When I was growing up, it was rare to hear much that was positive said about American food in London. Usually, it was described as acceptable, but bland and unexciting – and in “such large portions!”
If you agree with Alvy Singer, the lead character in Woody Allen’s famous film Annie Hall, that feelings about food and feelings about life in general are comparable, these kinds of comments are depressing for anyone who holds out hope for transatlantic cultural understanding.
However, Allen’s film also contains some beautiful and quintessentially American food scenes that I think showcase some of the deep and subtle flavours specific to American life and culture – I’m thinking Alvy and Annie chasing a live lobster round a New England kitchen, the comparison between their two very different families at dinner, or when they decide to kiss on the way to the deli on their first date so they can enjoy their pastrami sandwiches properly.
But for a long time, people in London generally weren’t familiar with the richness and diversity of American food, or what it reveals about America. In fact, I think sometimes even Americans aren’t familiar with the richness and diversity of American food, or what it reveals about America. Even a thoughtful and knowledgeable commentator like novelist and small-scale farmer Barbara Kingsolver still exhibits a characateristically New World inferiority complex when writing about the cusine of her native land.
In her great work about her Appalachian smallholding and US food culture in general, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, one of my favourite books, she says that American food could be seen as “more an absence than a presence of specific character: not Chinese, not Italian” and asks: “Is it true that ‘American food’ means ‘nothing’?”
She goes on to answer her own question by bringing out what I see as some excellent witnesses for the defence: “We have our New England clam chowder, Louisiana gumbo, southern collards and black-eyed peas.”
But the book also describes a trip to Italy, where Kingsolver raves about the hyperlocal and ancient food culture of the Tuscans and Umbrians. These peoples, she says, “were living on and eating from this carefully honed human landscape more than a thousand years before the Pilgrims learned to bury a fish head under each corn plant in the New World”.
She lovingly describes “the tomatoes dressed with fruity olive oil“, her enchantment with pizza names like “Margherita, Capricciosa, or Quattro Stagioni”, and her attempts to wash and dry the seeds extracted from a zucche di chioggia, a particularly luscious variety of Italian pumpkin.
But tomatoes and pumpkins are native to America – and there’d be no margherita pizza if Europeans hadn’t journeyed across the Atlantic. And the history of most kinds of food, once you look closely, is one of dislocation and hybrid.
It’s arguable that there’s no food with roots in only one place, just as there are no such people, and no places with people of only one type. America’s a melting pot, but so are London and Italy, and all ones that produce very tasty meals.