From “Amber Waves of Grain” to Nabisco® Triscuits: Food as the American Dream and Nightmare

JOURDAN MELTZER

I entered this class maintaining the working assumption that there is simply no such thing as American food. As a relatively young country occupying an immense landmass, encompassing hugely varied landscapes, and populated by immigrants from across the globe, the United States seems too diverse to have a singular cuisine and culture around “American food.” There is no codified shared history around food in the U.S. that can somehow explain and tie together the California roll and spaghetti and meatballs – both of which can be seen as “American foods” in their own right. I came to understand that what there is of a shared American food culture or cuisine reflects the values and approaches America prides itself on. Namely the forces of democracy and capitalism that work both constructively and antagonistically with each other have generated an ethos around food than can be seen as distinctly American. American food resembles the packageable American spirit that is propagated across the globe in its democratized convenience, mass abundance, and sense of sheer diversity that in being from everywhere is therefore rendered placeless.

American food embodies the promises of democracy and capitalism to offer a level of convenience that demonstrates both agency and control. From protein and snack bars of all sorts to the ubiquity of lidded to-go cups, portable options are everywhere in America. Amid a culture defined by “go-go-go!” it does not come as a surprise that grab-and-go offerings are such a key component of American food. Between the profit-oriented trade of capitalism and the search for the common good of democracy, convenience foods arise as an unsurprising result. Whether with Doritos® chips, Grandma’s Cookies®, or Mountain Dew®, Americans have the freedom of fully determining when they get to eat.[1] This ease is not to be underestimated, nor is it thought to be universal. The democratized culinary experience in America is directly reflective of the neoliberal goals of the “American Dream.” Convenience foods are key because they embody both choice and individual freedom. Moreover, within a capitalist framework they make for efficient workers who are not bound by the traditional structure of established meal times, but can work around the clock, sustained by long-lasting, packageable food that can deliver the needed calories for energy and sustenance. It is important to note that there is a limit to convenience for American consumers, bound by the distinctly American desire for individualism. The anecdote of packaged cake mixes illustrates this well: the original formulation of the mixes failed to sell, but, with the addition of an outside egg by the customer, there was a feeling of contribution and the boxes sold! From a case of advertising, Burger King’s “Have it your way” slogan directly appealed to this yearning for individualism in the face of mass produced options. With the rise of snacking and the amount of calories consumed in beverages, food in America has been carefully purposed to satisfy individual and psychological needs, acting as nutrient and opiate. In confronting the critics of the American diet and the origins of the so-called obesity crisis, political scientist J. Eric Oliver explains, “[T]he ultimate source of the changing American diet … is the American way of life.”[2] The free market has finally caught up with American food culture to democratize eating behavior, to enable convenience foods and convenience eating – recreating America’s core principles in both what and how we eat. Oliver further supports this argument: “Snacking has liberated eating in America, giving our meals the individualistic tenor on which this country is based.”[3] The American desire for convenience in all aspects of our lives has been replicated and realized in our food.

Narratives and realities of abundance have been crucial for defining a prevailing sense of American food with mass quantity at the core. As American historian Hasia Diner writes, “Soon after the European discovery of the ‘new world,’ the land became associated with the idea of plenty.”[4] From early on this sense of bounty in America was key for defining American food both on its own merit and in contrast to the relative scarcity experienced elsewhere. This image of America as a “bountiful society” took on the exaggeration of mythology at times. Diner quotes commentators in the eighteenth century who speak of America “as the ‘best poor man’s country in the world,’ where ‘wheatbread is eaten in almost all places.’”[5] These statements and others proclaiming that “As a flesh-consuming people, the Americans have no equal in the world,”[6] are backed up by data: with limited diets compared to their American peers, the average European stature did not approach that of Americans until the 1950’s.[7] Moreover, America’s diverse landscape and climate enabled the growth of a wide range of crops year round. With the expansion of agricultural frontiers and the advent of industrial farming this narrative of American abundance became further ingrained in the food ethos of the nation. Today this plenty is reflected in the massive portion sizes of American servings. And yet as mass becomes the norm, there is a push by advertisers and restaurateurs alike to hawk small, delicate portions as an individualized high-end alternative. Though mass culture reproduces itself in the abundance of tasting menus and bite-sized portions in restaurants from Seattle to Boston. Unlike convenience, which was acquired through the help of technology over time, “American culinary culture has always been distinguished by large portion sizes.”[8] This abundance has been critical for attracting hungry people around the world.[9] Immigrants migrating to America were coming to “a place of abundant food at low prices.”[10] Particularly in its contrast to the pre-migration scarcity experienced by many immigrants, the bounty of food in America functioned as a shaping element of the cultures and foods immigrants brought with them to create a truly American cuisine.

