May 1, 2007 2:38 AM | By Adam Roberts | 44 Comments

American Food Manifesto

The message was on the bag. The bag was from Burger King, the Burger King was in the San Francisco Airport. The message read:

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I was desperate. Starving, really. I sat at the Burger King near my gate and read that message and felt a pain in my gut. Then I ate this Whopper and felt a real pain in my gut:

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There was nothing wrong with it and yet everything was wrong with it. It was just at the threshold of "acceptable thing to put in my mouth." Each component somehow masked what was wrong with the other components. Taken apart, I'm sure the patty would've looked grisly, the tomato would've looked unearthly and the bun would've revealed so many chemicals it might've inspired another "Silkwood."

Yet: how to reconcile this food with the message on the bag? It's a pompous message, a proud message. Look at the buzzwords: "Sports" and "Success."

Those two words (and the hamburger they cradle) are a window--a bright store window with a fluorescent light--that beckon us to study, examine and mourn the subject of this essay: what's wrong with food in America today.

Let's start with that first buzzword: sports.

Competition fuels so much of American life, it's easy to forget that not everything's a game. Whether we're choosing a president or a pop idol, it's all about who's gonna win. Who has the edge? Who's the underdog? What are the odds? Where's the finish line? You've got to win win win!

Everything's quantifiable. My brother and I used to argue because we'd talk about a movie and I'd say, "I loved (insert movie here)." And he'd say, "But it was a flop." And I'd say, "So what? It was a good movie." And he'd fold his arms indignantly and say: "Still, it was a flop."

Like Grindhouse. I loved the second half ("Death Proof")--I thought the storytelling was brilliant. Still, the movie made no money. Not only that: it lost money. America shakes its head and suddenly careers are in jeopardy. 81% of critics liked it, but, for all intents and purposes, it's a loser. It's the high school nerd who the teachers adore but the students shun. It sits in the corner and cries. America has spoken.

America speaks with a similar voice about food. We like food that wins. "America's Favorite Pizza." "America's #1 Coffee." "A Billion Customers Served."

Like the pretty girl who becomes class president for showing cleavage on her campaign posters, restaurants thrive based on their mystique, their sex appeal. "I don't care if the food is good," America says, "I just care if I look cool eating here."

Walk along Madison Avenue in the 60s and 70s and observe people eating at restaurants with mediocre food and exorbitant prices. Why are people eating there? Because it makes them feel like winners. Their expensive seats are like mini-thrones and they could care less what's on their plates as long as the plates are gilded. Welcome to America.

The same is true at home. We want food that is guaranteed to win. We want food that'll "win" our children's approval ("Don't worry, your kids will eat it.") We want food that'll "win" the war against our hungry men's insatiable appetites (like Hungry Man which advertises over one pound of food, as if weight was the criteria by which men measured their satisfaction after a meal):

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Women must "win" the war against their bodies, against temptation, against pleasure. Weight-loss commercials almost all feature imperative voices that sound like basketball coaches egging on their team: "Lose weight now!" "Stop needless snacking!" "Join Jenny Craig!"

We approach food, in this country, like a gladiator in the ring with an enemy. Dinner isn't something to enjoy, it's something to conquer.

Is it any wonder that Rachel Ray looks like a cheerleader?

Seriously. She cheers you on as you go to battle. She may be chipper, but the message she sends about food is pretty dismal. Real food, she seems to be saying, is too difficult, too expensive, too time-consuming for Americans to attempt. The losses would be too great: and what's so good about good food anyway?

In the cost-benefit analysis of cooking and eating out, Americans--like athletes--are told to keep their eyes on the prize. The journey is NOT the destination. Dinner is the destination and you better get there as fast as you can or you'll risk... what exactly?

Therein lies my point. Cooking is not a sport. Eating is not like putting fuel into a race car. There are no winners at the dinner table; you're not a winner for eating at Le Cirque (sorry, Donald Trump). For Americans to eat better, we have to redefine our notions of our second buzzword: SUCCESS.

Julia Child is in my DVD player right now and I just watched her mess up. She was making Pommes Anna--a casserole, basically, of thinly sliced potatoes cooked in butter in a pot that you flip over, after baking in the oven. Julia lifted the pot, hoping to reveal a perfectly constructed tower of potato. But half of the potatoes stuck to the pan so what she had was a mess. She quickly recovered. She scraped the potatoes from the pan and placed them on top. She smushed it all together and then put parsley all around the border. And by the look on her face, you'd think she just resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I am a recent convert to Julia Child and I am convinced--after only a few DVDs--that she is the best thing that ever happened to food in America. Why? Because she brought her spirit, her energy, her intelligence into American homes and tried to elevate us. She tried to show us that for a dinner to be successful, it needn't be expensive, it needn't be pretentious. It need only capture the chef's enthusiasm, the chef's love.

