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Celebrating American Food: A 1.28 Million Word Encyclopedia

Meryle Evans / November 2012

What is American food and drink? What is its future? These were the provocative questions posed and pondered last week at a gala gab-fest and reception marking the publication of the Second Edition of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. An overflow audience at Manhattan’s Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) heard two panels of erudite contributors to the three volume Encyclopedia express both optimistic and pessimistic views of our culinary landscape.

According to moderator of the first panel, Gary Allen, who wrote multiple entries for the Encyclopedia, “fusion” is the key word defining American cuisine. “America is more cosmopolitan than any place in the world,” he noted, “and we will eat anything, from any place, at any time.” Using that as a point of departure, other speakers focused on their areas of expertise. Pointing out that cookbooks are a “keyhole to the past” Judy Polinsky who is currently completing a book on 18th century cookery, traced our British heritage through early recipe books that combined traditional English dishes and indigenous ingredients; Andy Coe who has written extensively about Chinese cuisine, explained that foods have to be brought out of their ethnic setting and adopted to American tastes; while Afro-American specialist Howard Paige suggested the definition “those foods cooked in a specific place, by specific people, that make up a specific community.”

Crystal-balling on the future of American food and drink, culinary historian Anne Mendelson offered some tongue-in-cheek dire predictions: that chef worship and cooking as a competitive sport will reach new heights; that because of the internet and blogosphere thousands more people will appoint themselves restaurant critics even if they don’t know the difference between cooking in Georgia, next to Armenia, and Georgia, next to Florida, and that food studies will be overrun with people who can’t write a simple English sentence. On the bright side she mentioned the increasing availability of online research resources with access to original historical texts, the remarkable cuisines of the world that will continue to enrich the United States, and the hope that within our schizophrenic food supply small scale will survive along with the giants.

Beer guru Peter LaFrance revealed that 90 percent of beer in the US is produced by large, foreign-owned breweries, but praised the proliferating local micro-breweries "doing a fantastic job", even showing up in large schools like the CIA, while one of the extraordinary changes in the industry, he suggested, was the growth of mini-micro brews being made in five to ten gallon batches for specific restaurants. Less optimistic, Farmer Lee Jones of Ohio’s The Chef’s Garden, spoke of the decline in family farms, and the threat to our health from chemicals and GMO’s, predicting that our next battle will be over water rather than oil.

On a more positive note, other speakers mentioned more humane treatment of animals, and the success of inner-city urban farm movements, and Food Arts publisher Ariane Batterberry expressed the hope that our scientists would find a way to mass produce quality food.

The reception that followed offered an array of eclectic American favorites including samosas and dumplings, look-alike vegan rolls from Beyond Sushi, braised Jamison Farms Lamb Shank, a super-sized platter of seasonal crudites and fall vegetables from The Chef’s Garden, and a guided tasting of Guittard chocolates. There was wine, beer, and Rishi teas to toast the hefty new Encyclopedia, its 330 contributors and Editor-in-Chief Andy Smith.