The Problem with U.S.

H. L. Mencken explains:

. . . here in this great republic we have the materials for the most superb victualry the world has ever seen, and our people have the money to pay for it. Even the poorest Americano, indeed, eats relatively expensive food. His wife knows nothing of the hard pinching that entertains her French sister. He has meat in abundance and in considerable variety, and a great wealth of fruits and vegetables. Yet he eats badly, gets very little enjoyment out of his meals, and is constantly taking pills. The hot dog is the reductio ad absurdum of American eating. The Sicilian in the ditch, though he can never be President, knows better: he puts a slice of onion between his slabs of bread, not a cartridge filled with the sweepings of the abattoirs.

The national taste for bad food seems all the more remarkable when one recalls that the United States, more than any other country of the modern world, has been enriched by immigrant cuisines. Every fresh wave of newcomers has brought in new dishes, and many of them have been of the highest merit. But very few of them have been adopted by the natives, and the few have been mainly inferior. From the Italians, for example, we have got only spaghetti; it is now so American that it is to be had in cans. But spaghetti is to the Italian cuisine simply what eggs are to the Spanish: a raw material. We eat it as only those Italians eat it who are on the verge of ceasing to eat at all. Of the multitudinous ways in which it can be cooked and garnished we have learned but one, and that one is undoubtedly the worst.

So with the German sauerkraut — a superb victual when properly prepared for the table. But how often, in America, is it properly prepared? Perhaps once in 100,000 times. Even the Germans, coming here, lose the art of handling it as it deserves. It becomes in their hands, as in the hands of American cooks, simply a sort of stewed hay, with overtones of the dishpan. To encounter a decent dish of it in an American eating house would be as startling as to encounter a decent soup.

***

What ails our victualry, principally, is the depressing standardization that ails everything else American. There was a time when every American eating house had its specialties, and many of them were excellent. One did not expect to find the same things everywhere. One went to one place for roast goose, and to another for broiled soft crabs, and to another for oysters, and to yet another for mutton chops. Rolls made the old Parker House in Boston famous, and terrapin a la Maryland did the same for Barnum’s and Guy’s hotels in Baltimore. . . .

in America the public cooks have all abandoned specialization and everyone of them seems bent upon cooking as nearly as possible like all the rest. The American hotel meal is as rigidly standardized as the parts of a flivver, and so is the American restaurant meal. The local dishes, in all eating houses pretending to any tone, are banned as low. So one hunts in vain in Boston for a decent plate of beans, and in Baltimore for a decent mess of steamed hard crabs, and in St. Louis for a decent rasher of catfish. They are obtainable, perhaps, but only along the wharves. One must take a squad of police along to enjoy them in safety. (“Victualry as Fine Art,” 1926)

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16 thoughts on “The Problem with U.S.

  1. If I might be so bold, a modern ailment in American restaurants is quantity at the sacrifice of quality. Huge portions, lots of sameness.

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  2. Preach it, Darryl. It’s an ontological thing, yo. For some reason, humans just love ritualizing/sacramentalizing things. Unless we convince ourselves not to. They may not know what they’re doing, but all I see is praise. McFish samiches on Fridays–not so much.

    If you an wifey are walking by my pad on May 1, stop by and grab a slice of fired lamb. Oh, baby.

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  3. Mutton, you are hardcore. My yia yia loved mutton. We’d get it when we could, but that wasn’t often. When I visited family in Greece, we always ate goat, simply because it mimics muttons–or vice versa. You really shouldn’t pass up my fired lamb. Yes, its’ young, but it’s so good. I may have a cuban or two.We’ll show these folks how ecumenism is done. And to drive Greg mad, we’ll quote The Big L.

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  4. America never did establish a long standing love for living on the land for sustenance except maybe parts of the South prior to the Civil War where the greatest culinary tradition is creole. In fact, the idea family based subsistence farming is considered absurd with great hatred, except for a tiny fringe of low class new agrarians. Only by commitment to land and the necessity of sustenance does truly great culinary tradition emerge. The French Huguenots of Oley valley PA left a reasonably good food. In America, land was always about the greed of grabbing it and extracting the dreams of wealth. My Great Grandfather was an entrepreneur who grabbed as much of western Iowa as he could to grow corn for steers…so he could get rich shipping beef to Kansas city. Many were very successful. Yet several generations ended up stuck and were embittered to live hard on the land; hard because they saw themselves as having missed the opportunity and the land become an unyielding yoke because of their blindness (harder still because of the Brethren Anabaptists). All that is left of the community of farmers in SW Iowa are grave stones, gargantuan grain elevators, rail ways and corn from horizon to horizon. No one lives there anymore. So the problem with American food is the blindness of avarice and greed for money, class and leisure. The irony is great food is so easy to grow. Great home grown food forces one to learn how to cook it well, so the labor is not in vain.

    BTW The herb Lovage is great with mutton, lamb, goat and it is easy to grow…reference Balkan recipes. Also Cabbage is very easy to grow and Sauerkraut is easy to make and is best quickly heated to almost hot and eaten immediately. I just started 200 cabbage plants this morning…The Glory of Enkhuizen, a very old heirloom variety.

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  5. Wow, Greg the Terrible worships the same god (i.e. stomach) as most Americans. Really, Greg, an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant? Do you make sure to close your eyes when you see all the morbidly obese gluttons? Don’t tell me you’ve never noticed them in line at the troughs ahead of you. I can’t believe you would publicly announce your sharing in sin with these disgusting people. How can you possibly preach to the gluttons of Detroit in any seriousness?

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  6. wow, interesting Joel, or should I say gracious?; though it is the Lord who exposes and discloses the motives of men’s hearts, thinking even still, or because it is so, we ought remind each other of Paul’s exhortation “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh”. ( Gal 5:16) and always be praying that our love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment Phil1:9

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  7. reading the Mencken excerpt was like reading a proto-form of Macdonald’s Masscult and Midcult.

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