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The Golden Age of Cooking

Friday, October 1, 1999

Cookery is the art of preparing food for the nourishment of the body. Prehistoric man may have lived on uncooked foods, but there are no savage races
today who do not practice cookery in some way, however crude. Progress
in civilization has been accompanied by progress in cookery.
— Fannie Merritt Farmer, author of
The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, 1896

 

AMERICANS TODAY, from garden-variety couch potatoes to sophisticated trend setters, have never been more obsessed with food, glorious food. At no other time has America enjoyed as many restaurants, touted as many celebrity chefs, published as many cookbooks and magazines devoted to good food and libations, produced as many cooking programs for television, or had such unlimited access to abundant and cheap food products from the world over. We are sowing, marketing, buying, selling, preparing, and, of course, eating food at unprecedented rates.

The beau monde brand of cooking that is gracing restaurant menus across the country is called "new American cuisine." Its roots reach back to the earliest days of colonial settlement. It has come of age only recently, starting in the finest restaurants in our biggest cities, then spreading out geographically and socially to take root not just in restaurant kitchens but also in home kitchens around the country.

Like our forefathers’ and mothers’ cookery, new American cuisine is driven by seasonal ingredients purchased from local growers and small distributors. Its purveyors profess a commitment to presenting nature in its purest finery — peppery greens freshly pulled from the soil, fragrant fruits just plucked from the tree, and succulent fish netted in nearby sea or stream. The recipes they create are culled from a vast reservoir of regional and immigrant traditions made possible by the rich American experience. Each dish is meant to please the eye and delight the palate; each also connects us to the past. New American cuisine is our most mature blending of "indigenous ingredients, regional preferences, ethnic influences, and historical currents and traditions" to date, as David Belman wrote in the trade publication Restaurants USA.

With the ripening of new American cuisine has come a stunning profusion of restaurants and cookbooks devoted to the exquisite, authentic rendition of cooking from around the world. We do not just have Chinese food. We have Hunan, Szechuan, Cantonese, and more, and before we leave Asia, we can add Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, and Pan-Asian noodle houses offering up Indonesian and Malaysian variations. Where "Italian" once meant tomato sauce, we now choose from specialists in the cooking of Piedmont, Tuscany, Liguria, or Sicily. "Pacific Rim" cooks and Mediterranean restaurants span continents to offer samples of the beguiling similarities and intriguing differences on the stovetops where a body of water meets the land.

Meanwhile, any local supermarket bursts today with exotica unheard of 20 or 30 years ago. Consider the produce department. The ubiquitous white button mushroom is now just the humblest offering in a mushroom section, which also typically includes portabella, cremini, and shiitake, for starters. Iceberg lettuce must make room for green leaf, red leaf, escarole, endive, radicchio, Boston, and more. Most of those lettuces are now also available prewashed, impeccably fresh, and absurdly convenient, packaged in high-tech plastic bags. Through hybridization, we have discovered entirely new fruits and vegetables: Grocers have recently introduced us to broccoflower, the plumcot, and broccolini.

There is no avoiding a simple conclusion: Whatever else may be true of our cultural condition, future gourmands, "foodies," and social historians alike will conclude that by the end of the twentieth century, the golden age of cooking and eating was upon us.

On the surface, the American food obsession may seem merely a passing fancy fueled by prosperity. We are bored. We have money. We need to be entertained. The amusement of ourselves with the Food Network, cheese making, and tasting tours in the California wine country is as acceptable an articulation of consumerism and an expenditure of our leisure time as any other. And by nature we prefer the innovative to the staid. As Margaret Visser, the author of The Rituals of Dinner, has written, our "love of the new" has become an integral part of "the modern middle-class image." Or, as the great French chef August Escoffier noted without pleasure in his 1909 Guide to Modern Cookery, "[N]ovelty is the universal cry — novelty by hook or by crook! It is an exceedingly common mania among people of inordinate wealth to exact incessantly new or so-called new dishes."

And yet. This obsession with edibles may have a bit more to it than that. Consider my own case. Affluence certainly contributes to my love of food. I am an educated young woman with a good job. Married, no children, at least not yet. My husband and I are, in advertising parlance, "dinks" (dual income, no kids). Despite graduate school loans that may never go away, I still have enough money and leisure time to revel in the sensuous delights of truffle oil drizzled over a creamy dish of polenta and to study how to prepare a lemon curd that is tart enough to make you pucker for a kiss but not so tart that you forget it is the curd and not the kiss you are after. Earlier this year, I even had the pleasure of spending three months working in one of Washington, D.C.’s most civilized restaurant kitchens.

