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, which preferred quantity over quality, and heterogeneity over harmony. He felt this eating showed vestiges of the public feasting that originated in primitive times.

The article contrasted to 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 the statement that Boston baked beans was a “cisAtlantic” variation of British pork and pease.

But more than 120 years have passed since then. Our societies have changed considerably, in Britain no less. Is the Times’ view, forged in the heyday of the Protestant ethic and imperial mindset, still accurat

Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Graham Kerr were just some of many notable food writers or personalities who tried to amend the disposition noted, in North America or Britain.

Since their time countless restaurateurs and chefs, of diverse backgrounds, cooking in different traditions or creating their own, have made their own contribution, in countries largely founded by British settlers.

World cuisine is in these places today a datum, unknown in Gilded Era New York.

Have things really changed though? Is, say, McDonald’s and its many progeny simply the latest form of the old public feasting? Does the new cooking really cut it, in a way that changed the culture?

Or was the point exaggerated to being with? Apt subjects for debate, surely.*


*No one can, or should in my opinion, deny the merits of many traditional British, and American, dishes, but I think the NYT writer was making a broader point, about the culture of eating in different societies.












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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