I wouldn’t say I have much of a sophisticated palate. I am not very conscious of herbs, spices, oils, and different flavorings when I cook. That being said I do not eat fast food (and haven’t in probably a decade), eat relatively little red meat, and generally don’t like junk food. I believe my culinary tastes are purely a reflection of the household I was raised in as well as my generally active lifestyle. Growing up my mom always managed to make a pretty diverse array of meals each day of the week. My brother was also a vegetarian and so I became accustomed to, and developed a taste for, foods that were not based around a piece of meat.
There is a ‘food crisis’ in America, many would argue. Depending on one’s views it is one or more of factors including obesity, the over-industrialization of food production, the blandness of American food, rising food prices, and the need for quick and convenient food. I tend to not blame agribusiness or consumerism for any of these problems. I recently purchased (long overdue) Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch for my iPhone (also available in physical text form). In addition to explaining contemporary American culinary tastes, Cowen goes through interesting personal narratives of food exploration, macro-food solutions, locavorism, eating environemtally friendly, and some valuable general rules for finding the best bang-for-your-buck in terms of food.
While the book is interesting throughout, what I find most interesting thus far is how he explains how American cuisine got to where it is today. Despite having more options than ever, American cuisine is generally boring. He doesn’t blame it on agribusiness or consumerism, though. He divides it into three main historical occurrences.
Cowen notes that Europeans used to come to America in the 19th century and marvel at how fresh and high-quality our food was. Not anymore, of course. So what happened?
- Prohibition – Making alcohol illegal had a significantly negative impact on American culinary tastes. For decades America couldn’t cook with wines like Europeans do. Eating fine food with alcohol no longer became a regular occurrence. Speakeasies weren’t interested in developing a fine culinary reputation. Similarly, drink tastes in America switched to more hard liquor than beer or wine in an order to binge drink quicker. This has had a long-lasting impact. Think of ‘quintessential’ American eating establishments – the diner, the candy shop, the soda shop. Diners are a reflection of eating entirely without alcohol. They also, with candy and soda shops, reflect that without alcohol we suddenly were switching our tastes to cater more to children’s. He elaborates on this more, showing how as a culture we are more willing to give our kids what they want (sugars, salts, etc) instead of what we want. Having lived in Britain for four years, I can confirm that diners don’t really exist. Cowen argues convincingly how this has negatively impacted most of America’s culinary tastes.
- World War II – we switched from better quality meats to SPAM. Even in a world war, we Americans don’t want to cut back on meat. So we developed a taste for a conveniently packed but terribly tasting meat. Further, more women went into the workforce. This meant less time in the kitchen and suddenly more convenient and less time-intensive food were demanded by American consumers. Why didn’t this happen in Europe, which was literally destroyed in some areas? We had the infrastructure to mass transport foods, whereas Europeans necessity needed to eat local and have things fresh. If you can’t ship and store, you’ve got to have what’s nearby. Ironically, European cuisine had more in the way of quality cuisine by having less.
- Immigration – immigration was essentially open for the first century and a half in America. We had ‘old world’ tastes and recipes being mixed with American ingredients and ideas. Food innovation, Cowen argues, was our greatest contribution to world food. In the 1920s and for several decades later, nationality quotas and other immigration restrictions outlawed this. Suddenly “ethnic” restaurants were run by second or third-generation immigrants with little memory of what their ethnicity’s cuisine was like in the old world. This made for a blander cuisine all around. Furthermore, xenophobia and the desire to be more “America” produced a homogenization of foods. Only recently has immigration picked up and this trended started to reverse. Most interestingly, Cowen notes that barbecue and Tex/Mex are America’s greatest original contribution to food. Because of the history of lax immigration enforcement of the Mexican border, the immigrant influence was still felt in Texas and the southwest, producing barbecue and Tex/Mex food. Being in Austin, and never really having had such delicious barbecue before, I agree wholeheartedly with him.
These points obviously have much more elaboration than I have provided here. Still, I think thinking about these three things and their effect on American cuisine is pretty interesting. American tastes are thus not the effect of dumb consumerism or agribusiness tricking us into eating high levels of saturated fats and high fructose corn syrup, but instead cultural and historical events. Check out Cowen interviewed on the EconTalk podcast and the Freakonomics podcast. Also, consider buying the book. It has been positively reviewed by pretty much everyone (NYT, USA Today, The Independent) and is a very easy read.