ewThis is a series of posts, the first, about American cuisine and the changes I’ve seen it it over the last two decades in particular.
Michael Ruhlman stated that what’s wrong with American Cuisine is chicken caesar salad, or more exactly, “...an emblem of the the mediocrity of American Cuisine!” That statement made in 2010 really rang true with me. I have felt now for 20 years that American cuisine has crossed the Rubicon into the realm of quasi-food, constructed for convenience and mass production, minimal preparation and barely edible, let alone nutritious. This is all against a backdrop of a vegan trend one-upping mere vegetarianism, “gluten free for me”, paleo and all the other dietary restrictions du jour. These, I feel, are a subconscious reaction of normally reasonable people to the terminal decline of American food.
If you live in an urban area with a diverse population and people with various backgrounds and refined tastes as well, you may not have experienced the sharp decline you find in flyover country or where I live, a pocket of rural backwater hidden in the great Northeast US megopolis of Bos-Wash. You’ll have a vibrant Viet community making heavenly pho for next to nothing a bowl, Peruvian chicken places, Ethiopian wats and injera on every other corner. You can drive to a Brazilian steak joint, any number of microbrew places with gastropubs, Afghan restaurants, Syrian food, Indian, vegan, gluten free bakery, etc. Not so where I live.
Instead, when people like us go out, we see a chain restaurant (usually, sadly, your safest bet) and the food has been prepared by some large conglomerate, frozen in a bag and shipped to be cleverly microwaved and served to you lukewarm. None of this truthfully revealed on the menu that offers “coastal soups” (canned clam chowder) and “fresh made lemon meringue pie” which was actually pressed dry crumbs, a yellow colored, gel-like substance apparently deposited by a giant plunger on top and a foamy layer with caramel color sprayed on to imitate egg white meringue. I dissected one of these “fresh made pies” “our top seller” and marveled at the engineering involved to recreate a lemon meringue pie with no lemon, meringue or even pie. I will say, they solved the issue of syneresis (the weeping of such pies, water expelled from a gel during contraction–from dehydration that naturally occurs after you make a pudding) but that was a pretty steep price to pay. )
When the food is not actually served out of microwave bags, it tends now to be oversalted, over sugared, and often, unsanitary–made weeks ago and refrigerated. I’ve run into this time and again (you don’t need to pay overtime to staff when having a huge event, just have them batch the food and put it away in the cold room. For how long? Watch “Restaurant Nightmares” and you can get an idea. Or..you don’t WANT to know.) Several times, the food served to me was tainted, and only my nose, which is like a French poodle’s has saved me from food poisoning. One sniff, and I’m sure I don’t want to risk a single bite.
The fad for “sous-vide” which is French for “boiled in bag” is even worse. Restaurants will boil a steak in its juices and then rewarm it on the grill to provide heat (maybe) and grill marks (possibly.) One steak served to me had charcoal dust grill marks impressed by the manufacturer. All the restaurant had to do was just boil it. I mistakenly ate some of it and coughed up charcoal dust all night. Analyzed what was left on my plate and discovered the ruse of painted-on grill. Rubbing the overly uniform grill mark yielded uniform powdery dust. A grill would have created a layer of charred film in the steak.
Or the restaurant staff, not trained in microbiology, puts the hot boiled meat into the cold room and of course, a sealed bag and warm food is a perfect incubator for anaerobic bacteria. This happened at a big place in our one urban center and after one sniff and a hasty retreat, I did a forensic analysis on the food. Potatoes, a blob of “mashed” scooped out and frozen, thawed. The broccoli was raw and “cooked” under the infra red lamp used to heat the entire dish back up. The steak was the sous-vide special and no extra charge for the ptomaine. The clue was the fact the steak was “we only have medium rare” and the plate under the food was ice cold. So the entire thing except the steak was pre-plated in the cold room, the steak was in there and reheated in a pan (but already tainted) and the rest warmed up under the lights. The manager was “do you want anything else instead?” but if you would do that, I’m not risking “anything else.” (I’m not even mentioning who serves steak on an icy plate. Waitstaff in the US do not like handling hot plates, so often food is plated on iced plates for convenience. And your food will come out heated if at all at the window and chilled by the time it makes its way to you.)
I also notice another phenomenon. If I eat out (increasingly rare) I often feel as if I haven’t eaten after a full meal. Yet I spent a week in Spain and ended up (due to a busy schedule) maybe only eating one meal a day plus a small breakfast. I felt…full. The food was so good, so fresh, so well made, that I felt nourished after a small quantity.
The body knows when it gets proper nutrients. And it knows when something is missing.
I see women half my age overweight, with spare tires, oddly heavy stomachs, and I don’t think it’s due to being captive in front of a video monitor. I think something is vastly wrong with American food.
Has American Cuisine crossed a Rubicon of acceptability? I think so. More in my next post.