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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..."