A closer look at America’s culinary landscape

Michael Brissenden’s article, “A land of truly ordinary culinary options”, is certainly one aspect of the USA’s culinary landscape.  It is what you see if you’re just passing through, if you don’t talk to the locals, if you forget the fact that America and Australia may share certain traits but operate in completely different economic and cultural realities.

America is small towns and segregation, vast expanses of open land and suburbs as far as you can see.  It is housing projects and mansions in a land where too many people in power think pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is possible for all, because you hear the stories of the lucky few.

It is also a place where people are passionate about making a difference, because we are all taught that we—as individuals—have that power, if only we work hard enough. It’s a place where you can find people who care about the food they grow and prepare, if you know where to look.

Before moving to Sydney just six months ago, my husband (an Australian) and I (an American) lived in a town that had a European style coffee shop that roasted its own beans and three dueling Italian delis featuring locally produced meats and vegetables, panini made with fresh, flavorful ingredients, and handmade pastas brought in from another local business.  This was just what was available on our street. If you ventured further, mostly within walking distance, you could get fresh-baked artisanal sourdough, some of the best pizza in the country, transcendent French-influenced Thai food, local produce from the Farmers’ markets, spicy Malaysian curries and noodle soups, and experimental Spanish cuisine.

This is just the start of what we found in New Haven, Connecticut, a town of just over 120,000 people, not including the surrounding suburbs. New Haven is between Boston and New York, is the home of Yale University, and is a fairly typical mid-sized college town.  It is as good an example as any of America’s dysfunctional relationship with food.

Downtown, where most of the undergraduate students live and where tourists flock, fresh food is abundant, posh restaurants and bars line the streets, and everything from vegan raw cuisine to New York-style steak houses can be found.  Good food is plentiful, and beyond the street carts serving $4 burritos or Pad Thai with chicken, the familiar fast food chains so many of us associate with America are non-existent.

In New Haven’s poorer neighborhoods, you find food deserts, where anyone in search of lunch is more likely to end up with a burger made of government-subsidized corn products than anything else.  One of the local supermarkets, Shaw’s, closed suddenly this year, prompting community outrage and hurried attempts to find an adequate replacement. As far as I’m aware, the community is still in search of another supermarket chain to take its place.

But in these same neighborhoods, if you talk to the locals, you can find home-style Southern barbecue joints and discount grocery stores like C-Town that stock affordable foods and some of the most authentic Salvadoran food in the US.  More recently, local organizations like Cityseed have been working to make farmers’ markets more affordable and accessible to residents in these neighborhoods, with increasing success.

The American food landscape is changing because Americans are becoming increasingly aware that the culinary landscape of America is dysfunctional, and are making steps to remedy this.  It is happening, slowly, and with varying degrees of success, but it is gathering momentum.  New Haven is just one example of this movement, and these same changes are happening in cities and towns all over the US.

Does quality local food cost more than the government-subsidized, corn-filled food Michael Brissenden came across? Yes, of course it does, for obvious reasons. You pay more for quality, and for food the government doesn’t subsidize. This is why food in Australia, as a whole, is more expensive than food in the US.  This is why America, with its an ever-increasing rich-poor gap, comparatively minimal social services, and a non-existent public health care system, is filled with poor-quality, tasteless food.  It’s easy, it’s cheap, and it’s all people have access to in some cases.  But that’s not all that’s out there.

Even in my relatively short lifetime, it is clear that the food culture across the US is changing for the better.  But in a nation of over 300 million people, these changes take time, and are not always obvious to the casual tourist.

For now, I recommend that visitors to the US do some research before they arrive.  The internet makes this easy; sites like eGullet and Chowhound have forums separated by region where you can ask food-obsessed locals where they think you should get lunch in St. Louis, for example, or where the best Mexican food in Salt Lake City can be found (the Red Iguana gets my vote). If you’re taking a road trip, check out Roadfood.  As for coffee, look for an espresso machine and small serving sizes; these places are becoming more common with time.

And if you’re in New Haven, stop by Pepe’s Pizza for a white pie with clam or shrimp (no cheese); follow it up with a macchiato from Fuel, just around the corner. Then tell me what you think of America’s culinary landscape.


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2 responses to “A closer look at America’s culinary landscape

  1. Alistair

    Pepe’s? I still can’t be bothered with their queues, nor the burnt pizza. How about the Thursday night dégustation at Ibiza? We’re leaving New Haven too, soon.

  2. Liz Williams

    The Thursday night dégustation at Ibiza is pretty amazing, though we made it exactly once before we left. The darkened crust is classic New Haven pizza. Perhaps it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I quite liked it. To be fair, we’d always try to go when we knew the line would be short. James and lines never quite worked.

    Regarding the move, I noticed–Facebook is a horrible, horrible stalker tool. I hope it’s a good move?

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