Part 5 in the ongoing series What Would Jesus Eat? asks about food culture in America. Do we have one? Does it matter?
Barbara Kingsolver posited that “Food is at the center of every culture” and Mark Olson often says on his radio show that agriculture, the ability to produce a surplus of food, is the very foundation on which civilization is built. Obviously there is a surplus of food in the world. I’m not sure if what we have is really civilization or what exactly that means. But I do know a food culture when I see one.
You know exactly what it means when you talk about French cuisine… wine and bread, cheeses and soufflés to name a few. When someone says Italian food, you know that you’re getting pasta of all kinds and pizza. You know there will be garlic involved as well. If I said let’s go get some Japanese food, you’d be gearing up for some sushi rolls, seaweed, rice and soy sauce. Obviously there’s even more to these food cultures than I’ve mentioned, but the difference between French and Chinese food is crystal clear.
So, what is American* cuisine? Do we have a food culture? In some ways this question is unfair. The United States is huge. There are numerous identifiable regions that are bigger than most other countries, such as The South. There are also a wide variety of foods found in different regions. Southwestern food is prominent in New Mexico. The best I can figure it mainly involves as much corn as possible in every dish along with plenty of peppers. Creole can be found in Louisiana (gumbo, jambalaya, mud bugs, etc.). Soul Food (collard greens, fried chicken ) is associated with African American culture. Southern food includes chicken fried steak (my personal fave growing up), barbecue and iced tea. Not to mention the food cultures that a nation of immigrants brought with it and our beloved franchises have made ubiquitous across the U.S. You can’t get away from pizza, mexican food or Chinese no matter where you go.
This still doesn’t answer the question. Do we have a food culture? Perhaps we should be asking what exactly makes up a food culture. Research has shown that countries with a food culture like France or Italy or Japan are much healthier even though our understanding of nutrition says that they eat unhealthy. This is partly because when you break down their food culture you find that they put together foods that naturally complement each other and provide the most health bang per bite.
So, if by food culture we mean simply what kind of foods a particular nation or group of people eats, then everyone has a food culture. If, on the other hand, we mean a traditional way of eating that has proven through time to be both beneficial to our health and our taste buds, then the answer is a resounding no. Either definition and either answer is fine. Both provide us with insight into some of the problems with the way we eat in America.
If we do have a food culture then it is based on the principle of instant gratification and typified by the commodification of entire food cultures into neatly packaged fast food restaurants.
Next… The Whole is More Than The Sum of Its Parts
*Sorry to my Latin, Central, South American and Canadian friends. I still can’t quite get around this “American” terminology. Yes, I know you’re “American” too.