Fighting the Microwave: The Birth of America’s Food Movement
Paul Freedman writes about this pivotal moment in his new book, “American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way.”
Unbeknownst at the time, the decade of the 1970s was the turning point in the modern history of American cuisine. Perhaps this era of paisley and polyester, of shag carpets and avocado-colored kitchen appliances, deserves Spy magazine’s dismissive epithet “the stupid decade.” It certainly has a lot to answer for as yuppie self-absorption and free spending replaced youthful 1960s idealism. Not for nothing did Tom Wolfe dub the 1970s the “Me Decade.” Despite its ill- advised popular-culture innovations and virulent narcissism, the decade is crucially important for initiating the women’s liberation and gay rights movements. The 1970s also witnessed dramatically unfunny events, such as the American defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, two energy crises, and the first modern terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics. Political upheaval, economic limits, and a looming sense of a grim ecological future crushed the naïve ebullience of the 1960s.
In culinary terms, the 1970s marked the nadir of American cuisine but also saw an incremental but persistent upturn, the beginning of reconstruction after the devastation created by processed food and national standardization. Tentative rehabilitation centered on the rediscovery of basic, natural ingredients. The current farm-to-table movement, with its emphasis on seasonal and local products, is based on ideas of taste and freshness that surfaced in the 1970s, going against the homogenization of American food consumption. A few rebels led significant but at first barely visible shifts toward a rediscovery of flavor instead of preoccupation with health, convenience, modernity, efficiency, and other extraneous concerns that had dominated the previous decades of the twentieth century.
With the triumph of standardized, processed food, the 1970s mark the total eclipse of regional cuisine. New conveniences such as the microwave oven perpetuated even further a pattern of food consumption based on sameness and efficiency. However, there was also a widely diffused countercultural indictment of the food industry. A critique of American food gained strength based not just on health or environmental anxieties, but on a radically new aesthetic of pleasure: food ought to be judged by how it tastes, not just according to dubious health criteria. Making sensuality a priority was revolutionary because it broke with a century of misleading guidance about food reform and created a positive resistance to the food industry rather than negative ecological abstemiousness.
The significance of the 1970s might seem counterintuitive because it was experienced at the time as a disappointing period by political activists after the high expectations of the revolutionary late 1960s. The optimism of the Civil Rights Movement and giddiness of the Age of Aquarius were over, but African American political and cultural agitation was not suppressed, while alternative lifestyle practices, from waterbeds to long hair for men, became common beyond the confines of Haight-Ashbury and the East Village. The Watergate crisis, the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs to relieve poverty and end discrimination, and the Vietnam debacle eroded trust in political authorities and experts. Perhaps more than anything, the failure of grand political and social transformations in the 1960s meant a turn toward the personal: “the personal is political,” as one slogan had it or, in the words of the Beatles’ song “Revolution,” “You better free your mind instead.”
Changes in food consumption resulted from channeling revolutionary idealism in new, safer directions. If the world was not going to be immediately transformed, one could at least lead a more authentic life. The effects of what seemed in the early 1970s like fringe ideas such as organic agriculture or vegetarianism are still unfolding today, with questions like where does food come from, why it is wasted, and how can we cultivate it sustainably? Most significantly, the “stupid decade” belies this contemptuous nickname when it comes to rediscovering the importance of taste.
The vivid but obsolete take of the Time-Life cookbook series on American culinary bounty was succeeded by the neoregionalism of Jane and Michael Stern, who acknowledged the overall decline while still picking out oases of resistance. From this point on, regional cuisine was no longer celebrated as a vibrant tradition but rather portrayed as endangered, or already extinct. For example, Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking (1976) interwove with its stories a gentle lament for the lost flavors of locally cultivated and foraged products of fields, woods, and smokehouses. Lewis evoked a time not so long ago when food was part of the community, neighbors borrowing setting hens (those ready to brood over eggs) if their own were late, or helping with hog butchering. By 1976, the Freetown of her memories was a vanished civilization. The past was definitively past, but the book was influential, asserting as it did that ingredients matter, that local ingredients are best, and that cooking is an expression of affection and neighborliness. In tone the book is partly mournful, partly inspirational.
For the time being, saving or cataloguing a threatened heritage was paramount. Under the title Fading Feast, the New York Times reporter Raymond Sokolov recounted stories of endangered redoubts of traditional foods, places where real Key limes grow and people learned in childhood how to prepare terrapin, squirrel, or whitefish. In 1978, when the Sterns published the first version of Roadfood, traditional regional food could be described as flourishing only if you defined grilled cheese sandwiches as charmingly authentic. The guardians of American folkways were no longer farmers or mountaineers, but salvage experts trained in the liberal arts, like the Sterns. American traditions were under siege in their original form but taken up by newcomers. By the 1970s, bluegrass music was no longer played by Appalachian folk sitting on their front porches but by college graduates at festivals.
The mediocrity of American food was evidenced by the decline of regionalism and the encroachment of McDonald’s, but also at the pseudo-sophisticated end by the popularity of Continental cuisine, mass-market food served in elegant surroundings with snobbish ostentation. Fancy dishes such as steak Diane, chicken Kiev (when you pierced the breaded crust, butter— or, more likely, margarine—spilled out), and shrimp scampi were prepared from frozen ingredients. In American Fried (1974), Calvin Trillin memorably ridiculed Continental restaurants and the idea that fine European food could be found outside of New York, San Francisco, and maybe one or two other places. For the rest of the country, he preferred Kansas City barbecue and other specialties of the American interior, a revolutionary and paradoxical attitude, but he made no effort to show that these represented old-fashioned home cooking.
