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 and further refinements, foreign to the Anglo-Saxon palate.

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

Yet, more than 120 years have passed. Our societies have changed considerably, in Britain as well. Is the Times’ view, forged in the heyday of the Protestant ethic and imperial mindset, accurate today, at any rate?

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

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

World cuisine, in a word, is a modern datum, unknown in New York of the Gilded Era.

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

Or was the point made in the NYT 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 as handed down in the Anglosphere.












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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