AMERICA'S DYSFUNCTIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOOD FOOD
"Hogs are in the highest perfection, from two and a half to four years old, and make the best bacon, when they do not weigh more than one hundred and fifty or sixty at farthest: They should be fed with corn, six weeks, at least, before they are killed . . . "
--prepping instructions for curing bacon, The Virginia House-wife, Mary Randolph, 1824
SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM / Hormel's new miracle meat in a can / Tastes fine, saves time / If you want something grand / Ask for SPAM!
--radio jingle for Spam, sung to the tune of "My Bonnie," 1937
"In the beginning, there was Beard," Julia Child famously said, in a characteristic display of generosity. But precisely what Beard began bears some explaining. Though she's among the foremost of Beard's protégés, the cookbook author Barbara Kafka can't contain her exasperation at the received wisdom that there were no good meals to be had in America until her mentor reared his enormous head. "It's like there was no food in this fucking city, or this country, until this miraculous apparition came along!" she says. "Or there was no cooking at home until Julia. Don't tell me this kind of nonsense! I think that Le Chambord,* which I went to as a child, was probably the best French restaurant that New York has ever seen and will ever see. And in the West Forties, way over, there were bistros lined up and down. Guys got off the ships right opposite the biggest harbor, practically, in the world--off the Normandie and the Ile de France. And they were French guys."
So, yes, it is wrongheaded to presume that Americans did not eat well until the Big Three became big. The very first American cookbook, American Cookery, written by a Connecticut woman named Amelia Simmons and published in 1796,* demonstrates that there were both cooks and eaters in those days who appreciated fine ingredients and flavorful food. American Cookery is considered the "first" American cookbook because, though several cookbooks had been published before it in the colonies and the young republic, they were adaptations or reprints of European cookbooks, mostly British. Simmons's book, on the other hand, was expressly aimed at born-and-bred Americans who used ingredients not available in Europe, such as the "pompkins" she used in a "pudding" recipe that differed very little from our current ones for Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Her "Indian Slapjack," a cornmeal pancake of the sort now found on the menus of upscale Santa Fe bruncheries, would have gone very nicely with her "Beft bacon" (printers had not yet sorted out their use of f's and ornamental s's), which, in a manner that would excite today's aficionados of artisanal foodstuffs, was cured in molasses, sea salt, and saltpeter for six to eight weeks and then smoked over corncobs.
Further evidence of a culinarily attuned America comes in the most celebrated cookbook of the nineteenth century, The Virginia House-wife, by Mary Randolph, a pillar of late-eighteenth-century Richmond society (her brother was married to Thomas Jefferson's daughter), who, after her husband experienced some reversals of fortune, ran a boardinghouse and collected her recipes into a book, published in 1824. Not only was The Virginia House-wife a work of astonishing breadth and worldliness--Mrs. Randolph knew how to cook everything from the expected Ye Olde dishes like roast goose and Indian-meal pudding to seemingly very contemporary offerings like polenta and ropa vieja (Cuban- or Spanish-style shredded beef)--but her respectful use of vegetables was downright Alice Waters-ish. Randolph cautioned against overcooking asparagus, and advised that a perfect salad should have "lettuce, pepper grass, chervil, cress &c.," which "should be gathered early in the morning, nicely picked," and served with a lovely tarragon vinaigrette.
President Jefferson was himself quite the epicure and procurer of exotic foodstuffs, importing seeds from Europe to plant in his garden and cultivating Mediterranean fig, olive, and almond trees at Monticello. In his personal "Garden Book," he kept records of what produce was available at Washington's vegetable market during the years of his presidency, 1801 to 1809, and the sheer variety sounds much like what a latter-day foodie might gush over at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on a bountiful summer day: sorrel, broccoli, strawberries, peas, salsify, raspberries, Windsor beans, currants, endive, parsnips, tomatoes, melons, cresses.
All this said, not for nothing is the United States known as a meat-and-potatoes kind of place. In the early years of the republic, it wasn't uncommon for Americans to have beefsteak not only for dinner, which was consumed at midday, but for breakfast--a habit only exacerbated as the country expanded westward, opening more land for ranching. Foreign visitors to the United States in the nineteenth century routinely expressed their shock at the huge, meaty smorgasbords set out on groaning boards in the public rooms of hotels at all hours of the day, not to mention the joyless, gluttonous dispatch with which the natives went about the business of eating. Charles Dickens declared that Americans ate "piles of indigestible matter." Thomas Hamilton, another Englishman, wrote an account of his journey to the United States in 1833 called Men and Manners in America, in which he observed, "In my neighborhood there was no conversation. Each individual seemed to his food down his gullet, without the smallest attention to the wants of his neighbor." The food in these places wasn't of high quality, either, with vegetables boiled to a fare-thee-well and starchy potatoes and puddings served in great quantities. The Canadian historian Harvey Levenstein, in a droll study of early-American dietary habits called Revolution at the Table, notes that "the enormous amounts of meat and starch and the short shrift given to fresh fruits and vegetables made constipation the national curse of the first four or five decades of the nineteenth century in America."
