On Sunday of the past weekend, students in CSOC 117: The Anthropology of Food and Eating, gathered at my house for dinner. For the past week, we’ve been investigating anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s claim that America has no cuisine. As part of that investigation, we spent some time examining a set of American cookbooks from the first three decades of the 1900s, including Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1918), John Hay and Esther Smith’s Official Cookbook of the Hay System (1934), Sheila Hibben’s The National Cookbook: A Kitchen Americana (1932), and Fruit and Flower Mission Cookbook (1924).
By out estimation, this period in American history was an interesting time on the culinary front. Our nation had some semblance of a national media, and an expanding distribution system ensured that many Americans had access to the same produce and ingredients. Perhaps more importantly, however, the industrialization of our food supply had yet to occur. Without that industry and its advertising budgets to author the meaning(s) of the food we eat, ideas about a national cuisine and its constitution were left to those who cooked it. Those cooks were joined by a host of culinary mavens and pundit/dietitians, many of whom were explicit about their goal of codifying a national cuisine. Perhaps the best known was Eleanor Roosevelt, who reconfigured the White House kitchen to serve as a beacon for America’s emergent national cuisine.
We thought it would be a good idea to taste this culinary era. Students assembled the menu, and four of them (Elaine Stamp, Nicky Reed, Parker Raup, and Charlotte Myers-Stanhope) cooked under the supervision of Kristin Giordano (my wife). Here’s what we cooked, prepared, and ate, in the order served: banana salad, jellied meat pudding, stuffed peppers, braised calf’s heart, gnocci a la romaine, chop suey, floating island (a dessert of sorts), and sweet potato ice cream.
Our conclusion? The food was unusual to the contemporary palette, to say the least. Tastes were blander than we expected, and consistencies leaned toward puddings, custards and jellies. We were unable to discern whether some dishes were to be served as deserts, side dishes, or salads. Three species (humans, cats, and backyard chickens) rejected the jellied meat pudding. While our conversations were wide-ranging, we definitely felt that this purported national cuisine functioned more as an ideological assertion — distilling very American notions of efficiency and rejecting any index of taste and pleasure — than as a cuisine, per se.