The gastronomic culture of the United States (the homeland of fast food, a nation that spawned the world’s worst examples of bad eating) is one of the most contradictory in the world. Americans walk down streets with food constantly in hand (coffee, bagels, soft drinks, snacks), and very rarely stop for what an Italian like me would define a ‘complete meal’. Yet, it would be wrong for me to judge Americans on the basis of shallow generalizations; the fact is they never cease to surprise me.
It’s with great pleasure that I see increasing numbers of Americans taking an interest in food. Their excitement is especially acute in the way they search for quality and wholesomeness and in their exploration of the cultural element of food: yes, Americans are fascinated by how food stimulates, emotes, gives joy and satisfies. The clearest examples of America’s new understanding of food are farmers’ markets with their excellent organic produce, charming bakeries, the proliferation of artisan microbreweries and the number of coffee shops offering tastings of valuable blends. The final piece of evidence – which really secures my suspicion that Americans are not just ‘lovers of fast food’ but also gourmets and gastronomes – is the excellent quality of American winemaking.
With the recent publication in Italy of Tender at the Bone, written by Ruth Reichl, America’s most famous food critic, we can finally herald the birth of a true American cuisine. You could say that Ruth Reichl ‘invented’ or at least ‘re-invented’ the profession of food critic in the United States. Her articles in the New York Times have changed the food world, and her whole life has been dedicated to food (in part thanks to her mother’s cooking – at times horrible, and at times downright dangerous). Tender at the Bone is the autobiography of a woman who has been in the right place at the right time for most of her life. From its dawning to its current realization, Reichl has always been at the nerve centers of American cuisine: in Berkley in the 70s, later in Los Angeles, and finally in New York.
It might seem premature to talk in terms of an ‘American Cuisine,’ but Reichl, with the recipes and stories of her book, certainly does help to place American gastronomy in context. As defined by Reichl, this cuisine is absolutely fascinating. It has roots in the indigenous foods of America’s earliest inhabitants and was later formed and perfected by the contributions of myriad ethnic groups and immigrant populations. The sum of these various influences is a cuisine of high quality that, while building upon recipes and techniques from around the world, retains a distinct ‘national’ style. This is an open and welcoming cuisine, one that is constantly evolving and could eventually rival that of the French. In American cooking, you can see traces of Japan, Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa, and the interaction and harmony between these various styles of cuisine has led to the new American cuisine.
The European gastronomic world should begin to reflect seriously upon these trends in American cuisine, especially considering the fact that we Europeans are still enduring an ‘old style’ of cooking, the Americanization of Fast Food and invasion by ethnic restaurants – plus the fact that ,in our great restaurants you often find more Japanese and Americans than ‘indigenous’ Europeans. Alas, we risk being swept away by yet another form of globalization.
First published in La Stampa 19/01/02
(Adapted by Anya Fernald)