Regarding “American” Food

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As much as I bleed red, white, and blue, I tend be be a little hypocritical when it comes to the subject of food.

With major exceptions (like BBQ), I tend to be, if not disdainful, at least dismissive of what I consider “traditional American food.”

But first, let me define that phrase (as I see it)…

American’s (an obvious generalization), have an obsession with taking things that are complicated, and simplifying them. And we’re very, very good at that, and it’s a GOOD thing…usually.

The problem comes in when we apply that mentality to food.

spaghetti-meatballs-can-31919It’s that “how can we make it easier” mindset that leads to ideas like “Hmmm…people like spaghetti, people like meatballs…let’s use a bunch of preservatives to create a shelf-stable version, add a bunch of sugar (to feed THAT addiction), stuff it into a can, and make it cheap so folks can microwave and serve it as quickly as possible.”

Oh, and let’s put a Italian-looking chef on the label, to legitimize our evil greed.

Jesus doesn’t want us to do that.

Also, let’s face it…there’s not a lot of food that, from a historical standpoint, can really be classified as “American” (at least not “North” American), as they are either a mass market-simplified version of a recipe that originated elsewhere, or they’ve been Americanized with each passing generation until they bear only a superficial resemblance to the dish that an immigrant brought to our shores originally.

Dishes like:

  • Spaghetti & Meatballs (which are two separate dishes)
  • Pizza (though this is improving)
  • Corned Beef & Cabbage
  • 90% of “Chinese” Food
  • Taco’s and other “Mexican” food
  • Sushi

For a great example, watch the “risotto scene” in the movie Big Night.

Many of these foods come from the first waves of immigrants to hit these shores: Italians, Irish, Mexicans, Africans*, Chinese, etc.

(Obviously calling early African-American’s “immigrants” is a gross misinterpretation of history, but given the huge influence that those cultures have had on how and what we eat, I felt they needed to be included to this list).

I’m not talking about just ingredients. I’m talking about using local, regional foods (the backbone of any great food culture) but to use them in combinations, and flavors, and presentations that are honest interpretations of the culture they supposedly represent.

Logo-nha-hangThe good news is, more recent ethic groups that have made major migrations…the Vietnamese and other SE Asian groups, Japanese, Middle Eastern, etc., remain much more “unadulterated” by Americanization, largely do to the social shrinking of our planet, and more open and adventurous mindsets that have developed because of it.

At the same time, an unpopular as the concept may be in certain circles, the effect of war (especially WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) has had a HUGE influence on our acceptance of “traditional” foods and cooking techniques.

Korean food, especially, had avoided any reinterpretation of itself, mostly due to the fact that Korean’s in general, just plain refuse to change their recipes, and don’t particularly seem to give a crap is Americans will accept or buy it. I salute this!

Invented in Canada, btw (but I love it anyway!) 😉

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the value of “gateway” foods in introducing people to new cuisines (the California roll being, arguably, the best example), but I think these foods need to be recognized for what they are…training wheels, and training wheels are great as long at their NEEDED, but the goal is to eventually take them OFF.

Let’s face it…you don’t see a lot of training wheels in the Tour de France. 😉

The problem comes in when people refuse to graduate to the real thing, and the gateway becomes an acceptable REPLACEMENT for the original, and becomes our definition of the real thing.

I’m brave enough to admit it…

fVzwtZSI enjoy a Taco Bell soft taco on occasion, but I understand that it’s an AMERICAN TACO (as does my 10 year old daughter), and don’t accept it as being either as good as, or a replacement for the “real thing”. (For the sake of disclosure…I am a hopelessly addicted street-taco junkie, lol, even the ones with “scary” ingredients!)

But, if Taco Bell eventually leads you to a good taco truck (as it has for many people), then I say God Bless ’em!

But, back to my point…

The reason I tend to be dismissive of “American” food is, in some part that I feel it’s often a disservice to it’s original version, and is an “enabler” that allows people to not experiences the REAL, and amazing, food of other cultures, or worse, dismiss it because it “doesn’t taste right”.

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MOSTLY, though, it’s because it just doesn’t taste as good.

In a marketing-driven attempt to please as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, most of these foods end up over-salted, under-seasoned, poorly cooked, bland, and boring.

I’m not advocating food snobbery, I eat and enjoy many of these foods (well, not canned pasta…ever) and, for me, the point of food is enjoyment and experience.

If you love it, EAT it!

Just don’t make it something it’s not…and don’t settle for what’s easy.

Thoughts?

~Chef Perry
chefperryperkins.com

“The Home Chef: Transforming the American Kitchen.”

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