Book looks at Americans in the kitchen: how we eat what we eat and why

March 11, 1992|By Carol Cutler | Carol Cutler,Copley News Service

Perhaps being a young country propels us to do things at a fast pace. We walk faster than Europeans do. We finish a meal in record time instead of slowly savoring it. We also constantly change our views about current customs and fashions.

No one has done a better job of capturing our forever fluctuating attitudes than Gerry Schremp in her new book "Kitchen Culture -- Fifty Years of Food Fads -- From Spam to Spa Cuisine" (Pharos Books). This exhaustively researched book is a true road map of where we've been and where we are.

Fifty years is not all that long in the course of history, even culinary history, but the procession of 40 plus recipes sprinkled throughout "Kitchen Culture" illustrates how much we've zigzagged.

The first recipe is one for the cherry pie that won the national pie-baking contest in 1942. The filling has a good dose of honey, as well as a bit of butter. The pastry is made flaky with lard.

The very last recipe is from the world-famous Rancho La Puerta spa south of San Diego in Baja, Mexico -- Persian Pancakes with Cinnamon Cheese Filling (made with non-fat cottage cheese, of course). Each serving carries a trivial 120 calories. Compare that to the cherry pie's approximately 300 calories per serving and you get a pretty good idea of our current direction, or infatuation, take your pick.

"Kitchen Culture," however, does much more than simply trace our eating habits. It encompasses social customs, as well, for the two are inextricably intertwined.

The American sense of good humor comes through even during the rigors of World War II when GIs in the South Pacific put up signs identifying their locations as "Spamville" in honor of you know what. In case you'd like to try a retro recipe, there is one for Spam Baked Like Ham, proof of how inventive (desperate?) Army mess cooks were.

Rationing during the war also brought about our first serious brush with nutrition. The government campaign was aimed at keeping the civilian population fit: "Eat the Right Food -- America Needs You Strong."

Official posters emphasized fruits, vegetables, milk, cheese, lean meats, poultry, fish, sometimes dried beans and 3 to 4 eggs a week. With hindsight (and much research in between), now we can see that not even government nutritionists were completely accurate.

A nostalgic stroll through these pages introduces us to the first supermarkets (the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.), the show biz of flaming foods in ritzy restaurants as compared to the more pedestrian, but functional, Horn & Hardart automats.

You may be familiar with Duncan Hines cake mixes, but did you know that there really was a Duncan Hines and he had great influence on the food industry? The logo "Recommended by Duncan Hines" was eagerly sought by restaurants and hotels. Since Hines, no individual American has held such power. Now corporations -- Mobil, AAA, and the like -- have that influence, but that personal touch is missing.

The rise of the individual celebrity chef changed our way of cooking forever. Julia Child, of course, had the most profound influence. Remember she came during the reign of the Kennedy administration when French food was all the rage.

"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" hit America in 1961. Ms. Child hit American television shortly thereafter. But just about that time Betty Friedan and the women's liberation movement were also being heard, bringing with them still more social changes.

"Kitchen Culture" goes on to trace the Americanization of our table with the influence of Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters, as well as the importance of the Culinary Institute of America.

No one who has lived even some small part of these last 50 years cannot help but be caught up by the humor and insight of this book.

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