It's hard to square this bleak picture with the Edenic one painted by Mary Randolph and Thomas Jefferson, and, indeed, the feisty old culinary historian Karen Hess, who edited and wrote the introduction to the facsimile of the first edition of The Virginia House-wife, dismisses the work of Levenstein, her rival, as that of a "stupid idiot." (As she points out, the Randolph cookbook alone presents clear evidence to refute Levenstein's assertion that in the nineteenth century "herbs were used mainly for medicinal rather than culinary purposes" in America.) Still, it's possible for an unbiased observer to use Hess's and Levenstein's works complementarily and draw the conclusion that while the United States had some terrific cooks, cornucopian markets, and an abundance of wonderful homespun culinary traditions, it also had some serious food issues. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, spent several years in France as a U.S. consul, living in Lyons, the nation's gastronomic capital. Upon his return home in 1833, he recorded his horror at the state of American food, calling his fellow Americans "the grossest feeders of any civilized nation ever known," a culinarily clueless people who subsisted on a diet of "heavy, coarse, and indigestible" fare. The chasm between French and American food was all the more appalling to Cooper because he grew up wealthy in the woodsy hinterlands of upstate New York, where all manner of wild game roamed and edible plants grew, and knew that his country could do better.
But the United States, a country wary of elitism and susceptible to populist, xenophobic demagogues, would always have mixed feelings about taking culinary cues from the French. Long before the age of "freedom fries" and the efforts by an adviser to George W. Bush to damage John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign by saying the Massachusetts senator "looks French," the advisers to the Whig presidential candidate of 1840, William Henry Harrison, tried to smear the Democratic incumbent, Martin Van Buren, as a fey monarchist aristocrat--on the evidence that he drank champagne and had hired a Frenchman to be White House chef. The scrappy old soldier Harrison, on the other hand, subsisted on "hard cider" and "raw beef and salt," and won the election.*
Whether it was a matter of this country's Puritan origins, its early inheritance of British culinary stodginess, or just a general don't-tread-on-me stubbornness, America would always have a dysfunctional relationship with the idea of culinary sophistication. A strain of the Harrison campaign's plainspoken beefy populism persists to this day: in 2004, the CEO of the fast-food chain Hardee's, Andrew Puzder, touted the company's Monster Thickburger--a 1,420-calorie sandwich composed of two one-third-pound beef patties, three slices of cheese, and four strips of bacon on a buttered, mayonnaise-spread bun--as "not a burger for tree-huggers." (Many of whom, presumably, look French.) Similarly, the thickset founder of the Wendy's chain, Dave Thomas, did a commercial in the nineties in which he addressed a grateful roomful of 300-pounders who called themselves the "Big Eaters Club." In another spot, Thomas portrayed himself as being trapped at a pretentious cocktail party where a mincing waiter offered him a dainty, absurd-looking hors d'oeuvre and said, "Crab puff, sir?" Cut to a shot of a relieved Dave back at Wendy's, sinking his teeth into an enormo-burger.*
On the other end of the spectrum were those who shied away from fancy feeding for ascetic or religious reasons. Many preachers, such as the Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham (1795-1851), inventor of the graham cracker, inveighed against spicy and heavily seasoned foods because of their supposed aphrodisiacal qualities. (Despite this, Graham was later embraced as a hero by sex-mad 1960s hippies for his advocacy of vegetarianism and early opposition to refined white flour, which, he sensibly argued, had less flavor and nutritional value than whole wheat flour.) Even when the robber barons of the Gilded Age did embrace the sophistication of French cuisine in all its glory, hiring French chefs for their New York mansions and Newport cottages, they were countered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by quack food faddists who were suspicious of pleasurable eating. Among the most famous was Horace Fletcher (1849-1919), a retired businessman with no scientific background who developed a huge following by advocating that all food be "thoroughly masticated"--chewed and chewed and chewed until it became flavorless and involuntarily shushed its way down the esophagus, thereby aiding the digestive system. (In fact, the probable health benefit from Fletcherizing, as this chewing process came to be known, was that it took so long that it made overeaters eat less than they would have otherwise.)