Trillin preferred to look on the positive side, but others were angry at the hegemony of the processed food industry and the connivance of “gourmets” who pretended that frozen food was wonderful or that America was teeming with great restaurants. An uncompromising denunciation of the state of American food came from John and Karen Hess with the publication in 1977 of The Taste of America, the food-world equivalent of Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem Howl. As with Ginsberg’s passionate attack on American conformity and obliviousness, The Taste of America blamed corporations and an all-too-willing population of zombies who accepted the life-denying tenets of what was touted as modernity. The authors sounded a tocsin about the state of American cooking comparable to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring with regard to environmental Armageddon.
For the Hesses, the pathetic state of American food was the result of a food industry conspiracy bolstered by soi-disant gourmet experts. The corporate imperatives for economy of scale, durability, and color had destroyed the flavor of meat, fruit, and vegetables. People had forgotten what these things were supposed to taste like, and the lullaby that had put them into gastronomic lassitude was sung by a chorus of women’s magazines, their advertisers, and elite arbiters of taste. Kraft, Heinz, McDonald’s, and other usual suspects were denounced, but the Hesses were even angrier at the “gourmet plague” spread by chefs and food writers who cheerfully colluded with the degradation of American tastes. Portrayed as vain and easily flattered, Craig Claiborne was infatuated with French food and ignored the actual mediocrity of what passed for haute cuisine in the United States. The Hesses also ridiculed James Beard for profiting handsomely from food industry advertising. His endorsements for Shasta soft drinks, Adolph’s meat tenderizer and other meretricious items discredited his self-appointed role as defender of American gusto and authenticity
The Taste of America called attention to the precipitous decline in the quality of basic products and exposed as comical the claims of expensive restaurants and high-end cookbooks that presented inferior ingredients dressed up with fancy names. The book was a jeremiad against the state of the American palate, blaming not historical imprints like our alleged Puritan heritage, but rather mass ignorance about what food should be and once had been.
According to the Hesses, America’s natural riches had created a refined and sensuous cuisine that reached its peak around 1850. The country was sufficiently developed at that time for New Yorkers to enjoy game from forests and prairies or terrapin from the Chesapeake, but not yet oriented toward standard brands and bland predictability. The authors encapsulated the current (1977) situation with the example of President Gerald Ford, who regarded both eating and sleeping as “a waste of time.” Calling attention to what he regarded as his virtuous Midwestern austerity, the president boasted of his unvarying lunch of cottage cheese with a sliced onion or quartered tomato, sprinkled with A.1. Sauce and followed by a scoop of butter-pecan ice cream.
We now realize that while the Hesses despaired, there were encouraging new developments. These are not easily described, for it is not as if on one day chefs and food leaders woke up and spontaneously and simultaneously discovered local, seasonal dining. Something like this, however, is the standard historical narrative. In Provence, 1970, for example, Luke Barr argues that during this specific summer, American chefs and writers turned from simply embracing France as a gastronomic model, tout court, to drawing lessons that could be applied to the American culinary school. M. F. K. Fisher, James Beard, and Julia Child had been inspired by the French ethos and practice regarding the delights of food. All were in Provence that summer of 1970, and their interlocking experiences supposedly convinced them to mobilize a “reinvention of American taste” emphasizing freshness, simplicity, and sensuousness.” This is a little too neat, as if cuisine reform was a type of Manhattan Project developed in the painter Richard Olney’s Provence kitchen. In fact, these chefs and food writers had different agendas in 1970 and after.
Another narrative credits Alice Waters and Chez Panisse with bringing about a “delicious revolution” by which taste was returned to the center, but now allied with simplicity, health, and terroir. No one can say that Alice Waters has lacked attention or been underappreciated. That attention, however, is merited, for she, more than the older gourmands of Provence, 1970, really did appropriate a French food aesthetic to change American cuisine. Inspired by her French experiences, Waters launched Chez Panisse in 1971 as yet another reiteration of French cuisine, a refuge from American mediocrity. Unlike other restaurateurs, however, she cared passionately about the quality and flavor of primary ingredients. The restaurant changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, leading to a reinvention of American cuisine on the basis of seasonality, high- quality ingredients, and locavore dining.
The food revolution that commenced in the 1970s has multiple origins. The decade was in many ways harsh and disappointing, a period of political conflict, economic stagnation, and cultural disillusionment that gave rise to trends that progressives, including locavore chefs, do not approve of, from Reaganomics to Pop-Tarts. Rather than picking out those new developments that meet our approval while discarding the rest, it is worth looking at both the good and bad aspects to see how a rejuvenated American taste emerged from the bleak reality of fast and frozen food. What follows begins with a key shift that seemed, at first, to be happening off- stage, a crisis in French cuisine that would end its centuries-old authority over defining fine food. Two American social trends also emerged at this time, the women’s movement and the assertion of gay rights. Two other major developments are the diffusion of the microwave oven and the rapid expansion of fast food chains. The microwave took over the American kitchen and fast food controlled the highway off-ramps. The final section then considers culinary movements that combated standardization. What was derisively dismissed as hippie food turns out to have exerted an outsize influence, as would the experiments undertaken by restaurants such as Chez Panisse, the Quilted Giraffe, or K- Paul’s, all of which sought to rediscover primary ingredients, seasons, sensuality, and, above all, taste.
Excerpted from American Cuisine: And How it Got This Way. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Freedman. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.