What draws my senses to things culinary, though, is not just these miscellaneous pursuits. I am lured to food by the remembrances of hearth and home that simple jewels like sweet summer fruits, a buttery fried egg, a bouquet of herbs, and a bit of bread and wine can evoke. In my mind’s eye I see grandmother in the kitchen baking juicy rhubarb and raspberry cobblers and jarring sweet "bread and butter" pickles. I can feel my grandfather’s large hand gently pushing mine under a chicken in search of the day’s freshest eggs. There is also the smell of sassafras, or filé as we call it in Louisiana, that takes me home on a Saturday afternoon. While a pot of shrimp creole steams on the stove, my father is mixing it up in the kitchen, dancing a waltz or two with my mother. The gentle bubbling of the pot keeps time. As for the bread and wine, they are the eternal foods that "preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life." In my Christian upbringing, there is no better eating.

The "new American cuisine" and the other bounties of our golden age of cooking manage to capture these antithetical cravings for the fresh and the familiar and capitalize on our search for artistry, heritage, and liberation in the pleasures of the table. As Escoffier believed of French cuisine, it is "proof of our degree of civilization." In a world of "getting and spending," to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth’s "The World Is Too Much With Us," our preoccupation with the most mundane and familiar of habits might signal a hungering for simple, approachable beauty, for lingering communion with others, and for a link to days gone by.

The wealthy table

THE UNITED STATES IS ENJOYING unprecedented levels of economic performance and prosperity. Americans today have more free time and spend larger proportions of their income on recreation than just a generation ago. We also spend smaller shares of our income on food. This illustrates, as economists Herbert Stein and Murray Foss note, "one of the best established laws of economics, namely, that as the income of families — or nations — increases, the proportion spent on food diminishes."

The fact that we are spending proportionally less of our wages on food, though, does not mean that American food producers are poor. In fact, our food and beverage industries have been prime beneficiaries of this rising prosperity. Their name recognition alone can be worth billions of dollars. Recently, for example, the international consultancy Interbrand placed eight American food and beverage producers — Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Heinz, Budweiser, Kellogg’s, Pepsi-Cola, Wrigley’s, and Burger King — on its list of the world’s 60 most valuable brand names. Coca-Cola edged out Microsoft for the highest slot with a brand name value of $83 billion, compared to Microsoft’s $56 billion. McDonald’s placed eighth with a brand name value of $26 billion.

Patterns of growth in restaurant sales are similar to those for gross domestic product and disposable income. In current dollars, this amounted to an average annual rate of growth in sales of 7.9 percent between 1970 and 1995, or an increase from $42.8 billion to $295.7 billion. Industry analysts expect sales in 1999 to top $354 billion. In 1997, Americans spent almost 40 percent of their food bills on food prepared away from home. When broken down by income group (before taxes), the share spent on food away from home ranged from 36.7 percent for households with incomes of less than $5,000 to 47.8 percent for households with incomes of $70,000 or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The total number of restaurants in the United States rose from 492,000 in 1972 to 815,000 in 1996. Industry association figures claim 10.2 million workers are on restaurant payrolls, making the industry the largest retail employer in the country. With a strong economy, though, comes competition. More full-service restaurants, for example, have been forced to offer higher wages, paid vacations, medical coverage, and even retirement plans to entice good employees to stay.

In other food-related industries, growth has been just as bold. Since its launch in 1993, the Food Network on cable television has gained access to an American audience of more than 37 million people. In a given week, it broadcasts more than 20 different programs ranging from New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse’s wildly successful "Essence of Emeril" to the marvelous Japanese production "Ryori no Tetsujin," or "Iron Chef," which pits a master chef against a challenger in an hour-long duel of creativity and skill. There are at least 153 American periodicals and newsletters devoted to food and wine, 700 schools offering culinary courses, and a growing number of quality food sites on the Internet.

This explosive growth is even generating new occupations. "Chef publicists" now charge thousands of dollars to promote the careers of star chefs. Entrepreneur magazine just named the personal chef industry one of the nation’s 12 hottest businesses. And in case you have ever wondered what industry folk are calling those complete ready-to-eat meals you are buying, it is "home meal replacement." Their goal seems quite clear.

