My favorite blog—other than mine of course!—is Manger (http://mimithorisson.com) by Mimi Thorisson. If you have not read her blog, you should. She writes well, the photography is stunning, and her recipes are amazing. Of course, I’m biased because she’s French, lives in France, and cooks French food. It's no secret to my friends and family that I’m an unabashed Francophile, which in America makes me something of an odd duck/canard. My friends and family also know that I love French food. And who couldn’t, what with all that butter, garlic, onions, and cream?
Thorisson recently published a cookbook titled, appropriately, My French Kitchen. I’m really envious because maybe one day, just maybe, I, too, could publish a cookbook. Better yet, maybe I could write that book whilst living in the French countryside!
In the most recent post on her blog, Thorisson expressed her obvious pride in publishing her first book. But she also wrote something else that really got my attention—a question that many have asked her: “What is French food?” Thorisson answers that, for most people who are not French, “French food is the fancy dress you have in your closet for the annual ball, it’s the tuxedo you take out once or twice a year. It’s a complicated dish best served in a place with three Michelin stars.” As Thorisson points out, this is truly not the case.
But what does make French food French? For the most part, it’s really quite simple. France has always been the most agrarian of European countries. To this day, the family farm holds an almost mythic place in France’s sense of self, even more so than in America. Not surprisingly, French food is tied closely to the land and rooted in seasonal ingredients and tradition. For example, nothing is simpler, and has made more of my friends smile, than a humble potato leek soup. Long before there was La Varenne or Escoffier, there was an unknown French peasant making a stew with whatever ingredients were available, most often potatoes and leeks.
Thorrison’s question also triggered another, related query: “what is American food?” Sadly, the question left me stumped. Mention the name of many other counties, and one instantly has some notion of their cuisine. (Even the English, with their perhaps undeserved reputation for bland food, at least have fish-and-chips.) When non-Americans think of American food, do burgers, fries, and pizza instantly leap to mind? Oh Lord, I hope not!
America is a young county and unlike France, Italy, and certainly China or India, has not had the time to develop a unique cuisine. We are also a nation of immigrants, so our cuisine is a hodgepodge. Of course, some of our more traditional foodways, like Thanksgiving dinner, tend toward our Anglophilic roots. But, then again, there is pizza which is really more American than Italian at this point.
But if I were to say what may become “American cuisine,” it would have to be some variation of Southern cuisine, with a hefty dose of Latino spice. Think fried chicken with habanero sauce! And don’t forget the Asian influence in American food. Sriracha is now one of the most popular condiments in America. If I had to say what loosely defines American food, it would be meat-centric; it would be somewhat spicy compared to most European cuisines; and it would contain a lot of vegetables from the New World like corn and tomatoes. But most importantly, it would be inventive and never static. And that’s what really makes American food “American!” -- the fact that it cannot be defined or categorized.