Apple pie, hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza. When these images of food come to mind, one can say they define America food, right? The answer to the seemingly simple question is yes, but what’s more interesting to look at is the other pieces that make up this American food puzzle. Starting with the first European wave of settlements (British arriving around 1600 and large numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrant groups in the 19th century) along with African slaves, to the Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, America has been dubbed a “melting pot” of culture.[i] More specifically in the United States, different regions source ingredients local to them, and in turn, create their own distinctive identities. For my interview, I decided to focus on Philadelphia with its reputation as the birthplace of the United States. In a colonial city such as Philadelphia, I couldn’t think of anyone better suited to speak with than the highly-respected restauranteur, Marty Grims. Growing up in the restaurant business, Marty Grims has over 30 years of restaurant experience and has opened over 25 restaurants in the Middle Atlantic Area, becoming a pioneer in America’s shift toward contemporary American cuisine. Based off the interview with restaurateur Marty Grims and the course readings, we can conclude that American food is an adapting melting pot that is influenced by globalization, commercialization, and diversity of perspectives.
In a rapidly changing world, globalization has shaped American food to value the influence of immigrants and the sustainability of localization. With around one million immigrants coming to the United States every year from all walks of the world, ethnic food has become engrained into the food around the country. According to food writer Megan Giller, foods incorporated into American culture rely on tradition but “to appeal to the lowest common denominator, chefs end up watering down the strong flavors from those cuisines” (Giller 1).[ii] American food can include categories such as “Italian” and “Chinese” because there isn’t a need to fully adhere to the native cuisines of other countries. In its early history, American cuisine was influenced by Europeans and Native Americans. At its core, foods we know traditionally as American such as American Pie, were once pyes filled with dates in medieval England or even seafood pies (secundae mensea) in Rome.[iii] Marty Grims acknowledges the subtle nuances within specific areas of the United States such as the difference that arises from using summer New Jersey tomatoes as opposed to December tomatoes. Due to all of these differences, these “interpreted” foods have now come to mean something that is authentically American.
Commercialization has transformed American food into a concept dominated by the idea of supply and demand, where Americans value convenience and price point. As University of California Santa Cruz Social Sciences professor Julie Guthman frames it, “fast, cheap, convenience food was becoming the cornerstone of most working-class American diets” (Guthman 53).[iv] As the United States economy boomed and a culture of consumerism bloomed, there emerged the desire to have everything become immediately accessible. Combined with the advances in women entering the workforce, the idea that food outside of the home was a luxury became a necessity for the nation. Adding on millennial forces driving the economy, convenience began to create a feeling and environment where the people who consumed them could remind them of home. Once thought of as being solely sit-down Thanksgiving dinners or takeaway fast food burgers, American food isn’t divided based on which group decides to consume it. Looking at the example brought up by Marty, fishes that were at one time considered highbrow, such as salmon, have become specifically American in concepts like sushi rolls. In other words, with Americans living convenient lifestyles with most necessities easily available at all times, American food is able to combine the resourcefulness and innovative spirit of the American people to redefine tradition.
In addition to constant evolution, American food is defined by a constant challenge to convention and accepted norms. As Americans, we don’t think of foods as being tied to male chefs in white chef coats, domestic figures like Julia Child, or the mass-produced sodas manufactured by Pepsi. The American food identity is one where you see women like Cristeta Comerford serving the White House or queer chefs like Anne Burrell embrace their identity and work towards creating a shift in mentality.[v] Master culinary training and fancy techniques no longer define American food. Food is the single greatest unifier across cultures and the purpose of American food is to bring people together. Yes, consumer choices about food spending in America are linked to convenience, but what is consumed in the end is the encompassing idea of American food.
American food is one team where distinct nuances help to create a cohesive American food identity. As a “melting pot,” different cultures have contributed their own distinct “flavors” to American culture, which are reflected in all aspects of life. Whether someone is in the remoteness of Alaska or the hustle of New York City, the whole of American cuisine is felt and is greater than the sum of its parts. The dishes Americans eat today may have originated in the countries immigrants left to come to America, but they have become American in their own right. Just as cultures from around the world have influenced American culture, today American culture influences the world. American food is constantly changing and we should embrace that; after all, that’s what it’s always been about.
[i] “History of Immigration to the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Apr. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_immigration_to_the_United_States.
[ii] Giller, Megan. “New American Food Is Un-American.” Slate Magazine, 29 June 2015, www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2015/06/new_american_food_is_un_american_derivative_a d_bland.html.
[iii] Mayer, Laura. “A Brief History of Pie.” Time, Time, 26 Nov. 2008, time.com/3958057/history-of-pie/.
[iv] Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow’.” Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003, pp. 45–58., doi:10.1080/1464936032000049306.
[v] Druckman, Charlotte. “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Gastronomica, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010, pp. 24–31., doi:10.1525/gfc.2010.10.1.24.
Image Credit: Melting Pot Restaurant, San Mateo “Analogies for America: Beyond the melting pot,” “https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DSC09206,_Melting_Pot_Restaurant,_San_Mateo,_CA_(5501220019).jpg”