For the genuine American "foodie," the most exciting development in recent decades has been the increase in the number of skilled American cooks. In 1933, in a letter to Escoffier, Mr. Oscar of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York rejoiced at having found a new French cook for his restaurant. "It saved us much trouble," he wrote, "because here in America chefs are very rare; I don’t know where to find them." Today we all can rejoice that the situation is much different. Americans of all ages are flocking to the profession.

In the 1990s alone, enrollment in American culinary academies has skyrocketed. At the well-known New York Restaurant School, for example, enrollment leaped from 400 full-time students in 1992 to 1,000 in 1996. When the Culinary Institute of America, the country’s premier school in Hyde Park, N.Y. opened its Greystone campus in California in 1995, enrollment immediately reached its maximum of 2,000. From 1983 to 1996, the number of jobs in the United States for skilled restaurant cooks alone rose from 408,000 to 727,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects this number to increase 14.6 percent by 2006.

But kitchen work in America’s restaurants is not for milksops. The hours are long. The pay is low. And the toil itself is taxing on the body. Except for the hottest celebrity chefs whose annual earnings can run into the millions ($2.4 million for Emeril Lagasse and an estimated $10.5 million for Wolfgang Puck in 1998, according to a New York Times article by food writer Bryan Miller), the reward has to be more personal than financial. The National Restaurant Association reports, for example, that the salary for most executive chefs is around $40,000. For sous chefs it is $27,500. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage for full-time cooks in the United States was only $8.55 in 1997. For part-time workers, who made up 40 percent of all cooks, average earnings were only $7.13 per hour. It is hard to justify the lifestyle for this kind of money, so something else must be drawing them in.

Of the more than three hundred students enrolled in Manhattan’s prestigious French Culinary Institute in 1996, approximately 85 percent were career changers. At the New York Restaurant School the percentage was around 60. To be sure, changes in the American economy have forced some students into their new careers. But many others are choosing the profession because cooking calls up a passion that their desk jobs do not. They revel in perfecting a dish that renders ephemeral beauty and lasting remembrances. And some of them are finding inspiration in the earliest days of our nation’s history.

New World bounty

WHEN ENGLISH COLONISTS stepped onto our Eastern shores in the seventeenth century, they naturally brought with them traditional cooking methods and whatever ingredients had survived the long ocean voyage. But from New England to Virginia, colonists immediately delighted in the New World’s great bounty. Wealthy and poor alike soon substituted native ingredients for English ones and adapted them to traditional recipes. Colonists even adopted farming and cooking techniques they learned from Native Americans. As one historian commented in 1705 on the use of cornmeal, or "Indian meal":

The bread in gentlemen’s houses is generally made of wheat, but some rather choose the pone, which is the bread made of Indian meal. Many of the poorer sort of people so little regard the English grain, that though they might have it with the least trouble in the world, yet they don’t mind to sow the ground, because they won’t be at the trouble of making a fence particularly for it. And therefore their constant bread is pone, not so called from the Latin, Panis, but from the Indian name oppone.

From the beginning of colonial settlement, there was something special about the American diet. The abundant victuals served with great hospitality, while surely not a cause célèbre, did not go unnoticed. In July 1746, the London Magazine printed the following observations on Virginia’s obliging accommodation and plenteous table:

All over the Colony, an universal hospitality reigns; full tables and open doors, the kind salute, the generous detention, speak somewhat like the old roast-beef ages of our fore-fathers, and would almost persuade one to think their shades were wasted into these regions, to enjoy with greater extent, the reward of their virtues. (What is said here is most strictly true, for their manner of living is quite generous and open: strangers are sought after with greediness, as they pass the country, to be invited. Their breakfast tables have generally the cold remains of the former day, hash’d or fricasseed; coffee, tea, chocolate, venison-pasty, punch, and beer, or cyder, upon one board; their dinner, good beef, veal, mutton, venison, turkies and Geese, wild and tame, fowls, boil’d and roasted; and perhaps somewhat more, as pies, puddings, &c., for dessert: Suppers the same, with some small addition, and a good hearty cup to precede a bed of down: And this is the constant life they lead, and to this fare every comer is welcome.)

