What's Next on the Menu?
It's hard to believe that Tang once looked like the future of American food.
The temptation four or five decades ago was to read the future of food in the powdery crystals of Tang. Launched in 1957, the same year as Sputnik, the orange drink later accompanied pioneering astronauts into space. It needed no refrigerator’s chill. It could be stored in a cupboard or a pocket. It had more vitamin C than orange juice (and today has vitamin A and iron too). It was ready when you and a glass of water were. Tang was the fuss-free harbinger of what food might be in the future, a necessity still but not a distraction. Progress would bring steak lozenges, flounder pills, and broccoli gum. In the meantime, there was Metrecal in 1960, a diet drink that gave you, in a can, the nourishment of a meal. Quickly, too, because you didn’t want to linger over getting it down or you might accidentally taste it.
And in all the food time you saved with powders and pills and elixirs, you’d write a symphony or invent a vaccine.
But austere Tang was not the future after all. Instead, the latter decades of the 20th century saw the rise in America of a cult of cuisine downright Petronian in its ritualistic excess. Yes, pleasure will out, always, sooner or later, in everything; there’s no surprise in that. And no plastic packet microshocked back to life from its freeze-dried state ("Clear!") yields the soulful aroma of a slow roast. But who could have predicted that so many chicken-onSunday/meatloaf-on-Wednesday/steak-for-special-occasions Americans would become preoccupied with food—its provenance, purchase, preparation, presentation, consumption, and contemplation? The preoccupation was induced not by famine or shortage, as sometimes happened in the past, but by plenty. The food fetish in America, like the fitness fetish, falls to the predictable side of the lines of class and material sufficiency that fissure the country. Worry about where your family’s next week of meals is coming from, and you fret less about the alphabetical gaps in your herb bin.
Cookbooks, catalogs, specialty stores, TV shows, and entire weekly sections of newspapers are now devoted to an elaborate liturgy of food. What mind games did the sly French win to make otherwise-sensible Americans—your friends and neighbors, maybe members of your own family, all good people, really—say sous-chef and saucière and digestif? And furnish their kitchens with mighty stoves, refrigerators high and wide as townhouses, and an arsenal of pots, pans, and utensils, the depth and diameter of each pot, the pitch of the sides of each pan, calibrated precisely to its purpose—this for boiling, that for steaming, braise here, sauté there, and fry only in a trailer? Of course, the formidable gear is not necessarily for use. Like books, collections can be for display only, and periodic dusting.
For playing out the fantasies unfulfilled in home kitchens, there are restaurants, more of them than ever. They premiere as movies once premiered and are reviewed, starred, and—what else?—panned. And they have a cultural range that suggests the UN is stirring the pots. The exotic cuisines of choice for most Americans used to be Chinese and French, pizza and wurst being too domesticated to count. But variety is now here to stay, because so many new citizens from abroad have brought with them their recipes. We eat the native foods of countries we couldn’t locate on a map, and of countries that exist on no map but whose disparate cuisines some antic chef has thought to fuse: Chinese-Slovakian, Belgian-Inuit. In our food pantheon of Hindu profusion, chefs are the major deities. We watch as they rise and fall, are worshiped and flambéed. Some withdraw in creative exhaustion, only to return reheated and do something previously unthinkable to a sea urchin.
What’s the future of American foodolatry? To Americans 30 years hence, will we seem daft or relatively innocent— or perhaps just plain lucky to have had the luxury of indulgence? For, of course, the spell can be broken, but by a cure worse than the affliction: bad times that clear the palate and the mind by returning the nation from plenty to want. James Morris is a senior editor of The Wilson Quarterly.
What’s the future of American foodolatry? To Americans 30 years hence, will we seem daft or relatively innocent— or perhaps just plain lucky to have had the luxury of indulgence? For, of course, the spell can be broken, but by a cure worse than the affliction: bad times that clear the palate and the mind by returning the nation from plenty to want.
James Morris is a senior editor of The Wilson Quarterly.