William James is a writer and critic for Time and the author of a provocative book entitled In Defense of Elitism. In it he raises the issue of the American melting pot- a society where immigrants unite under the banner of common interest to create a homogenous culture-- and asks the obvious question: What have we lost by exchanging the notion of a common set of values for a rampant cultural individualism?
The comparison with America's culinary history is clear and immediate. In reaction to both our homogenized culture and our declining cuisine, Americans have embarked on a commendable search for improvement. But in this search for satisfying culture and cuisine, many of us have opted for an archeological pursuit of cuisines from around the world. We want to discover the true culinary heritage of Tuscany or the real method for making couscous from scratch (which takes most of your day and all of your patience-- the recipe on page 12 is more suited to modern times). These culinary expeditions set out with romantic notions about other cultures, past or present, and often disregard the realities of modern American life.
Perhaps we feel that our own culinary history is somehow lacking. But according to Evan Jones in American Food, the Pilgrims often dined royally on beach plum jam and soft-shelled crab. Summer succotash was common New England fare, made from shell beans stewed with bacon and onions and then mixed with fresh corn, black pepper, and rich, sweet cream. Deliciously crisp, golden corn oysters, which are no more than fried corn pulp, were made from freshly harvested ears. Authentic baked beans came in as many varieties as cassoulet and were every bit as good. Country-cured hams could match any prosciutto and were no less a measure of culinary artistry. "The making of a ham dinner," one Southerner wrote, "like the making of a gentleman, starts a long, long time before the event." And don't forget plantation skillet cakes, boiled lobsters, maple syrup, beaten biscuits, hominy grits, clambakes, and pandowdies.
At the heart of all good, populist cooking is economy, forthrightness, and a good measure of common sense. Today, New England cooking may seem unduly heavy, but without central heating, Pilgrim fare had to be substantial. The Puritan heritage also engendered Yankee frugality. Out of strict religious observance came the notion of good, plain food made with the ingredients at hand, a notion that is at the core of any good cuisine. And since the Sabbath lasted from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday, early cooks had to devise dishes that could be baked ahead and then simply reheated. If nothing else, American cooking was practical.
As we race to reinvent our culinary present, let's remind ourselves of our own history of practicality and economy. Just as the Puritans had to work around the realities of daily life, we should do the same. Instead of importing ingredients, let's use what is grown locally. Let's once again eat with the seasons, when the produce is both cheapest and at its best. With two working parents, most households have to prepare a meal in less than an hour. That means more quick, high-heat cooking and less slow roasting or stewing. It calls for one-dish meals instead of chicken and two vegetables. It also calls for economy of technique-- finding new ways to make great food with less fuss. And most of us need lighter fare, since we spend our days sitting at desks instead of clearing fields.
It is my belief that at six o'clock in the evening most adult Americans are standing on common ground. We need to get a good dinner on the table, and it makes little difference where we live or who our ancestors were. For better or worse, we share a modern lifestyle and therefore share the need for a modern American cuisine. Let's stop running helter-skelter down the road to diversity, a path that leads to culinary anarchy. Culinary elitism offers no answers to our culinary dilemma.
Anyone who doubts the value of a melting-pot cuisine should consider Thanksgiving, the one holiday most Americans cherish. In the simplest terms, Thanksgiving is about 240 million people eating the same menu on the same day. We compare notes on how the turkey was cooked, on the flakiness of the pumpkin pie crust, and on the components of the stuffing. It feels good to share the menu with our neighbors. Despite the abundance of the table, it's also a meal that has echoes of our ancestral frugality; the leftovers are eagerly consumed over the long weekend.
As a culture, we gain much from a shared cuisine. It helps to bind us together in a time when we are constantly being urged to pull apart by expressing our individuality. We should heed the lessons of Thanksgiving. Let's give thanks for our own foods, reflect on the practical legacy of our culinary past, and then set out to retool American cooking for the next century. But let's do it together. We are in desperate need of common ground.