People talk a lot of trash about the pretentiousness of modern American cuisine, but have you seen a cookbook from the 70s or 80s? With regard to American cooking, at least, we owe a lot to “pretentious” visionaries for getting us out of that mess. And we owe a great deal to every culture that helped us realize we were doing it wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, as I have a soft spot for the food I grew up on. I am a huge fan of Houses of Pizza and local restaurants of similar ilk. Their fascinating, dough-heavy, cheese saturated interpretations of what a pizza should be is what I grew up with, and from time to time I relish in revisiting it. In fact, it was when I was visiting one of these shops just the other day when I heard a young employee say to his fellow coworkers, “I don’t eat that rabbit food you eat. I don’t like vegetables. I eat meat and potatoes.”
This was jarring to hear and it served as a throwback to my youth, where this attitude was dominant among everyone I knew. In my home the beef-based dishes my father cooked while in the Navy were the norm. My father lived a long time, but that’s only thanks to profound medical intervention. His diet played a large part in making the last 20 years of his life terrible. Over the past few decades, there has been a huge push to get people to eat better at home and at school. There are a number of structural and political issues that need to be addressed, of course, but a huge part of this push has been to make eating more than just ground beef and potatoes seem palatable which, as you can see in much of the imagery popular in cookbooks in the 70s, has not always been a primary objective.
There can be an irritating and detestable attitude that accompanies the upper echelon of anything, and food snobbery can be gratingly classist to its core. This is worth addressing, and I think that perhaps some commentary about modern cuisine is about attempting to distance from that. “I’m a regular person. That fancy stuff isn’t for me.” I can relate to that sentiment. When we produced the web series Food Coma TV, we found that sometimes it was the place that served crappy, off-the-truck frozen food that offered a better experience than those that attempted something more. Last month I fondly remembered the Fryeburg Fair and noted I preferred it to it’s agricultural cousin the Common Ground because it reminded me of the Maine I actually grew up in as opposed to my idealized vision of it.
But typically that aforementioned attitude or sometimes inherent classism is not the subject of these complaints. They are more basic and because of this totally perplexing. “Hipsters sure love their kale!” Or “Those hipsters and their Brussels Sprouts…” For the uninitiated, “hipster” is the now-acceptable form of “the other” since gays, women and people of color are off limits. It can be conveniently applied to those who adopt trends that you don’t understand or you’re not on board with. Go ahead, give it a try. What’s something you don’t like? Is a tattooed girl or a guy wearing jeans you don’t like doing it? Go ahead and smear that thing you don’t like and these hipsters for embracing it. Earlier this year, someone at the Huffington Post devoted a very popular post to doing exactly this.
Sure, I appreciate that the preciousness of these movements should sometimes be ridiculed as Portlandia did hilariously a few years back, but radical ideas begin in fringe communities and require the formation of zealous affinity groups for said ideas to break into the mainstream. Thankfully those weird zealots stuck with it because now my run-of-the-mill mainstream American parents are buying from a CSA and getting their meat from a farm share. My step dad is drinking micro-brews. Vegetables are being consumed and money is being spent locally. Progress is being made.
It is even more important to note that the impact of the multicultural landscape of food is something we have all benefited from and should be indebted to. Part of so-called modern American attaining any hope of getting out of that European rut of the 70s was thanks to the rise and influence of cuisines from all over the world. Thanks to the mere existence of this variety, and the advancements that have taken place within each community, the cross pollination of influences has been reflected in recipes everywhere. Exposure to different flavors provided by all of these influences working together and learning from each other helped change the average American’s perspective on what tastes good.
So thanks to those who have helped to advance radical food agendas, which have helped to shape the way we eat for the better. Thanks to those who have helped us to see another way, either by advocating for doing so or simply by offering another take or perspective. Thanks to those in the food communities who are doing everything they can to make new approaches accessible to everyone, and for devoting resources to fighting hunger. Thanks to those who are trying to change our approach to school lunch, even that adorable British guy on TV. Thanks for those creating what is considered radical today, as the fruits of those efforts will—a decade or so down the road—be assimilated, popularized and disseminated by Rachel Ray. And thanks to all who have helped us realize that we needed to get out of our own way, because our old approach was as gross as it was deadly.