North American food is at a dead end. There are of course those fancy restaurants that proclaim to be serving some qualified version of American food, and Yankees can’t get enough “Southern Food”, the type that doesn’t include giblets, brains or chitlins, but mostly it cannot be found.
A trimmed down, fatted up institutionalized version of it can be found in fast food restaurants and greasy spoon diners, roadside cafés, “family restaurants” ( the definition of which, to my knowledge, means no beer and crayons) and the often times sorrily misnomered roadhouse. In these sorts of establishments the food served, well you know what they serve, It all comes from a can, a box or a frozen bag. It leans heavily on the “deep fried” group of foods and it consists primarily of white bread, potatoes, meat, cheese and laboratory- formulated sugars and fats. The food is manufactured in truly stupendous quantities in factories that, to the untrained eye, look as if they could just as easily be manufacturing formaldehyde.
Nothing is actually prepared on site in these types of places, no one knows how to cook. Even hash browns and french fries are beyond their scope. Burger patties are generally made by a Patty-O-Matic (yes, there really is such a machine) in a slaughterhouse in Des Moines, frozen in stacks of ten, packed 10 to a box, 4 boxes to case, 12 cases to a palate and shipped to warehousers and distributors like Sysco and Food Services of America to be distributed among the quaint- looking and humble roadside diners of this country, big signs proclaim Home Cooking. Why bitch about this? This is old news. Everyone knows, many take for granted that any restaurant that exists in a rural area that does not have a daily menu, printed on linen paper, hanging in a well-lit wooden box topped with glass hanging outside of the door is crap. It helps if the menu proclaims European food, by which I most heartily mean Western European:Salade Nicoise, Rissoto con Funghi and cetera, because everyone also knows that, if North America could be said to have a cuisine, that cuisine is crap. I protest because I know that this is not the case.
How long has European- dominated America been around?, goes the familiar argument, not long enough to have developed a cuisine. We know, however, that although the myth that Catherine de Medici single-handedly brought cuisine to the French with her entourage of Italian cooks when she moved to the French court in the sixteenth century has been largely debunked, it is also true that the French still lived like barbarians before the sixteenth century. They didn’t even have knives and forks. What was European food anyway, before the discovery of the Americas? Italian food with no tomatoes, no peppers, no polenta, no winter squash? French food without turkey, without pomme frites, without vanilla, Spain without chocolate and cheap abundant sugar without alubias, chorizo or Tortilla de Patatas? These are not the European cuisines we know. Clearly, new cuisines have evolved in Europe since the discovery of the Americas.
It is, I admit, easier to admire the rural cuisine of say, Alsace than that of say, Clackamas county. In Alsace we went for a hike, arrived after the first leg of a long and brutally hot trek in a town called Hellert and went into the first restaurant we saw. We ordered Assiette de Charcuterie and Omelette Forrestiere as well as wine and Amer Biere. The Charcuterie was delicious, as well prepared as that in any of the fancy restaurants in Portland, The omelette was jaw dropping. Wild forest mushrooms and Gruyere folded inside of a perfectly cooked sheet of egg, seasoned perfectly. Mind you, we had bad food in Europe, but rarely in the countryside.
In contrast, we’re still trying to find a good meal near Estacada, We’ve tried the Carver Cafe, Fearless Brewing, The Trails and, The Hanger. The Trails approached edibility, but only by virtue of not making a mess of the fruit of the factory. Carver Cafe was so bad, and so cute, it inspired this little rant. The situation is the same no matter where you go.
Was this, I wondered staring deeply into my “chicken fried steak” with “white gravy”, what the owners of this little cafe envisioned when they opened or bought the place? That the chicken fried steak would be a frozen, deep fried patty topped with a milk gravy that tasted for all the world like dehydrated milk powder and xanthan gum. That the undercooked hashbrowns would come frozen and shredded in a bag, color preserved with ascorbic acid. Or did they slip into this slovenly lifestyle, little by little, like an oxycotin addiction? Did they come to believe, as I have heard the worst sorts of “chefs” proclaim, that their skills could never be any match for the wonders of the laboratory, filled with it’s highly educated scientists applying the principles of chemistry, the principles of laundry detergent and Zyklon B, to the gastronomic realm? Consistency is ensured by the clever machinations of the similarly credentialed engineers, lots of fuel ensures freshness.
You only have to beat your competition and if the competition serves the same thing then you only need a better brand, lower prices or nicer window- dressing. My inclination is that there is no competition. Nobody knows, or cares, how to really cook. The guy running the cafe may as well be running the gas station, or the mini mart because in his mind, he’s little more than a retailer. What happened to all the people who might be inclined to do a little better? Who might create something with the aim of making people happy, delighted or contented? They moved to the city and got jobs as “chefs”. You see it in restaurants all the time, small town kids who ache to throw off the chains of conventionalism and provincialism. Also, kids from places like Cincinnati, places whose very name smacks of insular conservatism. Becoming a “chef” in our society largely means forsaking your roots, assuming your roots are embedded in some decidedly non- sexy backwards terrain like the American plains, the Midwest or non- French Canada. You have to learn to embrace wine over beer (at least in your professional capacity ), Scotch over Bourbon and Foie Gras over Hot Dish or kraft dinner or whatever sort of embarrasingly pedestrian dinner you grew up eating. Isn’t all this changing? Sure, just not fast, deep or widespread enough to suit the likes of me.
Because to serve a great burger isn’t enough. Fried Catfish? You’re getting there. Barbeque spare ribs? Enough with those already. You have to go back pretty far to find American cuisine that is untainted by the grease of industry. Crisco was first used as food during World War I as a lard substitute because of food rationing. Velveeta, invented in the 1920’s. Artificial flavors, mid ninteenth century. In fact, one of my personal favorite books about Early 20th century American cooking, American Regional Cookery by Sheila Hibben was copyrighted in 1932, published in 1946 and begins thusly:
I say to people I am writing a cook book and they ask if it will tell how to make a cake with the new better-than-butter shortening and how to use all the latest dehydrated wonders and if there will be a set of rules showing the vitamin superiority of parsnips over nectarines… and when I am asked further if I think that this is right time to bring out a work unconcerned with the marvels which science has placed with such a flourish on our postwar plastic kitchen tables, I can speak up with a bold and certain yes.
When, a decade ago, I brought out the collection of traditional American recipes which forms the nucleus of this book, the regional cooking of the USA had been exploited neither by metropolitan gastronomes nor by harried writers in search of the picturesque.
Even with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
The concern is not that American cuisine will disappear, it has long been buried under a pile of individually quick frozen chicken wings, the concern is that it will be completely forgotten and that Americans will have to continue living like Hale’s “Man Without a Country” aimlessly drifting from port to culinary port with no food to call their own, nor anything to add to the international landscape.
American food is not, from my perspective, some exclusive, totally indigenous and unique cuisine. Risotto would not, by most standards, qualify as American but it has history in this country. Yet Hibbens gives a recipe for risotto “as prepared by the Italian housewives of rural California”. It’s prepared with saffron and mushrooms and is smothered in a giblet stew which is essentially gravy. And what’s more American than gravy?