“American culture” is of such a broad scope, with so many influences form around the globe, that to pin down a specific definition or blanket statement of what American culture is would be incredibly difficult, and easy to argue about. When you incorporate food into the conversation, the influences broaden dramatically, from Native American influences to the influence of the generations of immigrants who came to America seeking a brighter future, and the influence of the people who were brought to the U.S.A. during the slave trade, it is a fact that the foods we eat in the United States have had so many hands influencing it, a purely American food culture would be pretty impossible to define.
Over time the many regions within the United States have developed distinct food cultures based on those who settled them, were brought there, or were there already, and for many the foods of their home is one they are proud of and rightly so, however to proclaim any of these food cultures are solely of that region would be to look through a very narrow scope, leaving out the many people whose culture influenced that cuisine. In future posts I will look at more specific American regional food cultures with an attempt at incorporating the influences that helped create it. If I leave anybody out please contact me, I am a researcher, but by no means an expert.
There are a few food items that have become associated as American. A common phrase you may hear is “As American as apple pie” although it did not originate here, and if you speak to almost any American who has been out of the country for any length of time a cheeseburger is often very high on their priority list upon returning home.
There are many food items that are associated with the cultures of other countries that were invented or developed in America. Some of these include General Tsao’s Chicken, Nachos, Chimichangas, Alfredo sauce, and fortune cookies just to name a few. True most were invented by people whose background is from the countries associated with these “ethnic foods” however they are part of the fabric that makes up American food culture.
For many, American food culture is a fast food culture. This is a rapidly growing culture globally, causing health issues as well as a decline in the beautiful food cultures of the world. Fast food is by nature convenient and affordable for most, and all of it isn’t unhealthy, but most of it is. The growth of this cheap convenience food over the last few decades has resulted in the growth of our waistband as well as a wealth of other health issues related to poor nutrition. Fewer and fewer people are learning how to cook even in the midst of our growing “foodie culture”, especially those in lower income areas. Our children need to learn life skills in school not just math and science, if every child finished school with a basic knowledge of cooking, and a handful of recipes great strides would be made toward fixing the health problems associated with poor nutrition.
Another part of the American food culture and at least in part due to the fast food business has been the rise of the mega farms. While large scale farming is good from a business standpoint, it does little from a nutrition standpoint. Don’t get me wrong the many things you can do with corn creates many opportunities that are great for America and the world, but nutrition isn’t one of them. I’m not saying we shouldn’t eat corn. A nice buttery, salty, cob of corn fresh off the grill is a summer treat that brings me great comfort, but the many ways corn is added into our food provides no source of nutrition. The farm bill while initially a good idea during the great depression has become inequitable, creating a system that pays subsidies to farmers who grow things such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy, and livestock, ensuring unhealthy additives and sweeteners are cheap and widely available in our food system, instead of the variety of fruits and vegetables that were more broadly grown in small scale farms providing a wide variety of healthy options. I’m do not believe that a full return to small scale family farming is realistic, or that it would even come close to solving the issue of hunger in our world. I do believe however that a movement away from the commodity system and toward a wider variety of whole food options is necessary. As with most things there is no easy answer, and rather than being one thing or the other, some sort of a meeting in the middle is necessary. I know this is probably a pipe dream.
One of the side effects of this American fast food culture is the rise of “food deserts” a food desert, is an area often in low income sections of cities, and in rural farming communities where easy access to healthy nutritious food is extremely difficult to find. It’s ironic that those living surrounded by vast oceans of food have difficulty accessing something good to eat. In the city instead of grocery stores there are convenience stores and fast food restaurants, and what little healthy food is available is often financially out of reach. There are many people and programs who are working to improve health and nutrition nationwide as well as globally.
One organization you should check out is called Harlem Grown whose mission is to inspire youth to lead healthy and ambitious lives through mentorship and hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition. Check them out at harlemgrown.org
Another is the Ron Finley project. Ron Finley “The Gansta Gardener” started by planting vegetables in the curbside strip next to his home. “Ron envisions a world where gardening is gangsta, where cool kids know their nutrition and where communities embrace the act of growing, knowing and sharing the best of the earth’s fresh-grown food.” This quote was copied from, ronfinley.com/the-ron-finley-project/
Take a look at these two and other organizations attempting to create a better world through food and education, and if you can help them out.
“As chefs, we cook to please people, to nourish people.”