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American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a National Cuisine

American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a National Cuisine

by Leslie Brenner

Winner of the 1999 Versailles World Cookbook Fair Award For Best Culinary History, English Language
In Leslie Brenner's "witty and sumptuous" look at the history of the American food revolution, an award-winning food writer traces a fascinating culinary heritage and looks to a promising future. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans feasted


Winner of the 1999 Versailles World Cookbook Fair Award For Best Culinary History, English Language
In Leslie Brenner's "witty and sumptuous" look at the history of the American food revolution, an award-winning food writer traces a fascinating culinary heritage and looks to a promising future. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans feasted on regional ingredients like Olympia oysters, fresh herbs, and wild fowl. Now the best American chefs are returning to those roots. How did we get here? From the Puritan diet to Prohibition, from Julia Child through waves of immigration in the 1960s, Brenner traces the evolution of a national cuisine in delicious detail. Highlighted by interviews with Ameria's leading culinary innovators, including Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Robert Mondavi—and aided by heaping dollops of wit and opinion—Brenner serves up a singular history of American cuisine that will be of deep interest to anyone who loves to eat well.

Editorial Reviews

Colman Andrews
A good, smart look at what's been going on in our markets, kitchens and dining rooms...informative, occasionally admonitory and thoroughly delicious.
Associated Press
Lots of food for thought...an award-winning food writer looks at what American cuisine is and what it may become.
Entertainment Weekly
A meticulously researched history of American food that details everything from the tenets of nouvelle cuisine to the cult of fresh-food guru Alice Waters.
Bon Appetit
Lively and informative and will certainly make you laugh...Brenner sees our food tastes in terms of historical or sociological perspective...interweaving the personal and anecdotal in her text.
...[D]evelops both the history of gourmet cooking in America...and a review of current [food-related] social trends....[C]ontains no recipes...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this intriguing, albeit somewhat haughty, culinary treatise, Brenner (1996 winner of the James Beard Award for journalism and the author of several books on wine and food) attempts to discern whether an American cuisine exists. Brenner observes that "Americans love big flavors. As a group, we tend not to have, shall we say, refined tastes," and from there she sets out to define what is American cuisine--mostly from a perspective of culinary sophistication--as evidenced in what is offered by grocery stores, restaurants and cookbooks. She gives a brief history of the American culinary evolution, from the clever and imaginative cooking methods of the Native Americans and Dutch (which were altered to suit the bland Puritan taste) to Thomas Jefferson's introduction of French foods to the era of industrial canning, which Brenner believes led to the demise of American gastronomy. In a chapter entitled "Xenophobes No More: The Foreign Influence," she lists the contributions that have been made by people from other countries, especially since the Immigration Act of 1965. A chapter on "chic" food informs that celery ruled in the 1860s, oranges gained prominence in the 1870s and vichyssoise came of age in the 1920s. In the end, Brenner states that American cuisine is "alive, it's vibrant, it's here--though it's only just starting to come into its own." Although her tone may irk readers not from New England or California ("In many cities and towns across America, the gastronomic revolution has yet to arrive"), Brenner offers a fascinating look into the history of America's cuisine. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Is there such as thing as an American cuisine? Brenner, author of Fear of Wine: An Introductory Guide to the Grape (LJ 10/1/95), attempts to answer that question in an intriguing, detailed look at the changes in American cooking and dining. After delving into Americas culinary history, from the effects of the Domestic Science movement to the origins of contemporary trends, including the celebrity chef, Brenner explores other forces that have influenced American cooking, such as immigrant cuisines and the connection between the growth of farmers markets and todays emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Lightly seasoned with personal anecdotes, American Appetite is filled with fascinating food facts as well as a soupon of information on culinary icons like Alice Waters and Julia Child. Recommended for large public libraries, academic libraries with cookery arts collections, or any library craving a generous serving of culinary wisdom.John Charles, Scottsdale P.L., AZ
Kirkus Reviews
A witty and sumptuous pantry-level look at the struggle to create an American cuisine. Brenner (The Art of the Cocktail Party, not reviewed) is no mere foodie but a solid cultural historian who attacks, with hilarity, early American hunting and gathering—that is, the long period before celebrity chefs, restaurants too good to get into, and the Food Network. Puritan antipathy to pleasure and an antiseptic fear of disease made icons of Campbell's soup, tasteless but convenient iceberg lettuce, and Crisco oil, Brenner writes. "The American housewife had been thoroughly persuaded, by this point [the 1950s] that cooking was a drag; new convenience foods offered a no-muss, no-fuss solution." The Los Angeles of the author's childhood was "a culinary wasteland" of shrink-wrapped meats in ketchup with perfect, flavorless fruits and vegetables, though the youthful Brenner found it "fun" to put chicken drumsticks in a lunchbag for Shake 'n' Bake or to indulge in the "vaguely chemical aftertaste" of Reddi-Whip. The first shot in the American culinary revolution, she asserts, was fired with the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, co-authored by Julia Child (later our first TV cook). The uprising took half a century to do in Betty Crocker, but the new taste for things French eased the nation's xenophobia regarding foreign foods. In the decades of border-crossing that followed, Americans tried Polynesian, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, and, after a while, any cuisine indecipherable enough to be exotic. Today, notes Brenner, chic food art, celebrity chefs, and trendy patrons are so important that we must wonder if people go to hot restaurants "to enjoy thefood or tell about it later." Does such media-mixing add up to a true American cuisine?, Brenner ringingly says yes, citing regional successes like California wines, Maine lobster, and Pacific Rim cooking. Even dieters will be unable to resist this gourmet repast on American culture. .

