How Americans Eat

In response to last week’s post, reader Alex made this comment about my claim that most Americans are able to afford to buy whatever food they want:

I think the world media is either desperately mis-reporting the state of the American economy or “most Americans” don’t want to eat particularly exciting or interesting food.

I’d be interested in the statistics that back up this claim.

Although things are tough right now in the States, I maintain that most people, even if it’s just a small majority, aren’t starving. They might not be able to eat shrimp and lobster on a regular basis (I know I can’t), but they can still feed themselves and their families. However, I struggled with which word to use, because I know that the majority of Americans can’t afford to buy absolutely anything they want. I tried “many”, but “most” sounded better. I sacrificed accuracy for the sake of a well-written sentence.

Alex brought up another point, though, when she said “or “most Americans” don’t want to eat particularly exciting or interesting food”. In my post, I talked some about how “we” eat and how food and cooking are now marketed the way fashion and cosmetics have been for decades. However, even though foodies, for want of a much better term, are both passionate and highly vocal, I think that faction of the food and cooking world is fairly small and insular. Those of us who watch cooking shows (on PBS, never on the Food Network), write and read food blogs and read cookbooks like they were novels tend to forget that there’s a huge number of people who don’t know and/or don’t care about food trends. They’ve never heard of The French Laundry and have no idea who Thomas Keller is. They don’t even know who Ina Garten is. (A shame really. Ina makes good food that’s accessible to just about anyone, and she doesn’t tell her viewers that dinner shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. She knows good food often takes time. She’s a great teacher for a beginning cook.) They don’t know what offal means and wouldn’t dream of eating sweetbreads.

Whether any of this means that they don’t want to eat interesting or exciting food, I can’t say. That’s too much of a blanket statement for me. Some of them might love tongue, but they know about it because they ate it as a child, not because they read about it in a magazine. Others might not have time to learn methods that are more complicated than what they already use. Some never learned how to cook and don’t know where to start. And there are people who really just don’t care. Food isn’t important for them. They eat because they have to.

I agree that this country has lots of people who haven’t learned anything new about food in a long time, and as many who won’t eat anything they haven’t eaten before. Many years ago, I brought chutney to an office party. No one knew what it was, and almost no one was willing to try it. My office mates acted like I was trying to serve them deep fried dog ears. At a dinner party during a group vacation, a woman I considered smart and sophisticated was horrified that I wanted to put grapes in a salad. (Not that it stopped me.) I have a friend who didn’t know she could buy pieces of real parmesan cheese. She thought it only came in a little green can.

I spent most of my life in Central PA, an area that’s not exactly famous for its fancy food or highly educated palates. You want scrapple or shoofly pie, there’s more than enough to go around. If you’re looking for great snack food, it’s the place to be. In Harrisburg, where I grew up, you can find a cheesesteak that’s almost as good as one you’ll get in Philadelphia. (What? I said almost.) And after 8 years of fruitlessly searching for a truly great sandwich in Durham, I would do almost anything for a sub from The Sandwich Man. There are also two big farmers’ markets in the area, both full of fabulous food, and both so busy on the weekends you can barely get through the crowds. But with all that great stuff, your chances of finding a truly astounding fine-dining restaurant are very small.

Even so, there are plenty of good, locally owned higher end restaurants that never disappointed me when I lived there. Some have been there for decades, and it’s almost impossible to get a last minute table on a Friday or Saturday night. However, a few years ago, in the Harrisburg Patriot-News annual Best Restaurants poll, the residents of my beloved hometown voted Red Lobster the best all around restaurant in the city. That says more to me about the voters than it does about the food in Harrisburg. And I’ll never get over it.

America is full of cities and towns like Harrisburg. Although it’s a growing segment of the population, there are far fewer people who have three different olive oils in their pantries, eat only locally raised, organic meat, agonize over their heirloom tomatoes and have friendly arguments over kosher salt vs. Fleur de Sel than there are people who buy their meat from a chain grocery store, serve Butterball turkeys at Thanksgiving and use McCormick’s herbs and spices in their recipes.

I won’t come down entirely on one side or the other about this. I got as excited about the meatloaf someone made for me a few months ago as I did when I tried boar for the first time. A terrific white clam sauce piques my interest, and I’m truly thrilled when I have one. Not being part of the three olive oils/organic food/kosher vs. Fleur de Sel world doesn’t make someone a bad cook with no interest in food. It still takes a great cook to make good lasagna or beef stew. It’s the arbitrary refusal to try some new that I don’t get. Along with being really irritated with my co-workers for rudely and childishly turning up their noses at the chutney I brought to the office party, I felt kind of sorry for them. They didn’t even know what they were missing.