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American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way

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For centuries, skeptical foreigners—and even millions of Americans—have believed there was no such thing as American cuisine. In recent decades, hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza have been thought to define the nation’s palate. Not so, says food historian Paul Freedman, who demonstrates that there is an exuberant and diverse, if not always coherent, American cuisine that For centuries, skeptical foreigners—and even millions of Americans—have believed there was no such thing as American cuisine. In recent decades, hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza have been thought to define the nation’s palate. Not so, says food historian Paul Freedman, who demonstrates that there is an exuberant and diverse, if not always coherent, American cuisine that reflects the history of the nation itself. Combining historical rigor and culinary passion, Freedman underscores three recurrent themes—regionality, standardization, and variety—that shape a completely novel history of the United States. From the colonial period until after the Civil War, there was a patchwork of regional cooking styles that produced local standouts, such as gumbo from southern Louisiana, or clam chowder from New England. Later, this kind of regional identity was manipulated for historical effect, as in Southern cookbooks that mythologized gracious “plantation hospitality,” rendering invisible the African Americans who originated much of the region’s food. As the industrial revolution produced rapid changes in every sphere of life, the American palate dramatically shifted from local to processed. A new urban class clamored for convenient, modern meals and the freshness of regional cuisine disappeared, replaced by packaged and standardized products—such as canned peas, baloney, sliced white bread, and jarred baby food. By the early twentieth century, the era of homogenized American food was in full swing. Bolstered by nutrition “experts,” marketing consultants, and advertising executives, food companies convinced consumers that industrial food tasted fine and, more importantly, was convenient and nutritious. No group was more susceptible to the blandishments of advertisers than women, who were made feel that their husbands might stray if not satisfied with the meals provided at home. On the other hand, men wanted women to be svelte, sporty companions, not kitchen drudges. The solution companies offered was time-saving recipes using modern processed helpers. Men supposedly liked hearty food, while women were portrayed as fond of fussy, “dainty,” colorful, but tasteless dishes—tuna salad sandwiches, multicolored Jell-O, or artificial crab toppings. The 1970s saw the zenith of processed-food hegemony, but also the beginning of a food revolution in California. What became known as New American cuisine rejected the blandness of standardized food in favor of the actual taste and pleasure that seasonal, locally grown products provided. The result was a farm-to-table trend that continues to dominate. “A book to be savored” (Stephen Aron), American Cuisine is also a repository of anecdotes that will delight food lovers: how dry cereal was created by William Kellogg for people with digestive and low-energy problems; that chicken Parmesan, the beloved Italian favorite, is actually an American invention; and that Florida Key lime pie goes back only to the 1940s and was based on a recipe developed by Borden’s condensed milk. More emphatically, Freedman shows that American cuisine would be nowhere without the constant influx of immigrants, who have popularized everything from tacos to sushi rolls. “Impeccably researched, intellectually satisfying, and hugely readable” (Simon Majumdar), American Cuisine is a landmark work that sheds astonishing light on a history most of us thought we never had.


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For centuries, skeptical foreigners—and even millions of Americans—have believed there was no such thing as American cuisine. In recent decades, hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza have been thought to define the nation’s palate. Not so, says food historian Paul Freedman, who demonstrates that there is an exuberant and diverse, if not always coherent, American cuisine that For centuries, skeptical foreigners—and even millions of Americans—have believed there was no such thing as American cuisine. In recent decades, hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza have been thought to define the nation’s palate. Not so, says food historian Paul Freedman, who demonstrates that there is an exuberant and diverse, if not always coherent, American cuisine that reflects the history of the nation itself. Combining historical rigor and culinary passion, Freedman underscores three recurrent themes—regionality, standardization, and variety—that shape a completely novel history of the United States. From the colonial period until after the Civil War, there was a patchwork of regional cooking styles that produced local standouts, such as gumbo from southern Louisiana, or clam chowder from New England. Later, this kind of regional identity was manipulated for historical effect, as in Southern cookbooks that mythologized gracious “plantation hospitality,” rendering invisible the African Americans who originated much of the region’s food. As the industrial revolution produced rapid changes in every sphere of life, the American palate dramatically shifted from local to processed. A new urban class clamored for convenient, modern meals and the freshness of regional cuisine disappeared, replaced by packaged and standardized products—such as canned peas, baloney, sliced white bread, and jarred baby food. By the early twentieth century, the era of homogenized American food was in full swing. Bolstered by nutrition “experts,” marketing consultants, and advertising executives, food companies convinced consumers that industrial food tasted fine and, more importantly, was convenient and nutritious. No group was more susceptible to the blandishments of advertisers than women, who were made feel that their husbands might stray if not satisfied with the meals provided at home. On the other hand, men wanted women to be svelte, sporty companions, not kitchen drudges. The solution companies offered was time-saving recipes using modern processed helpers. Men supposedly liked hearty food, while women were portrayed as fond of fussy, “dainty,” colorful, but tasteless dishes—tuna salad sandwiches, multicolored Jell-O, or artificial crab toppings. The 1970s saw the zenith of processed-food hegemony, but also the beginning of a food revolution in California. What became known as New American cuisine rejected the blandness of standardized food in favor of the actual taste and pleasure that seasonal, locally grown products provided. The result was a farm-to-table trend that continues to dominate. “A book to be savored” (Stephen Aron), American Cuisine is also a repository of anecdotes that will delight food lovers: how dry cereal was created by William Kellogg for people with digestive and low-energy problems; that chicken Parmesan, the beloved Italian favorite, is actually an American invention; and that Florida Key lime pie goes back only to the 1940s and was based on a recipe developed by Borden’s condensed milk. More emphatically, Freedman shows that American cuisine would be nowhere without the constant influx of immigrants, who have popularized everything from tacos to sushi rolls. “Impeccably researched, intellectually satisfying, and hugely readable” (Simon Majumdar), American Cuisine is a landmark work that sheds astonishing light on a history most of us thought we never had.