Americans don't know how to engage with their food anymore. We see boxes in cases and take them home and put them in another box and ZAP dinner is ready. We pick up the phone and punch in numbers and a brown bag arrives. We deal with food in the 21st century the way we deal with people--faceless messages on a computer screen--and with further advances in technology, we retreat further and further into ourselves. For most Americans in the 21st century, a successful dinner is a dinner that requires the least amount of engagement with the outside world. We don't want to know our grocers, our butchers, our bakers. We don't even want to know our delivery boys. We want our privacy, thank you, and that means a lonely dinner in front of the TV is preferred to a party with friends who we'd have to shop for, cook for, and clean up after. We have our Tivos, computers, iPods, and DVD players to keep us company.

America: learn from Julia. Wake up. Engage. Care.

That's the formula for success. We've lowered our standards because we're afraid of failure. Julia's not afraid because she knows it doesn't matter if her Pommes Anna collapses--what matters is that she took the time to make a Pommes Anna. So should you.

Instead of going to The Olive Garden, make Lydia Bastianich's Cavatappi with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Cannellini Beans. Instead of going to Burger King, make Molly Stevens' "Top Blade Steaks with Mushrooms and Onions" from her "All About Braising."

The meat costs $4.87:

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That's less than a Whopper Combo. You brown it:

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Add mushrooms and onions and deglaze with Sherry:

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The end result isn't really beautiful to look at:

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But it's beautiful to taste. And to smell.

In fact the smell is distinct: complex, smart, sophisticated. All the things Americans are capable of and yet which they seem to reject when it comes to their diets. We, the people, are entitled to good food and it's time we started to make it for ourselves. The sweet smell of success doesn't come from a Burger King bag, it comes from your kitchen.

To quote Julia Child, "Bon apetit."

44 Comments

A truly excellent essay! Thanks

Keep preaching, because the US appears to be going down a really rough road. Less and less in charge of what they put in their bodies, they are also less and less aware that they should consider it important. The result is generations who don't understand food, let alone nutrition.

Basic information is being lost. Things every cook had to do in the past are unknown to cooks of the present and one gets a choice of paying too much to have someone else do it, or giving up entirely foods that are really good and really good for you.

Listen to Julia, buy some almost ancient cookbooks, ask old people. Just do something before you get the idea that all food is either pre-prepared or way too fancy to bother with.

Great post, Adam. I'm behind you.

The same horrible process is going on all over the world, Adam (maybe not at the same steep rate as in America, but it is, even if I live in one of the world's alledged food meccas). I find it scary when I go to a supermarket and see what other people are shopping for. Stacks of fully processed bland snacks, precooked paellas, strange cold cuts, you name it...
You may have read them already, but Carlo Petrini's Slow Food books deal with this problem in all its complexity.

Excellent post Adam! Let's start the revolution! Where do we begin?

Adam, Julia could not have said it better. Maybe if a few more Americans approached dinner the same way that so many other cultures throughout the world do (food = sharing a pleasurable experience with other people) we wouldn't be so obese. Bon Appetit to you.

fantastic post! longtime reader, first time commenter (i think). i wholeheartedly agree with almost every sentiment in this essay - all but one. in defense of rachael ray, she's trying. she's trying to get people to cook for themselves, to not depend on burger king or china garden or domino's for their dinners. granted, her recipes are not masterpieces, but the focus is on fresh ingredients, often prepared simply, with lots of flavor. perhaps some of this has headed down the tubes since the advent of her daytime talk show, but for years i have used her cookbooks and it is she who deserves the credit for getting me into the kitchen in the first place. i'm only 29, but have been seriously cooking for about six years, and the ease and relevant deliciousness of some of her recipes is what saved me. what turned me into a cook. what made me appreciate food the way i do now. she's trying, and for that she can't be faulted.

love your post! it really struck home - my fiance and i live in a chronically obese town, where everything is dipped in grease and depp-fried. or simply dressed-up sysco. i've gained a bit, he's been tired all the time... so we looked at our diet. and out went the cookies, the chips, the coupons for greasy spoons and fast food. for the past two weeks the most processed thing we eat is pre-packaged ravioli. raw foods, whole foods, health foods... and we can't believe the difference. you're dead on with your post. if you haven't already, you should read 'the omnivores dilemma'.....

