Identity Crisis

I recently came across a fascinating bit of archaeology theory, and it completely changed my notion of American food.

About 8,000 years ago, the part of North America we now call the continental United States was heavily peopled. Archaic Indians, as archaeologists refer to them, banded together in tribes from Puget Sound to the Gulf of California to Chesapeake Bay. Gone were the mastodons, mammoths, saber-toothed tigers and other megafauna; they disappeared with the retreating glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. Elk, bison, deer, rabbits, and squirrels were now the dominant wildlife. The boreal forests also retreated, replaced with deciduous hardwoods. Fruits and nuts abounded. Sea levels rose as the massive polar ice sheet melted, filling bays and estuaries. Ducks, geese, fish and crustaceans flourished. The climate was warmer and drier than at the end of the Ice Age, and grasses proliferated. The American landscape, 8,000 years ago, was strikingly similar to today’s.

What struck me most was the Archaic Indian diet. Archaeologists believe those ancient Americans consumed some 120 different species of plants and animals. Now, I’m a foodie who takes pride in my diverse diet. Beef bores me. I prefer goat and lamb and elk. Chicken is bland, but duck and pigeon excite my palate. I’ll take fava beans over green beans and persimmons over apples. I garnish my eggs with chervil and I season my fish with sumac. I know food and I eat it all. Still, 120 different plants and animals?!? 

I began to doubt my own diet—was it as diverse as I thought it was? I grabbed a piece of paper and jotted down all the foods—plant, animal, and fungus—I routinely consume as part of my annual menu. After about half an hour, I felt I had a fairly representative list of my yearly ingredients: 132 items. Aha! I have beaten you, Prehistoric American Settler! But the desire to launch into celebratory chest-thumping and nasal grunting quickly passed; it was a hollow victory, to be sure. I looked back at my list of foods and realized something unsettling. Bananas. Coffee. Mangoes. I was clearly benefitting from our global system of agriculture. Thanks to foods from faraway lands, I can consume a respectable diversity of ingredients. I am part of a culture 8,000 years more evolved (supposedly) than that of ancient America, able to eat food from all over the world. The Archaic Indians didn’t have such convenience. Yet, my diet is hardly more diverse than that ancient society’s, whose food shed consisted of little more than a few dozen square miles. They were the original locavores.

But if those early Americans weren’t consuming bananas, coffee, and mangoes, what were they eating? Corn, beans, and squash—the Three Sisters of the Native American diet—was my immediate guess. But I was wrong. Those three foods are domesticated crops that originated in Mesoamerica. For the Archaic Indians, who were hunters and gatherers, agriculture would come thousands of years later. And they certainly didn’t hunt cows, pigs, or chickens, since these creatures were just beginning to be domesticated in Eurasia at the time.

“What about avocados and artichokes?” I thought. They’ve always struck me as prehistoric looking foods, the kind that might have grown here since the dinosaurs roamed. But at the time of the Archaic Indians, avocados hadn’t yet left their homeland of south-central Mexico and artichokes were still nestled around the Mediterranean. It turns out our Florida oranges originally came from China as did Georgia peaches. I know papaya and pineapple aren’t American natives, but perhaps the apple is? Nope. The quintessential American fruit is a Colonial-era adoption, arriving in the States via a circuitous route from Kazakhstan. Carrots likely originated in Persia, potatoes in Peru and onions in West Pakistan. You can guess where Brussels sprouts originated. 

Nuts were certainly staples in the ancient American diet, but not almonds or pistachios (natives of the Middle East) or cashews or Brazil nuts (natives of Brazil). Peanuts—if you want to think of them as nuts—hail from Peru. The prehistoric settlers did eat walnuts—just not the ones we Americans today commonly eat, the so-called English walnut, which is a native of Kyrgyzstan.

As I continued to research the foods of the Archaic Indians, I could piece together a modest list of American ingredients that were tasty enough and readily accessible in their immediate surrounds, though I was nowhere near their 120-item grocery list. That they consumed ten-dozen indigenous plants and animals astonished me. But this wasn’t nearly as astonishing as my 132 items. Save for cranberries, turkey, blueberries, blackberries, salmon, oysters, pecans, and sunflower seeds, my American diet was possible only because some ten-dozen foods I typically consume come from everywhere but the United States.

When I looked over my list and in my pantry and refrigerator, I realized the great irony of American food: American ingredients—true American produce—are scarcely present in American cuisine.

Some argue this is precisely what makes American cuisine American. Like the founding families of our nation, our produce is a soup-pot of immigrants hailing from every corner of the world. Explorers, conquistadors, slaves, and colonists brought with them ingredients to make familiar meals in their new, unfamiliar home. And in relatively short order, these foreign foods replaced our indigenous, prodigious, and delicious flavors.

For example, grocery stores across the country stock the relatively insipid English walnut instead of our intensely aromatic white walnuts, or our earthy black walnuts. We buy pineapples and papayas instead of pawpaws—our nation’s largest native fruit with beguiling flavors of mango, banana, and vanilla cream. Japanese persimmons—both fuyu and hachiya—are preferred over American persimmons, though ours are more plentiful and every bit as sweet. Farmed Atlantic salmon from Norway often nudges out our more flavorful (and healthful) wild Pacific salmon. Meat from our native elk and bison is leaner and more boldly flavored than cattle. We tout the nutrition of exotic berries like acai and goji, but salal and huckleberry in the Pacific Northwest forests are likely as healthful, and don’t need to be harvested from ecologically fragile environments and then transported halfway around the world. Oregon truffles—though different in aroma than the revered Périgord and Alba truffles of France and Italy—are as magical in their own right in their own dishes.

