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Ways of Life, Food and Cuisine

The United States has rich and productive land that has provided Americans with plentiful resources for a healthy diet. Despite this, Americans did not begin to pay close attention to the variety and quality of the food they ate until the 20th century, when they became concerned about eating too much and becoming overweight. American food also grew more similar around the country as American malls and fast-food outlets tended to standardize eating patterns throughout the nation, especially among young people. Nevertheless, American food has become more complex as it draws from the diverse cuisines that immigrants have brought with them.

Historically, the rest of the world has envied the good, wholesome food available in the United States. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fertile soil and widespread land ownership made grains, meats, and vegetables widely available, and famine that was common elsewhere was unknown in the United States. Some immigrants, such as the Irish, moved to the United States to escape famine, while others saw the bounty of food as one of the advantages of immigration. By the late 19th century, America’s food surplus was beginning to feed the world. After World War I (1914-1918) and World War II, the United States distributed food in Europe to help countries severely damaged by the wars. Throughout the 20th century, American food exports have helped compensate for inadequate harvests in other parts of the world. Although hunger does exist in the United States, it results more from food being poorly distributed rather than from food being unavailable.

Traditional American cuisine has included conventional European foodstuffs such as wheat, dairy products, pork, beef, and poultry. It has also incorporated products that were either known only in the New World or that were grown there first and then introduced to Europe. Such foods include potatoes, corn, codfish, molasses, pumpkin and other squashes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. American cuisine also varies by region. Southern cooking was often different from cooking in New England and its upper Midwest offshoots. Doughnuts, for example, were a New England staple, while Southerners preferred corn bread. The availability of foods also affected regional diets, such as the different kinds of fish eaten in New England and the Gulf Coast. For instance, Boston clam chowder and Louisiana gumbo are widely different versions of fish soup. Other variations often depended on the contributions of indigenous peoples. In the Southwest, for example, Mexican and Native Americans made hot peppers a staple and helped define the spicy hot barbecues and chili dishes of the area. In Louisiana, Cajun influence similarly created spicy dishes as a local variation of Southern cuisine, and African slaves throughout the South introduced foods such as okra and yams.

By the late 19th century, immigrants from Europe and Asia were introducing even more variations into the American diet. American cuisine began to reflect these foreign cuisines, not only in their original forms but in Americanized versions as well. Immigrants from Japan and Italy introduced a range of fresh vegetables that added important nutrients as well as variety to the protein-heavy American diet. Germans and Italians contributed new skills and refinements to the production of alcoholic beverages, especially beer and wine, which supplemented the more customary hard cider and indigenous corn-mash whiskeys. Some imports became distinctly American products, such as hot dogs, which are descended from German wurst, or sausage. Spaghetti and pizza from Italy, especially, grew increasingly more American and developed many regional spin-offs. Americans even adapted chow mein from China into a simple American dish. Not until the late 20th century did Americans rediscover these cuisines, and many others, paying far more attention to their original forms and cooking styles.

Until the early 20th century, the federal government did not regulate food for consumers, and food was sometimes dangerous and impure. During the Progressive period in the early 20th century, the federal government intervened to protect consumers against the worst kinds of food adulterations and diseases by passing legislation such as the Pure Food and Drug Acts. As a result, American food became safer. By the early 20th century, Americans began to consume convenient, packaged foods such as breads and cookies, preserved fruits, and pickles. By the mid-20th century, packaged products had expanded greatly to include canned soups, noodles, processed breakfast cereals, preserved meats, frozen vegetables, instant puddings, and gelatins. These prepackaged foods became staples used in recipes contained in popular cookbooks, while peanut butter sandwiches and packaged cupcakes became standard lunchbox fare. As a result, the American diet became noteworthy for its blandness rather than its flavors, and for its wholesomeness rather than its subtlety.

Americans were proud of their technology in food production and processing. They used fertilizers, hybridization (genetically combining two varieties), and other technologies to increase crop yields and consumer selection, making foods cheaper if not always better tasting. Additionally, by the 1950s, the refrigerator had replaced the old-fashioned icebox and the cold cellar as a place to store food. Refrigeration, because it allowed food to last longer, made the American kitchen a convenient place to maintain readily available food stocks. However, plentiful wholesome food, when combined with the sedentary 20th-century lifestyle and work habits, brought its own unpleasant consequences—overeating and excess weight. During the 1970s, 25 percent of Americans were overweight; by the 1990s that had increased to 35 percent.

America’s foods began to affect the rest of the world—not only raw staples such as wheat and corn, but a new American cuisine that spread throughout the world. American emphasis on convenience and rapid consumption is best represented in fast foods such as hamburgers, french fries, and soft drinks, which almost all Americans have eaten. By the 1960s and 1970s fast foods became one of America's strongest exports as franchises for McDonald’s and Burger King spread through Europe and other parts of the world, including the former Soviet Union and Communist China. Traditional meals cooked at home and consumed at a leisurely pace—common in the rest of the world, and once common in the United States—gave way to quick lunches and dinners eaten on the run as other countries mimicked American cultural patterns.

By the late 20th century, Americans had become more conscious of their diets, eating more poultry, fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer eggs and less beef. They also began appreciating fresh ingredients and livelier flavors, and cooks began to rediscover many world cuisines in forms closer to their original. In California, chefs combined the fresh fruits and vegetables available year-round with ingredients and spices sometimes borrowed from immigrant kitchens to create an innovative cooking style that was lighter than traditional French, but more interesting and varied than typical American cuisine. Along with the state’s wines, California cuisine eventually took its place among the acknowledged forms of fine dining.

As Americans became more concerned about their diets, they also became more ecologically conscious. This consciousness often included an antitechnology aspect that led some Americans to switch to a partially or wholly vegetarian diet, or to emphasize products produced organically (without chemical fertilizers and pesticides). Many considered these foods more wholesome and socially responsible because their production was less taxing to the environment. In the latter 20th century, Americans also worried about the effects of newly introduced genetically altered foods and irradiation processes for killing bacteria. They feared that these new processes made their food less natural and therefore harmful.

These concerns and the emphasis on variety were by no means universal, since food habits in the late 20th century often reflected society’s ethnic and class differences. Not all Americans appreciated California cuisine or vegetarian food, and many recent immigrants, like their immigrant predecessors, often continued eating the foods they knew best.

At the end of the 20th century, American eating habits and food production were increasingly taking place outside the home. Many people relied on restaurants and on new types of fully prepared meals to help busy families in which both adults worked full-time. Another sign of the public’s changing food habits was the microwave oven, probably the most widely used new kitchen appliance, since it can quickly cook foods and reheat prepared foods and leftovers. Since Americans are generally cooking less of their own food, they are more aware than at any time since the early 20th century of the quality and health standards applied to food. Recent attention to cases in which children have died from contaminated and poorly prepared food has once again directed the public’s attention to the government's role in monitoring food safety.

In some ways, American food developments are contradictory. Americans are more aware of food quality despite, and maybe because of, their increasing dependence on convenience. They eat a more varied diet, drawing on the cuisines of immigrant groups (Thai, Vietnamese, Greek, Indian, Cuban, Mexican, and Ethiopian), but they also regularly eat fast foods found in every shopping mall and along every highway. They are more suspicious of technology, although they rely heavily on it for their daily meals. In many ways, these contradictions reflect the many influences on American life in the late 20th century—immigration, double-income households, genetic technologies, domestic and foreign travel—and food has become an even deeper expression of the complex culture of which it is part.

 

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