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Asking “What is American food?” with My Students

In the course I co-teach, “Food in American Society and Culture,” we ask and work to answer the polemic, complex, and contradictory question, “How do we define American food and how does food define Americans?”

Toss out the this question to just about any audience and you’ll get a slew of responses. You’re sure to hear at least one person scoff that the United States has no food culture. Someone else might pipe up that a culinary tradition like barbecue is a unique American cultural food product, one that communicates a multiethnic history and both local and regional identity. Others will insist that the food traditions of New England form the culinary roots of American cuisine. Others will point to McDonald’s and similar fast food joints known for selling burgers and fries as quintessentially American in taste, presentation, and capitalistic expansionism. Still others will argue that the United States is a “melting pot” of cuisines brought by old and new immigrants. Perhaps our food culture has been on a low simmer for hundreds of years, ensuring that all the food here in some way represents, absorbs, and communicates an “American” food culture.

Our students grappled with these various possibilities over the course of the spring 2017 semester, resulting in a series of essays published on our class blog in which students took unique approaches to defining American food.

Many of their essays emphasize how the history of immigration to the United States defined our food culture, particularly the proliferation of hybridized and fusion cuisines and dishes. Such foods incite complex discussions about community engagement, empowerment, and collaboration, as well as power, appropriation, and food justice.

Students also identified American food culture as one that is constantly reinventing itself and adapting. They see American food rooted in qualities like freedom, abundance, and limitlessness, as well as the forces of mass consumption, the latest food trends, and food media and marketing.

Students both indicted and celebrated American food culture for the ways it has embraced convenience and indulgence. Students also analyzed the contradictions inherent to American food culture, such as the commingling of abundance, hunger, and obesity; the oppositional relationship between freedom and restriction; and the preoccupation with both nutrition and decadent eating. Students analyzed what, how, when, where, and with whom we eat—and how it represents the complexity of “American food,” as well as “America” and “American.”

We’re excited to teach this course again in spring 2018, so I’m thinking of new ways to have students explore these questions of identity and a new public humanities class project to go along with it. We’ll look forward to sharing the results here in the coming months!

Till then, you can read all about our spring 2017 class, check out our course reading list, and read the students’ essays.

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