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Original Essays | August 21, 2014 1 comment
Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is... Continue »
American Food and Drink: A History and Celebrationby Andrew F. Smith
Root's description of the event interested me enough to visit Salem, New Jersey, to look for evidence of Robert Gibbon Johnson eating a tomato. After months of looking and searching, I concluded that the event never happened. I wrote an article about who created the myth and how and why it had been so survived to such an extent that it now had reached the status of an American "legend." I submitted the article for publication in New Jersey History. I never previously wrote an article about food or history, and when this article was published, it gave me the encouragement to write other articles on tomato history. These articles were the base for my first book which told the real early history of the tomato in America. And one book led to another. So, I really do owe the spark for my food writing to Waverley Root.
Of course, culinary fakelore was not just limited to Root's book. It is, unfortunately, endemic to the field of food writing. Many other food writers (myself included) have spiced up articles and books with other such "exciting" stories, many of which have proven to be fakelore. But what has become apparent is that the real history of American food was so much more fascinating than the regularly regurgitated stories frequently repeated in newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, there is no single authoritative source on the historical and cultural dimensions of American food and drink. Hence, when offered, I jumped at the chance to serve as editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.
Food has profoundly affected American history, beginning in prehistoric times, when Old World hunters came to the New World seeking big game, to modern times, in which American agriculture helps feed the world. Food has profoundly shaped our society: It has influenced population growth and migrations, dictated economic and political changes, expanded commerce, inspired poems and literature, and precipitated the evolution and invention of lifestyles. The desire for food served at particular times and in specific ways has caused the creation of new technologies, from the earliest canning efforts to microwave ovens. Food is inherent in America's class structure. Character and status often are judged by the foods on one's table and the style and rituals involved in serving and eating them. Food has symbolic value, and food has always been important in moral and religious life. Where, what, and how one eats reflect spiritual and ethical values. Beyond nutritional value, food has psychological and emotional value. Consuming foods and beverages gratifies pleasure and relieves stress. Who acquires and prepares food has traditionally reflected gender and social status. With whom one eats and under what conditions can be a family get-together, a romantic encounter, a business matter, a status enhancer, or a religious experience. Finally, food is security and power: Those who have it survive and thrive; those who lack it languish and die.
Food is America's most important business and its largest export. Never before in the history of the world has one group of people had so much influence over the culinary lives of others. American food surpluses have saved millions of lives in other nations, and American farm subsidies and tariffs have caused economic havoc and political upheaval in Africa and Southeast Asia. Other countries are rapidly expanding their exports to the United States, and American food corporations are rapidly expanding abroad. American food corporations are at the forefront of genetic engineering research and applications. As a consequence of this technology, the world may be on the verge of a great culinary revolution or perhaps a genetic catastrophe.
The idea of an "American cuisine" is not a new phenomenon. Although the dominant culinary style in the original thirteen colonies was English, Americans adapted to new environmental conditions by creating a new cuisine. English cookbooks were published in America beginning in 1742, but few recipes that appeared in these cookbooks reflected the culinary shifts underway in North America. When Amelia Simmons wrote the first cookbook published by an American, she titled it American Cookery (1796). Many recipes in this cookbook reflected English culinary traditions, but Simmons also included New World ingredients, and many of her recipes were unlike anything in British cookbooks. In the four centuries since the English colonies were established in North America, American cookery had been greatly modified by climatic and environmental conditions in the New World, the availability of new ingredients, and numerous adoptions and adaptations from the cookery of immigrants from numerous nations, cultures, and religions.
When the United States celebrated its one hundredth birthday with the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, the notion of American culinary exceptionalism emerged. The Women's Centennial Committee posed the question: What is unique about American food? For answers, the committee queried women in all states and territories, requesting uniquely American recipes. The results were published in The National Cookery Book (1876), which was sold at the exposition. Despite 250 years of culinary drift in the New World, American cookery as reflected in the cookbook retained much of its English roots, and many recipes could be traced to their traditional British sources. The recipes demonstrated a range from slightly modified European dishes to highly unusual items, such as several from an Oneida "squaw," a dozen Jewish recipes, and several Florida recipes that demonstrated Spanish culinary heritage. Particularly interesting about the recipes in the National Cookery Book was that few survived into the twentieth century. Massive immigrations from central and eastern Europe and China, along with the industrialization of American food, greatly altered what and how Americans ate and drank, creating a bewildering kaleidoscope of changing patterns. American food has never stopped changing, and this constant innovation is perhaps its hallmark. The pace of culinary change in America and the world is accelerating, and it will likely continue to do so.
The self-evident significance of food in American history has been traditionally ignored by most historians and other academicians. America's food history has been largely told by newspaper reporters, magazine writers, and television producers. Some writers have taken the easy way out and presented nice stories rather than spend the time and energy to discern significant underlying patterns. In the early 1980s it would have been difficult to write an encyclopedia of American food and drink. Not enough serious research had been conducted to warrant such a publication, and the audience for the book would have been limited. Research into topics related to American food and drink has increased; numerous articles have appeared in academic and popular journals; and serious books on culinary topics have proliferated. Academic interest in food, particularly American food, is expanding. What has emerged is the broad-based, eclectic, and electric field of culinary studies. The field involves academicians from diverse disciplines, such as history, sociology, anthropology, economics, food studies, women's studies, and culinary arts, but it also is peopled with museum curators, professional chefs, independent scholars, cookbook authors, food writers, librarians, and foodies. Although practitioners have approached their studies from different perspectives using different methods and different vocabularies, each has illuminated slices of America's real culinary past. When these diverse works are sifted and amalgamated, a fascinating tale of American food and drink emerges. It is action packed, peopled with home cooks and fancy restaurateurs, family farmers and corporate giants, captains of industry and street vendors, mom-and-pop grocers and massive food conglomerates, burger barons and vegetarians, the hungry and the affluent, hard-hitting advertisers and health food advocates, those who make medical claims and home economists, slow food advocates and fast food consumers, and ethnic and religious groups of every flavor.
The intent behind the Oxford Encyclopedia for Food and Drink in America is to pull the research together and introduce these novel findings to a wider audience. The objective is to make a major contribution by bringing together in one authoritative reference work the best scholarship on the history of American food. The 770 entries summarize knowledge on this large theme. The authors of the entries reflect the eclectic nature of the culinary history field. Considerable effort has gone into the planning of this project, which has drawn on the expertise of researchers with a variety of interests. The Encyclopedia has been designed in such a way as to combine historical, descriptive, and analytical articles with synthetic and interpretive essays.
This encyclopedia is not intended to be comprehensive and it does not include every possible topic. Because of the eclectic nature of American gastronomy, the Encyclopedia covers a wide range of topics, but it only scratches the surface of most topics. It is not intended as the final word on American food and drink. Extensive bibliographic resources are provided for most entries and in the appendices to suggest directions for readers interested in knowing more about American gastronomy. This encyclopedia is also intended to point the way to future research and growth.
The study of American food and drink is rapidly expanding, it is anticipated that this encyclopedia will be revised regularly to include new works and perspectives. Therefore, the editors and writers of the Encyclopedia look forward to hearing from Powells.com readers about what they liked and what needs to be improved or added in future editions.