Saturday, June 3, 2017

Eight Flavors of What?

For Christmas, a good friend gave me an autographed copy of an interesting book about historical food in America. The citation is as follows:
Lohman, Sarah.  Eight Flavors:  The Untold Story of American Cuisine. (Simon & Schuster 2016).  304 pages.
Pre-ground black pepper
(Wikimedia Commons)
Italian garlic (Wikimedia Commons)
Sarah Lohman writes a food blog, Four Pounds Flour, in which she discusses attempts by her to recreate period recipes and other tasty morsels of information about historical food.  I have enjoyed her blog a lot, and was interested to see what she could do with her experimental approach to food history in the longer format permitted by a book.

Although there is a certain amount of personal anecdote in Eight Flavors--something that often annoys me in popular history books--there is also a large amount of interesting historical information and some fascinating period recipes.  I'm glad I was given a copy of the book and have read it, because I learned many interesting things I had not known before.  So I was surprised to find myself reacting to Ms. Lohman's presentation with puzzlement and annoyance.  I was surprised, because I couldn't pin down what was bothering me.

Eventually, I figured it out.  It's the subtitle:  "The Untold Story of American Cuisine", and the somewhat ambiguous relationship of that subtitle to what Ms. Lohman does in her book.

Had Ms. Lohman decided to name the book something like "Eight Flavors:  The Untold Stories of the Tastes America Enjoys", I would have had no problem at all, because the book makes a very good case for the proposition that these are the most popular American flavors today. And I'm more than willing to agree with Ms. Lohman that Americans annually consume substantial amounts of black pepper, vanilla, and so on.

But instead Ms. Lohman chose to use the word "cuisine".  That throws a different light on the matter. To explain why, let's look at a few definitions of "cuisine."

According to Wikipedia a "cuisine ... is a style of cooking characterized by distinctive ingredients, techniques and dishes, and usually associated with a specific culture or geographic region." Dictionary.com simply calls it "a style or quality of cooking; cookery." Merriam-Webster's definition is similar to Dictionary.com's: "manner of preparing food: style of cooking ...  also: the food prepared."

MSG (Wikimedia Commons)
Do you see the problem?  "Flavors" can simply be about what people, or the people of a country such as America, eat, whether that food is cooked by third parties in restaurants or shops or is cooked by the eaters themselves at home. But a cuisine is not simply about what people eat; it's about what people choose to cook for themselves, when they do cook for themselves.  And Ms. Lohman's claim that these eight flavors are all flavors of "American cuisine" is less persuasive for some of the eight flavors than others.  My annoyance came from my nagging suspicion that she had not made a good argument for showing that all eight of the flavors are truly "associated" with American cooking.

Ms. Lohman says, in her introduction:
But if I looked past these differences [in sorts of food made American cooks in different regions of the country], I wondered what united America's culinary culture?  I thought of rose water and vanilla:  rose water, at one time, was used all over the United States; and vanilla, regardless of a family's ethnicity, is consumed all over the country today.  I realized the key to defining American cuisine was to break it down to the basic flavors we all use, like vanilla.  (p. xv)
Vanilla pods
(Wikimedia Commons)
Ms. Lohman went on to reason, appropriately I think, that people learn to like particular flavors and that, once the preference is learned, it generally remains throughout life.  How to track what these preferences are, over time?  Ms. Lohman decided to do so by amassing a large collection of cookbooks published in America over the course of its history, examine the recipes for use of substances that provide particular flavors (based on how many times the words turn up in the books) and then graphing the results to determine which 8 "flavor" words are the most prevalent.  Thus Ms. Lohman arrived at her eight flavors: black pepper; vanilla; chili powder; curry powder; soy sauce; garlic; monosodium glutamate; and sriracha.

The problem with this method is that it assumes that cookbooks reflect what Americans actually cook, instead of, say, things that the cookbooks' authors want to encourage people to cook or to cook more often.  Early in America's history, when few cookbooks were published, it's a fairly reasonable to assume that recipes in cookbooks reflect, in a general way, the sorts of recipes made and the ingredients used.  As the number of cookbooks has increased, it's much harder to make that claim because a lot of American cookbooks over, say, the past few decades (I cannot speak to how early this trend began) are targeted to would-be cooks with particular interests:  owners of slow cookers; people looking for gluten-free or meatless recipes; or people seeking to emulate different non-American ethnic cuisines.

Soy sauce
(Wikimedia
Commons)
Put another way, the mere fact that a few cookbooks sold in America contain one or more recipes using a particular ingredient doesn't necessarily mean that a majority, or even a plurality, of Americans cook with it.  It's also a problem in that, once we reach the point in time at which cookbooks proliferate, one's attempts to divine characteristic American "flavors" will depend, directly, on how one selects cookbooks that are characteristic of American cooking.  And Ms. Lohman has not explained the basis on which she has chosen her cookbooks for Eight Flavors.

