Your Thanksgiving table may be smaller this year, but if it’s still full of pumpkin, corn pudding, turkey, and cranberry sauce, thanks to Native Americans – the food is authentic. But apple pie is international – the apples come from Kazakhstan and the pie part from England.
It is difficult to define what “American food” is, but many historians have tried it. Yale Professor Paul Freedman is one of them and published last year “American Cuisine and How It Can Be Like It.”
“The joy of eating America is its gift of salvation,” said Freedman. “… Despite the fact that things, you know, aren’t all good for you.”
Americans have gotten pretty passionate about food, as have many people in the world, but historians like Freedman say we actually have some major culinary traits that uniquely originate in America and we’re not talking about throwing it all into the fry. Fast food will always be a trademark of America, even though we eat less today, but we’re more than McDonald’s and cheese-in-cans and we’ve even exported some very American ways of eating. Yes, France. You’ve also learned a thing or two from us.
To understand what all our tastes have in common, let’s look at five major developments in the history of American eating habits.
1) Good old days when sugar is still healthy
Until the late 1800’s, people preferred to eat foods that filled them up. Milk, meat, grits, oatmeal and sugar are the staples – vegetables, not too much. Vitamins wouldn’t be fully appreciated until the 20th century.
“They don’t like spices because they think they cause indigestion and are a distraction from the actual diet,” said Freedman, who noted that spices were considered “the food of the poor.”
Historian Sarah Lohman says that it is not as subtle as it sounds. Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook, “The Wife of the Virginia House,” mentions chilies.
“It is really influenced by indigenous cultures and, in particular, by enslaved people who came from the Caribbean, by enslaved people who are of African or African descent,” Lohman said.
2) Food spreads across the country
In the 19th century, when New Englanders ate brown bread and chocolate filling, in the South there was pork, molasses, leafy greens, wok cornmeal, and cornbread.
Black chefs have a hand in our cooking from the very beginning. From South to North, their contribution is so ubiquitous that its significance has long been neglected.
One example is the ice cream story. James Hemmings, Enslaved chef Thomas Jefferson, traveled with his family to France, studied the art of making ice cream and brought it back to the US along with copper cookware, European-style mac ‘n’ cheese and french fries.
Historian Jessica Harris is principal curator for the exhibition “African / American: Making the Nation’s Table” at Food and Beverage Museum in New York City. He says other black chefs travel early with royals as they leave the South for summer homes in places like Newport. Then the Black Pullman operators moved west along the railroad tracks, bringing their families and the food they knew. After the Civil War, the Great Migration brought Black food around.
“It’s about looking at history, looking at culture, seeing all that stuff as science through binoculars,” Harris said. “And that’s a good spy because it’s one everyone shares.”
Then in the late 19th century, New England satiating, perhaps monochromatic, food came to the fore.
3) Pure joy of household economy class
Scientific ideas around food have always existed, but in the late 1800s, people began prioritizing the invisible components of food learning, such as how to avoid diseases like scabies, beriberi, and pellagra. Vegetables are slightly more important – even if they are cooked for a long time.
A woman’s kitchen is her laboratory and her cookbook is her study material. What is considered “nutrition” is very important, but women cannot learn to cook from Mother, nor do they want to.
“The idea is you shouldn’t do everything the way your mom did because it’s, first of all, boring,” says historian Laura Shapiro. who writes about women and food. “It’s really hard work and it’s not modern.”
Beginning in 1890, Fannie Farmer began turning delicious New England dishes into classy meals, even if that sometimes meant that your plate was all white or all brown. The textbook he wrote later became “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” and its popularity lasted for decades, until it was taken over by “The Joy of Cooking” in the 1930s.
Shapiro says Farmer’s writing is a bit dry but he’s having fun. Farmers invented ginger ale salad that freezes canned fruit with gelatin and soda.
His book came out just as the family moved further away from their base and spread across the country.
“You are a young bride and you have to cook in your new house and you don’t know how,” Shapiro said. “Once you learn, you can do all this wonderful cooking and your husband will be healthy and he won’t become an alcoholic.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on your meatloaf. Thankfully, Americans get help when we really don’t get it.