30 review for American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way

  1. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

    I won this Advanced Uncorrected Proof in a Goodreads Giveaway. As an Advanced Uncorrected Proof, it certainly needed more editing! That is my main reason for the 4 star rating. It still needs a bit of improvement! Still, I managed to get through it all and not lose sight of what was being said in the book. Likewise, I hope my review does not suffer from poor editing. I certainly apologize, in advance, if it does. As a person who enjoys history and food, I found this book a delightful combination I won this Advanced Uncorrected Proof in a Goodreads Giveaway. As an Advanced Uncorrected Proof, it certainly needed more editing! That is my main reason for the 4 star rating. It still needs a bit of improvement! Still, I managed to get through it all and not lose sight of what was being said in the book. Likewise, I hope my review does not suffer from poor editing. I certainly apologize, in advance, if it does. As a person who enjoys history and food, I found this book a delightful combination of these two subject matters! For the last 16 years, I have been on a quest to understand food, nutrition and its effect on human health and in particular, its role in both contributing to autoimmune disease and in preventing and helping to manage symptoms of autoimmune disease. I have been on this quest for personal reasons and not as a formal course of study. For many years, I have searched and read many websites, history and food and nutrition books, and gotten many answers and solutions—(I do have multiple allergies and food intolerances). (For some people things like gluten, soy, sulfites, along with many other common and not so common allergy inducing foods/ingredients are indeed toxic and not just avoided due to personal choice). Still I wanted to learn more about how the American diet had gotten this way. I had the small picture and I wanted the bigger societal picture. Until this book none had ever promised to explain to me how our daily meals got this way. Needless to say, I was very intrigued when I saw this book listed in the Goodreads Giveaways! (Thank you for offering it Liveright!) Having grown up a child of the 1970s, in what I felt was a modern time of great innovation and change, I had always felt that my generation had been the first "processed food generation." We had been the guinea pigs and were now suffering the ramifications of the modern society we were forced to grow up in or so I also believed. We lived through the era of moms heading off to work, of women rebelling against women's things like cooking and tending house and of a new found convenience in food distributed by giant corporations both in and out of the home. I had never known how far back in history processed foods had taken a hold on the American diet. This was a very big eye-opener for me. I no longer see my parents or grandparents as most certainly being raised on "wholesome foods-back in the nostalgically idyllic good old day" that sometimes makes its way into my mind. Many factors dictated what people were able and chose to eat back then just as they do today. Many of those factors are not the same, while many more are: financial standing, exposure to outside influences in the various media forums, upbringing to name a few. While reading this book, I remembered my college history professor saying that "these are the good old days." That is, today is always the idyllic good old day. Today we can look back at all that has come before us and make our own reality better, the caveat though is that we must know our past. When it comes to food and nutrition, I know quite a bit. When it comes to American food history, I have to concede that while I did understand my family food history, to a great extent, I didn’t understand how many foods became a part of my family diet. It was very interesting for me to read the parts that dealt with the Basque Country, Catalonia, the American Southwest, and Northern Mexico since I have ancestors from all of those areas. It was a very nice addition to all my prior historical readings on the Iberian peninsula and Spain's later influence in the Western Hemisphere of which I am a direct product of. While I can readily identify Pre-Columbian American fruits, vegetables, grains and animals due to my prior studies and due to the fact that I am both an avid cook and gardener. I was still able to learn a lot about American food history, that I didn't know. In the book, the author touched upon many food realities: the industrial food complex; the organic movement; obesity, the melting pot of America; the lack of “authenticity” of the “authentic”; the legitimate authentic; the blending of Old World and New World foods yesterday and today, and where it may be heading in the future; and the role media has played in creating American Cuisine to name a few. It was interesting, albeit a tiny bit too meandering and wordy in its attempt to cover just a bit too much—(like my prior sentence! Ha!). All in all, I found American Cuisine And How it Got This Way to be a very educational and enjoyable read. I am very happy to have won this book. I really enjoyed reading it. I intend to apply the knowledge I learned in it in a very practical way. It is a book I will pass on to my daughters to read as they have been on my food knowledge quest along with me for as long as I am sure they can remember.