It may be easier for me to illustrate my view of the divergence between Ms. Lohman's recipe word analysis with some observations about use of each of her eight flavors in American cuisine. For two of the flavors, I agree with Ms. Lohman; they are definitely part of American cooking.  For two more, though there's more room for discussion, it's fair to say that they are probably part of American cooking.  Three more flavors have been intermittent, having gone in and out of fashion in American cooking, and the last one is only beginning to find a way into our cooking, even though it was invented here and is consumed in substantial amounts.  In writing this section, I have been influenced by my reading of cookbooks targeted at ordinary Americans, particularly mothers with busy schedules. The sorts of recipes featured by well-known blogger Stephanie O'Dea, are good examples of the sort of cooking I mean, even though she has an unusual interest in gluten-free cooking because she has children who cannot tolerate gluten for medical reasons.

DEFINITELY PART:  black pepper and vanilla.   I completely agree with Ms. Lohman that black pepper and vanilla are among the characteristic flavors of American cuisine.  Black pepper, though originally from Asia, had been part of European cuisine in England and elsewhere in northern Europe long before the Pilgrims sailed, and continued consistently to figure in recipes of all kinds while our young nation grew.  Today, there probably isn't a restaurant in America that doesn't have a shaker or grinder of black pepper on the table, and hardly a recipe in any cookbook published in this country that doesn't include the words "add salt and pepper to taste."
Curry powder, from Istanbul
(Wikimedia Commons)

Vanilla has a similar history.  It comes from a New World plant, but found its way to Europe in early modern times, and as Ms. Lohman tells us, European foods that use its unique flavor were imported back to America and became entrenched here.  Though vanilla does not turn up often in entrees and mealtime courses, it is very common in desserts of all kinds, particularly ice cream.

Huy Fong
sriracha
(Wikimedia
Commons)
PROBABLY PART:  curry powder and chili powder. There is a good case to be made for these spice blends as being characteristic of American cuisine, nowadays. Although Ms. Lohman acknowledges that Indian food, where the herbs typically included in curry powder originally came from, is not as popular as food from certain other lands, she has shown that spice combinations similar to modern curry powder have turned up in American cookbooks since the 18th century. More importantly, more recently curry powder has won itself a place in certain American dishes that have nothing in common with Indian cuisine other than the use of curry powder blends.  Mr. Lohman gives the example of country captain chicken, but in my opinion a more common, and thus for this purpose better, example is curried chicken salad, which turns up in a number of restaurants serving "American" style food and (undoubtedly) numerous recipe collections.  (The Wegmans supermarket chain sells a wonderful version of this dish that includes tofu at its food bars.)

Upon reflection, chili powder also qualifies.  After all, it was invented in the U.S. and made popular in Texas by the "chili queens" Ms. Lohman tells us so much about. Although chili powder mostly turns up in cookbooks as part of recipes for chili, a profusion of "chili" recipes has sprung up that is so varied as to practically count as a sub-cuisine in and of itself. Original chili con carne, consisting of chili-spiced beef.  Chile con carne, with beef and beans.  Chicken chilis and turkey chilis, with white beans.  Vegetarian chilis, with beans but no meat at all.  All of these contain chili powder.  Although I don't understand why Ms. Lohman did not generalize her claim to "red pepper" or cayenne, which appears in many various American recipes (and in Old Bay seasoning, which many Americans cook with), I'm disinclined to argue about the inclusion of chili powder in her "flavor" list.

INTERMITTENTLY PART:  garlic, MSG, and soy sauce.  In my opinion, garlic, MSG, and soy sauce all have a place in American cuisine, but it's a bit premature to think of any of the three as "characteristic" of American cooking, because they have not been consistently part of the broader American culinary scene.

Garlic is an interesting example.  Though a kitchen mainstay for thousands of years in some cuisines, such as those of China, Greece, and Rome, it did not find a place in early English cuisine, and thus a habit of using it did not come to the New World with the English in the way that the habit of using black pepper did.  Ms. Lohman chronicles how garlic was originally unpopular, in part because it was associated with lower-class immigrants and their cultures.   In our health-conscious culture of today, garlic is praised because of its health benefits, which probably accounts for much of its current popularity in American food.  As for recipes, onion is ubiquitous in American cookbooks (and on American tables), but garlic is much less so.  It is still held back from true ubiquity by its associations with certain immigrant cuisines, even now.
Homemade chili powder
(Wikimedia Commons)

Soy sauce certainly turns up a lot in American grocery carts, but it doesn't typically get used in "American" dishes such as chili or beef stew.  Instead, it is used on Asian, particularly Chinese and Japanese restaurant foods, and in home-cooked recipes based upon those cuisines.  You find it on the table as a condiment in American restaurants, but only those American restaurants that serve Chinese or Japanese food.

