Jan 212010
Not a question today, but just a reminder for my American audience.
Regularly on this blog, the question of food arises, and I say that American food is terrible, one of the worst in the world, and some people say that:
-American cuisine can be good.
-One can find good products in the US.
Can American cuisine be good?
Yes it can. But it’s more the exception than the rule. All in all, American cuisine is not good, and won’t be good for another few centuries, if it ever does. There are very simple reasons for that:
-Cuisine doesn’t appear magically, it evolves like everything else. All the countries that have good cuisine do so for a few reasons: they have very old cultures and traditions and often they also are in regions where a wide variety of foods can grow (that’s for the varied ones, but pretty much every old culture has good food, even if not too varied).
-There’s a certain eating tradition for those countries. Food is important. Not just for a few individuals or “foodies” or whatever you want to call them, but for most or all of the population. Spend some time with a French, an Italian, a Vietnamese or a Japanese, and you’ll see that they think about food as much as some Americans think about sex or money. For many cultures, eating is not just feeding oneself, it’s an activity in itself, a social experience, an important part of the day.
The way that most Americans eat is simply unthinkable for people from many other countries. And I’m not talking only about junk food, but things like at night, the family not eating together around a table and things like that.
Also, having a food culture is having an education about foods and tastes, it’s knowing different tastes and flavors, it’s being curious about new ones and these things. It’s not thinking that “it tastes like chicken” when one eats a new meat, simply because one knows only two meat flavors “beef” and “chicken” and as American chicken is quite tasteless. For me this expression is complete nonsense, as I know different tastes for chicken depending on many factors (different parts of the chicken, different types of chicken, different dishes including chicken, etc.)
It’s not asking “what’s in it?” and freak out and refuse to try it if it contains something unknown, strange, unusual, weird.
See what I mean?
Products now.
Yes, one can find good products in the US… In some parts of the country, in some special stores, if one knows where to look. And that’s an argument I get over and over again when the issue is discussed. Except that it’s totally missing the point.
In a country that cares about food, not only “one can find good products” but one will find good products by default. Except for a few exceptions, one just needs to go to any random grocery store and they will find good products. Not only fresh products, but also good quality dried/canned/prepared foods.
I’ll end by two things (because I could go on and on, but it’s lunchtime and I’m hungry):
Why is food so crappy in the US? It’s not only because of the lack of “cuisine history” but also because of the usual greed that rules the country to the point that profit is everything and above common sense or even health (or even the future of the planet and humankind, but that’s for another topic).
A few reminders about poultry, beef, and even vegetables for you vegetarians (and I’m not even mentioning GMOs).
Finally, not everything is perfect in France, greed is taking over more and more, big corporations and their lobbyists are attacking food regulations more and more, and crappy food is more and more common in France, especially in Paris which doesn’t have local food, and usual the poorer populations are the ones affected first (because the crappier the cheaper, the better the more expensive)

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  18 Responses to “The Food Issue”

  1. I'll be the first to admit that the quality of our food at large is less than great (to put it mildly). But I have to disagree that our food is not evolved into a cuisine. The reason for that is that we are such a diverse country, that many of our "home countries" cuisines are adopted into our own families. Having traditional Polish meals is very much a part of my family - which makes it American cuisine…and there are countless family who do the same thing. It may not have begun here, but cuisine like that is not only evolved, but REAL American cuisine. We're more than McDonald's and Oreos

  2. Oh come off it. In this post you do exactly what you warn your readers time and again not to do- lump an entire nationality into one pile as if there's no difference between one person and the next.

    Saying good American cuisine is the exception and not the rule does not exempt you from the fact that the rest of this is crude generalization, at best.

  3. I was born and raised in the US and couldn't agree with you more. In general, people don't pay the kind of attention to food that they pay to other things. You can see it when you eat out; you cannot tell from a person's facial expression if they food is pleasing them or not. There is usually no conversation at all about the food they are eating. My husband and I have had some of the most pleasant experiences with French and Italian waiters and restaurant owners because of our attention to the meals we have enjoyed in their establishments. I'm very much looking forward to my first trip to France to see firsthand what you write about.

