Out of the frying pan, and into the flame! When we think of taste, it is usually defined by something memorably appeasing or displeasing to the senses. Well, we can define what we taste with our palate by describing sweet, salty, bitter, etc. But taste is a product of society. “Anthropologist Marvin Harris — maintains that food choices made by the peoples and by individuals are always determined according to a more or less conscious calculation of the resulting advantages and disadvantages.”1 My focus will be on how consumerism has shaped what American’s eat and their struggle to authenticate an American culinary identity. Through the brief history and presentation of the relevance of food as culture, I will digress through reasons as to why food is presented the way it is and the politics that surround the process of getting food from the field to the table.
“Eat More Beef!” Is a slogan I remember growing up seeing on billboards during the 90’s around town promoting the local Chic-fil-a and accompanied with it came groves of trending buffets and “Super-Size” portioning of food. “The food industry uses lobbying, lawsuits, financial contributions, public relations, advertising, partnerships and alliances, philanthropy, threats, and biased information to convince congress, federal agencies, nutrition, and health professionals, and the public that the science relating diet to health is so confusing that they need not to worry about diets.”2 The food industry is dependent on farmers to meet their demands, but the irony is that most farmers in rich countries such as America depend on subsidies. Google defines a subsidy as: a sum of money granted by the government or a public body to assist an industry or business so that the price of a commodity or service may remain low or competitive. This was first introduced during the early 1930’s to help farmers during the Great Depression on the count of millions leaving the farmlands to get jobs in the bigger cities. The issue we’re having today isn’t the farm bill, Agricultural Adjustment Act, that enacts congress to procure a new budget for the subsidies every five years but the fact that most of the subsidies are given to large commercial farmers that already make well above the national average for non-commercialized farmers. The rising need to plant corn for bio-fuels creates a niche in the market. “For stockholders, it is irresponsible—and illegal—for companies to make decisions that will not lead to increased profits.“3 This means that the type of food we’re most likely to afford is that one that guarantees the most return for investors even if it comes at the cost of sacrificing nutritional health.
Why do most Americans struggle to identify with an “authentic” original cuisine? Most of the dishes that developed in America came rooted from mostly Europe, that is up until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 lifted immigration restrictions from Asia, Latin American, and Africa. These groups brought cultural cuisines that inevitably mixed with American food, but this wasn’t the first time in America that an Asian’s culinary cuisine had been presented. “…culinary essayist and historian John Shu-fan, who pointed to Hong Kong Surgeon, the autobiography of Li Shu-fan, for a firm assertion that chop suey was being served in Toisan restaurants by 1894.”4 But how could a trend started in America have such an impact that the dish made it’s way back to its origin of inception? The problem isn’t innovation; the problem is finding a way to coin a dish as authentic. So why does it still struggle in the authenticity department today? The cycle of authentication relies on the interplay between producers, consumers, and critics who are continuously seeking the authentic; the realness of a cultural product in comparison to similar products. Thus, this relationship can destabilize authenticity so it continuously evolves rather than remaining static.”5 The paradox of trying to be authentic in an innovative society is the bane of progress, but all isn’t lost! This opens to doors to new interpretations about how we look at food.
The proof is in the pudding! After we discover the origins of America’s one true cuisine then will come the painstaking process of replicating it to taste, because after all, taste is inherently cultural. “My own capacity to tolerate pungent foods are perfect examples of the fascinating interplay between genes, habitat, culture, and individual experience.”6 Since each ingredient is distinguishable from one another, how does one go about creating consistency that pays homage to the heritage of a dish while staying true to its ever-varying definition? The answer is simple: keep it fresh. Historically, livestock varied from state to state depending on what type of animals’ settlers brought with them; Texas had beef, the Carolina’s had pork, and Kentucky had mutton. The history surrounding barbecue dates back to the colonial days where the position of barbecue master was traditional given to the older male slave of the plantation. With roots deeply embedded in the craft there is no mistake as to its authenticity in origin. There’s a stigma attached to the smaller barbecue restaurants being considered more “authentic” than their larger franchised counterparts. This stigma evolved from the misconception that the smaller establishments were less profitable on the count of that their ingredients were locally fresh because they lacked the connections that larger businesses have when it comes to obtaining cheaper processed ingredients. These smaller family-owned businesses are able to hold longevity because they reflect the community from which they serve. The slaughter house down the road from which the meat was procured from, the local farm which produced the spices for the family secret ingredient, or the massive amount of wood that’s needed to sustain the hours of operations of these establishments are just some of the ways how all these people are closely interconnected and dependent on one another. Keeping ingredients fresh and local gives integrity to the cuisine that it so rightfully deserves. This tradition of keeping a high regard for the authentication of barbecue creates the ambiance of culture, and in order to preserve it then so must everything that encompasses it including the availability of fresh crucial ingredients.
Understanding how the misrepresentation of food is detrimental to culture helps a person not only understand their own roots but also acknowledges the significance that food has on society as a whole. In a melting pot society, the banality of monotony drives innovators to create new fads and trends to help compensate for the shortcomings by way of quality produced by a capitalist society. This raises the importance of localizing food to create a demand to drive the local economy. The only way to eliminate government spending on crops to utilize bio-fuels and more on real produce is to create a high enough demand to have them accommodate our needs. “Authentic food is determined based on an established set of standards and conventions rooted in traditional practices.”7 Innovations utilizing local foods in a traditional manner creates authenticity, so it’s up to us as a society to uphold these standards to keep the traditions alive as they are a part of our American identity because after all if you’re invited to the barbecue…you’re family.
- Massimo Montanari. Food Is Culture. Arts and Traditions of the Table. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006),71. ↵
- Marion Nestle. Food Politics : How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Vol. Rev. and expanded ed. California Studies in Food and Culture. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 358. ↵
- Marion Nestle. Food Politics : How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Vol. Rev. and expanded ed. California Studies in Food and Culture. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 362. ↵
- Mendelson, Anne. “The Birth of Chinese American Cuisine.” In Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey, 99–137. (Columbia University Press, 2016), 105. ↵
- Kaitland M. Byrd. Real Southern Barbecue : Constructing Authenticity in Southern Food Culture. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019), 13 ↵
- Gary Paul Nabhan. Food, Genes, and Culture : Eating Right for Your Origins. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013),118. ↵
- Kaitland M. Byrd. Real Southern Barbecue : Constructing Authenticity in Southern Food Culture. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019), 26 ↵