..and thus the Amateur Gourmet's manifesto was born.

I too, must defend Rachael Ray, though her perk-o-meter runs high. She is trying to teach technique and her audience is people who lack confidence in their abilities.

Her basic message is that anyone can cook fresh and simple food in less time that it takes to dine out. She offers a stepping stone from prepared foods to innovative meals.

Excellent. Been lurking here for awhile and this really inspired me to let you know that I think you are right on. Thanks.

Great post, Adam!

But what I can't understand is, why did you resort to Burger King at the San Francisco Airport?! SFO has some great food in the domestic terminals! I only know because my mother has been working there for over 20 years, and I spent a lot of time as a kid hanging out between the gates, eating delicious clam chowders...

Maybe you were pressed for time. But even then, keep in mind that SFO has a Peet's Coffee! Yay!

Sure, well written and all. You still do not analyze what it takes to change the entire country. Let's face it, how many bloggers and blog readers are going to share your opinion? Pretty much all of them. People do not just "wake up, engage, and care." If it's that easy, Rachel Ray can just hire you to her Yum-o Organization, and your witty words can change America in a jiffy. Sadly I think her efforts will fall short and those who like Julia Child and food made from scratch will continue to do so.

Here's an idea to make America better. Let's institute a national health care program based on taxes. And it'll be a graduated tax system like our income taxes, but instead be based upon weight and BMI.

Sure, crazy idea but it's a thought.

This post is amazing. You sum up all the reasons I want to go to cooking school. It is so sad that Americans don't get the joy of making a good meal for each other. It is not just that they put crap in their bodies by eating microwave meals or fast food, but also it is the fact that they are missing out on the joy of sharing food with each other. Food that you spend time making for someone to show how you care. It is not expensive and the fun and joy that comes from hosting a dinner party or bringing homemade cupcakes to the office is worth the 30-50 dollars.

I remember when I was growing up no matter how busy we were we always had dinner as a family. Who ever got home first cooked the dinner and at the end of the day we had that family time. That is really important. That hour to hour and half of talking about our day without tv, the phone, or music to distract us from each other was really important. The food was not always perfect but it was made with love and in the end that was all that mattered.

Bravo!

Could you get more hi-falutin'? While a Whopper is hardly destination-burger-fare, it's a decent, wide burger that thankfully shows no new-jack, Tyler Florence-style influences. I don't know if there's an easier target these days than the American fast-food burger (well, maybe Joe Torre). Even Morgan Spurlock, while slowly killing himself in "Supersize Me," repeatedly acknowledged that the food is addictively good and easy - the taste was never the point, but rather the whole Extreme Heavy Users culture of American fast-food. You can't condescend to a BK Whopper when starving in an airport? - have some sense of American history, at least (i.e., Halberstam's "The Fifties," for starters...)

Count one more in defense of Rachael Ray. Just watching an episode of 30 Minute Meals shows that she's using real ingredients. Sure, she might use some frozen fries now and again, but largely, as mentioned above, the ingredients are fresh and she's just trying to show people that they don't have to have measuring cups and spoons and a recipe in front of them to be able to make a decent quantity of good food. (I also think that if you're going to criticise her, you should take her cookbooks out of your Amazon store. ;)

I hope this post is the first in a longer series of what you think should be done, or how we can accomplish this other than watching Julia Child DVDs. As mentioned above, you're not going to get many people to disagree with you. Maybe a video blog showing you actually making the meal above. With edits, of course, but kind of the upscale version of RR, without time limits. "Exotic" food (which is what most of America would consider a sherry deglaze) is around the corner, and we don't mean in the restaurant.

Great writing voice, by the way. Keep it up! :)

Amen Adam, Amen.

Plenty of accolades and one misguided soul who missed the point. Good post but your prose style is slipping. Reminded me of a creative writing assignment in an AP English class. You can (and have) produced better. Just thought I'd play the role of the slave that rides along in the tribute whispering "Glory is Fleeting" in the emperor's ear.

The BBC just finished a series with Gordon Ramsey. Basic premise was getting women back in the kitchen (not in a non-lib context) complemented by the origins of our meat (he raised pigs/turkeys that eventually made it to his table). Seemed that the basic problem was fear. People think that cooking is difficult.

Have you converted your Mom yet?

I agree with almost all of your commentary, but I would suggest that you missed a couple of points. Major motivators in the US diet and addication to fast food are convenience and cost. We spend much less on food per capita than Europeans. Add in our long work weeks and you see where we get. Our economy and culture has grown up around these factors. As someone that tries to cook with foods I buy at the farmer's market, I can tell you it is very hard not to break down and buy a Chic-fil-A from time to time.


