Anglo-American Food: Still bad?

 A lengthy article of some sophistication and humour published in the New York Times in 1895 made a bold claim:

…to take a serious view of eating is commonly considered in all Anglo-Saxon communities as the mark of a frivolous, if not depraved, mind.

The writer claimed refined eating was a foreign notion in these communities, who preferred quantity over quality, and heterogeneity over harmony. He felt this eating showed vestiges of public feasting that originated in primitive times.

The article contrasted with crude Anglo-Saxon dining, the careful delineation of national cuisines in France: bourgeois, peasant, haute, with further refinements foreign to Anglo-Saxon palates.

The American barbeque was labeled a descendant of old English public entertainments. A good observation, I think, as was the statement Boston baked beans is a “cisAtlantic” variation of British pork and pease.

But more than 120 years have passed since then. Our societies have changed considerably, even in Britain. Is the Times’ view, forged in the heyday of the Protestant ethic and imperial mindset, still accurate?

Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Graham Kerr, among many notable food writers, have tried to amend the disposition noted, both in North America and Britain.

Countless restaurateurs and chefs, of diverse backgrounds, have made their contribution, in countries largely founded by British settlers. World cuisine is today a datum, unknown in Gilded Era New York.

Have things really changed though? Is, say, McDonald’s and its many progeny just the latest form of the old public feasting? Does all the new cooking really cut it?

An apt subject for debate, surely.*


*No one can, or should in our opinion, deny the merits of many fine individual British dishes, or foods derived from that tradition, but the NYT writer was making a different point, about the culture of eating including restaurants.












4 thoughts on “Anglo-American Food: Still bad?”

  1. Today, the point is moot. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so these people had to import from their former empire antidotes to gastro-insouciance. The result is that the national dish is curry. No one takes it seriously, but it is accepted without debate.

    • Could be, maybe you’re saying, there aren’t any discrete Anglo-Saxon communities in the world anymore anyway. The global village, literal and electronic, has blended traditions.

      But I’m not sure the NYT was really right in what it said. There has always been good food in Britain and its extensions, and sane ways to prepare and consume it.

      It assumes as well a kind of perfect obverse in France, but that image too probably is exaggerated, then and even more today, when hamburgers are the rage in Paris, and bagels.

      It’s hard to generalize I think, but what the NYT said has been repeated many times over the ages, that must be acknowledged. And the British are their own worst critics, a kind of self-flagellation which may answer certain psychic/sociological needs more than anything else. It may be a way of saying we are an orderly society, we are serious. The French do that too but not in the food area, more in other areas. Take their Civil Code vs. the common law. Anyway…


  2. The answer may be found in the Times article itself where it is asked, referring to the Elizabethan era, “What can be expected of a people whose ‘Virgin Queen’ opens the day with a pint of strong ale?” The article goes on to observe the gastronomical hopelessness of a race given to the horrors of an Oxford breakfast, the peroration of which is marmalade and a glass of bitter.

    • Very good! I like too the part where he points out the helter-skelter mix of drinks at a Georgian (I think) dinner. Start with small ale, strong ale and port to follow, finish with Burgundy.

      But is it true today, the general point made?

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