In 1998, I convinced anthropologist Sidney Mintz to cook a Thanksgiving dinner in August. He had pronounced views on cuisine, including the view that there was not such thing as an American cuisine. I thought I could make a good piece out from conversation with him as he shopped for and cooked the meal. I was right.
A glance at the long shelves of Super Fresh could convince you that Americans are a people consumed by food. Stacked and aligned are ingredients for recipes from Mexico, Japan, Thailand, China, Italy, Morocco, France. Americans can buy from neighborhood stores a half-dozen varieties of lettuce, and exotic produce like starfruit, kiwi, lychees, white peaches, and Asian pears; ground buffalo meat, frozen rabbit, and cooked prawns; Thai peanut sauce, Swiss muesli, Polish pierogi, Indian masalas, and Icelandic salmon; squid-ink pasta, sun-dried tomatoes in oil, and canned quail’s eggs; walnut oil, sesame oil, canola oil, and rosemary-infused olive oil; hotdogs with no fat, a little fat, or lots of fat. The profusion and variety of foodstuffs in American markets are staggering. But Mintz does not look at this abundance and see a deep interest in food. He sees instead a shallow taste for novelty.
Mintz believes that Americans do not have the same deep involvement with food as do people from the various regions of France or Italy, for example, people who in his view truly understand cuisine. When Mintz uses that word, he means cooking that has developed over centuries of preparing, by traditional methods, whatever was near-at-hand. He says, “I mean both the system of foods eaten by people in a region, and the way they share a dialogue with each other about what they are eating.” This is why, in his view, all genuine cuisines are regional. They rely on the products of local agriculture and food gathering. They follow the seasons, using fresh ingredients as they become available throughout the year. (It is hard to discern the season in an American grocery, unless the staff has taped cardboard turkeys to the walls.) At their core are preparations that form the standards against which all recipes are measured.
The people who inhabit a culinary region know intimately what goes into proper kapusta, or Hasenpfeffer, or risotto. They cook from scratch, wouldn't dream of substituting ingredients, and do not expect to go to Milan and find authentic zuppa di pesce, because that is not a Milanese dish and they know that a true zuppa di pesce can be had only on the Mediterranean coast. They speak knowledgeably and have deeply held opinions about food. Says Mintz, “The notion of cuisine hinges on the ability of a community to discuss the foods they eat.” A pair of Frenchmen in Marseille, for example, can have a meaningful conversation about bouillabaisse, about the proper ingredients, preparation, acceptable variations. This conversation helps define them as citizens of a region, rooted in a tradition. Americans could not have the same conversation, he says. They do not have the same sort of fundamental, cooked-from-scratch dishes common to everyone in a community. “French bread is prepared in familiar ways by everyone in rural France,” he says. “We Americans can’t really talk about bread the same way. Do we mean by bread pita? Croissants? English muffins? Pizza dough? Matzos? Challah? What I baked yesterday if I’m middle class and snooty?”
Mintz concedes that, as an anthropologist, he has no ethnographic data to back up the claims he makes on behalf of French or Italian or Chinese diners. “There is not yet a mature anthropology of food,” he says, “or much good ethnography of everyday eating among ‘modern’ peoples. Food studies are still not considered important enough to figure clearly in academic studies.” He also admits that central to accepting his ideas about cuisine is the acceptance of his particular definition. “It’s always possible to win an argument by making up your own definitions,” he says. But for all of that, he is no less convinced that he is right.
Looking at the store shelves, he sees another aspect of American society that bespeaks its lack of culinary sophistication. Like any neighborhood grocery, this Super Fresh stocks a lot of stuff that is a long way from fresh: cardboard containers of instant ramen, frozen Southwestern vegetable medleys in pouches, heat-and-eat three-course Indian dinners, bread mixes, salad-in-a-sack, canned chow mein, jars of tandoori sauce, boxes of Hamburger Helper. Mintz surveys these offerings with the same jaundiced eye. Americans love convenience food, he says, because most of them do not care what they eat. “I have no idea why that should be so,” he says, “To me, it’s quite baffling.” But it is something that, to his dismay, is spreading to cultures that always have cared: “I never thought the French would eat frozen food. But they are now buying frozen food.”