And on the story goes. All sorts of nuts, fruits, fungus, vegetables, tubers, and proteins born from American soil and sea have for one reason or another been scratched from the American diet. I couldn’t help wonder, “Is American cuisine really American if it doesn’t make liberal use of its very own flavors?”

I should note that our cuisine isn’t the only one suffering an identity crisis. Some Australians grieve their loss of unique, indigenous flavors as well. For Ben Shewry, a gifted young chef who heads Attica restaurant in Melbourne, a single dish changed his attitude toward his nation’s cuisine. Shewry explained: “When I looked at a restaurant and I saw risotto on the menu, it didn’t invoke a sense of Australia in me.” And that’s one reason Chef Shewry decided to work with native Australian flavors, even though he admits “most people hadn’t heard of 99.9% of these ingredients.” As one restaurant critic observed, “Lamb, chicken, pork and beef haven’t made major appearances on the Attica menu for some time now.” Instead, Chef Shewry reintroduces diners to native nuts like bunya bunya. Marron, the large, sweet Australian crayfish is a menu mainstay. The beef, pork and chicken that have been absent from Attica were replaced with kangaroo, wallaby, and emu. Chef Shewry’s culinary philosophy is deeply rooted in native ingredients because he believes they are an important part of Australia’s heritage, and something Australians should take pride in.

Chef Shewry admits acceptance of his culinary philosophy was slow. His menu was seen by some as a hurdle to garnering a following. But Shewry was steadfast, because he knew diners desired, at some level, a tangible connection to their landscape and their heritage. “The connection to your roots is one of the most important connections of all,” Shewry said. And he was right. In 2017, Attica ranked 32nd in the prestigious The World’s Best 50 Restaurants listing. Now, top chefs from around the globe fly to Melbourne to sample true Australian cuisine, to be inspired by a pantry of unique flavors, and to learn from Attica’s brilliant cook.

Back in the States, American food provocateur and Michelin-starred chef Dan Barber echoes Shewry’s sentiments. Chef Barber (whose restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns also made the 2017 World’s Best 50 list, ranking 11th ) argues that “losing indigenous crops didn’t just change what people ate; it compromised people’s cultural identities.” But Barber isn’t content letting his food do the talking, as persuasive as it is. His critically acclaimed book The Third Plate is a treatise on the future of our food, and an acerbic critique of today’s American cuisine. He believes Manifest Destiny hurt both our cuisine and our landscape. Our land suffered, Barber contends, precisely because “settlers imposed their dietary preferences on the ecology.” During this westward march, the settlers’ preferences in flavor diminished ecological, and thus culinary, diversity—which Chef Barber contends is the foundation of good food. “The challenge of making delicious use of various ingredients is at the heart of all great cuisines, and it evolved from diversity,” Barber writes. “Cuisines did not develop from what the land offered, as is often said; they developed from what the land demanded. The Green Revolution turned this equation on its head by making diversity expensive. It empowered only a few crops. And in the process, it dumbed down cuisine.”

I want to take a moment to help illustrate Chef Barber’s argument, because it goes right to the core of the many concerns chefs, critics, and journalists have with American food today. I’ll use tomatoes to make my point. Americans prize tomatoes, and we grow them everywhere in the country, even in states like Wisconsin. The issue isn’t whether Wisconsinites can grow good tomatoes—they can. The issue is, tomatoes aren’t well suited to Wisconsin. To grow a tomato in Wisconsin requires an abundance of human help. Seeds are germinated indoors during the latter days of winter using overhead lamps and soil warmers. Seedlings are then transplanted into cold frames during the early Spring, and fed copious amounts of fertilizers throughout the growing season. Pesticides—either organic or conventional—are often necessary to keep yields high and fruits blemish-free. The vines are then given supplemental water in mid-summer when temperatures soar and rainfall diminishes in the Upper Midwest. In the end, the Wisconsinite has raised a fabulous tomato. But at what cost?

Indigenous foods, on the other hand, require little human assistance, if any. They hatch, birth, or sprout and then grow without want for supplemental resources. Why? Because they are integral to the natural order of things. They are part and parcel of the complex biota that Mother Nature tends and keeps in perfect balance; heat lamps, fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation not necessary.

An American cuisine that arises from American biota also means a different kind of agriculture. Plowing prairies and draining wetlands so that we can cultivate field upon field of food that requires more heat / water / nutrients / pest management than the climate and environment can sustain starts to sound foolish. As an alternative, raising food becomes less about intensive row-crop monocultures and more about growing nature. It’s a manner of food production that recognizes what is already abundant and flavorful in the landscape, one that “champions a whole class of integral, yet uncelebrated, crops,” as Barber contends.

Getting back to the Archaic Indians, let me be clear. I’m not pledging allegiance to the food of the United States of America—something those early inhabitants of our land had no choice but to do. Sure, I envy the Archaic Indians’ incredibly diverse diet of unique ingredients. But I refuse to give up my beloved farmers market tomatoes, corn, and zucchini, even though they are resource ravenous. Nor will I ditch bananas, coffee, and mangoes anytime soon, even though they travel thousands of miles to get to my mouth. Embracing America’s ancient flavors isn’t a yearning for primitive subsistence.

Rather, it’s a desire to add spice to our meals by cultivating a fondness for the foods unique to our backyard. Such foods are the true ingredients of place, and the basis of a distinctive, delicious cuisine.