The question of what constitutes the American cuisine has tantalized academics, home cooks, American citizens and international visitors for years. Every attempt to simply characterize American food as a unitary set of values, practices, or ingredients falls flat in some way. But we know the impossibility of this question as we continue to ask it, deriving a frustrating pleasure in attempting to uncover what it is exactly that’s in that great American melting pot.
Food–the tangible substance–doesn’t become a cuisine without the people who eat it–we rely on their food practices, tastes, and rituals to define a cuisine. In America, that’s exceptionally hard to do, given our diverse and celebrated makeup of immigrants and arrivants, whether they are months or centuries accustomed to the country. The “typical” American meal might change per every person you meet. I recently sat down with my roommate Anisha, who is a second generation immigrant, to interview her about food and identity–personal, national, and diasporic. When asked about what makes something–food, cooking, or anything else–American, she said “I don’t think about things as defining Americanness, because ultimately I am American and so everything I do is American…Inherently everything you do is reflective of your identity.” In lieu of the singular answer that we keep looking for, we settle with the unity we find in widespread heterogeneity.
During our conversation, frustrated by this giant paradox, Anisha and I ended up talking about food production and farming. This is a topic we already spend a lot of time thinking and talking about together; I grew up on a farm with food-producer parents, and Anisha is an aspiring farmer and farm educator, particularly interested in how food and farming can be used as a conduit for racial justice. We talked about the ways that American values might (or might not) map onto the ways we grow, produce, and distribute food. Perhaps we are what we eat, but we are most definitely also where what we eat comes from, and how it was produced.
In the United States, food production seems to be divided dichotomously between the industrial and the artisan. The reality is more of a gradient between large and small, but food production is so deeply tied to histories of oppression, mechanization, and economy that we are hyperaware of the two end points of this spectrum. They can be polarizing in their representations of American values, and can appear to delineate people along axes of patriotism. But ultimately, this dichotomy is an intrinsic part of what makes food and eating in America such a complex question. These seemingly opposing poles support the Melting Pot, the Salad Bowl, whatever you choose to call the American public.
On one side of this dichotomy are the industrial farms. These farms, while often family-owned, are huge businesses, cultivating hundreds of thousands of acres. In the 40 years between 1940 and 1980, the average farm size in the United States grew by more than 3 times, and more than half of the farms in the country simply disappeared.1 Now, industrial farms make up less than 8% of farms, but grow 80% of the food sold in the country. This shift in farm size–”the crisis of American agriculture, which drove millions of modest farmers off the land and paved the way for the triumph of American capitalist agribusiness,” as Hasia Diner calls it, began in the late 19th century.2 First, the industrial revolution introduced the machinery necessary for large scale farming and also sparked a massive rise in urbanization, putting more people in cities and thus fewer on small farms. Then in the 1930s came the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, during which the U.S. government introduced federal subsidies for commodity crops (such as corn, wheat, and soy) in an attempt to stabilize the economy and the farming industry.3 Finally, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Green revolution introduced new plant varieties that increased the number of calories produced per acre of cultivated land.4 By the end of this period, a transformation had taken place. No longer was the American countryside a patchwork of tiny, diversified farms feeding themselves and their direct neighbors. Instead, behemoth farms covered the plains, producing massive amounts of only a handful of crops.
On the other hand, we have the once-ubiquitous and now-reemerging small artisan farms and food producers. These farms serve local audiences, growing a diverse selection of crops on small parcels of land. They often use alternate business models, such as that of a CSA, or community-supported agriculture, to market their products. As more Americans feel the need to reduce their environmental footprint, they turn to local farms to reduce their food miles, support local labor and economies, and to know where their food comes from. A lot of these small farms use organic practices, and participate in farm-to-table food chains.
Both of these models are American–in the reflexive sense, that because they exist in America they are inherently American, and in that in particular ways, each model represents and upholds American values.
Industrial food is American. It is, for one, financially supported by the United States government and American taxpayers. The industrial farm system was born with the help of people like former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who said “Get big, or get out!”5 The industrial food system is built to feed middle-class working America. It makes food cheap, convenient, and abundant. It produces and produces and produces–a well-oiled machine of plenty.
Small farms are also American. They produce a vast variety of foods and products–supplying and reflecting the diverse plates and cuisines of the American public. They engage local communities in questions of land stewardship, environmentalism, and community identity through their often-democratic business models and mission statements. Small farms practice their freedom of choice and expression every day.
