Watching documentaries on cultures as diverse as Montreal, Peru, Russia, and Spain to the far reaches of the Congo on a four-hour binge of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown has made me homesick. Homesick for a certain connectivity with community and food that simply is not experienced by most Americans today.
The theme that reverberates across these varied countries and cities as seen through Bourdain’s ironic lense is the importance of slow food—prepared and cooked at home—and enjoyed with family and friends. Food that unabashedly celebrates tradition. And unless you are part of a first or second generation immigrant community, chances are you may not even sit down over a meal in your own home.
Although there are still pockets in North America where roots run deep and tradition is king, America has always been defined by its willingness to embrace change. After all, we are a nation of immigrants, pioneers, rebels, scrapers, and adventurers. But this constant sea of change has its unintended consequences as well. We are, for better or worse, defined by our mobile post-industrialized past, which idealizes innovation over roots and tradition. And in our typical American fashion, we have burned the culinary bridges we left behind as passé.
Convenient, processed corporate food hasn’t just changed what we eat but who we are as a people and what we value. You can travel to almost any American town from the Deep South to the Great Lakes and visit every chain restaurant from Cracker Barrel to Taco Bell and feel as if you have never left home. This is disconcerting rather than comforting. We are living in a food desert. Part of the charm of travel is partaking in unknown foods and cultural traditions.
But to blame this cultural food desert on an industrialized nation that moved from the farm to the factory is overly simplistic. The fallout of good taste and values was also shaped by powerful culture forces during the 60s. Young and restless Americans rebelled against the atrocities of segregation and corporate greed and embraced feminism, progressiveness, and personal freedom. Mother was at last freed from the chains of the kitchen and women everywhere went to work. And in our eagerness to embrace all things new, an entire generation eschewed tradition and the sometimes suffocating ties of the familial.
Food prepared at home was not something the great cooks in my family ever paused to reflect on. It is just who we are and what we valued. Still, I would be remiss to idealize what oft-times passed for great culinary achievement: Jell-O salad molds, boxed cakes, and canned soup anything were pervasive during the 60s and 70s, and my family’s repertoire of good taste and culinary skills were certainly influenced by popular culture. It was, after all, pre-internet times and the dawn of the foodie had not yet happened. Recipes were either handed down from family or clipped and swapped among friends from the likes of Family Circle and Good Housekeeping.
Despite some of the cringe worthy food fads of the day, cook we did. My fondest memories are those spent with my family over a meal. Many of those who participated and cooked for these simple gatherings are no longer here, but the memory of the times we shared together is poignant. We lingered over vats of Maxwell coffee and held many competitive card games and board games, often into the wee hours of the morning. But there was always collective breaks for “seconds” and dessert.
It is these experiences of family and community that makes Parts Unknown so universally appealing. Many people today have never experienced the pleasure of a dinner party or the day-long preparation of dishes in anticipation of a celebration. This notion that we can just push the button on a microwave or run through a drive-through rather than preparing meals for our families culminates into a vapid experience. It leaves us longing for more–more connection, more meaning, more belonging.
I am excited to see popular culture embrace the foodie movement and see it as a rather predictable backlash from a generation raised on frozen pizzas, McDonalds, and Applebee’s, and I look forward to seeing the pendulum swing back to the American hearth. I am encouraged and excited to see young people from urban backgrounds care about where their food comes from and even more heartened by those brave souls who are returning to the rural countryside with their young families to try out this new farming thing. Despite the morbid economy, international terrorists, and lack of opportunity, innovation and bravery still beats in the American breast. It is exciting times we live in for the hardy and creative. In fact, It is a great day to be a young American. Salute!