American Food: A Call for Culinary Independence

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A piece of all-American apple pie

We tend to celebrate the Fourth of July as "America Day" and revel in its customs — watching fireworks, dressing up in flag-pattern hot pants, eating chicken. But I think we all sometimes forget that the holiday, which John Adams said should be marked "with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore," is actually a celebration of our independence. The framers despised the ancient bone heap of Europe, its crowned ruffians, its popes and princes, its fusty ways. We would prefer to be, they thought, a city upon a hill, a shining example to other nations, breaking with tradition and coming up with our way of doing things. And so we have been, pretty much. We have lived up to the promise made at our inception.

Except when it comes to food. The U.S.A. is still in the thrall of Europe, 235 years after our forefathers risked their lives, their liberty and their sacred honor for the dubious plan to set up shop under their own flag. And yet, circa 2011, we have yet to do at our own tables what our arms, our literature and our technology did centuries ago. When, oh when, are we going to live up to our legacy?

Consider the three major schools of gastronomy currently governing our chefs. There is high modernism, with its flasks and centrifuges, its endless process and awestruck apologists; there is the snout-to-tail, offal-loving, more-pork-belly-for-your-dining-dollar meathead school; and, of course, there is the mushroom-foraging, ardently locavore new-naturalist chefs, whose devotion to nature borders on pantheism and who would have you eat your dinner on the forest floor if they could. The far-seeing restaurant critic Jonathan Gold recently declared these to be the new holy trinity of influences, and if you look closely, you'll see that not one of them is native to our shores.

Culinary modernism, lately called molecular gastronomy, gained fame in the Basque region of Spain in the '70s and early '80s as a way of attracting tourists — an aim, incidentally, which has succeeded beyond its authors' wildest imaginings. The techniques created there spread across Europe, and have gained a stranglehold on the strange, rarefied world of global destination restaurants. The gastrocrats, who alone can afford to eat in these places, need to be shocked and awed to justify their trips and to flog their jaded appetites to life. But whether it's the Fat Duck in London, Alinea in Chicago, or Osteria Francescana in Modena, they're all speaking the language, and in many cases reciting the verses verbatim, translated from the original Spanish.

The snout-to-tail movement, though it's associated here with any number of cooler-than-thou young chefs, and at least one older one, is basically a British movement, whose patron saint is the chef Fergus Henderson, and whose capital is his restaurant, St. John. The British TV personality Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is also a founding father of the movement, and bare is the kitchen library of a meathead chef who doesn't have Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook on the shelf. And of course old, overpopulated Europe, with its culture of scarcity, has always been exacting in finding a use for every part of the animal, from tripes à la mode de caen to osso buco alla Milanese. In America, we shot buffalos just for the skin and left the rest to rot in the sun! We are coming late to the efficiency party as well.

Of locavorism, which would seem to be something more in our wheelhouse, we also are followers rather than leaders. The unquestioned Supreme Pontiff of the movement is René Redzepi of Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen that recently displaced Catalonia's modernist El Bulli as the most admired restaurant in the world in the annual S. Pellegrino list. Gold's offhand summary of the three main movements in cooking today came last month in a Wall Street Journal article in which he compared Noma to Alinea and made clear that he considers Redzepi's place to be a better, more stirring and more meaningful restaurant.

Which is great, if you can afford to go there, or if you happen to be Danish. Sadly, I'm neither; and I fail to understand why the U.S., the country that spends more money on restaurants than anywhere in the world, the country that has such vast environmental and intellectual resources, a mission to save the old world from itself and an almost messianic belief in American supremacy, can't get it together to find its own way after 235 years. When we aim low, we have created bits of brilliance that are now emulated from China to Peru: the hamburger, barbecue, Coca-Cola. But when we march our chefs out to the Bocuse d'Or to compete with the best of Europe, they come back bruised and battered every time.

This isn't to say that American chefs aren't original. But for the most part, they're just working the same ground established by Europe. Even the new American cuisine of the 1980s was just a warmed-over version of nouvelle cuisine. And Alice Waters' great invention of using and appreciating fresh produce was old hat to the French housewives who were her inspiration — don't forget that Chez Panisse was a French restaurant, after all. The most original work done in the past two decades has been the Asian fusion pioneered by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a Frenchman who was influenced by time spent in Bangkok and Singapore. America's other great innovator? Wolfgang Puck, whose California cuisine was best known for its pizza: a German cooking an Italian dish, while Americans took notes.

Does it really have to be like this? Some 230 years ago, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in his Letters From an American Farmer, asked, "What then is the American, this new man?" His immediate answer was to say, "He is either a European, or a descendant of a European"; alas, this is all too true of our food, at least when it comes to the highest level. This fact fills me with a sense of shame verging on dread. It's the same feeling I got when I found out that our Navy has a tough time stopping pirates driving the Somali equivalent of Boston Whalers. But there's still time for America to find its way. St. John de Crevecoeur wrote, rightly of everything but cooking, that "here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world." It happened with computers. It happened with airplanes and cars and democracy. Why can't it happen in the kitchen too?

It's late in the day, but not too late. America has to declare its independence once again. And this time it can be won without firing a shot. All that's needed are a few chefs, some courage and some creativity — three things that America has always had plenty of.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for, appears every Wednesday.