More Than Hot Dogs and Apple Pie

How The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink falls short.

The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.

The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by Andrew Smith, comes with an impressive pedigree, being one of several volumes spawned by the late, great Alan Davidson’s million-word, bet-settlingly definitive Oxford Companion to Food. So it was with high hopes that I began reading Smith’s book, hoping he’d offer a similarly decisive look at American cuisine.

Thumbing though the 650-page tome looking for the food tie that binds, I became increasingly convinced that, apart from the obvious regionalism of cuisines that span the United States, the common thread of immigration defines American food. Not Spaghetti-Os and chop suey, but the tens of hyphenated cuisines—Italian-American, German-American—lovingly preserved by immigrants and handed down through generations. The other candidates Smith posits as defining American food—dishes connected with national holidays, such as turkey and apple pie, or fast food, like hamburgers and hot dogs—are too simple and restricted to serve as the core of the national diet. What needs explaining is not Thanksgiving dinner or the Big Mac, but the universal availability of bagels, beer, and sushi. And there’s no way of understanding our appetite for pizza and fried chicken unless we look at the hegemony of hyphenated cuisines.

Smith realizes the importance of these hybrid foodways, for they are featured in his encyclopedic work, and some boast substantial entries. But while each possesses a good, if necessarily brief, outline of the history of the immigrant group concerned, the book never substantively grapples with the big questions: What, broadly, defines American food and drink, and what is the essential role of immigration in the making of this American cuisine?

Our roots in hyphenated cuisine stem from the greatest process in food history—the Columbian Exchange, or the ongoing transfer of goods between Old World and New World that began with Columbus’ first voyage, when Europeans brought over goods like wheat, cucumbers, cattle, horses, and wine grapes, and took back with them American plants like tomatoes, potatoes, and maize. (A Columbian Exchange entry is conspicuously absent from Smith’s book, though there is a two-page table explicating it under “Native American Foods.”) Successive waves of immigrants generally brought their own ingredients with them, though they sometimes employed tricks to recreate their native food from American foodstuffs.

Most immigrants settled in cities, clustering in neighborhoods with others who shared their ethnic background. This made provisioning easier, and it perpetuated the taste of the young for their parents’ food, while limiting their exposure to outside food. Because about 1 million people immigrated here yearly from 1905 until 1914, immigration retained its cultural significance in the United States until the start of World War I. And the steady influx of Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and German-Americans, in particular, reinforced their importance in our culinary history.

Joan Nathan’s Jewish-American food entry succeeds because it’s unified by the concept of kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, and how American immigrants accepted and then rejected them. Nathan starts by informing the reader that in the half-century between 1830 and 1880, the most important center of American-German-Jewish “commerce, culture and cuisine” was Cincinnati, the American birthplace of the kashrut-disdaining Reform movement. Baking was the most prized kitchen skill of its huge German-Jewish population, so, she remarks, “[S]urely it was no coincidence that Cincinnati became the home of  Fleischmann’s yeast and Crisco, a vegetable-based [and thus kosher] shortening.” The entry also benefits from Nathan’s own curiosity about her subject. In her discussion of crossover foods, for example, we learn how the unlikely knish has “gone mainstream.” Of course, Nathan has it easy in that the consolidating theme of kashrut makes it unnecessary to define “Jewish food.”

Mark H. Zanger has a harder task with his Italian-American food entry, but it is too brief to deal adequately with our nation’s most popular cuisine, particularly one that possesses such a complicated history and evolution. Those who made and ate this cuisine were the latest immigrants to arrive in the United States, and many of them didn’t identify themselves as Italian, or with what we’ve come to know as “Italian” food, since, as Zanger points out, Southern Italy and Sicily weren’t part of the Kingdom of Italy until 1861. The one-line mention of “arugula” speaks well to this entry’s shortcomings: “arugula—a weed in Italy—only became part of the American gourmet vocabulary in the 1990s.” Where is the explanation of how it came to be called arugula, instead of rocket, or one of its cognate Italian names, like ruchetta? And where is Zanger’s curiosity about why this peppery leaf has become the symbol of foodie America? Because this book has no headword such as gourmet or foodie, there is nowhere else obvious to look for this discussion, leaving a reader (forgive me) hungry to learn more about how this low-brow cuisine of spaghetti and meatballs became both popular and cutting-edge.

“German American Food,” also by Zanger, is a bit more comprehensive, as befits “the largest American ethnic group.” As Zanger acknowledges, we owe much of what we consume to German-speaking immigrants, from cream soups to potato salad to cakes and cookies to beer. Zanger gives us a splendid summing-up of the history of Germanophone immigration, with a healthy emphasis on the Pennsylvania Dutch. But the various national and regional origins of these people are probably more important than their shared language, as we try to understand the differences of their foodways and their resulting influence on our contemporary cuisine. If we had only this entry to go on, I think we’d conclude that the contribution of German-Americans to the national diet was not very important. The ubiquity of synthetic vanilla in American baked goods is, I’m sure, a bad habit of German origin.

The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink isn’t altogether unworthy of the brand name that it carries. It has the large (if nonessential) virtue of an encyclopedia—it’s amusing to dip into at random. To take one pertinent example, in one of the crucial (and most elegantly written) entries, “Hot Dogs,” Bruce Kraig explains how, although this smoked, cooked sausage on a bun resembles many German foods, it is in fact “America’s great democratic food.” Its iconic status made eating a hot dog, usually in public and especially in the period between the wars, an act of cultural assimilation. And, if you need to mug up on why the North American Free Trade Agreement is important for food, Robert R. Brower tells you what you need to know in six paragraphs.

However, it doesn’t quite function as a quick reference book. For instance, the selection of biographies is startlingly eccentric—little-known chef Louis Szathmary is given the same treatment as celebrated food writer Craig Claiborne. And the cross-referencing is hopeless, though there is a decent index. The real failure, though, is conceptual. Here we have an encyclopedia of … what? Of course, it’s difficult to define something as broad as American food and drink. But being more rigorous and systematic in the treatment of hyphenated cuisines would offer some cohesion to the whole project. And shouldn’t a book like this cause the reader to think, “Now I understand what makes American food and drink American”? When I finally closed it, my first thought was, “I hope they do a second edition, and very soon.”