I agree with Dennis-- great post, succintly put and well thought-out, with a fitting message for days like this. But the prose wasn't as good.

The Hungry Man box brought a smile to my face, remembering that classic Woody Allen joke: "The food is really terrible . . . and in such small portions!"

I agree with a lot of this post (though I do think Rachael Ray catches a lot of unnecessary flak in general), and think that poor food quality is driving our society to eat MORE, as inverse a statement as that seems. But think about it: when you eat a well-prepared dish, with complex flavors and delicious textures, you actually don't NEED as much to feel satisfied.

When food is, as you say, "acceptable" but lacking something that you crave, you may misinterpret your desire for something better as the desire for MORE.

And that impairs our portion control.

And restaurants give in to us, exacerbating the problem.

And so we are a nation of super sized "value meals" and buckets of Olive Garden pastas.

The poster who stated that food is more expensive in Europe than in the US hit the nail on the head; very true. You do pay for quality there.

However, you can still eat superbly in numerous countries of Latin America, dining on fresh native ingredients well prepared, and still pay much less for better quality food than in the U.S.; and what enters into play there too is cheaper labor. Hiring kitchen and household help to do the cooking is less expensive than in the US.
But while the food in say Brazil is magnificent across the board, it is telling that McDonald's and its ilk are still making headway into the consumer market there, and in many places in South America is more expensive than tastier, healthier local options. Somehow, American fast food has built up a cache around it.

I'll support Adam in his dislike for Rachael Ray. While I'm happy that she got some people in the kitchen, I am not happy at all when I see what she is preparing on her shows. Her recipes are filled with unnecessary fats, particularly in the amount of olive oil she puts in practically everything, and I find a lot of her food combinations to be bizarre at best (the things she does with hot dogs are just gross).
That French chef who has the simple, fast cooking show on PBS is better in terms of using fresh, easily accessible, and reasonably priced foods.

I'm a recent reader and fan, but I've been reading pretty much all the archives. I must say - this post, amazing. Its very true how we often settle for the quick route, rather than enjoy the journey, and the "bond" we develop with food that we cook.

One widely echoed sentiment often is that people will not cook for themselves alone (and I'm guilty of that at times too). I'm not sure why - its almost like going to the gym alone when you're not accustomed to it. The recipe that you showed was a great example of a one person meal though. Easy enough, yet detailed, quick enough, yet satisfying. Again, kudos on the post!

Fantastic perspective. I'm in advertising and I love love love the top-to-bottom approach that Burger King's ad agency has taken in giving everything in their restaurants a consistent "voice." I still love it from an advertising perspective, but I'm giving it more thought as a "tip of the iceberg" problem. Great piece.

Adam, I found myself nodding my head vigorously in agreement to pretty much everything you said. As an American who has lived in Germany the past few years, I have found that my entire concept of food has changed since I've lived here.

Sure, I've always loved to cook and bake. But I have a better appreciation for fresh, simple, quality ingredients, rather than pre-packaged, artificial, processed foods. I see how the Europeans linger for hours over their meals, and enjoy their food as a means to bond with family and friends. Here, you don't get rushed out of a restaurant before you can even order dessert. You grab a table, and it's yours all day.

I've been taking a lot more time to enjoy the sensory experience of food. And I think I'm better for it.

I've got to defend the Rachael Ray on this one, too. She's not the problem, although the talk show was a big mistake and some of her recipes are bizarre. But you know what? Some people actually need a recipe for a cheeseburger, and if using a Rachael Ray cookbook gets someone to make their own patties instead of buying them frozen or heading to Burger King, I think that's a win for us foodies. No one is perfect, so let's focus on the ones who are really, really bad instead of the ones with a few personality quirks that we find distasteful. Like Sandra Lee. :-)

The sweet smell of success......comes from your kitchen. How beautiful.

I once knew a girl who could not make mashed potatos, because she did not know how long to boil the potatos! Like it required a recipe or something. I told her she could just stick a fork in them, and it was like a light came on, and she became confident and made them after that. Some people, simply do not know the first thing about engaging their food, an excellent point!

Real food does not fit in boxes, it is like those flowers at Chez Panisse, and Thank God for places like that. Viva la Delicious Revolution!

This is your best post!

Very astute observations. However Rachael Ray and Julia Child are two sides of the same coin. Ms. Ray shows that healthy and good tasting meals that are packed with flavor can be prepared in thirty minutes or less.