MSG, for the most part, is a good example of a flavor that's certainly present in American food (many Chinese restaurants in this country probably still use it), but it is not really a part of American cooking, undoubtedly due to the "controversy" about its harmfulness. Perhaps MSG sits on the table with the salt and pepper in Chinese American homes, but it doesn't have such a role in other American homes, despite the efforts of Wyler and others to sell it to American home cooks.  (For what it's worth, I have never suffered from "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" and to this day have no clear idea what MSG on its own tastes like, though I used to have a container of Accent in my house.)

NOT QUITE PART:  sriracha.   The presence of sriracha in a book supposedly about American cooking feels forced, as though Ms. Lohman wanted to have an eighth flavor in the book mostly for symmetry's sake.  Sriracha is certainly a popular flavor, both on restaurant dishes and snack foods, but the only examples of cookbooks that contain sriracha recipes are quite new and targeted at adventurous eaters.

I can understand why Ms. Lohman did not want to write about sugar or salt; she's right that they turn up everywhere, and that quite enough has been written about them already. But there are other American tastes--common tastes--that do not turn up on her list, and I do not understand why.  Tastes like tomato (a prominent flavor in the chili con carne she discusses in Chapter 3) and tomato ketchup (found in most restaurants and homes throughout America, and, like curry powder, also an inheritance from the British/Indian influences on our cooking) and onion (I'm hard pressed to think of any soup or stew recipe that doesn't have at least one onion in it, and it's an integral part of a lot of American regional dishes, such as the Philly cheese steak).  

Nor is it clear why sriracha, a relative newcomer to the American scene, appears in the book when Tabasco, a much older hot sauce that often turns up in recipes and on tables in American restaurants, does not.  It might have been better to have grouped the capsaicin-based sauces together as an American flavor and to cite sriracha as the newest, most currently popular example of the breed.

Overall, what bothers me about Ms. Lohman's book was its confusion of the idea of popular flavors with whether use of those flavors and the condiments that produce them have become entrenched in American cooking.  But that confusion, assuming readers agree with me about it, is not a reason not to read Eight Flavors.  Whether or not you agree with my arguments above, Ms. Lohman's book has a lot of interesting information to offer, and a few intriguing recipes.  I enjoyed the book, and I'd recommend it as a fun read for anyone interested in the history of food.

6 comments:

  1. I have never even heard of sriacha!

    I am, however, very surprised to read your thoughts on garlic, because it is the one spice that I would have guessed (without studying cookbooks) is a stable in most American homes. I don't think I have ever been served spaghetti, for example, that didn't contain garlic, and, especially when I was little, it was pretty much always served with garlic bread.

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    1. Hi, Kareina! Thanks for stopping by.

      There are plenty of Americans who like garlic. However, most of them belong to an "ethnic" subgroup such as Italian Americans (folk whose ancestors came to the US from Italy). Spaghetti is a good example. It's unthinkable to make spaghetti sauce without garlic. But who makes scrambled eggs, or meatloaf, or other common foods here with garlic? Most folk don't. That's what I mean when I say that garlic is "intermittently" part of American cuisine. That's actually a bad way to put it. What I mean is that garlic is part of certain foods like spaghetti, but it really isn't used much by most people on things OTHER than those foods.

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  2. Vdry interesting review, though I would have thought the biggest confounding factor about cookbooks is that a lot of the time they're bought to be read rather than cooked from.

    My guess is that even in less decadent times, a fairly small proportion of the recipes in cookbooks were actually used, but it would be hard work (get lots of cookbooks (including multiple copies of the same book) then check for stained pages) to find out which recipes that was.

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    1. "...I would have thought the biggest confounding factor about cookbooks is that a lot of the time they're bought to be read rather than cooked from."

      I think that's true a lot of the time nowadays--that's part of what I meant. But I was focusing on the other side of the equation--how reasonable is it to assume that a cookbook reflects the way people cook, rather than something else.

      The more interesting question to me is "when did cookbooks start to be about fantasies of food rather than the way people wanted their food to actually be?" I don't know enough at this point to answer that question, but I think WWII may have been the turning point. It could be farther back in history, however.

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  3. Chilli cultivation and consumption in what is now the United States started out pretty early, one Virginian in particular experimented with numerous varieties of chillis and also used them on fish as well as the usual suspects - his name was George Washington.

    Garlic, along with a lot of other foods, was condemned by early 'food scientists' around the 17th and 18th centuries as harmful to your health. Garlic allegedly used to be used as a boiled vegetable not just a seasoning, rocket was used both raw and fried with bacon & balsamic vinegar until it was decided that it caused flatulence. I suspect some of the 'research' was just personal distaste for some vegetables.

    I particularly like roasted whole garlic - just take the top off a whole bulb of garlic until you just cut the tops of the cloves, a small pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil on the cut end, then put it in the oven with regular roast vegetables. Break it up and suck the soft cloves out of their papery sheathes - YUM.

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    1. Hi, Bruce! Interesting information about Washington and garlic; thanks. That makes my point though. Plenty of Americans like garlic (I cook with it quite a bit myself), but we can't be said to have a cuisine in which garlic is a prominent flavor.

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