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

Several years ago, on a visit to Paris, my husband, who happens to be French, and I went into a bistro near Les Halles, one that I selected by virtue of its lace curtains and the look of the Belon oysters and briny sea snails on ice in front. We were seated at a small table by the window, speaking English together as usual. When the waiter came to take our order, my husband ordered in French. Poireaux à la vinaigrette, followed by confit de canard or something of that ilk. "Très bien, " said the waiter, scribbling the order, and turning to me: "Et pour madame . . . un hahm-beurgheur???" Such is the reputation today of the American palate.

That reputation wasn't slapped upon us unfairly, either: We earned it.

The New World started out as a land of bounty, bursting with glorious fruits of the sea-lobsters, salmon, crabs (sometimes a single crab was large enough to feed a family of four), sturgeon, abalone, oysters (including the now almost wiped-out West Coast Olympias), clams, terrapin-plentiful game and wild fowl (including turkeys), wild rice, beans, a wide variety of nuts, and fabulous fruits such as cherries, plums, grapes, and wild berries, including strawberries much superior to those in England. And of course corn. Yet somewhere along the way, around the end of the nineteenth century, we took a wrong turn.

The Native Americans ate well, especially on the coasts, and it wasn't only their ingredients that were wonderful; their clever cooking methods also went a long way to enhance them. Thus Native Americans roasted salmon on cedar planks in the Pacific Northwest and put together clambakes in the Northeast; theyused ashes to remove the outer husk of the corn kernel to make hominy; they pit-cooked beans in maple sugar to make what later became known as Boston baked beans; they roasted peanuts and grilled meats. According to Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont, authors of the classic tome Eating in America, once pigs were brought here from Europe, it was the Cherokees who invented one of America's finest contributions to gastronomy, Smithfield ham.

When the colonists came, they brought over the culinary proclivities of the English, including their sweet tooth and penchant for roast meats. They tried to plant English crops such as oats and peas, an endeavor that met with little success, so rather than starve, they were forced to learn the food ways of the Native Americans. After two years, the Puritans had come so far that they could afford to spurn clams, thinking them only fit for hog feed. Yet the Puritan faction that settled in New England was prevented by its faith from reveling in food, Thanksgiving notwithstanding.

Because of the Puritan influence, American food never attained the level in New England that it would in other parts of the fledgling union. Yet it may come as a surprise that Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin raved about a copious meal he enjoyed in Connecticut in 1794, including "a superb piece of corned beef, a stewed goose, a magnificent leg of mutton, a vast selection of vegetables, and at either end of the table, two huge jugs of cider so excellent I could have gone on drinking it forever."

In stark contrast to New England, Philadelphia boasted a rich food tradition; the colonists who settled there were not of Puritan stock. As the cultural and political heart of the colonies before the Revolution, Philadelphians enjoyed the best food of any American city. Epicureanism, and entertaining were fashionable, and the city's chefs had access to a wide variety of spices, imported condiments, wines, and exotic fruit, as well as the excellent ingredients indigenous to the area. In the surrounding countryside, the Pennsylvania Dutch ate quite well-unlike the Puritans, their religiosity didn't require self-denial when it came to food.

But high-quality colonial cooking came not only from professional cooks; colonial housewives were dedicated cooks as well. ". . . In the eighteenth century housewives were more daring and imaginative than they are in the twentieth," wrote Waverly Root in 1976. (Admittedly, many American housewives were, as a species, less than imaginative in 1976.) The current fashion for flavored vinegars is not original: It dates back to early American housewives. Not only did they make their own vinegar, but they infused it with horseradish, shallots, basil, tarragon-and yes, even raspberries.

The colonists, however, were so overly fond of sugar that it would eventually become a detriment to American cookery. In the mid-eighteenth century, the colonies were consuming the second greatest amount of sugar in the world (England beat them out). The colonists' sweet tooth wasn't limited to desserts, either; "savory" dishes that may have lacked in flavor were also sweetened up, an urge that presaged America's later love affair with ketchup.According to historian Harvey Levenstein, the result of the colonists' fondness for sugar "was a cuisine which, even excluding desserts, relied more on sweetness than did any other major cuisine in the world..."

Meet the Author

LESLIE BRENNER is the author of Fear of Wine and The Art of the Cocktail Party as well as the co-author of Essential Flavors. Recipient of a 1996 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Magazine Feature Writing, she has pursued a lifelong interest in food and wine. A member of Culinary Historians of New York, Leslie is also a lecturer in Culinary History at The New School in New York City. She has written on a wide variety of subjects; in addition to gastronomy, she has published articles on politics, immigration, psychology, literature, sexuality, medicine, business, and women's issues for publications including Harper's and The New York Times. In 1998 Leslie published a novel in France; she is presently at work on her next epicurean book project, forthcoming from Avon Books.

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