  2. 4 out of 5

    John Gustafson

    Thanks to W.W. Norton & Company and the Liveright imprint for giving me an advanced readers copy of this book! This food history dates from colonial times (but focuses mostly on the 1890s and the beginnings of mass food production onward) and provides necessary complications to a number of simple notions about American cuisine. Over the decades, our national cuisine has been conceived of as being traditionless, as consisting of regional dishes, or as reflecting a melting pot of immigrants, Thanks to W.W. Norton & Company and the Liveright imprint for giving me an advanced readers copy of this book! This food history dates from colonial times (but focuses mostly on the 1890s and the beginnings of mass food production onward) and provides necessary complications to a number of simple notions about American cuisine. Over the decades, our national cuisine has been conceived of as being traditionless, as consisting of regional dishes, or as reflecting a melting pot of immigrants, and it turns out that none of these notions stands on its own, although they each have some root in reality and color each other. In addition, our relationship with European traditions about what constitutes haute cuisine is much more fraught than I expected. The best chapter, "Women and Food in the Twentieth Century," also does the most cultural work, showing how convenience foods were driven far more by corporate priorities than homemakers' preferences, although the exact opposite was perceived, leaving female consumers and their supposedly timid tastes with the blame for the blandness of mass produced foods. It turns out that the notion that women have a pronounced "sweet tooth" or otherwise different culinary tastes than men is one that Freedman is unable to find before the twentieth century, and American women actually provided a fair amount of resistance to the products they are supposed to have greeted as their liberators from the kitchen. I wanted to see some more analysis like this with regards to race; Freedman acknowledges that slaves' intellectual contributions in particular have been systematically ignored through centuries of food writing, but he doesn't uncover much to correct the record. The last hundred pages or so, bringing us through the seventies into the present, are largely concerned with the renaissance in local terroir and simple presentation of ingredients most famously identified with the work of Alice Waters. It's an interesting exploration of some important work, but it's also frustratingly unsatisfying: an alien reading those chapters could be forgiven for thinking that Americans had rejected processed and fast food altogether in favor of healthy and flavorful alternatives. It's not until the afterward that Freedman corrects the impression, but he explains the continuing prevalence of McDonalds as a result of the slowness of cultural change rather than, to my mind, more interesting and likely economic phenomena including wealth inequality and problems of scalability. Freedman credits millennials with shifting significant market share from traditional companies like Nestlé to smaller manufacturers like Amy's Kitchen but doesn't question how different Amy's is, beyond consumer perception, from those longstanding behemoths. And he cites the spread of Whole Foods as a reflection of Americans' shifting values but, again, ignores the economics. Is Whole Foods really part of a healthier and more ecologically responsible food infrastructure, or is it a cynical profit grab for the sector of the market wishing for such a thing? (You can guess where my own suspicions lie.) Still, the genuinely good news, even if much of it is priced beyond many of our means, is good to read about.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Csimplot Simplot

    Excellent book!!!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    3.5 stars. This is a fun introduction to American cuisine. It's midway between a popular work and an academic work. A good place to start--when you get to a part that particularly interests you, look in the footnotes and see what books were referenced and then read those to go more in depth. The author repeats himself in parts, not just with info but with throwaway jokes, and I think more editing would have gone a long way. Occasionally there are sections where important info seemed to be left 3.5 stars. This is a fun introduction to American cuisine. It's midway between a popular work and an academic work. A good place to start--when you get to a part that particularly interests you, look in the footnotes and see what books were referenced and then read those to go more in depth. The author repeats himself in parts, not just with info but with throwaway jokes, and I think more editing would have gone a long way. Occasionally there are sections where important info seemed to be left out. I found myself re-reading paragraphs wondering, "surely he must have mentioned the name of the restaurant being referenced" and such. Sample recipes were an entertaining touch. Overall I found it a bit too general, too much of an overview without enough details or analysis beyond the most obvious. As an example--by chance I started to read the section on "the Mediterranean diet" just after reading about the same topic in Bill Bryson's recent book on the human body. Bryson goes into much more detail on the topic than Freedman, and while I wouldn't expect Freedman's book to go too deep into the controversies or science related to the diet a bit more context and info would have helped.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Linda Bond