4) When we get what we don’t deserve
Immigration, migration and variation in manufacturing is where we begin to see America really starting to shape the eating habits that separate us from other nations. While every country in the world has immigration, in America it occurred on a large scale and very early on.
Historian Sarah Lohman spent years leading tours and classes on immigrant life for the New York City Tenement Museum and traveling to 12 different parts of the country for her book, “Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.”
“At the same time domestic science is becoming part of the American food landscape, it is also when we see an influx of large numbers of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, especially Jewish immigrants,” said Lohman.
Lohman said Eastern Europeans brought their love of sour food, Italians brought garlic. Their diet changed when it reached America, with Italians specifically choosing foods like olive oil and aged cheese. Back in Italy, this is an expensive export only, but in the United States the Italians can afford it and they use it freely.
That also applies to Chinese cuisine which continues to spread across the country as prejudice grows against the Chinese people. Kevin Kim is researching the history of Chinese people in the Deep South and is working on a project on continuing displacement of urban immigrant communities to Smithsonian Community Museum Anacostia.
“One of the contradictions and complexities is that Chinese food in that early period was characterized by exclusion,” Kim said. “It’s marked by racism, but at the same time there’s a hunger for something exotic yet familiar.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was intended to prevent Chinese workers who came to the US to find abundant jobs, but the Act contained exceptions. Merchants owning shops and grocery stores were freed and later, so were restaurant owners. The number of Chinese restaurants doubled from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century.
Kim explained that these restauranteurs brought their own Asian flavors and cooking methods but adapted it by growing or using local ingredients. Broccoli is not used in China but appears on Chinese menus here. Chinese chefs who live in African American and Caribbean neighborhoods add collard greens or fried chicken to their menu.
Another explosion occurred when immigration opened in 1965, bringing in people from different parts of Asia. As immigration began to melt into the American diet, more variety came as American manufacturing moved like warp speed into a new era.
5) With industrialization comes taste and more taste
Processed foods like cake mixes and powdered eggs existed before the great World War, but they reached new levels when the war ended. Innovations like canned and frozen foods that feed an army en masse are still being made lightning fast and manufacturers need to find new markets for them.
So the company focused their attention on the women at home. Grocery stores are game animals: Their products are labor intensive and most of them end up being thrown away, unlike those rows of canned tomatoes.
“The food industry wants you, to this day, to think that cooking is a tremendous drag and a burden on your time,” said Freedman. “Otherwise you’re going to buy potatoes and mash them and they don’t really make much money buying your potatoes. They make their money buying your instant mashed potatoes.”
Shapiro says producers created the idea that women are always busy, always running out of time. So they “created a world where every day, every meal is an emergency.”
“Don’t ever say that women welcome him,” said Shapiro, denouncing a picture of a happy woman in a quick mix ad. “It’s just bullshit. The women put up a massive fight. The food industry is stunned.”
Decades later when people started packing their schedules, the processed food was still around. But instead of that one can of tomatoes, you now have Italian-style canned tomatoes, Spanish-style canned tomatoes, and, even stranger, low-sodium canned tomatoes. Shouldn’t they be low in sodium? Who needs high sodium canned tomatoes?
“The variations come to mask the idea that everything is processed,” Freedman said. “This distracts from the fact that industrial foods lose some of their taste and freshness due to the fact that they are processed.”
American food as it is now
Now we eat so many, many things, both processed and fresh, familiar and exotic. We love them all as evidenced by the massive popularity of food television, food magazines, food museums and food exhibitions. It’s a worldwide phenomenon.
“Most people like to eat and like to get together to eat,” said Catherine Piccoli, Acting President of the Food and Beverage Museum. “But it’s also something that allows us to learn about each other.”
Freedman found through his research that in the mid-20th century, the variety of flavors in our supermarkets left visiting people from all over the world astonished. Today, that diversity is found everywhere, but historians argue that it started in America long ago. Americans have long wanted to try new things, both at the supermarket and when eating out.
“The hallmark of American cuisine is variety and variety, including joy,” says Freedman. “Americanization has come to the world, not by McDonald’s, but by eclecticism.”