James Beard and his thousand points of light.Photo: Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
The James Beard Foundation does more than just host dinners and give out awards — one of its missions is to promote that quasi-mythical entity, American cuisine. It was Beard himself who was the concept’s most famous promoter, and that’s a major part of the organization’s mandate. So the arrival of the foundation’s report on “The State of American Cuisine” has the feel of a major document. The authors of the paper surveyed 248 random respondents, plus an unspecified number of experts. What everyone will take away from it is the fact that, in its survey, the hamburger led all its rivals as the Great American Food (barbecue was second). And we can certainly agree with that, God knows. But for us, what’s most telling about America is that while 90 percent of the survey’s respondents agreed that there was such a thing as American cuisine, nobody could identify what it is.
What they could do, though, was what Americans have always done when faced with the problem of defining their national character, without the help of a single language, religion, or ancient tradition: They reached for the most grandiose, flattering language possible. “American cuisine is straightforward and honest,” wrote one respondent. Another opined that “The synergistic fusion of the world’s cultures with our unique soils and species has produced a moving, multifaceted cuisine, constantly changing, constantly improving, superior to any other in the world.” The one thing Americans can agree on is Americanism and its general awesomeness; for the American mind, now as ever, that’s the real essence of American cuisine, far more than burgers or burgoo.
The State of American Cuisine [James Beard Foundation]