The Essence of American Food

dinerIn Priscilla Ferguson’s otherwise interesting book about the language of food, entitled Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food, she gets seriously off track in her discussion of American food and national identity.

In contrast to the French whose sense of national identity is based on the refinement and promulgation of advanced cooking techniques, she argues that American food is about quantity exemplified in those competitive eating contests in which contestants have 15 minutes to wolf down as much of some disgusting substance as possible. Her evidence for this hypothesis is the generally large portion sizes Americans prefer, as well as the Thanksgiving celebration, which appears to be about the bounty of the harvest and the number of dishes we can place on the table at the same time.

She is, of course, correct that Americans have been known to celebrate excess. But the United States has also undergone a food revolution over the last 30 years that is fundamentally reshaping the way we think about food. And that food revolution is not a celebration of excess. Americans are increasingly concerned with nutrition, the freshness of ingredients, sustainability, flavor, and novelty all of which suggest a turn toward quality and away from excess.

It could be argued that this food revolution is influencing only a small minority of our population and that most Americans remain mired in the dross of Super-Size Me and Big Gulps. Indeed, statistics on obesity are still dreadful. But Ferguson’s conception of American food appears in her chapter on food and national identity—the issue is not so much what we are but what we take ourselves to be. To the extent we have a food identity, it is not primarily about the celebration of excessive eating, unless we have given over the formation of our national identity to the advertisers of fast food chains. In other words, the discourse about food in the U.S., which is in part Ferguson’s subject, is not centered on the virtues of gluttony. And I’m not sure it ever has been. We have never celebrated the winners of competitive eating contests like the French have celebrated the winners of Bocuse d’Or, the international culinary competition that the French (or the French-trained) tend to dominate.

National identities are about what we admire and strive toward. A tendency to overeat is one aspect of American life but it is not what we admire, strive for or self-consciously endorse.

What then does define our culinary identity? I would suggest it is mobile eating—our tendency to eat and run, and the efficiencies to be gained through time compression. Our culinary past is notable for its efficient time management—fast food is the obvious example but so are TV dinners and packaged food in general, which exists in part because of the time it saves busy families on the go. Even the emergence of some ethnic foods is best explained by their ability to save time. Sushi need not be cooked and can be prepared ahead of time, and burritos and tacos lend themselves to efficient production and quick consumption.

So is Fast Food Nation our Bible? Are we most proud of that long tradition of Tastee Freeze, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell? Hardly. These establishments serve a purely utilitarian function in our mobile, car-obsessed society but they are not what we most admire about ourselves and they lack the emotional attachments that identities require.

Instead, I would suggest the essence of American food is the diner. Diners serve “way-station” food, designed to give weary travelers a respite from the road, and their menus consist of classic dishes that make the refugee think of home. There is a pathos to diner food—a celebration tinged with sadness at the solitude of travel—that fast-food restaurants lack.

There is a reason why one dominant trend in restaurants in U.S cities is to refurbish the diner as a hip destination where we can reconnect with American food traditions.


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