Any attempt to define American food culture leads, inevitably, to a realization that no singular, overarching food culture exists in America. Harvard professor Joyce Chaplin, who teaches a course on American food history, explains, “One of the big points about American food culture is that there isn’t one.” Chaplin is not indicating that America has no food culture. The operative word here is certainly one. Instead, America’s diverse gastronomical landscape, formed over the years by a steady influx of immigrants, draws from a variety of food cultures, with origins around the globe.
The diversity of American food cultures and practices can be used as an asset in efforts to solve fundamental environmental, social, and health dilemmas facing America today. While America may lack a unifying food culture, there are certainly food practices that span all genres of American cooking, many of which are not only unhealthy, but damaging to the environment.
The Wrong Ingredients for the Wrong Recipes
A defining characteristic of food in America is the overemphasis placed on meat. According to Michael Romano, named Best Chef in New York in 2001 and who has studied cooking around the world, one fundamental difference between the US and other nations is that, “Nowhere [else] in the world do you see such a massive consumption of protein in daily diets.” As he explained to the HPR, raising livestock exacts a heavy toll on the environment and is unsustainable in the long term. Due to the United State’s large size and space to cultivate livestock, Americans have been able to escape these problems and enjoy a food culture based largely on the consumption of meat.
Furthermore, many Americans, when considering food, often forget about seasonality. Through her travels in Southeast Asia, food journalist and blogger Karen Coates concluded that an awareness of seasonality becomes increasingly difficult with improved access to foods both in and out of season. “We have so much access here to food from all over the world at any time of the year,” she described in an interview with the HPR. “It’s difficult for Americans to think of not having bananas in store all year round.”
According to Romano, Americans are “divorced from the reality of our food” and ignorant of its origins due to continuous access to a wide variety of foods. While it is common in other cultures to see whole chickens hanging in butcher shops, most Americans think of chicken as something that comes pre-packaged in Styrofoam. Many supermarkets in Japan feature photographs of the farmers who raised the produce. In the US, however, most food products bear little evidence of their origins once they have reached grocery shelves. This depersonalization of food in America decreases consumer awareness of food sources and makes it more difficult to conceptualize the importance of seasonality in purchasing and cooking habits.
Changing America’s Grocery Lists
Solving the problems with American food culture will require a fundamental shift in perspectives about food. Robyn Eckhardt, a food and travel journalist specializing in Asian and Turkish cuisines, suggests that Americans should treat food more like an occasion, as is common in Mediterranean culture. Eckhardt explained to the HPR, “You’re not going to linger over a Twinkie, but you might be compelled to linger over a fresh croissant.” Eckhardt similarly suggests that Americans should prioritize quality over quantity or cost in their diets. Americans are renowned for their large portions, but size is not always beneficial. “People will often judge a meal by how big the piece of fish was or how much they paid,” notes Eckhardt, instead of focusing on “appreciating well-made food.”
Stressing quality over quantity can lead to sustainable methods of living, particularly with regard to meat consumption. Coates notes that meat is almost a side note in many other cultures and that “a lot of people make vegetables or herbs the focus of the meal” instead. As a result, diets in such cultures are healthier for people and for the environment.
Furthermore, emphasizing quality may help shift views about seasonality. As Coates indicates, eating local and seasonal food is something that people in other cultures have been doing for centuries. In Thailand, a country known for devising seasonal recipes, the northern Thai vegetable curry, gaeng hhae, is a prime example of a dish which varies its vegetable components based on the season.
Hitting the (Cook)Books
Beyond merely changing their perspectives on food, Americans need to put more work into their food. As Michael Pollan argues in his book, In Defense of Food, “For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life.” Today, Americans are primarily concerned with “food that is fast, cheap, and easy” and are increasingly prone to diet-related illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer. Good health and good eating are the simple, yet vital, rewards of putting more work into food.
In order to change the way they treat food, Americans must become more mindful of food they are eating. Eckhardt suggests that education can help inspire people to spend more time eating and making good food. Magazines, television shows, and food blogs can increase interest in healthy food, introduce different culinary styles, and teach simple cooking techniques to readers and watchers. “People need to be shown that eating good food doesn’t mean eating a plain steamed piece of fish and vegetables with no seasoning,” she said.
There is also much to do outside of the kitchen to change the way Americans relate to food. Nonetheless, Coates believes that “there are a lot of small things that people can certainly do without going out of their way.” She particularly recommends getting involved with gardening, composting, and shopping locally. By learning more about how food is made and how food can be used, Americans will become more conscientious of the links between food, health, and the environment. With inspiration from other food cultures and adopting some of those cultures’ food practices, American food culture can take a turn for the better.