In 1796 Amelia Simmons completed American Cookery, the first truly American cookbook. "Colonial cookery had undergone numerous changes since [our] ancestors had first established homes in the New World, and British authors seemed unaware of the resulting Americans’ needs in cooking instructions," writes Mary Tolford Wilson, author of the introduction to American Cookery’s 1958 edition. Simmons was the first to publish many of the New World variations. In addition to the substitution of cornmeal for flour in bread and cake recipes, there was the use of pumpkins and crookneck squash in pies, the accompaniment of turkey with cranberry sauce, and the replacement of yeast with pearlash (a forerunner of baking power) as a leaven in doughs. American Cookery’s second edition contained recipes for patriotic concoctions such as Election Cake, Independence Cake, and Federal Pan Cake. According to Wilson, these recipes "record[ed] by their names America’s awareness of its new status as a nation."

Even our founding fathers recognized something special in the new American diet, and writer Evan Jones has preserved one of the finest examples of this in his book American Food: The Gastronomic Story. Benjamin Franklin, he writes, so craved the tastes of America during a long visit to England in 1765 that he had a few of his favorite things shipped from home. Franklin, who was representing the colonies in London, pleaded with his wife to send a parcel with fruits, buckwheat flour, and cornmeal. He planned to teach his English cook how to prepare some of his favorite American dishes, and he needed the proper ingredients to do so. These items, he wrote, "will be of great refreshment to me this winter; for since I cannot be in America, everything that comes from thence comforts me a little, as being like home."

With migration and Spartan living conditions in colonial settlements came distinctive regional traditions. The religious beliefs of New England Puritans, for example, required the preparation of simple recipes made with the freshest of God’s bounty. Their unadorned Christmas menu of roast turkey, cranberry tarts, pumpkin pies, beans, and potatoes became the unofficial fare for our Thanksgiving celebration, which President Lincoln declared a national holiday in 1863. "The simplicity of the menu," wrote Williams Woys Weaver in an article on Thanksgiving, 1887, in the Journal of Gastronomy, "came to symbolize lean, spare American values."

Roots everywhere

THROUGHOUT THE COLONIES, hroughout the colonies, newcomers coupled their native traditions with what Alexis de Tocqueville called the "confusion of objects and the prodigious varieties of scenes" that is the American landscape. Dutch and German settlers in Pennsylvania gave us recipes for their slaw, bologna sausage, apple butter, chicken pot pie, and dumplings. Slaves from the Caribbean and West Africa stashed the roots and seeds of their native foods into whatever possessions they could carry. They introduced such delights as okra, peas, and sweet potatoes to the rice plantations of the Carolinas. New Orleans Creole gumbo and jambalaya might never have been without their predecessors, French bouillabaisse and Spanish paella. In the Southwest, Mexicans spiced the pot with chilies of all kinds.

Today, the American tradition of welcoming and adapting ethnic cuisine is alive and well. A recent survey of 2,000 households commissioned by the National Restaurant Association showed that more than 50 percent had tried Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Tex-Mex, German, Greek, Cajun/Creole, and Japanese foods. When asked about awareness of a cuisine, the list grew. More than 50 percent of the households surveyed were also aware of French, Soul, Scandinavian, Indian, Caribbean, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern foods.

Despite American resourcefulness, our cooking has always lurked in the shadow of the world’s finest culinary art form. Ever since Thomas Jefferson hired the first French chef for the White House, "Continental" has been synonymous with sophisticated. "American" has stood for plain and provincial. Jefferson was actually an avid gardener who stocked his plots with the latest New World treasures, but he also loved French food. "[M]any of the nation’s elite," writes Richard Pillsbury in No Foreign Food, "did not accept these rude American foods and ways of dining at all but continued consuming a largely European diet well into the twentieth century."

To this day, French chefs, techniques, foods, wines, and restaurants carry a mark of distinction that buttered grits prepared by a short-order cook at the local diner will never receive. While the French still make perfect bâtards of bread, melt-away pâté, and splendiferous Camembert cheeses, we make Wonder Bread, bean dip, and Cheese Wiz. Thus, the American culinary reputation for function over form is somewhat well-deserved. As the English captain Frederick Marryat wrote in Diary in America in the early nineteenth century, "God sends meat, and the devil sends cooks, such is and unfortunately must be the case for a long while, in most of the houses of America."

