Food leaders discuss American taste, past and present


NEW ORLEANS -- America's tastes have turned the four basic food groups into "take-in, eat-out, frozen and canned," a prominent food consultant told 400 food and wine devotees recently.

Experts also offered more positive outlooks for a food future filled with good flavor combined with good nutrition.

American taste -- its past, present and future -- occupied the attention of those attending the American Institute of Wine & Food's ninth International Conference on Gastronomy here.

In a panel discussion titled "Good Taste, Bad Taste, American Taste," author and food consultant Ellen Brown said she was dismayed at the pervasiveness of fast food in the American household.

Jeffrey Steingarten, a contributing editor for Vogue magazine, agreed, saying, "The goals with many American products are shelf life, transportability and cut-ability."

Fast food, slow food, old-fashioned food, processed food and ethnic food all figure prominently in defining American taste, was the consensus of the conference speakers. "The foodie's decade may be over," declared John Mariani, author of "America Eats Out: An Illustrated History of Restaurants, Taverns, Coffee Shops and Speakeasies." Retro-food (old-fashioned, homestyle dishes) is the wave of the future, he predicted.

In three days of conferences, workshops and panel discussions, attendees heard evidence that the palate never regresses, that taste as it relates to health is a major concern and that the American melting pot is fast becoming the American cooking pot. Food is more than just eating and cooking: It is a key player in our lives and our memories, according to several panelists.

"The mind is the ultimate taste organ of food," said Dr. Albert Sonnenfeld, professor of French and comparative literatures at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. "All of the senses are united in gastronomy," he said during a panel discussion on the origins of taste. "Memory affects taste" as well.

It was the memory of her first meal in France that helped shape Julia Child's career, she said. "My husband, Paul, and I landed in France in 1948 -- we took the trans-Atlantic steamer along with our blue Buick -- and I had my first French meal. I never got over it."

Ms. Child joined authors Betty Fussell, Laura Shapiro and Margaret Visser on a panel where they shared their taste memories.

It is not only memory that shapes taste. Culture also plays a central role, Ms. Visser said. "If your culture tells you something .. is wonderful and you are deprived of it, you forever crave these things." For her those cravings are for milk and butter, rare items during her childhood in Africa.

Ms. Fussell's childhood tastes were shaped by mayonnaise. "Not what Julia taught us, but the stuff in the jar with a blue ribbon. The jar was always at my father's place -- he ate it on everything RTC -- from scrambled eggs for breakfast to bologna sandwiches and Jell-O salads."

Ms. Visser also believes "we decide to like things," citing coffee and wine as examples.

There is more to the mechanics of taste than what we sense on the tongue, according to Dr. Mark Friedman, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Smell and "mouth feel," in addition to sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (a Japanese taste Dr. Friedman says is "savory"), add greatly to what we perceive as taste. "Taste also means preference," he said, "and our preferences are always changing."

In her keynote address, cookbook author Marion Cunningham explained how Americans progressed from the complicated, multi-course menus detailed in early cookbooks to take-out food. "One hundred years ago, home cooking was a part of life, families were large and helping hands plentiful."

Ms. Cunningham said the 1930s were a turning point in our food habits -- families had fewer children and women began entering the work force. "And in the 1940s the big food processors were starting to influence us. We were opening boxes and cans and the role of the home cook started to diminish. In the '60s and '70s we went back to cooking and experimenting because of our travels.

"But in the '80s everyone took up tennis," Ms. Cunningham said, and few Americans took time to cook. "We are letting strangers cook our food. Today it's just too easy to heat and eat."

Although Ms. Child was the only speaker to admit to enjoying a fast-food hamburger occasionally, she, like others, advocates a return to home cooking.

"Food cooked at home and shared at a table is the most important aspect of communal life," Ms. Cunningham said. "Sharing our meals means sharing our lives."

The AIWF, founded by Ms. Child, winemaker Robert Mondavi and others, is a non-profit organization dedicated to the understanding, appreciation and quality of what Americans eat and drink.

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