Marginally more credible was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), who, in addition to developing a breakfast-cereal empire with his brother, Will, ran a "health resort" in Battle Creek, Michigan. Though he later rescinded his 1902 endorsement of Fletcherizing, Kellogg had his own peculiar thoughts on food, arguing that eating meat encouraged masturbation (a bad thing) and urging his guests to take yogurt enemas, the concept being that the active cultures in the yogurt would provide healing benefits to bowel walls aggravated by a lifetime's worth of steak-eating and boozing.*
In a sense, the home economists and food-company executives who held sway over the women's pages at the time of Beard's move to New York were quacks in their own right. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, and as the United States grew more industrialized and urbanized, the sensualism and agrarian seasonality of home cooking gave way to the rise of processed foods and rigorous, supposedly scientific methodologies in the kitchen.* Even Fannie Merritt Farmer, whose 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook is still considered a lodestar of honest American home cookery (and was renamed for her in subsequent editions), was a humorless home-ec lady, inordinately obsessed with couching her instructions in laboratory-speak. The first edition of The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook kicked off with, "Food is anything that nourishes the body. Thirteen elements enter into the composition of the body: oxygen, 62 1/2%; carbon, 21 1/2 %; hydrogen, 10%; nitrogen, 3%; calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, iron, and fluorine the remaining 3%"--not exactly a mouthwatering lead-in. Farmer also expressed her hope that the day would come when "mankind will eat to live," the implication clear that doing the opposite--living to eat--was reprehensible. On and on she went in this dour, lab-coated way, defining ingredients in terms of chemical compounds--for example, sugar as "C(12)H(22)O(11)"--and describing buttermilk, rather disquietingly, as "liquid remaining after butter 'has come.' "
While Farmer, at least, was well-intentioned in her commitment to nutritionally correct (if not particularly palatable) food, the new wave of big food companies cynically used pseudoscientific claims of healthfulness to appeal to customers. General Mills, the food conglomerate responsible for the creation of the fictional homemaker-sage Betty Crocker, launched an offensive to proclaim the "wholesomeness" of white flour and white bread, even though the very advances in industrialized milling that made white flour possible were the ones that removed the germ and the bran from a wheat kernel--and therefore, most of the nutrition. C. W. Post, the main competitor of the bowel-obsessed Kellogg brothers, plugged his first ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, which he called Grape-Nuts, as "brain food"; taking his chutzpah a step further, he intimated that Grape-Nuts were also effective in fighting malaria and consumption. After chemists in the 1910s and 1920s discovered vitamins--naturally occurring nutrients in foods that aid in metabolic processes--Post's company seized upon the opportunity to play up the cereal's calcium and phosphorous content in magazine ads that portentously asked readers, "Are you bringing up your children properly?" Even the Schlitz brewing company got in on the "health" act, boasting, oddly, that its beer was so pure that "when your physician prescribes beer, it is always Schlitz beer."
James Beard had no time for factory foods, health fads, or pseudoscience. Well before he became a professional food person, he was reveling in the pure, the regional, and the homemade, even as his country's cuisine, if it could even be called that, became ever-more processed and standardized. His unbridled enthusiasm, his pure love of taste, was so infectious that he could excite people even when he was describing eating experiences that, frankly, sound repellent. In his 1964 memoir, Delights and Prejudices, he documents his earliest "taste memory"--a phrase he is credited with coining--as he recalls being bedridden with malaria at age three. His family's male Chinese cook, Jue-Let, who worked in tandem with his mother, Mary, in the kitchen, spoon-fed him a cure of chicken jelly: chicken broth with the white of an egg and its shell mixed in, then strained, then chilled into quivering blobs. To Beard, this icky stuff was "superb . . . magically good," and "the true essence of chicken . . . [with] a texture that was incredibly delightful." Likewise, the slightly older Beard reveled in shopping with Mother in a fine-poultry shop where "I would come away with two pounds of gizzards and hearts for myself." Few people today would ever want to eat chicken jelly or chicken hearts--or, for that matter, the raw onions that Beard so adored--but fewer still could remain impervious to the sensual joy he took in eating these things, or to his conclusion that "the flavor of perfectly prepared chicken [has] remained a stimulant to my palate ever since."
From the Hardcover edition.