Reviews: July/August 2020

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American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way
Paul Freedman,
Chester D. Tripp Professor of History
W. W. Norton, $39.95
Reviewed by Corby Kummer ’78

What will food in America look like once the country is finally free of the iron grip of pandemic? Not much like it looked just before everything shut down, is the sad but probable answer: as many as 40 percent of independent restaurants and food businesses might never reopen, according to pessimistic projections. 

Paul Freedman’s American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way was published soon before the globe began retreating into itself, and is well timed now to help us understand what we’ll be in the midst of losing for good and what we should champion for enlightened rebuilding. Freedman switched to food history late in a distinguished career mostly dedicated to medieval times, and won wide attention for his Ten Restaurants That Changed America.

In his new book he broadens his focus with somewhat mixed results. The through lines of, say, Russian Grand Duke Alexis to Mark Twain to Nero Wolfe to community cookbooks to poor African Americans vs. white Americans aren’t drawn in bright lines, so the first two thirds of the book, filled as they are with individually enlightening sections, don’t make the smooth reading they might.

But then Freedman reaches his concluding section and the book takes wing as Freedman takes aim at the well-meaning pieties of the hippie generation. This is the era the author knows, and his gimlet eye and historian’s ability to describe the world views of beatniks and hippies make a coherent sociological study on its own.
He concludes with a warmly skeptical history of the “food revolution” and the events that fueled it. All of this constitutes the ideological underpinnings of his book on American restaurants, and all of it is shot with an ironic wit that gleams through Freedman’s erudition. Embrace that revolution with eyes open, he says, and an eye on the economic inequities it might acknowledge but did little to address—“the propensity of the well-fed to assume that poor nutrition can be solved by education or willpower rather than being the accompaniment of real-life poverty.” It will now be on all of us to keep our blinders off with our masks on.

Corby Kummer, a senior editor at the Atlantic, is a senior lecturer at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition. 

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