Thursday, October 21, 2010

"American cuisine sucks" - when it all started

I have mentioned often that when I talk to my fellow countrymen, and I tell them how delicious the food is in Chicago, they look at me with a compassionate face. Like if I was a friend who used to be a great person, but who kind of lost it: you need to be nice to him in light of all the good times you had in the past, but boy, is he a hot-mess now.

The thing that I find the most funny though, is when this prejudice against American cuisine comes from cultures that have contributed NOTHING to good food, and that STILL claim that they do not understand how anyone would state that you can eat well in America. It is the case, for instance, of my Dutch friends (sorry, guys, you do suck in the kitchen), as Fabrizio said in this post (in Italian).

As I am trying to go deeper in my understanding of American cuisine, I am discovering that prejudices against it started very soon after the first pilgrims disembarked in New England in the XVII century. Already in 1765, while he was representing the colonies in London, Benjamin Franklin had to face the prejudices against American cuisine (which at the time was essentially two things: a simple, puritan English cuisine in the North, and a more luxurious, rich and elaborate English cuisine in the South, both of which with heavy influences from Native Americans recipes and local produces).

In a letter to the London Gazeteeer, Franklin responded to a journalist who had stated that in America it was not possible to have "an agreeable or easy digestible breakfast", because of the use of corn. Corn had in fact been soon adopted by the settlers as a substitute or complement to flour, so that many original English recipes had been transformed a little. As the contacts with Native Americans continued, the "locals" instructed the newcomers on how to eat the corn in many ways, so that within a century, corn was one of the main staples on the American table. One can only imagine the first time a European saw a Native American boiling a corn cob in a cauldron and then eat it with some grease on it...nothing in Europe was cooked - and eaten - as corn on the cob.

Franklin was crazy about corn. Not as Thomas Jefferson, maybe, that while in Paris, had planted corn in his garden because he couldn't stand not eating it. But he felt pretty strongly about it. In his letter to the paper, Franklin responds stiffly that the colonies offer food "as good as the world affords". And he continues:

"Pay let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world; that its green leaves roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succatash and nockehock [corn dishes] made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; and that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than Yorkshire muffin".(*)

I am no Benjamin Franklin. But I sometimes feel the same urge to respond with the same stiffness.

(*) The letter and a summary of the incident are told in American Food: The Gastronomic Story, a fantastic book I stumbled upon in a second hand bookshop a couple of weeks ago...
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2 comments:

via said...

I may have to read this book; great post. My grandparents farmed mostly corn, first in Chicago and then in the ‘burbs, and sold it, along with green beans and tomatoes, at the Maxwell Street Market. My dad now refuses to eat corn, ever. I love it, though.

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Thank you Via! I love corn, and I love the use you make of it here inthe States!

The book makes a very nice read: the first part is a history of American cuisine, and the second part is a list of traditional recipes. I have a 1990 edition. The first one is from 1975. I think they stopped publishing it, although you can find it at the links I put at the end of the post.

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