  4. Let me preface by saying I am an American who has lived many years in various countries (including a year in France).
    As you pointed out, greed has made our meat & vegetables tasteless. Factory farming is commonplace. Already weak soil is doused in chemicals. Until Americans begin to value good, chemical free food, it will stay that way. It is price, not quality, that rules the decision of 95% of the population.
    Want good american food? Stick to burgers & BBQ (in independent restaurants & stores, not the chains).

  5. Jess, having Polish dishes prepared in America by a Polish-American family doesn't make it American. Imports exist in national cuisines (yes, nowadays, one can consider bagels as American, and couscous has more-or-less become a French dish), but they need to be widespread and regularly consumed and prepared by people not from that origin to call it of that nationality.

    And your country is really not that diverse when it comes to cuisine, regional dishes are very rare and rarely interesting (Southern cuisine: take food, any food, deep-fry it, you got Southern cuisine).

    Once again, it's normal, there may be an American cuisine in a few Centuries, or not (because of the "not care that much about food" thing).

    I'm talking about national things here, not about people. Of course, you'll always find individuals that do this or that, but the very fact that Americans in their vast majority is telling.
    If you want to blame me for generalizing, you may have chosen the wrong entry. Also, generalization doesn't mean "totalization".

    Di, I couldn't agree with you more…

    Kelly, nothing to add about your comment, thanks for making it.

  6. "Imports exist in national cuisines (yes, nowadays, one can consider bagels as American, and couscous has more-or-less become a French dish), but they need to be widespread and regularly consumed and prepared by people not from that origin to call it of that nationality.

    And your country is really not that diverse when it comes to cuisine, regional dishes are very rare and rarely interesting "

    I disagree. Foreign import foods have become regional cuisines. Case in point, Polish food. I live in the rust belt US, a huge amount of Polish immigrants live here. You find that Polish food in this area (spanning from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Upstate New York) is extremely common and readily available even in prepackaged form to families not of Polish origin: Kapusta, Perogi, Keilbasa. You find these things in supermarket freezer sections they are so common….that is region AND adopted American cuisine.

    And also, southern soul food isn't just about deep frying everything but the kitchen sink (though I know lots of southern cooking is), it is about slaves using food that had been previously discarded and turning it into a hot meal. And I don't think it's tasteless by any stretch…many times, it's quite spicy, in fact.

  7. Since I've been in Paris, I've been rather disappointed with the quality and variety of the food served in restaurants. Nothing horrible just pretty ordinary. I was expecting some sort of culinary revelation before arriving. Was this naive? Probably. Of course, I don't necessarily have the budget to hit Michelin's 3star recommendations and maybe that is my problem. I'm thinking maybe this is different when you go to someone's house. Maybe they go all out. But they don't invite me so I don't know! What I love about Food in the US or even in Canada for that matter is the variety. The variety of items and types of cuisines. So while he original american cuisine might not be top 10 material, their ability to churn out world class restaurants of other types of cuisines is probably second to none. You also can eat pretty well in my hometown of Montreal. Give it a try if ever you're in the area!

  8. Ever had a fish boil in Door County, Wisconsin? Gone to a clam bake in New England? Eaten at a great Tex Mex place in Texas or New Mexico? Gone to a crab shack in Baltimore and washed those Old Bay seasoned crabs down with Natty Bo? Had the three vegetable plate and hot biscuits at Mary Mac's Tea Room in Atlanta? Deep dish pizza in New Haven? Fabulous American regional food exists. The locals know where it is. Just like in other places in the world.

  9. Too true. Food quality and accessibility in the US is increasingly a public health issue Americans need to be educated on. Too many people wish to be removed from how their food gets to their plate. When you read about the travesties that are occurring in the food industry, it's overwhelming. It's no wonder the food industry is able to manipulate food laws and the food itself, when people would rather believe their steak came from the cooler than a cow.

    Know what's in your food, where it came from, and how it got to your plate. You vote with your dollar every time you go to the grocery store.

  10. -Jess: the problem with Polish food as a regional food in the Midwest is that… it's only in the Midwest apparently (never heard of it before your comment), and… you still call it Polish. See what I mean.

    Same thing goes for Anne's comment. Yes there are local foods, but as you say, one can find them locally.

