American food is in a crisis, states economist Tyler Cowen. Many Europeans agree that American food has problems: massive portions, excess fat, high levels of sugar, or any combination of those. But, is food in the US really so bad?
Last Friday, at my daughter’s graduation ball, among many highlights, the food turned out to be excellent. We enjoyed fresh rustic breads, exquisite kale-almond salad, grilled beef kabobs, and delicious roasted vegetables. As we ate, I commented on the porcelain dinnerware coupled with linen napkins and heavy silverware. My German table neighbors reacted similarly, praising the venue and the food.
French people can talk for hours about food, and I don’t know a single French person living in the US who doesn’t complain about American cuisine in some way. Personally, I dislike the stereotypical burgers and chicken nuggets, and I prefer using silverware while sitting at a table. But, believe me, American food is not as bad as many foreigners want us to believe.
In my opinion, if you shop and cook for yourself, you have a pretty good chance of eating well in the US. My friend Alexandra lived in Amsterdam before relocating to Washington, DC. When I asked her how she feels about American food, her first response was, “After living in the Netherlands, believe me, I LOVE American food!”
Of course, there are legitimate complaints about many types of American food. Fruits and veggies look wonderful in the supermarkets but have hardly any flavor. It’s really difficult to avoid sugar, honey, or high-fructose syrup in processed food, and even bread isn’t immune to fueling the nation’s sugary addiction. Food coloring is everywhere, and meat often shrinks to half its size once it’s in the pan. Why is this the case?
5 reasons why American food deteriorated
American economist and food lover Tyler Cowen has strong opinions about the declining food quality in the US. In his book entitled An Economist Gets Lunch, he dedicates a complete chapter to this phenomenon, explaining why American food got bad. Unlike the standard theory that blames the expansion of the food-supply network, Cowen tells a story that starts with prohibition and WWII, moves to the education system, and ends with the rise of television in most American households.
Prohibition and WWII rationing
“National Prohibition brought catastrophe to most good restaurants … [that were] unable to make money without alcohol sales.” As a result, the best restaurants closed, and “expensive, high-quality food was hurt the most,” says Cowen.
During WWII, 6 million American women went to work for the first time. Most of them were married and had children while their husbands fought somewhere in the Pacific or Europe. According to Cowen, “Wartime rationing and scarcity made high-quality ingredients and careful cooking distant priorities. Fresh vegetables and fruits were often not available.”
Eventually, the need to ship food abroad triggered the development of the American canning industry. Interestingly, at the same time, France—which, along with Europe in general, was more immediately affected by the war than the US—turned instead to local production methods and personal gardens.
My maternal grandparents had a farm with cows, goats, and chicken. My paternal grandparents lived in a small town that was occupied by the Germans after 1942. My grandfather increased the cultivated surface of his garden, sold his produce on the black market, and bartered fruits and veggies for meat. The absence of mass transportation forced many French people to look for local solutions, which may explain the constant popularity of French farmers’ markets.
A war on immigration
My husband has a favorite anecdote: When you ask somebody anywhere in the world for a good restaurant, they will send you to their favorite local place. But, when you ask an American for a good restaurant, he or she will first ask what you like—Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Italian, American—before giving you lots of options!
American food is immigrant food, states Cowen, and he complains that the restrictions on immigration have hurt American food significantly. Earlier immigrants have lost their recipes from home as they transitioned into more stereotypical Americans. “Cut off from their roots … immigrants were reduced by the promise of American household ease. They started buying canned goods, bottled ketchup, and frozen dinners and microwaves. Sometimes, they pursued these trends in excess to show they were “real” Americans,” explains Cowen.
The impact of children on food
Cowen speaks harshly about American parents who let their children dictate what the family eats. Prohibition made restaurants more child-friendly, but most children prefer predictable food. According to Cowen, “American adults have been especially willing to cater to the food preferences of their kids … but this damages dining quality for everyone. American parents produce, buy, cook, and present food that is blander, simpler, and sweeter.”
I don’t know if I agree entirely with the author. Some of our American friends have grown-up children, and I’ve had excellent meals at their homes. However, considering the menu of the cafeteria at my children’s school, I fully agree with Tyler Cowen about poor food choices for children in the US.
The dominance of television
Eating in front of the television became popular for many Americans in the 1950s, which expedited the development of food that’s quick and easy to prepare. According to recent studies, today, under 30% of Americans eat in front of the TV, but sales of frozen food are steady, reaching around $22 billion in 2016.
Another study from Packaged Facts testifies that “90% of consumers buy packaged frozen hot meal items for heating or microwaving at home, a share that is up substantially—15 percentage points—in just two years.” Over 60% of Americans buy frozen pizza, while 40–45% of households use frozen dinners or entrées.
American food is more than burgers and frozen pizza
My friend Margaret grew up in the US during the 1960s, when mothers often stayed at home, caring for their family and preparing home-cooked meals every day of the week. When she married and had children, she followed her family’s tradition and kept on cooking for her family. Today, she teaches her adult daughter about the legacy of healthy home cooking!
Honestly, my family members and non-American friends have a hard time adapting to American food habits. Personally, I think the hardest time is when we need to get lunch after hours of driving on the interstate. Gas stations with rest and service areas are rare. Fast food chains are often the only option for us, and there’s no room to sit at a table and order a meal.
Yes, many Americans love their junk food, but it’s also possible to eat well in the US.
In Savannah, a popular family-owned restaurant, Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, offers Southern food every day with lines starting as early as 9:00 in the morning. There is no menu, and the dishes change every day depending on their availability.
Then, look at lobsters in Maine, locally grown fruits and veggies in California, rising farmers’ markets in many towns, and ethnic food trucks in larger cities. These are just a few examples of the many ways to experience good American food. My friend Alexandra’s favorites are pulled pork and cheesecake. I couldn’t agree more with her choices!
For more insights into American cuisine, just check out Tyler Cowen’s book. I think you’ll find it highly informative.