The Rise of America as Culinary Destination

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  09.23.09 | 9:55 AM ET

Just a few decades ago, America was a culinary wasteland. Now, it’s foodie central. Why? Jerry Weinberger points to, among other things, the Great Woman theory of history:

The first wedding gift my wife and I received, in 1965, was a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child (with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle). It still sits on a shelf in our kitchen, bound now by tape, with almost every page earmarked and blotched. Published in 1961, Child’s book brought the techniques of French haute cuisine to the American kitchen, teaching us how to soak and sauté sweetbreads, how to make soufflé au Grand Marnier, how to cut up a duck—all within the limits of the American supermarket of the period. But it was Child’s later TV show, Boston PBS’s The French Chef, that really changed things. It was unintimidating French cooking: the chef was a goofy-talking giant who dumped in the butter and occasionally spilled things and whacked stuff with mallets and sometimes burned the sauce.

But Julia taught us how to master French cooking, not American. American food had to be invented before it could be mastered. And the inventor was another Great Woman, this one on the opposite coast. In 1971, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. This was the great transformative event in American culinary history. Chez Panisse grew out of Waters’s experience not with the butter and fat of Parisian haute cuisine, but with the foods of Mediterranean Provence (based on olive oil, the fresh fruits of the earth and sea, and the general habit of going to the market with a string bag every day). The principle of Chez Panisse was that food—both animal and vegetable—should be absolutely fresh, and that meant absolutely local. So it’s not quite right to say that Waters had to invent American food; what she did was rediscover and then elaborate on pre-canned, pre-supermarket, pre-tomatoes-all-year-round regional American food.

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