Are We A Nation Doomed
To Merely Wonderful Food?

Review © by Burton Kaplan

American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a National Cuisine
Leslie Brenner
Perennial, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
370pp, pbk, $(US) 14
ISBN 0-380-78825-X

American Appetite American food--national treasures that include but are not limited to fried chicken, barbecue, grits, clambakes and chowders, planked salmon, hamburgers, black bean soup, country ham, shad roe, shoofly pie, creole eggs, and roast turkey--has long suffered low self-esteem.

As if so cheerless an incandescence were not sufficiently depressing, cast now upon the scene is an even less flattering light. Like 12th century flagellants who sought salvation in self-abuse, an elitist wing of the American food community today argues that what we are as a nation --"culinary barbarians"--is something from which we urgently need to recover.

Count among the bad-mouthers author Leslie Brenner, whose prize-winning book creates the cockeyed impression that if only we were, uh, well, less American in our dining proclivities, we might be worthy of (SFX: drum roll) ... an American cuisine! Compare this with James Beard's celebration of the very thing Brenner decries. In 1972 he wrote: " ... we are now in [an] epoch of gastronomic excellence. We have a rich and fascinating food heritage that occasionally reaches greatness in its own melting pot way."

How could so much have gone so wrong in so little time? The simple answer is, it hasn't.

Indigenous cookery was and remains a subject to be lauded rather than mourned, and no wonder. It is, after all, what we Americans joyfully engage in to celebrate our humanity, abundance, diversity, and national character.

Brenner's suspect line of reasoning, which seems more concerned with what we are not than with what we are, tempts a one-shot reader to be tough on her book. However, careful re-examination of its pages leads to the conclusion that almost nothing would prove more blunderful. Silly and indefensible rant aside, her work amounts to a well-stocked larder of modern-day American culinary history laced with fresh information and seasoned by (mostly) intelligent insight. Take the Chez Panisse myth.

Popular lore holds that Alice Waters sparked a revolution in restaurant cookery by insisting on the freshest local provender. In fact, Brenner reports, a family named Delmonico, eponymous owners of one of Manhattan's legendary, earliest, and longest-lived major restaurants, predated Waters by more than 120 years. Despairing at what was available in public markets, they established a farm in nearby rural Brooklyn to supply their kitchen daily.

On the other hand, Brenner correctly points out that Waters' true contribution was and is the shift in emphasis in American restaurant cookery from a cuisine focused on dishes to one formed around ingredients. In the process of achieving this worthy grail, Waters stumbled more than strode to national repute. An exemplar of the fact that the American restaurant revolution did not emerge from the academic or business side of things but from the inspiration of untrained individuals, Waters began Chez Panisse having had no prior restaurant experience. Neither did her original chef, Victoria Wise, nor pastry chef Lindsey Shere. Unfettered by the usual notions of what was supposed to go on in a professional kitchen, Waters & Co. allowed themselves a latitude that engendered creativity.

Given WTO, NAFTA, EU, Mercosur, (and the nascent Free Trade Area of the Americas), Brenner's argument in favor of local ingredients as a basis for national cuisine amounts to setting a net to catch the wind. These days, fresh Chilean grapes (to name but one commodity) can be served at American tables in January as conveniently as at those in Santiago. It is hard to imagine what would possess anyone to think that by choosing and enjoying these (and other starch-free produce) we somehow diminish our eating experience.

On the topic of freshness, Brenner offers interesting sidebars. Parisian restaurateurs' fixation on ingredients right off the farm, to cite one, turns out to be less a matter of pure quality-mindedness than of money and mechanics. In the old days, when the market was in Paris itself, it lacked facilities for refrigeration. Each purveyor's day's supply had to be sold before noon or it would spoil. Accordingly, prices of commodities were highest at the market's opening, dropping steadily by the hour until no buyer could resist and the last fully vine-ripened tomato was trundled off before midday (or thrown out afterwards). The market's new location, Rungis, she points out, has ample refrigerated facilities. Stay tuned to learn if this will spell a decline in Parisian fare.

In the meanwhile, behind the drag of arguing for a national cuisine appears to lie Brenner's hope of seeing us emerge a nation of more informed food consumers. Defensible and laudable? Yes, but hardly news. The point was made earlier and mildly popular in certain circles by Marcella Hazan. In 1976, she suggested that Italy had no national cuisine but possessed, in spades, a population of knowledgeable eaters who do not settle for less than top-tier grub no matter what language the ingredients speak.

Until and unless we follow the example of, say, France, where grammar-school children are given classes in which they learn about the four different tastes and the various types of food (without benefit of lobbying by domestic agribusiness interests with axes to grind), we Americans are probably doomed to remain a people lacking a national cuisine but blessed nevertheless with wonderful food.

April 2001

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