Last week I talked about Japanese food becoming a UNESCO World Heritage. This got me to thinking that perhaps American food too should qualify. Stop laughing.
On the surface, American food seems like a poor candidate for World Heritage status. Especially when you consider that washoku (Japanese food) was nominated on the basis of visual presentation, fresh and seasonable ingredients, and overall healthiness that adds to longevity and quality of life.
But washoku was nominated for other reasons too.
1. Japanese food is unique: Although washoku is unique, so is American food. What other country can boast of s’mores, rice crispy treats and boxed macaroni and cheese; canned food, instant breakfast, and pop tarts; McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and White Castle? It may not be healthy, but it’s our national menu! The fact that no other nation would claim to have anything to do with our food just goes to show you how unique it is.
Although American food is made up of various ethnic foods brought to the country via our immigrants, Native Americans influenced American food culture and cooking methods first. The Native Americans gave us corn bread and grits (corn or hominy based porridge). They introduced to our diet fishes such as cod, flounder, herring, halibut, salmon and whale. Eel, catfish, shrimp, lobster, crayfish, crabs, oysters mussels and clams were also eaten. The New England Clam Bake is a cooking method where fish and vegetables are cooked on hot stones inside a pit dug in the ground. Grilling, spit roasting and cooking vegetables in the hot ashes of fire are still in use today.
Like Japanese food, we have our regional specialties: Cajun food from Louisiana, Chicago-style pizza, and New York-style cheesecake. Chili con carne is the official dish of the State of Texas. Other American inventions such as deep-dish pizza, the California roll, and Tex-Mex are stolen cuisines given enough of a twist that the original country wouldn’t even recognize them. Now that’s American food!
2. Has seasonal connections and rituals: Picnics (and picnic baskets) and barbecues (complete with the BBQ apron and spatula utensil set) are summer rituals in the U.S. Stews, soups and open-faced sandwiches are favored in the wintertime. Foods such as turkey, ham and pumpkin pie are deeply rooted in holiday traditions. Hotdogs are forever related to baseball, popcorn to the movies and baking pies and other desserts is a national pastime.
And since some people drink their meals, let’s not forget cocktails, an American cultural icon. Concoctions such as the martini and Manhattan have influenced music, theater, art and film for over 200 years. Cocktails forever influenced the glassware industry: martini glasses, margarita glasses, shot glasses, etc.
3. Embodies a feeling of gratitude: Japanese food is said to embody the feeling of gratitude. We take antiacid instead. But before dinner, prayers are often said, which include thanking God for the food. Some people in the countryside still have Sunday dinner that starts at 1 p.m. Dinner time is family time when parents catch up with their kids and find out how their day at school was, their basketball game, or their exams (in contrast to Japan where men come home late and often eat alone).
4. Uses special tableware and utensils: Although chopsticks are a unique Asian icon, American food has European-influenced utensils such as soup spoons, tea spoons, salad forks, dessert forks, butter knives and steak knives, as well as utensils particular to certain dishes such as salad tongs, pizza cutters, cheese slicers, cheese spread knives, grapefruit spoons, cake servers and, uh, corn cob holders. It’s no wonder many people choose to use their fingers instead.
And what about our automated utensils such as, blenders, toasters, can openers, Mix Masters, Slice-o-matics and other late night TV-advertised gizmos? Our manufacturers address all your food preparation needs, even the ones you don’t have.
5. Has cultural importance to people: Our cuisine is full of cultural icons such as Hostess Twinkies. This sweet, preservative-infested sponge cake treat with creamy filling was described in an article in the Wall Street Journal as having “. . . an aura of mythical, if kitschy, indestructibility.” That really makes me proud.
Our hotdogs inspire hot dog eating contests (just ask Takeru Kobayashi, a Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest champion), chili cook-offs are legendary and no country fair is complete without a watermelon seed-spitting contest. So important is American food to our culture that we embody the concept of “You are what you eat.”
6. Is linked to socializing, communicating and provides a “symbolic cohesion”: Symbolic cohesion is a vague term, which for Japanese food could refer to how Japanese people feel compelled to post photos of meals on the Internet to virtually share their food with everyone else. There is a nationwide propensity to take a photo of a meal and further post it to Facebook, Twitter or blogs to share it. How harmonious.
But for Americans, symbolic cohesion is completely different. We find it in the universal appeal and availability of fast food: Let’s meet at McDonald’s, KFC, or Krispy Kreme Doughnuts; let’s chat over a Coke, ice cream sundae or brownie; “I’m at Starbucks!” #foursquare.
These quick food outlets gave rise to fast food lies such as “I go to McDonald’s for the McCafe” (even though once inside, they order a Bic Mac) or, “I go to McDonald’s for their clean restrooms” (after which they feel obligated to buy something while there. Makes you wonder why McDonald’s hasn’t come out with “Le petite bathroom burger” for those “just passing through”).
And McDonald’s brought cuisine into the car where you don’t need a table cloth, water goblets or table manners. Their drive-thrus are responsible for developing our early, nascent multi-tasking skills, which later developed into eating, driving and talking on our cell phones.
And, unfortunate as it may be, our fast food outlets have had worldwide influence. Name one country that doesn’t have a McDonald’s (and I’ll be the first to move there!).
It makes one wonder: When it comes to UNESCO World Heritage distinctions, where does one draw the line?