Anyone can be anything, or at least according to the stereotypical “American Dream”. So why can’t our food system be anything we want? Many systems, from healthcare to politics to food, are uniquely American because of their deep roots in the past, and reflect historical and present-day political, social, and economic considerations. The quintessential American narrative of food relies on this country’s history of adaptation, moralization, and instruction with regards to food, as well as cultural norms that value progress and innovation. The result is a food culture in tension with itself, caught between norms and indulgence.
Thanksgiving: turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pies galore. Is there any other food experience so typically American? The traditional story goes something like this: the Pilgrims, woefully unprepared for food cultivation in the American biosphere, turned to friendly Native Americans for support & instruction. Following a successful harvest in 1621, a feast was held to give thanks and to cement the alliance between the colonizers and the Wampanoag. Smithsonian Magazine states that the food, however, was likely quite different than our modern Thanksgiving meals, more focused on meat, including fowl and venison, and lacking the “classic” elements listed above .
At its core, Thanksgiving is a celebration of the adaptations and changes the colonists had to make to survive in the New World, and of the instruction given by Native Americans. It also sheds light on how many traditional “American” foods are not, in fact, native to the Americas; we, as modern day consumers, would certainly not see our favorite dishes on the table in 1621. In modernity, the adaptation continues in pursuit of progress & individual identity- in 2016, the New York Times examined Americans preparing dishes as unique as egg roll filling-stuffed turkey, pork neck bones, and pumpkin flan (along with providing recipes for aspiring cooks at home, of course) . However, this emphasis on adaptation & innovation leads American food culture near the border of appropriation of foods we deem “ethnic”, reinforcing class and ethnic disparities. Thanksgiving is also known in popular culture for its indulgence and abundance of sweets, but this indulgence is oft-lamented, and “healthy Thanksgiving” recipes and ways to avoid or lose the “holiday weight” are increasingly important (“healthy Thanksgiving” was twice as popular of a search term in November 2016 as it was in November 2004, according to Google Trends).
The preponderance of immigration to America plays a major role in cementing the cultural value of food adaptation, and in creating a hierarchy of cooking knowledge. Each immigrant group modified traditional recipes to fit the ingredients available in America, and once they were established, often imported traditional ingredients, broadening the scope of “American food” for the entire nation. As an example, Italian immigrants often infused their dishes with newly abundant meat products. Frank Sheridan’s 1908 survey indicated Italian immigrants, for example, ate a “better quantity and variety of food”, and much more meat, than in Italy . New dishes were created, regional differences were blurred, and traditional Italian cuisine slowly remade itself in the land of the free.
After the industrial revolution, the middle class emerged and sought to distinguish themselves from the urban poor (who were often immigrants). Because of this, instruction began to play a bigger role in American food, one example being the New England Kitchen. Opened in 1890 by Mary Hinman Abel and Ellen Richards, its purpose was to provide nutritious food for immigrants and the poor, and instruct them in how to prepare “proper” food for themselves . This implicit moralization of food, distinguishing those “in the know” from the poor directionless souls, sets up the tensions that underlie our food culture today.
World War II increased moralization of food by tying eating habits to citizenship, and expanded the ranks of middle-class citizens anxious to better themselves. Nutrition was posed as a defense problem, as necessary for a productive military and workforce. Self-control in resource use was emphasized, and the National Nutritional Program tied nutritional habits to good morale and good citizenship . “Bad” eating was stigmatized, and portrayed as “helping Hitler” in such publications as the War Emergency Bulletin . In LIFE magazine on Oct 12, 1942, I was able to identify at least 6 nutrition-based advertisements (including one for Rice Krispies), urging Americans to eat their product to do their nutritional duty. However, there were 14 advertisements for various brands of alcoholic beverages, indicating the importance of indulgence even at a time of dire scarcity .
Today, indulgence may take on a different form: that of efficiency and convenience. Convenience foods and on-the-go eating originated in such wartime staples as M&M’s- the candy coating kept the chocolate from melting in the hot battlefield sun. After the war, M&M’s, canned foods, and other products designed for the troops began to be marketed towards the masses. Today, we have TV dinners, mixes for every baked good under the sun, pre-cut vegetables, individually packaged snacks & meal-replacement bars, and even delivery services such as Blue Apron. The explosion of this trend is largely due to indulgence: being able to relax after work rather than cooking a full meal from scratch can certainly be a luxury. But alas, Americans are difficult to nudge away from their preconceived notions, and society still places a moral stigma on the overuse of convenience items. When Tracie MacMillan went undercover as a farm worker, laboring for hours under the hot sun, she often “succumbed” to convenience items such as burgers and soda after grueling days, even as she judged herself for her foolhardiness . Blue Apron and products like it provide the convenience without the stigma, but they accomplish this by being didactic in nature- the kits do require some preparation, and handy instructions aim to improve cooking skills.
Even as the middle-class judgment of indulgence lingers, an emerging counter-movement pushes back with purposeful, almost grotesque overindulgence. Shows like “Ginormous Food” emphasize monstrosities such as a 5-foot diameter pizza, a 14-pound bagel, and more . Food porn & social media glorify excessive consumption and “exclusive” food trends, such as artisan donut shops with hour-long lines (looking at you, PVDonuts). Certain foods have almost become fetishized for their sinful sugar content; Voodoo Doughnuts’ “Triple Chocolate Penetration”, “Tex-Ass”, and “Cock-n-Balls” certainly evoke the fusion of food and sex, pushing back on the middle-class discomfort with the body. However, this break from bodily norms is still a very upper-class phenomenon, and society (and Instagram) still expects adherence to bodily ideals. For many of these trends, the time and money required also exclude disadvantaged groups from participating.
America’s history as a nation of immigrants, its notions of the middle class and citizenship, and its newfound emphasis on convenience and indulgence have led to American food culture as it stands today: trapped between its own ideals of restraint and indulgence. The American food system is fragmented, unequal, and messy, perpetuating class, gender, and ethnic inequalities. The notion of American food may always be rooted in the past, but because of America’s large and ever-changing population, food culture will always be evolving, creating movements to push food innovation ever further towards a “perfect” food system, whatever that may be.
 Gambino, Megan. What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving? November 21, 2011. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-was-on-the-menu-at-the-first-thanksgiving-511554/ (accessed April 25, 2017).
 Sifton, Sam. The American Thanksgiving. November 16, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/16/dining/thanksgiving-dinner-in-america.html?_r=0 (accessed April 25, 2017).
 Diner, Hasia R. “”The Bread is Soft”: Italian Foodways, American Abundance.” In Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, by Hasia R Diner, 48-83. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.
 Biltekoff, Charlotte. Eating Right in America. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013.
 LIFE Magazine. LIFE Magazine. New York: Google Books, October 12, 1942.
 McMillan, Tracie. The American Way of Eating. New York: Scribner, 2012.
 Food Network. Ginormous Food. 2017. http://www.foodnetwork.com/shows/ginormous-food (accessed April 26, 2017).
Image credit: skeeze, “Pumpkin Pie,” https://pixabay.com/en/pumpkin-pie-autumn-holiday-baked-520655/