We’re a crossroads or a lab."
None of this makes for a quick or simple definition of American food. But, then, as Wolf said, "Food isn’t simple and doesn’t need to be. It can be easy, but not simple."
And as another American, Walt Whitman said, "I am large, I contain multitudes." I’d lay odds he was trying to figure out what to have for dinner.
Peruvian-Style Linguine with Stir-Fried Beef Tenderloin (Tallarín Saltado con Carne)
Adapted by Maricel Presilla, chef-owner, Zafra and Cucharamama, Hoboken, N.J.
Presilla calls her tallarín saltado a perfect example of culinary fusion. The pasta is any Italian-style ribbon or round long noodle, the beef is stir-fried and lightly salted with soy sauce in Chinese fashion, and the rest of the seasonings, including the fresh Andean pepper, are typical of Peru’s criollo cooking. The result is substantial and rich—serve it as a full meal or an appetizer. If you can’t find ají amarillo, use 2 jalapeños, any hot yellow pepper, or about 1 teaspoon ground cayenne.
For the pasta:
1 pound dried or homemade linguine or other Italian-style long noodle
For the lomo saltado:
1 pound beef tenderloin, trimmed and cut into Â¼-inch slices
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 tablespoons soy sauce
Â¼ cup corn oil or mild extra-virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 medium red onion (about 8 ounces), halved lengthwise and cut into Â½-inch slivers
1 bunch scallions, white part plus 3 inches green, cut at an angle in Â½-inch slices (about Â¾ cup)
1 fresh or frozen yellow Andean pepper (ají amarillo), thawed, stemmed, seeded and finely julienned
5 ripe medium plum tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and cut lengthwise into thick wedges
Â¼ cup dry red wine
1 cup beef broth, fresh or canned
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
To cook the pasta: Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Pour 5 quarts water into a large pot and add 2 to 21Â¼2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring, until opaque, about 10 minutes for dried pasta, 1 minute for fresh. Taste a strand for doneness. (Latins prefer pasta slightly softer than al dente.) When the pasta is done, quickly drain it in a colander, shaking well, and plunge it into the ice water. When it is well cooled, drain again in the colander, shaking to remove all water. Set aside, covered with plastic wrap.
To prepare the lomo saltado: Place the meat slices in a large bowl and toss with the black pepper, cumin and 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Heat the oil in a 12-inch sauté pan, wide pot or wok over high heat. Add the meat and stir-fry until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic and stir-fry until lightly golden in color, about 30 seconds. Add the onions and scallions and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the chili pepper and stir-fry 1 more minute. Remove the vegetables from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the tomato to the pan and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Increase the heat to medium high; return the meat and vegetables to the pan. Stir in the red wine, remaining 3 tablespoons soy sauce (or to taste) and beef broth. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.
To finish the dish: Add the cooked pasta to the beef mixture and toss gently until heated through, being careful not to break the strands. Just before serving, stir in the fresh cilantro. Serve immediately. Makes 6 main-course or 12 appetizer-size servings.
Drink Recommendations: Presilla suggests pairing this dish with a South American or Spanish red wine with soft tannins, such as Los Cardos 2003 Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. The fresh and lively berry-tinged Susana Balbo Crios 2003 Rosé de Malbec (Mendoza, Argentina) with its spicy cherry notes enhances the subtle heat of the Andean peppers. She also likes the complex Ben Marco 2002 Malbec from Mendoza, a more opulent counterpoint to the briny soy sauce with its chocolate and dark fruit punch. Or serve an ice-cold Peruvian Cuzqueña beer.
For more recipes from this month’s pairing issue, check out the November 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast.