Wednesday, December 20, 2006

American Gourmet

The French have a saying: Il faut manger pour vivre et pas vivre pour manger. Translated, it means that one should eat to live and not live to eat.

I've always thought it odd that the French, a nation of food lovers if ever there was one, should have such a saying, really. And given the state of food in America today, between the Food Network and the proliferation of food blogs and cookbooks touting all sorts of ethnic cuisines and attitudes toward food, it's not the sort of proverb that seems particularly relevant.

So how did we get to this point? It's a fairly recent development, this idea of America as a gourmet nation, taking place within the span of just one generation. Compare these experiences:

While in college, studying for a home economics major (believe it or not), the Chef Mother came home on break and wanted to impress her family by cooking a new dish: pizza. She spent what was the equivalent then of a week's grocery budget on the ingredients, and the results, though unappealing (not what we expect from pizza today), had to be forced down so as to avoid wasting food.

While I was in college, I spent a year and a half in an apartment, cooking my own meals. On one memorable occasion, I threw a dinner party in honor of visiting friends and planned a Chinese theme, making wontons, egg rolls, and a number of other delicacies. I also baked my first baklava in college and was immediately hooked. And I made a luscious French dinner, from chicken Provencal to a good wine, for my then boyfriend.

Quite a quantum leap in just under 30 years, wouldn't you say? How did it happen? David Kamp, in his new book The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, offers a wide-ranging and often gossipy and giddy history of our increasing culinary sophistication.

Beginning in the 1950s, three figures loomed large over the American cooking and dining scene. James Beard cooked on television, wrote cookbooks celebrating American regional cuisine and its forebears, and served as a mentor to many budding cooks and cookbook authors. Craig Claiborne, writer for The New York Times (among others), put his literary skills to the service of fine restaurants and a growing awareness of good classic cuisine. And, of course, let us not forget Julia Child, who made French cooking accessible to many more Americans and opened our eyes to the joy of cooking elaborate and delicious meals.

Since then, the American restaurant scene has broadened: the finest restaurants, no longer exclusively devoted to classic French cuisine, now serve a wide variety of ethnic or themed foods. The chefs themselves have become minor or major celebrities, opening restaurants in multiple locations (think Wolfgang Puck) or gaining a wider audience through television shows and cookbooks (Emeril, anyone?) or raising the consciousness of diners about such issues as local and organic food production (like Alice Waters).

Kamp argues that though there have been setbacks along the way, ultimately all of this attention to food and the experimentation by so many people has led to positive changes in what and how we eat:

...food is one area of American life where things just continue to improve. If we're cooking at home, we have a greater breadth and higher quality of ingredients available to us. If we're dining out, we have more options open to us, and a greater likelihood than ever that we'll get a good meal, no matter what the price paid. (p.xi)

You might, with some justification, argue that we as a nation have become obsessed with food, whether in drooling over the latest taste sensation or in fretting over a new diet plan. Many people who can afford a large, beautifully appointed kitchen might prefer to turn over all their cooking to someone else, while other people barely have the money to buy fresh vegetables or a healthy meal. Don't we have our priorities screwed up? you might say.

Yes, in some ways, we do. But look at it this way. So many of these celebrity chefs and food writers have encouraged us to pay more attention to how we nourish ourselves, to where our food originates and to how it affects us. It's possible to learn a great deal about cooking, about other ethnic cuisines, and about food politics... and then adapt all that knowledge to a healthy way of cooking and/or eating. We have choices, and while they can be incredibly overwhelming, I think we are finding that our choices are getting better and better.

So if you enjoy reading about food or thinking about food, you might want to pick up this book at your local library and thumb through it. There's a lot to learn about how so many of the ingredients and dishes we now take for granted (salsa, anyone?) entered our national culinary consciousness, and there are lots of fun stories about the personalities involved in bringing about this change.

And within reason, I think it's OK to live to eat, if it helps us be more mindful about what we eat.

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