Academic journal article Policy Review

The Golden Age of Cooking

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Golden Age of Cooking

Article excerpt

Cookery is the art of preparing food for the nourishment of the body. Prehistoric man may have lived on uncooked foods, but there are no savage races today who do not practice cookery in some way, however crude. Progress in civilization has been accompanied by progress in cookery.

- Fannie Merritt Farmer, author of The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, 1896

AMERICANS TODAY, from garden-variety couch potatoes to sophisticated trend setters, have never been more obsessed with food, glorious food. At no other time has America enjoyed as many restaurants, touted as many celebrity chefs, published as many cookbooks and magazines devoted to good food and libations, produced as many cooking programs for television, or had such unlimited access to abundant and cheap food products from the world over. We are sowing, marketing, buying, selling, preparing, and, of course, eating food at unprecedented rates.

The beau monde brand of cooking that is gracing restaurant menus across the country is called "new American cuisine." Its roots reach back to the earliest days of colonial settlement. It has come of age only recently, starting in the finest restaurants in our biggest cities, then spreading out geographically and socially to take root not just in restaurant kitchens but also in home kitchens around the country.

Like our forefathers' and mothers' cookery, new American cuisine is driven by seasonal ingredients purchased from local growers and small distributors. Its purveyors profess a commitment to presenting nature in its purest finery - peppery greens freshly pulled from the soil, fragrant fruits just plucked from the tree, and succulent fish netted in nearby sea or stream. The recipes they create are culled from a vast reservoir of regional and immigrant traditions made possible by the rich American experience. Each dish is meant to please the eye and delight the palate; each also connects us to the past. New American cuisine is our most mature blending of "indigenous ingredients, regional preferences, ethnic influences, and historical currents and traditions" to date, as David Belman wrote in the trade publication Restaurants USA.

With the ripening of new American cuisine has come a stunning profusion of restaurants and cookbooks devoted to the exquisite, authentic rendition of cooking from around the world. We do not just have Chinese food. We have Hunan, Szechuan, Cantonese, and more, and before we leave Asia, we can add Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, and Pan-Asian noodle houses offering up Indonesian and Malaysian variations. Where "Italian" once meant tomato sauce, we now choose from specialists in the cooking of Piedmont, Tuscany, Liguria, or Sicily. "Pacific Rim" cooks and Mediterranean restaurants span continents to offer samples of the beguiling similarities and intriguing differences on the stovetops where a body of water meets the land.

Meanwhile, any local supermarket bursts today with exotica unheard of 20 or 30 years ago. Consider the produce department. The ubiquitous white button mushroom is now just the humblest offering in a mushroom section, which also typically includes portabella, cremini, and shiitake, for starters. Iceberg lettuce must make room for green leaf, red leaf, escarole, endive, radicchio, Boston, and more. Most of those lettuces are now also available prewashed, impeccably fresh, and absurdly convenient, packaged in high-tech plastic bags. Through hybridization, we have discovered entirely new fruits and vegetables: Grocers have recently introduced us to broccoflower, the plumcot, and broccolini.

There is no avoiding a simple conclusion: Whatever else may be true of our cultural condition, future gourmands, "foodies," and social historians alike will conclude that by the end of the twentieth century, the golden age of cooking and eating was upon us.

On the surface, the American food obsession may seem merely a passing fancy fueled by prosperity. …

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