Americans should not be ashamed of our food culture
When I wrote the James Beard Award-winning cookbook “It’s ALL American Food” roughly 20 years ago, things were starting to change in what we eat as a nation. I captured some of this in the book’s introduction, an excerpt from which is republished here. All of these trends have since accelerated, making America a vastly changed gastronomic place in 2017.
What pleases me the most is that the heart and soul of this piece is so close to the heart of soul of the Flavored Nation event coming up Oct. 28 and 29 in St. Louis: The glorification of real American food, the things that real Americans eat, has been the foodie agenda for decades.
It’s All American Food
Pierre Hermé, the pastry and chocolate god of Paris, and I were judges together at a chef’s competition in the unlikely setting of Reykjavik, Iceland. At the start of the competition, the judges walked directly behind the chefs through a very large, bright, American-style supermarket in the ingredient-gathering phase of the event. When the judges returned to the judge’s room, I noticed that Pierre and his wife, the wonderfully food-obsessed Frédérick Grasser-Hermé, were themselves clutching a bag from the supermarket.
“You bought something!” I exclaimed.
“Oui,” said they.
“What is it?” asked I.
“Ell-man’s mayonnaise,” they said proudly.
“Oh? Why?” I asked, somewhat startled.
“Because it is the best,” said Frédérick.
“As good as the mayonnaise you make at home?” I asked.
“Much, much bett-AIR,” said Pierre.
“And you’re buying it in Iceland, because ...?” I asked.
“Because we cannot find it in France. So we buy a lot of it wherever we can find some.”
Now, I guarantee that this comes as a shock to many American foodies. I am certain that were Pierre and Frédérick to be visiting their American-foodie homes, and were the menu to include mayonnaise, out would come the old mixing bowl, the whisk, the egg yolks, the Provençal olive oil, and on would go 30 minutes of vigorous beating and emulsifying. And to the great surprise of the earnest American foodies, Pierre and Frédérick would be secretly disappointed!
But this is our national delusion and our self-imposed national shame. We feel guilty about using convenience products. We often use them in cooking for ourselves, but many of us even feel guilty about that when we do it. Some would rather go through contorted gastronomic hoops to extract a small bit of fresh garlic flavor in a sauce than simply sprinkle on a little garlic powder. The latter practice, to this crowd, is cheating. It doesn’t matter how good the finished product is; if you cheated to get there, the dish is flawed.
Here are a just a few “cheating” ingredients that most foodies secretly love, that have the ability to make foods taste great, that most foodies rarely admit to using, and that should by all rights come out of the cupboard:
- Hellman’s Mayonnaise, or Best Foods Mayonnaise. The big one, the secret love of almost everyone in the U.S., whether he or she admits it or not. Pierre and Frédérick Hermé are right: can you imagine a tuna salad sandwich with homemade mayo? I’m not saying it’d be bad, but it sure wouldn’t be what most of us expect. Homemade mayo has a great place in classical European cuisines — when it’s used like an almost-runny sauce to coat, say, room-temperature poached chicken breasts, I’m all for it. But the stiffer American Hellmann’s version, with less of a pronounced oily taste, first marketed in 1912 and today called Best Foods Mayonnaise west of the Rockies, is much better suited for the delicious kinds of salads and sandwiches that we make in this country. Admit it: it’s great stuff!
- Heinz Ketchup. Can you imagine a burger without ketchup on it, particularly the kind of rich, sweet, tomato-ey stuff exemplified by Heinz? Starting in the 1980s, many a New Wave do-it-yourselfer embarked on homemade ketchup projects, because there was a stigma attached to the Heinz product. It seemed too mundane. Well, I’ve liked many a homemade ketchup, but they’re always different from Heinz, usually mucked up a bit, never as simply satisfying on a burger.
- French’s Mustard. You probably won’t hear too many foodies confessing, even under duress, to a secret preference for French’s mustard; to many palates, the darker, spicier Dijon-style mustard is superior. However, the thin, vinegary, turmeric-scented French’s product is delicious in its proper American context. It’s a perfect fit on ballpark hot dogs, and no tart Southern Mustard Slaw could be taken seriously with Dijon mustard in it.
- Garlic powder. Many food snobs abhor the idea of using garlic powder when garlic is called for in a recipe. I would go so far as to say, in fact, that Cajun/Creole cuisine took a PR plunge around the country when cooks discovered that both garlic powder and onion powder are used extensively in Louisiana cooking. But there’s no real reason for this unease, especially when you apply a most important principle: a “convenience” product should never be viewed as a substitute for the “real” product. Yes, if you think about the ways in which you enjoy “real” garlic, and then think about substituting garlic powder, you may well be resistant to the switch. I, for example, love the taste of fresh garlic in Linguine with White Clam Sauce, and would never dream of substituting garlic powder there. But, for example, in the dry rub for Blackened Redfish, or in the Maryland steamed crab coating, or in the seasoning for Southern Fried Chicken, a good garlic powder is just the thing you want. It’s not just that it’s easier to use, it also carries the flavor better. It is not “cheating!”
- Margarine. Once upon a time, margarine was touted as a healthy alternative to butter, and it was during this period that many incipient foodies learned to use the old oleo. Then came the fall: the revelation that margarine is not better for you than butter is. And the revelation that, due to the creation of something called trans fat in margarine-making, it may be worse. So ask a foodie today about margarine, and you’ll probably be told (proudly) that he or she hasn’t purchased any in 20 years. Typical snobbery. In reality, there are some good uses for margarine. It adds color to pastry. It keeps its flavor better than butter does after long cooking. In some cooking situations, food cooked with margarine, or part margarine, seems less greasy than food cooked with butter alone. Lastly — and most important — it has a higher smoking point than butter, so you run a lower risk with margarine of burning or over-browning food. Paul Prudhomme, an American master of bringing food in a pan to its peak, wrote in “Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen”: “I use margarine, often with butter, instead of oil ... I usually prefer the taste of margarine to olive or vegetable oil for frying when butter is also being used.”
As a California friend said to me: “I’ve had it with screening out ‘gastronomically incorrect’ ingredients. It’s silly. I now feel this: If it tastes good, use it.”
Love what you eat, eat what you love
Why do we assign some kind of quality hierarchy to different types of food? I can love a great dish in a three-star restaurant in France as much as the next palate does, but am I on some different plane of being when my palate lights up over a BLT? Is it a different order of experience? I think not! We’re not comparing different forms of, say, love: parental, platonic, devotional, romantic. We’re talking about sensations experienced on your tongue. Is the source of one pleasure-giving sensation to be ranked higher in some bizarre taxonomy than the source of another pleasure-giving sensation? There’s nothing “better,” or “finer” about great food at a three-star restaurant compared to great food in your kitchen. It certainly is different food, but why should the taste sensations at one place make you feel like you’re living correctly, while the taste sensations in your kitchen make you feel like an aesthetic miscreant?
These days, I think it’s more important than ever to preserve our informal, down-home traditions. For what you can get in the fancy restaurants of New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco is not awfully different anymore from what you can get in the fancy restaurants of Paris, Madrid, Tokyo and Sydney. What you cannot get outside of the U.S. is American barbecue, Maryland crab feasts, Chicago hot dogs, Santa Fe comfort food, Pacific Northwest salmon roasts, Cal-Mex burritos and tacos, delicious American pies and cakes.
If we can learn to apprehend a perfect tomato in the south of Italy with a gorgeous drop of olive oil and a terrific grain of coarse salt on it as great food, the kind that deserves respect, the kind that’s ennobling to eat, can’t we learn to think the same way about a New England Lobster Roll, made with Hellman’s Mayonnaise?