Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine
Hardback: Simon and Schuster, 2016
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Reviewed by Andrew Camp
American cuisine and eating habits are a fascinating subject to me, having worked as a professional chef. We are a nation of immigrants and transplants. Our economic class structure also plays a role in American cuisine. Food deserts in lower income areas have been lamented by many, while middle and upper class people enjoy the bounty of beautiful farmer’s markets year-round.
Because of this, there are widely disparate views on eating and food habits. It seems that every week the newest and surely the greatest diet is being sold on the evening news, which many of us watch while eating a highly-processed dinner. Michael Pollan voiced this very concern in his seminal book The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
Consuming these neo-pseudo-foods alone in our cars, we have become a nation of antinomian eaters, each of us struggling to work out our dietary salvation on our own. Is it any wonder Americans suffer from so many eating disorders? In the absence of any lasting consensus about what and how and where and when to eat, the omnivore’s dilemma has returned to America with an almost atavistic force (301).
While this seems to be the case, is there anything that unites American cuisine? Sarah Lohman, author of the new book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, wondered the same thing. She recognized the extremely diverse culinary traditions of America, but then pondered, “If I look past these differences, I wondered what united America’s culinary culture?” (xv).
Lohman embarked on a research project guided by the premise: “the key to defining American cuisine was to break it down to the basic flavors we all use, like vanilla” (xv). Combing through key cookbooks from different eras, starting with the very first cookbook published in America, and utilizing Google’s digital library, she was able to come up with eight flavors—“ flavors that were the most popular, and had never waned in their popularity” (xvii).
Those eight flavors are: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. She purposefully excluded two ingredients that you would be right to presume would be some of the most popular—coffee and chocolate—only because so much has already been written on these two ingredients.
As Lohman tells the story of each of these ingredients, it is the story of the people who helped these flavors become so ubiquitous in American cuisine. What is most interesting about these flavors, save for maybe chili powder, is that they are not native to America. These are not flavors that were indigenous to Native American cuisine, nor are these flavors Europeans brought with them. These are flavors made popular and accessible through the slave culture, immigrants and refugees.
The United States became the largest importer of black pepper because New England merchants treated the people of Sumatra fairly and with respect, which allowed them to steal the trade from England. Vanilla, originally cultivated by the Aztecs, became popular and more affordable because of Edmond, slave on the Ile de Bourbon, discovered a technique to pollinate vanilla in 1841 at the age of 12, a technique still being used today. Chili powder originated from San Antonio, amongst a largely unnamed and faceless group known as the Chili Queens and a German immigrant.
Curry powder, soy sauce, and garlic have become popular despite racism and harsh immigration regulations against Indians, Chinese and Italians. Curry powder gained traction in America with the arrival of Prince Ranji Smile, “who would arguably become America’s first celebrity chef” (94), in 1899, yet he was never able to become a citizen due to strict immigration laws against people of Asia. Soy sauce rose to prominence in America despite a long history of prejudice and racism towards the Chinese, including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, partially due to the role of Wong Chin Foo and his writings which appeared in newspapers across the nation. By 1972, soy sauce had become so popular that Kikkoman opened the first Japanese manufacturing plant in the US. Garlic has shifted from being primarily utilized for its medicinal purposes to the point now where the average American consumes more than two pounds of garlic each year.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was first discovered by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 from boiling down kombu dashi. MSG is a naturally occurring chemical bond between sodium and glutamate (one of 20 amino acids which make up all proteins). Simply the mention of MSG today can cause ire and heated debate among folk, based largely on bad science. I found this chapter worth the price of the book, simply in helping me understand what MSG truly is and is not.
Finally there is Sriracha, currently one of America’s most beloved condiments. The story of Sriracha is the story of a Vietnamese refugee recreating a Thai condiment in order to give other Vietnamese living in America a taste of home. Sriracha has become ingrained in American culture so much so that Lexus currently released a Sriracha themed sedan, the trunk being loaded with bottles of the magic rooster sauce.
What’s next? Lohman is not sure, but offers some hypotheses. At the same time, however, the lack of strict tradition is what gives Lohman immense pride in American cuisine. She writes, “Since researching the stories in this book, I’ve gained an immense pride in American food—which I believe is the most complex and diverse cuisine on the planet. Our lack of strict tradition has allowed us an unparalleled freedom to create, grow, and transform” (229). While I agree with her and love the diversity and creativity of American cuisine, our lack of any tradition makes us susceptible to passing fads and irregular and horrible eating habits.
Save for MSG, all of the other flavors in her book are ingredients my pantry is constantly stocked with. In the past week, my wife and I have made curry, eating Chinese take-out, used garlic and black pepper in almost every dish, as well as eaten vanilla ice cream and cookies flavored with vanilla extract. In the end, maybe that is how American cuisine will be remembered—extremely complex and diverse. With this fun and creative look at what we eat, I hope we can begin to look at how we eat. Does the lack of a unifying American cuisine make it near impossible to develop a rich, unified eating culture and tradition where how and with who we eat becomes the defining characteristic of American culture?
After working as a professional chef for seven years, Andrew Camp is the spiritual growth pastor at Mountain Life Church in Park City, UT, where his focus is on pastoring and leading small group leaders. He has a Masters in Spiritual Formation & Soul Care from Talbot Seminary. He and his wife, Claire, have lived in the Park City area for four years, and have an eight month daughter, named Hazelle.