    The point I'm trying to make is that it's not comparable to regional foods in countries with a real food culture and history.
    In France, one can find good real choucroute out of Alsace, and every French person know what it is, same thing for Cassoulet, Magret, Piperade and the list goes on.
    Same thing goes for every country. Do you know what region of Spain paella's from? Me neither, because one can find it everywhere in Spain, despite the fact that it has one specific geographical origin. Same thing for Tonkatsu in Japan or Mafé in West Africa, etc.

    Can I find good New England clam chowder not in New England? Or good Chesapeake Bay Crab away from Chesapeake Bay? No.
    Personally, I think that Tex-Mex is one of the least interesting food I have ever tried. But guess what, I've never been to Texas or New Mexico. Maybe it's awesome over there, I don't know, in the rest of the world, it's not worth talking about it.

    I'm not saying that in the future -if all Americans didn't die from consuming all of those GMOs- the US won't develop some real regional foods (known and regularly eaten all over the country), but the only two ones that made it so far: Tex-Mex and Southern show that even if such foods exist, the problem of "no food culture" still exists.
    Yes, Southern food has a history, an interesting one, but (maybe because of that history) it doesn't qualify as good food Nowadays, can we even consider "deep fry any piece of edible food you find" as cuisine? (and if it is not just that, I'd like to know what else it is, cause for 5 years in the South, that's pretty much the only thing I saw for local cuisine).

    The more I try to explain the topic, the more I see why some people have a hard time understanding what I mean (the fact that I'm having a hard time explaining it can be part of the problem too), because I think that's not something you can really explain, one has to experience it, almost grow up in it (but I know a few Americans that do: usually they live abroad and/or are quite multicultural themselves).

    Oh well…

    -Quebecparis: Yes, Paris doesn't have great food generally speaking. That doesn't mean you cannot find any, you just need to actually look for it (hint: touristy places, trendy places and most brasseries are not where you'll find it).

    -Summer: That's what happen when on lives in a world where money comes first, even before food and health.

  11. If you were to separate "Cuisine" from "dining", I personally believe that the US got it licked.

    While I could agree with you on dining at someone's home in the US may be a sub par experience because a certain lack of "cuisine", I have had some extraordinary meals in the US while living there for 7 years on a (very) generous expense account.

    This may miss your point about "american Cuisine" completely, but there are GREAT FOOD EXPERIENCES all over the US.

    Keep in mind America is a very young melting pot and just like with other industries, it will catch up with the rest of the world faster than you can say

    American chefs are well known (and rewarded for it) to take old world food and make it their own. Sometimes a miss, but more than not, a hit!

    -Roadside BBQ in lafayett Lousiana beats any sausage stand in Vienna.

    -Wolfgang Puck's (1980's) Salmon Pizza with Caviar has excited more people than any Torta in Napoli.

    -Chipotle's, a Mexican fast food concept (for a while owned & nurtured by McDoonald's), turns out better Barbacoa than anyone.

    -Many French chefs have made a go of it in the States, maybe because the Americans are such an appreciative dining audience?

    I am from Europe and I miss Europe. Maybe even return one day. But not all is bad in American cuisine.
    AT ALL.

  12. Well, I don't separate them, I don't think "cuisine" the way you define it is not representative of the food culture of a country. By that I mean that you define "cuisine" as some sort of art (which it can be) and as such, it's a different thing from the general eating and cooking habits of a culture in general.

    And yes, one can always find examples and counter-examples, an example (or counter-example) can never make a rule (especially if you mention French chefs to talk about American cuisine -and by the way American cuisine is different from cuisine in America).

    I think we're (ok, "I'm") going to interrupt the debate here, I don't think we can advance it any further without repeating the same things over and over again (you can try, but I don't promise to publish your attempt).

    Especially because this entry is more about the US (and a general response to some comments here and there on this blog) than about France, and the time I spend responding to the comments is time I don't spend answering more questions (and my backlog is not getting any shorter)

  13. Well put. Completely true. Quality costs tons of money in the U.S. Everything else is simply not of high quality, merely acceptable if not bad. Also, most people have no clue what qualtiy cuisine means. (it's more of a bubble than many people might realize, even when American's travel, they don't really leave the U.S. in their heads) However, the U.S. does have one thing that not many other countries can compete with, even in cuisine: it can be completely random. I've had fresh oysters and cheetos in the same meal beofre. Often based on ignorance & a huge collection of cultures in one place, this can and has lead to brand new ideas. Rock and Roll for instance. I wouldn't doubt that entirely new cuisine will come from the U.S. at some point due to this. It will then by refined by another more sophisticated country and we will make a plastic bag version of it.