    It’s time for dinner and we have a decision to make. Should we have Chinese or Italian, or how about some Thai at that new little restaurant that just opened across the street? Maybe sushi or a sit-down at a fancy French restaurant? So many styles of cooking, but where is American in all this? That’s the question Paul Freedman has set out to answer and he does so admirably. Taking on the history of food in America, he gives us a 200-year course in everything from ethnic foods, to desserts, to It’s time for dinner and we have a decision to make. Should we have Chinese or Italian, or how about some Thai at that new little restaurant that just opened across the street? Maybe sushi or a sit-down at a fancy French restaurant? So many styles of cooking, but where is American in all this? That’s the question Paul Freedman has set out to answer and he does so admirably. Taking on the history of food in America, he gives us a 200-year course in everything from ethnic foods, to desserts, to great chefs and restaurants. So is there actually something that can be called American Cuisine? I’ll leave that for you to discover inside these pages. Have fun!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stuart Miller

    If you've already read fairly extensively about American food ways, you probably won't learn all that much by reading this title. However, it is a knowledgeable and comprehensive overview of the subject of just what constitutes "American cuisine" [and read "United States" for "American"] which, according to the author, is characterized by regional cooking styles, standardization compliments of large industrial food companies, and a never ending quest for variety and new taste experiences.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Cathy

    Just abandoned. It was a little academic and I struggled to get through it before it was due back to the library. Interesting, though not what I thought it would be. Biggest takeaway? There was once vegetable-flavored Jell-O.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    Not really great on audio

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    This was a very interesting book. Unfortunately, the length of the audiobook combined with the busyness of my life meant that it took me nearly a month to finish it, and I don't think I benefited from Freedman's argument, which seemed well reasoned and well structured. He also includes many place names, recipes, and other items that would have been easier to appreciate in text form. Still, I definitely recommend this to anyone interested in American food history who doesn't mind a slightly more This was a very interesting book. Unfortunately, the length of the audiobook combined with the busyness of my life meant that it took me nearly a month to finish it, and I don't think I benefited from Freedman's argument, which seemed well reasoned and well structured. He also includes many place names, recipes, and other items that would have been easier to appreciate in text form. Still, I definitely recommend this to anyone interested in American food history who doesn't mind a slightly more academic tome.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Linda Swick

    I’m taking my time reading this book. So far it’s very interesting.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jackie Latham

    I felt he was a blowhard who has no idea that American Cuisine is a combination of our melting pot culture. He looked his nose down on the weird mid-century recipes & the simple foods of the working class. He completely ignores the midwest.. the land of farming & stockyards because of trains. He continued to go back to Southern foods of junior league women or the upscale restaurants of the east. I got through over half the book & if he didnt mention fried chicken then he mentioned I felt he was a blowhard who has no idea that American Cuisine is a combination of our melting pot culture. He looked his nose down on the weird mid-century recipes & the simple foods of the working class. He completely ignores the midwest.. the land of farming & stockyards because of trains. He continued to go back to Southern foods of junior league women or the upscale restaurants of the east. I got through over half the book & if he didnt mention fried chicken then he mentioned fish of the eastern seaboard. My mother told me stories of bean sandwiches in the depression & the vegetables they grew during WW 2 in Chicago. He spoke of that period of unique food as if it was some kind quirk no its because what was available through either lack of money or ration. This author needs to stick to medieval times that is his forte in his fancy elitist eastern ivy school

  12. 4 out of 5

    Carol

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Easterly

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sharifah Al-Ghamdi

  15. 4 out of 5

    Anna

  16. 4 out of 5

    Vicki Erdmann

  17. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Fox

  18. 4 out of 5

    Vanessa

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sumi

  20. 5 out of 5

    Karen

  21. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ron Frampton

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nicole Iovino

  24. 4 out of 5

    Paige

  25. 4 out of 5

    Liveright Publishing

  26. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  27. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bobby Walsh

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

  30. 4 out of 5

    Wsickler

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