No National Dish? A History of American Food Writing
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (Fifth Ave. at 42nd St., Manhattan)
Through much of American history, food writers consistently proclaimed that America had no “national dish.” Some food writers took this observation further and claimed that America had no national cuisine. And yet, although there was “nothing” to write about, cookbook compilers and journalists spent a great deal of time describing American food. Sometimes enthusiastically, often critically, they offered readers multiple versions of the cuisine that was not supposed to exist. Historian Megan Elias chronicles changing definitions of American food from the end of the Civil War to the demise of Gourmet magazine in cookbooks, advertising materials, and magazines. Over time, she argues, a set of intersecting trends in food writing shaped contemporary assumptions about what is good, bad, real and not-real food. From Southern regionalist cookbooks that romanticized slavery to the promotional pamphlets that portrayed refrigerators as heroes, through the veneration of the French bourgeois housewife of Julia Child’s generation, words about food revealed ideas about common culture.