In his essay on “Eating American,” the anthropologist Sidney Mintz relates a class conversation during which he admitted that he “did not think that there is such a thing as an American cuisine.” Around this time of year, it’s impossible to ignore the influx of commercials, ads, and general hullabaloo pushing “American food” for the Fourth of July. I have to admit that I’ve been convinced by Mintz’s point for a long time, especially as that assertion pertains to the world of early American cuisine.
I first encountered these definitional problems while writing my undergraduate thesis, (over-)ambitiously titled “A Brief Treatise on the Culinary Nature of America During the Time of the Early Republic. In Which the Author Examines Pumpkins, Puddings, Poems, and People. Calculated to Give the Reader a Better Knowledge of American Food and Foodways, and an Easier Understanding of the American Character.” Needless to say, I was a bit keen on imitating early modern cookbook titles back in the day, but the title betrays more than my need to come up with tongue-in-cheek titles (“Roll, Jelly, Roll” and “Peace Came in the Form of a Cookie” were the fake titles of my dissertation for quite some time): it demonstrates how even though I’d written a long paper about food in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I still wasn’t sure what that cuisine offered as a cohesive whole. Continue reading