Julia Child, unlike Ms. Ray, had a formal chef's education. She attended the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and later studied privately with master chefs like Max Bugnard. When her PBS show started back in the early 1960s many kitchens in the U.S. didn't even have a set of measuring spoons. Cooking back then was considered drudgery and a home cooked meal was often a TV dinner or something from a can. The sooner the home cook got out of the kitchen the better.

Both of these ladies say that cooking is just common sense. Once the basic cooking techniques are mastered, when one can understand how each ingredient influences the dish and how they relate to each other success in the kitchen will follow. They both have said that one doesn't have to measure every ingredient. Once Julia Child said, "Cooking is not a particularly difficult art, and the more you cook and learn about cooking, the more sense it makes." Also, "Once you have mastered a technique, you hardly need look at a recipe again."

Julia Child and Rachael Ray are saying the same thing just in a different way. And both have a place in American cuisine.

Thank you Adam. Seriously, this is why I read your blog.

Huzzah!!

Your blog rocks, especially this post. Thank you so much for giving me yet one more reason to pull myself out of my frozen-prepared-food-and-take-out upbringing. I've only recently began to teach myself to cook, and every bit helps!

As a fellow foodie, I'm a fan of your work. I hope you'll have a chance to visit my blog www.voiceofreason.net and let me know your thoughts on all things food!

Are you kidding? That looks AWESOME! I imagine the Steaks with Mushrooms and Onions dish being rich tasting, is it? It sure looks like it is. I'd have to serve that over some rice or pasta - but in itself - it's mouth watering.

Dennis & Christina,

When did one ever read Amateur Gourmet for the prose? One reads Amateur Gourmet for the wacky cupcake recipes, to listen to the zany food songs and watch the videos. I certainly never expect James Beard level stuff from this blog.

You two need to investigate other much better written food literature. Start with Jonathon Gold's Counter Intelligence. He just won a Pulitzer. The first food critic ever to do so.

Maybe because I'm looking at this from a different perspective, but most families consist of both parents working. There is only so much time in the day. After work you have to pick up the kids, make dinner, do homework, give them a bath... God forbid it's a night where there are extracurricular sports or activities.

Sometimes it does come down to convenience. It doesn't mean taht you don't put love and thought into those meals, but we can't all be Thomas Keller all the time.

Celeb -

In case you havent noticed Adam's blog is usually well written. This post was not up to a lot of his other work. He did get a book contract out of the blog and I'm hoping the book is more like his best posts than this one. I read Julia/Julie and bought the book - hoping Adam's book is NOT like that one.

Besides most of the comments remind me more of Paula Abdul when more Cowell is needed.

Dennis,

I HAVE noticed. Do you even know who Jonathon Gold is??? Tell me that at least one of Adam's posts are remotely equal to that of Pulitzer Prize winner Gold's in quality and wit. Cite at least one example of Adam's posts if you are so familiar with this blog.

My money is that Adam's book will be on par or less than Julie Powell's book. Plus, you really can't compare the two. Julie's is a memoirish account of her year as a food blogger. Adam's is a recipe/story book. Adam would be lucky to be as big as a hit as Julie/Julia. After all, Julie's book is going to be a motion picture directed by Nora Ephron.

(Oh dear, you have a little debate going on in here.)

Adam, bravo. When you feel something urgently, you don't stop to arrange all the words perfectly.

I wrote about these ideas in my book too. Julia is one of my my favorite people, and she inspires me every day. "In cooking, one needs a what the hell attitude." Less Martha Stewart, more Julia Child please.

um, I just wanted to post under Shauna and say that you two are my favorites. that is all.

Thank you for this post. In a world where Mac & Cheese Pizza exists, we need to read stuff like this.

I guess Martha Stewart perfection syndrome really put a thorn in the Julia Child way of cooking and enjoying food.

Amen!

Preach it Adam!

Overall, I agree with your food philosphy, but I have to chime in on the Rachel Ray defense. I'm kinda sick of cerain foodies using her as a punching bag. It's getting tired.

Have you ever even watched more than one episode of 30 Minute Meals? Because for the most part, she uses fresh ingredients. Once in a while she pulls out a bottled sauce or a pack of frozen vegetables, but I saw your beloved Mario Batali use frozen peas once, so it's not unconscionable.

It's Sandra Lee who's truly horrific, in my opinion. Punch away at Almost Homemade, I say.

(de-lurking here)

oh man, fast food never looked so disgusting. THANK YOU, I am now converted. Actually love cooking again since reading your blog.

(just about to cook your buttermilk pancake recipe)

You made it sound impossibly delicious, I just had to prove it to myself...

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