  14. I'd just like to contribute a few quick thoughts on this topic. I am an Australian and we are much more fortunate than the Americans in terms of our ability to obtain fresh produce and dine at quality restaurants. Farmers' Markets proliferate in parts of the country and there is still greater diversity in the food market though we fall a long, long way short of France's standard and have not yet learned to really appreciate food that is so central to French culture.

    However, like the Americans, we are yet to develop a cuisine of our own. We have certainly incorporated many different ethnic cuisines as each wave of immigrants to this country brings their own ingredients and cooking ideas but there is no truly unique Australian cuisine.

    I think the difference is that, as a young country, we never had an era of peasantry, in which the poor had to make do with whatever ingredients were locally available and thus were able to create unique dishes out of *necessity* and a degree of ingenuity which would later form the basis for the more elaborate cuisines of today.

    Instead, we are now very trying to *deliberately* create a cuisine by blending ideas from different cultures but this effort is so self-conscious that it will not arise naturally in the way that the great cuisines of France and other parts of the world have done.

  15. Thanks for your input Larry, very good analysis, it's a good change from "no, we have cuisine" and then no way to back it up, except for a couple of examples (why so many people think an example makes a rule is a mystery to me).

    And yes, it was so obvious to me that I had never thought about it, but France and all of the countries in the world that have a real cuisine share one thing that new countries don't have: from prehistory until the 19th Century for Europe and even the 20th for other regions of the world, up to 90% of the population were farmers that grew their own food and they had 10,000 years or more to develop way of preparing it.

  16. I'm an American, have lived half my adult life in France, my career is in food so I'm pretty tuned in to Franco-American food issues.

    I'm disappointed that the American food products which are widely available in France are not very good, they are often of very low quality, mere shadows of what one gets stateside. Unexplicably, only the most basic products and lowest-common-denominator brands are imported. Possibly OK American-style meals are available in Paris restaurants (let's not even discuss fast food). The Mexican and Tex-Mex meals I've been offered in France are in general abominable. (Indian food even worse.)

    There is excellent food available in the US, in restaurants and in private homes, tho as you say a cohesive and real culture of food is thin on the ground, the inroads of The Food Network, Slow Food, farmers' markets and CSA boxes notwithstanding. There's interest in food in the US…but I wouldn't say there's a distinctive US cuisine. Everthing in the US in every domain is reduced to a business, industrialized products are constantly being promoted, and the pleasures of the table are compromised at every turn.

    That said, the variety of food available in the US is impressive, in terms of fresh produce as well as ethnic cuisine. In the US there's far less "watering down" of distinctive global cuisines than you see in French restaurants serving foreign specialties, where the basket of baguette pieces and wine list is omnipresent whatever the ethnicity of the cuisine at hand.

    But overall, I'd say real French food in France is consistently about the best you can get on planet earth, and I adore all the peripheral touches that make life here so sincerely belle. French people respect, honor and enjoy all aspects of food, its preparation and presentation, whereas the typical American just wants to "grab something quick" and it's all about convenience. To make matters worse, Big Food Agri-Business in the US has got the population addicted to prepared food of a pretty sad quality. Those popular cooking shows on tv are often no more than "dump and stir" presented by a vacuous celebrity.

    In my mind, it's not only the culinary traditions — or lack thereof — that makes the difference, but it's perhaps more importantly the attitude with which food is approached that highlights the contrast.

  17. I am surprised that no one pointed out that Native Americans had, and continue to have, a delicious cuisine. I live in central NY and have enjoyed venison, fish, and roasted squashes, corn and stewed beans. Sure, those foods can be prepared in many cuisines from all over the world, but there are traditional ways that have been practiced here for hundreds if not thousands of years.

    • Well, I’m not sure one can qualify Native American cuisine as “American cuisine” as it concerns less than one percent of the population and I’m sure that among Natives only a handful still eat traditional cuisine.

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