A Critique of American Dining Customs

Saturday, April 11, 2009

So recently I have been working on a paper discussing the meal as a cultural indicator of societal norms. Now I promise, this post won't be me waxing on about my research. It will however talk about a hilarious book I found. The book, Dining Customs Around the World, by Alice Bonzi Mothershead, is phenomenal in various ways. The premise of the book is simple: a portrayal of the various dining customs in countries around the world.

The book takes a majority survey of each country, so it doesn't, for example, describe the indigienous Shinto customs in Japan, just the dominant customs. As such, identity concepts such as religion, race, class, etc. are rarely taken into account and if they are are only covered briefly. However, the book is meant to be the most basic overview, so it does get the job done somewhat.

However, the chapter on the U.S. was enlightening. Humorous. Spookily on the mark many times. I decided that the only way I could really show you is to transcribe some of what Mothershead writes out. It's writen for an audience that is not familiar with American dining customs. However, keep in mind how we define "American dining customs." There is obviously more than just one set standard, try to think about what groups Mothershead is describing and if this information is helpful, misleading, accurate, and so on. What is the country's current mindset about food and food production? The book was written in 1982 so place yourselves in the right mindset (feel free to go do a line of coke and whip out a poster of Reagan). Mothershead, I believe, is American born, but this is conjecture on my part.

"In the United States, wives and mothers often lead very busy lives and have little time to spend in the kitchen. This does not mean, however, that many are not superb cooks. In more recent years the interest in foods has changed drastically and many foreign recipes have been translated or blended into American preparation. The hamburger and 'fast foods' are foods which you may buy at drive-in or easy stop restaurants and are increasingly popular. These are prepared quickly while you wait and may be served to eat the the restaurant or in your car. Potatoes are usually French fried and put into little paper bags, hamburgers are half-wrapped in paper to hold them while you eat. Beverages are usualyl milk shakes or soft bottled drinks. This kind of meal reveals Americans as a nation of people who are always 'on the run' for they are consumed in a hurried lunch hour, on a work break, or while on a motor tour." (142)

"Men have become interested in cooking and in some homes the [sic] may cook as much or more than the women. Always there is a plethora of pre-prepared or frozen foods, some of which are quite tasty and wholesome. From a country of 'meat and potato eaters', the United States has, for various reasons, including many military involvements overseas, become a nation of gourmets. The popular pizza, for instance, was brought from Anzio, Italy by the soldiers in the Second World War. Wines, especially those of California, rival the French, Italian, German, Chilean, and others. Wine is now used in cooking, as a beverage at meals, and often in the place of the former strong cocktail before dinner. The turkey is a native bird to the American continent and is used extensively, especially in the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Corn-on-the-cob, southern fired chicken, and barbecued meats and very popular in certain sections of the country." (143)

"Catsup, or Ketchup, a thick tomato base sauce, is used extensively with these meals, not only for the meat, but also for the French fried potatoes. It may surprise you to see someone dip the potatoes in this sauce before eating them. These meals tend to be starchy and seldom are accompanied by vegetables or fruits.

If you are visiting in a home and the hostess cooks the meals you may find that part of , or all of the ingredients are deep frozen and already prepared. These are simply heated until cooked according to the directions on each package. Sometime a hostess will add spices or finish the preparations for certain dishes, but the main effort of cooking will have been done by the company which sells the product. As many women will have such a busy day that there is no time to cook a meal, these meals have become popular and the choice of dishes is extensive." (144)

That's a few paragraphs. I did leave out the discussion of cocktail parties and picnics, but mainly included passages I felt were the most revealing about the author and her perceptions of American dining customs. Feel free to discuss.


  1. Um... that sounds like the end of the world to me. Or maybe like they were basing American customs on a TV commercial. It isn't like that at my house for sure!

    But, in some ways, I can see that being our culture. I don't know if that's how the majority of Americans eat. It isn't how the majority of people I know eat, but the people I hang out with are my friends who share interests, like cooking.

    P.S. Verification word is naked...o.0

  2. Hilarious. The best part about Mothershead's comments is that I have no idea if her writing is intended as matter of fact or tongue in cheek. Her straight forward tone is delicious, whatever the intent.

  3. She's way off the mark. Sure, what she says is accurate for some people, but I do not believe the majority lives like this.

  4. If what I see in other people's grocery carts is an indication of how they're cooking and eating, she's not too far off the mark. It doesn't matter where I shop -- Wal Mart, Kroger, Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, for example -- I see a lot more frozen prepared dishes than ingredients in other people's carts.

  5. I have never invited someone over to eat and served them a frozen already prepared meal. I've never been to someone's house and had a frozen already prepared meal. I think Mothershead's portrayal of American dining culture is deeply sexist. American's eat prepackaged meals because women are working? Not working mothers that I know.

  6. Everyone should keep in mind that this was written a while ago so that these descriptions might have been more on the mark a couple years back before the dawn of CSAs and Alice Waters. During the 70's and 80's I believe fast food and frozen meals were more "all the rage"...

    This is hilarious, though. Thanks for transcribing. It's almost like Mothershead is some sort of alien looking in. (I wonder what country she's from?)

  7. If this work is meant as a serious academic study, I'm very anxious about what she's writing about other countries. My experience with the American lifestyle is quite different. I get a very fifties-earlysixties middletown feeling about this. What does she say about the Italians, Brits and French?

  8. I guess this has a great bearing on where you are from.

    I was born and raised in southern West Virginia. Hamburgers, french fries, and frozen meals make up the greater portion of most shopping carts I see at Walmart, Kroger, etc.

    Its certain that we aren't all like this. Certain areas (Cali) seen to be, on a whole, more health conscious. However, deep frying and ready fire meals are the norm where I grew up.

  9. I think she does describe to a certain extent "stereotypical" dual-income household American. If you look at foods that people bring in for lunch, the vast majority of people bring in frozen meals-not leftovers. However, she doesn't reference the immigrant population who stereotypically uphold their culture's cooking-for a generation or two.

  10. That was certainly what I thought of American cooking till about 5 years back - perceptions gained through reading books, films and recipes I used to see in culinary magazines - so much of what was to be cooked was already processed.

    Now that I have friends in the US and because of the internet - I know that there is a lot of frozen and packaged food being consumed in the US, but also there are a lot of people who are trying to shed old habits and eat healthier.


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