On Thursday, we are celebrating the Fourth of July. Happy Fourth! On July 4, 1776 (or shortly thereafter), the representatives of the United States of America adopted the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration ended only one sort of link with England, specifically the political and legal ties. The newly created nation had no desire to dissolve its linguistic connection with England or some of the cultural ties. English law and the English language were and are almost universally admired.
The founding fathers very well might have seized the opportunity to declare independence from English food. However, by 1776, it was too late.
The East Coast of the United States had been occupied by English-speaking colonists for a century and a half. These colonists followed English culinary rules in the new country. They had recreated the sort of cooking to which they were accustomed.
However, the foods they found in America were unknown in England. A new and different cuisine could be built on these sometimes strange ingredients. The colonists did not choose to do so. They turned their backs on most of the new foods and refused to eat them until they had been accepted by the European market.
Little by little, the colonists brought over their former foods. In many instances, the hot new climate was not favorable, but persistence won out. Soon, many familiar vegetables and fruits became regular fare.
The American housewife maintained her cherished dependence on British traditions. Her cooking would remain, according to the saying “as American as apple pie” — a dish imported from England.
Why did American miss the chance to achieve independence from one of the least admired British institutions — its food? Jefferson even commented that mankind was more likely to suffer than abolish ways to which they were accustomed.
Food preferences, like language, are obstinate cultural traits. At the time of independence, Americans were willing to accept a change of government, but not independence from English cooking. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson employed French cooks. At the time, a French cook in the White House was simply a matter of prestige. As a matter of fact, these French cooks were excellent at making milkshakes and double hamburgers.
Little by little, colonists from other parts of Europe added their cuisine to what has become American cookery. The colonists held on to their familiar cooking techniques and their preferred ingredients, whether they were planted in their gardens or imported from other lands.
Washington’s advice “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” was heeded by the English colonists. However, even after independence in 1776, England was not considered foreign.
Today, we are proud of our American cuisine. This holiday always makes me reflect on our cuisine — a truly American product of many, many components, plus, over the years, native dishes of other countries.
More than any physical attribute, however, what gives American food its unique character is the people who came from all parts of the world and brought their recipes with them. From the earliest Spanish, English, Dutch and French explorers through the African, German, Scots-Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Mexican and Asian arrivals, all have left their mark on what we call American cuisine.
Each group brought its own culinary repertoire to America. But as recipes changed to accommodate indigenous American ingredients and were adapted to suit the general public taste, in some instances the original dishes became barely distinguishable. For this reason, America has a cooking style difficult to define.
American cooking is basically simple and often combines different cuisines in one dish. For example, many American chefs today are using classic French ingredients with Asian cooking techniques. For several years now, Pan-Pacific cuisine has been the rage.
However, when we go back in the culinary history of our country, we find that regional specialties have a long history and still prevail. For instance, in New England, pumpkin soup, baked beans, succotash and the clambake evolved directly from Native American dishes. The Yankee pot roast and the New England boiled dinner grew out of necessity for hearty, soul-satisfying foods to nourish the body on long winter days.
In the mid-Atlantic states, the Dutch influence was felt early on. Dutch specialties such as pancakes, waffles and cookies were accepted into the colonists’ daily fare almost immediately. The Germans brought sauerbraten, potato salad, Schnitz und Knepp and funeral pie.
English recipes were adapted for use with blue crabs and turtles that the Chesapeake Bay area became renowned for. Virginia hams were cured and smoked according to old English recipes.
The Indians, whose techniques with cornmeal and grits were adapted by the English settlers, first influenced Southern cookery. Africans also played a major role in the cooking of the South. They used okra in soups and gumbos and black-eyed peas in Hopping John. They were experts at making beaten biscuits and developed the South’s love of spices.
The Spanish first cooked fish with the oranges they introduced to Florida, and much of their influence is still evidenced in the Caribbean cooking of that state. Both Spanish and French techniques are combined in the Creole cooking of New Orleans. Cajun specialties such as peppery jambalayas, crawfish pies and gumbos have roots in French cuisine but have evolved into a totally different style of cooking.
The Midwest, Great Plains and Mountain States make up the melting pot of this country. New England, mid-Atlantic and Southern cooking styles were transplanted as the population moved west, with Scandinavian touches added along the way.
Recipes like meatballs, chicken-fried steak, wild rice pilaf and chow-chow became part of American food fare. The hamburger and hot dog, not to mention Sloppy Joes and macaroni and cheese, came into being.
The Southwest, land of hominy, tortillas, frijoles, barbecue and chuckwagon beans, has its culinary roots in early Spanish and cowboy cooking.
The Pacific coast is known for its freshness of ingredients and a multitude of fish dishes like baked salmon, cioppino and sautéed abalone steaks (which today are hard to find).
If Americans seem impatient and hurried, running from food fad to food fad in comparison to the rest of the world, it is inherent in our makeup. After all, people who were always looking for greener pastures settled this country. That outlook was the force behind the Revolutionary War and the force of expansionism that drove the pioneers farther and farther west.
It also was the force that took us from the swamps of Jamestown to the valleys of the moon in only 362 years. So it is with food. We are always on the lookout for something better in our lives, and so it is with American cuisine.
Most Americans do appreciate good food. In this time of two-income households, we do not always have time to prepare gourmet meals. When we do cook, we cook well. When we do not, we have many excellent restaurants fostered by a new pride in regional American specialties.
Most important is the fact that talented young chefs are demanding top-quality ingredients. Thus, food purveyors have expanded their lists of vegetables, fruits and meats.
Furthermore, the desire for the best possible ingredients has crossed over to the public at large. Gourmet grocers thrive in almost every major town. Inner-city green markets, set up so local farmers can sell their wares directly to the people, are becoming more and more commonplace.
To be sure, there are those who poke fun at the United States for such innovations as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and other fast-food emporiums. Today, the giant supermarkets have an endless supply of frozen foods and convenience foods that are symbols of American ingenuity.
American fast food is relatively inexpensive, thanks to mass preparation that depends on a network of quick rail, highway and air transportation. This is thanks to people like G.H. Hammond, who developed the refrigerated rail car; Clarence Birdseye, who revolutionized the food industry with deep-freezing techniques; and Luther Burbank, whose research lead to new uses for agricultural products.
They, along with millions of immigrants and their ethnic recipes, have made American cuisine what it is today.
Pass the hamburger and ketchup, please.
Happy Fourth of July.