But to pretend that abundance, freedom, and democracy are the only values on which this country was founded is foolish. Both industrial and small farms are cultivating the same land–land that has been historically watered with the blood and sweat of oppressed and erased peoples. American agriculture began with the forcible removal of pre-existing Native peoples, continued with the use of slave labor, and still rests today on a largely undocumented migrant labor force.6
I talked with Anisha about her involvement in the “alternative” food movement, and how the values of the groups she works alongside–groups like Soul Fire Farm, a farm that seeks to “uproot racism in the food system” by “using land as a tool to heal from racial trauma” and through programming for young farmers of color– might map onto American-ness or not.7 After some thought, Anisha told me
“If being ‘American’ is colonial dispossession of land and enslaving people to work on the land, then places like Soul Fire Farm are un-American, because they’re seeking to undo the processes that founded America, or the processes on which America is founded. But if America is defined as true freedom of expression, or as the land of opportunity that it really isn’t (because of the systems oppression that exist), then I think [places like Soul Fire Farm] can be seen as ‘American.’”
This is the problem of the “facile dichotomy,” as Julie Guthman calls it in “Fast food/organic food: reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow.’”8 Reducing the American production system to big versus small, fast versus slow, industrial versus artisan lets us ignore the oppression on which American agriculture is built. To name something ‘American’ is a tricky act; the namer must be aware of both the hope and the anguish that are encompassed in the American Dream.
I believe that different ways of producing food are representative of different morals and values about land-, food-, and social-justice. As someone deeply involved in the food production world, I believe that there are people on the “wrong” side of a divide. But I also recognize that this divide is inherently American in its existence. It is a part of that tension between poles–the national and the local, the public and the private, the big and the small, the right and the left–that exists everywhere but is allowed by law to be spoken of and acted upon freely here.
Wonder Bread might be American food, but so is the bread produced by my dad, who bakes bread using flour from the mill down the road, ground from wheat grown by a farmer just a few blocks over. Perhaps there is nothing more inherently American than the arguments my mom and her fellow small-farmers have at town board meetings with the nearby industrial dairy farm. And as the small-big debate rages on, we will move forward thanks to people like Anisha, who work tirelessly to heal the trauma caused by American histories of oppression while still building upon the framework of choice, abundance, and democracy inherent in the American Dream.
Image Credit: Salva Barbera. “Corn fields.” https://www.flickr.com/photos/decar66/6204674264/in/photolist-ashzuu-fCs3Ah-hCu6rV-7ZZwbW-qAY2A2-xZ44-a1gGMd-g3eauD-djyjWv-4ZfBpL-WaBYi5-cyA5ed-5KZYnT-p3adhX-FMtEbg-f3bgrt-dpAHFc-4VDptj-6BNMMp-aveB83-8DWJfi-546xZt-7TSsN1-aE4duD-a7Yv1f-dsgjrV-8EymwF-bveTrv-wx3e29-czBuEq-ph4ba4-f33bJG-fQnUgM-5aR47v-adNEcH-HqFTni-7bj2mt-8fTUPg-5i8dgx-cKyjyJ-58udQS-qaSYRT-wQauXe-nM1b2u-4Wm9r6-8igSMW-dV4tPB-qwZzyW-f8Uo1V-chxnf7
- Lusk, Jayson. “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment.” The New York Times, September 24, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion/sunday/why-industrial-farms-are-good-for-the-environment.html.
- Diner, Hasia R., and DINER, Hasia R.. Hungering for America : Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central.
- Urry, Amelia. “Our Crazy Farm Subsidies, Explained.” org, April 20, 2015. https://grist.org/food/our-crazy-farm-subsidies-explained/.
- Briney, Amanda. “All You Wanted to Know About the Green Revolution.” , May 17, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/green-revolution-overview-1434948.
- Philpott, Tom. “A Reflection on the Lasting Legacy of 1970s USDA Secretary Earl Butz.” org, February 8, 2008. https://grist.org/article/the-butz-stops-here/.
- Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanna. “Yes, Native Americans Were the Victims of Genocide.” History News Network. May 12, 2016. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/162804; Haspel, Tamar. “Ilegal Immigrants Help Fuel U.S. Farms. Does Affordable Produce Depend on Them?” The Washington Post, March 17, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/in-an-immigration-crackdown-who-will-pick-our-produce/2017/03/17/cc1c6df4-0a5d-11e7-93dc-00f9bdd74ed1_story.html?utm_term=.0c532faf921b.
- “Goals.” SOUL FIRE FARM, December 6, 2017. http://www.soulfirefarm.org/about/goals/.
- Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘yuppie Chow’.” Social & Cultural Geography 4, no. 1 (2003): 45-58.