Between America’s vast, varied land mass and significant immigrant population and history, American food is imbued with such sheer combinatorial diversity that it is placeless. Among many sorts of peoples, food has long served as a means for cultural exchange. With its dynamic immigrant population and large landmass of varied regions, the U.S. demonstrates this phenomenon markedly. From chop suey to the chili dog to deep dish pizza, combinations and adaptations abound in generating American tastes and dishes with no singular origins. Food studies historian Donna Gabaccia notes the long-standing history of these practices: “The American penchant to experiment with foods, to combine and mix the foods of many cultural traditions into blended gumbos or stews, and to create ‘smorgasbords’ is scarcely new but is rather a recurring theme in our history as eaters.”[11] Diversity is crucial for understanding American food. This variety results from the range of immigrant populations that chose to make their home in the U.S., as well as the diversified climates and landscapes spread across the massive land mass of this nation. American territorial expansion has made a nation of many regional environments that allow for distinct American culinary combination and creation.[12] As diverse regions have been combined into a single nation, food types branded as “regional” – Tex-Mex, Boston baked beans, the New York bagel, among others – emerged as a way to assert a symbolic regionalism. Finally, the preponderance of mass produced foods in the U.S. further aids in this prevailing sense of placeless-ness. As Gabaccia explains: “[F]oods that are mass produced for a national market generally lose their ethnic identities in the United States.”[13] Borne in part out of commercial marketing, this quality of American food makes it easily replicable and able to exist divorced from place in a form that is at once democratizing while also hollow. Ultimately — like the other defining qualities of American food presented – placeless-ness is emblematic of the American principles of both democracy and capitalism.

Being convenient, mass, and placeless, American food embodies core American principles while reflecting on the U.S.’s imagined and real histories. America propagates a motif of “American exceptionalism,” which is informed by the often conflicting values and organizing principles of capitalism and democracy. Explaining the immigrant food experience Gabaccia states, “Consumers come to American markets expecting bounty and diversity at a low cost… along with a pleasant sensation of choice and individual freedom.”[14] American food has to some extent achieved that reality, and, in American dominance, the U.S. is engaged in active and passive efforts to spread its food ethos across the globe. What does it mean when these ideals are spread past American borders, and American food and the American way of eating becomes that of the world? First, abundance and expectations of plenty are explicitly unsustainable. The planet does not have limitless resources for us to consume. Moreover, the farming practices adopted to extract these resources in mass quantity may produce huge yields, but put undue pressure on arable land, release huge quantities of greenhouse gases (particularly from livestock), and rely on cheap labor from “disposable” migrant workers. Exporting American food culture and the expectations that come with it presents a dangerous future for our planet.

 

Image Credit: Jakub Kapusnak “Nuts and dried fruit shopping mall stand” https://foodiesfeed.com/nuts-dried-fruit-shopping-mall-stand/

 

[1] J. Eric Oliver, Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America’s Obesity Epidemic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 123.

[2] Oliver, Fat Politics, 124.

[3] Oliver, Fat Politics, 139.

[4] Hasia R Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 10.

[5] Diner, Hungering for America, 11.

[6] Diner, Hungering for America, 13.

[7] Diner, Hungering for America, 14.

[8] Oliver, Fat Politics, 134.

[9] Diner, Hungering for America, 22.

[10] Diner, Hungering for America, 53.

[11] Donna R. Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 3.

[12] Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat, 7.

[13] Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat, 226.

[14] Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat, 231.