Written by Olga Rizhevsky for MET ML 641, Anthropology of Food
When discussing ‘American Food’, it seems one of two main schools of thought is prevalent: either the clear understanding that burgers, pizza, and apple pie are emblematic of the country; or that we live in a nation with mixed cuisine from all over the world, and we create our own by borrowing from abroad. Extremists might argue there is no such thing as American food all together. Why did our cuisine become to hard to define, and is that a problem? A brief consideration of a few topics below further explores this inquiry.
For one, America as a country has long cultivated staple crops such as corn, soybeans, and cotton- plus a whole ton of cattle. Consolidation via industrialization of farming land and operations has increased the popularity of these foods, often at the expense of non-monoculture crops cultivated on small family farms; the biggest support of this phenomena has been through formal government subsidies. However, how often do you actually see someone consuming plain corn (whose authenticity is infact Mexican) or soybeans, perhaps in the form of tofu? The reality is that corn and soy are often ingredients in other foods, typically ones that have been processed, artificially sweetened, and would be considered ‘junk food’ by most. We are beginning to see label-conscious consumers strive to better understand what’s in their food, and many are going beyond to be educated on its origins.
Second, an emerging ‘foodie’ movement, particularly in urban areas including Boston, has lent itself to an overwhelming focus on foods that are interesting and picturesque- an attitude of discovery implying sophistication. To each their own with the definition of a foodie, but given its apparent over-use, it begs the question as to whether or not everyone is a foodie (in other words, a lover and/or consumer of food?). On this topic, in a 2014 NYT article, Mark Bittman challenges the term by advocating that it should pivot more toward those who are conscious in their food consumption, rather than just find joy in it; “it might be useful to sketch out what “caring about good food” means, and to try to move “foodie” to a place where it refers to someone who gets beyond fun to pay attention to how food is produced and the impact it has.”[i]
Third, the politics of food in the US leave consumers with much to ponder, which is constantly changing. A generally confusing climate in regard to policy, nutrition, and environmental implications is ever-growing. We are consumers and producers of foods that are internationally traded, at times when NAFTA and immigration-reform are heavily under scrutiny. We shift from loathing carbs, to fat, to sugar, at a time when obesity rates are on the rise. Perhaps conflicts within one’s ‘food identity’, compromising self-expression, are an extension of broader confusion regarding what is authentic American food.
Despite lack of consensus, building awareness regarding ‘what is American food’ is in itself enlightening. Consider the eateries that surround BU (Chinese, Thai, Indian) in the proximity of quintessential Fenway Park—or Quincy Market across the street from the North End. Also consider the cravings you have when seeking ‘ethnic’ food (perhaps another ambiguous term to define). Living in a nation so populated by immigrant traditions and influences, it surely is a challenge to identify with a single defining cuisine.
[i] Mark Bittman, “Rethinking the Word ‘Foodie’.” June 24, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/25/opinion/mark-bittman-rethinking-the-word-foodie.html