Escoffier recognized the superiority of French cuisine not only in its status as a "science," but in its triumph as an art. "[T]his art is first and foremost our national art par excellence," he wrote in his memoir. The French have spent centuries refining their cooking techniques and traditions, and they are simply irreproachable. This explains why for many American gourmands the artistry of the techniques has driven them to adore French cuisine and to abhor our native fare. A terrine of pheasant layered with bacon and truffles may evoke images of the earth’s rich geological layers, but a lime-flavored gelatin salad with marshmallows and canned fruit cocktail will only provoke one’s hauteur.

A farmer’s tale

WHILE FOR CENTURIES American cooking may have lacked the artistry of French cuisine, it has honored the toil, faith, and tenacity that the earliest settlers and slaves alike brought to this country’s tables. In our capacity to adapt and to endure there was ultimate freedom. As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin — the beloved French judge-turned-gastronome — was bold enough to declare, "[T]he destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves."

Brillat-Savarin illustrated the connection between American food and freedom in a charming tale. After the French Revolution of 1789, he spent two years in exile in the United States. Here he discovered both delicacies in the American diet and sophistication in American government. Brillat-Savarin delighted in America’s abundance of wild turkeys — "delicious and much better than the ones we raise in Europe" — and even "had the good luck to kill [one]." He also found a conversation with a Mr. Bulow, a farmer living outside Hartford, Conn. so "profoundly interesting" that he preserved the memory in The Physiology of Taste. Mr. Bulow, "having drawn me to one side," shared the following insight:

You see in me, my dear sir, a happy man, if such there be on earth: everything around you and all that you have so far observed is a product of what I own. These stockings I wear were knitted by my daughters; my shoes and my clothes come from my own sheep; they help also, with my gardens and barnyards, to furnish me with simple nourishing food; and what makes our government so admirable is that here in Connecticut there are thousands of farmers just as happy as I am, and whose doors, like mine, are never bolted.

Taxes here are almost nothing; and as long as they are paid we can sleep in peace. Congress does everything in its power to help our newborn industry; agents come from every direction to buy up whatever we have to sell; and I have cash on hand for a long time, for I have just sold for twenty-four dollars a barrel the wheat I usually get eight for.

All this is the result of the liberty which we have fought for and founded on good laws. I am master in my own house, and you will not be astonished to know that we never hear the sound of the drum here, nor, except for the fourth of July, the glorious anniversary of our independence, do we ever see soldiers, or uniforms, or bayonets.

The kitchen comes of age

WITH AMERICAN PROSPERITY in the twentieth century, our most basic culinary traditions have been raised to a new level of distinction. This has been especially true in the years since World War II, and two individuals stand head and shoulders above the rest in promoting a "new American cuisine" worthy of respect. They are James Beard and Julia Child. According to the editors of Saveur Cooks Authentic American, a 1999 James Beard Foundation Book Award winner, Mr. Beard "preached flavorful food prepared with local, seasonal ingredients to a post-war America, reveling in the scientific ‘advances’ of frozen and pre-made foods." Julia Child taught a public television audience to do so with style and panache.

After a failed attempt at acting, James Beard surrendered to his other great love, food. In his first book, published in 1940, American progress and modern food were his themes. "It is a far cry from the fly-specked and hearty free-lunch table of the American pioneer saloon to the perfectly appointed hors d’oeuvre table of today," he wrote, "but I think America has jumped the gap and is safely on the modern side." More than 30 years later, Beard remained wide-eyed about American cooking, despite what he saw as its "grotesqueries," i.e., convenience foods. He recognized the unique qualities of regional foods and acknowledged a debt to the French for their techniques and to other immigrants for their inspiration. "I believe we have a rich and fascinating food heritage that occasionally reaches greatness in its own melting pot way," he wrote in his 1972 book American Cookery. "We are barely beginning to sift down into a cuisine of our own."

By teaching authentic French cooking techniques to American home cooks, Julia Child secured a permanent place for them, and for herself, in America’s culinary heritage. Her devotion to the artistry of cooking was a perfect complement to James Beard. "What drove me into French cuisine was the seriousness of the art," she said in a 1996 interview. A former wannabe spy and a manager with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (now the cia), Child enrolled in Paris’s famed Cordon Bleu cooking school in 1949. She co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961 and brought culinary artistry to American television in 1963 with "The French Chef." Since then she has written nine more books, hosted three more television series (with another on the way), received the first prime-time Emmy nomination for a cooking show, and co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food. At the age of 87 she continues to share her devotion to the art of cuisine with American cooks.

Not long before his death in 1985, James Beard heralded the coming of age of American cuisine. "[M]ore and more people are forced to agree that we have developed one of the more interesting cuisines of the world. It stresses the products of the soil, native traditions, and the gradual integration of many ethnic forms into what is now American cooking." A better definition of "new American cuisine" does not exist, and in it American chefs are finding inspiration.

Artistry and heritage

LARRY FORGIONE IS FREQUENTLY referred to as the "Godfather" of new American cuisine. At his New York restaurant, An American Place, he transforms simple cookery into refined cuisine. A Hudson Valley duck becomes a wood-grilled steak with crushed black peppercorns and lavender served with caramelized parsnip puree and sweet potato straws. A standard Pennsylvania Dutch turkey pot pie becomes a delicate herb biscuit with stewed chestnuts, root vegetables, forest mushrooms, and, of course, turkey. If they were prepared without forethought to artistry and heritage, Chef Forgione’s new American creations would become mere hodge-podges of culinary busyness with a faint resemblance to something you ate somewhere, sometime, you could not be sure. Instead, even New York’s snobbish and cosmopolitian food hounds, long accustomed to the best French cooking in the New World, seek out his American creations with their typical conspicuous abandon.

Of the traditional dinner party, Robert Capon, author of the estimable Supper of the Lamb, has written, "It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. . . . Enter here, therefore, as a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls." Alice Waters is trying to remedy what ails us at her beloved restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley. She serves cuisine so fresh and so exquisite that diners don’t mind the pricey prix fixe tab. But mindful of the tension between our want of the novel and our need for the familiar, Chez Panisse offers only one set menu, and it changes nightly — just like home. The combination, on the evidence of a crowded reservations book, is glorious.

In a seductive world of "home meal replacements," the same chefs who tempt us through their restaurant doors are preserving the legacy of American cuisine in a host of other, more affordable ways. Their cookbooks, for example, bring American cuisine full circle: traditional regional and immigrant cookery elevated to haute cuisine and then translated back into dishes that can be prepared with relative ease in the home and need not come from a box or bag.

Bobby Flay of New York’s Mesa Grill, for example, has written a wonderful cookbook called Bold American Food. It contains dazzling Southwestern dishes from his restaurant that have been "reworked . . . to make sense in your kitchen." He takes classic pork tenderloin and "punches it up" with chipotle peppers and a spicy apple chutney. A pan fried snapper gets an added zip with a blue cornmeal coating instead of the usual yellow.

Likewise, in his 1991 cookbook Seasoned America, New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme set out to help readers "understand how delicious traditional American food can be. . . . My goal," he continues, "is that you have fun in the kitchen, while turning out heavenly dishes that bear your own signature." You can’t get much more American than the Florida fish house grouper, the frontier chicken-fried steak, and the West Virginia sweet and sour short ribs in this book.

In order to appreciate new American cuisine fully, though, you must ignore its pretentious moniker. Americans today are too quick to think that to be respected something must look or sound progressive. "New American" may be adjectives more aptly suited for the prepared, frozen, and take-out foods that encourage us to eat on the run. One in five American consumers, for example, is buying his meals fully prepared at the grocery store. Sixty percent of Burger King customers report eating their meals in the car, according to a survey reported in Advertising Age.

On the other side, though, a 1996 restaurant industry survey showed that of 21 meals per week, Americans still were preparing 14 at home. This is only slightly less than the number reported 15 years ago. The overall trend, however, is moving toward more commercially prepared meals. For the sake of our progeny, who could languish in blissful ignorance of the lost pleasures of learning to cook at home with their families, we should not let this trend get too far out of hand.

If you can avoid treating new American cuisine "as if it were some kind of patriotic endeavor one simply must pursue," in the words of James Beard, you will discover that it is a festal endeavor that one can enjoy in relative simplicity at home or in lavish splendor at a favorite restaurant. Either way, it celebrates our prosperity and honors the industrious melting pot and hospitable table that has characterized American society since the first colonial settlers arrived on these shores. It raises up what Leon Kass, the distinguished author of The Hungry Soul, has called the "deep connections among human eating, human freedom, and human moral self-consciousness" and casts them in a light that is uniquely and venerably American. It is a thread that binds together our seemingly disparate and "multicultural" lives and makes this age of American cuisine truly golden.