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Rethinking what is 'American' food
Nachos - photo by Tom Reed

Sitting down to a dinner of fajitas and refried beans is nothing out of the ordinary for many Americans. It’s tasty and easy to prepare, and thus makes a perfect American dinner.

“If I were to look at my husband and say what is our most favorite thing, he would say we have a Chili’s fit every once and a while,” Lanier Village Estates resident Jean Sawyer said. “Gordon and I are turned on to nachos.”

But living in a small town in North Georgia, about 15 minutes from Chattanooga, Tenn., nachos was not something Sawyer grew up with. In fact, she’d never even heard of nachos.

“That was foreign food. Just like bagels —I never heard of a bagel until I was in college. I didn’t even know what a bagel was,” she said.

For many Americans, some ethnic foods have become mainstream.

“It’s just part of a general cookbook,” said Jan Miller, who oversees the production of Better Homes & Garden cookbooks and other publications. “It’s not an ethnic thing to put tacos or enchiladas — in fact in our (‘Better Homes & Garden New Cookbook’) we have to have all of the favorite Italian cuisine, lasagna and all the Asian.” Miller said even pad Thai, a Thai noodle dish, is included in the most recent edition of the "New Cookbook."For Caroline Van de Pol, another Lanier Village Estates resident, some ethnic influence came naturally to her diet. She grew up in Holland and her parents grew up in Indonesia. In her early 20s she moved to California.

Van de Pol said she still makes some Indonesian dishes as a treat, but what she notices most about American food is the need to eat fast, which often leads to eating unhealthy meals.

“I think Americans are aware of what they should be eating and are trying very hard,” she said. “But we’re always working and rushing and eating fast.”

And that’s been a trend for many years, according to Miller.

“We do a lot of quick and easy, and I think that has been a big thing,” she said. “But what’s funny is if you look back at our, like, 1960 version of the red plaid cookbook, ‘Better Homes & Garden New Cookbook,’ there’s a chapter on easy meals there. So even back in the ’60s there were people who were wanting quick things.”

Quick meals didn’t necessarily mean fast food, though. Sawyer said when she was growing up, there were no fast food restaurants. By the time she saw her first fast food place, Krystal, she was in her early teens.

But eating healthy has become important to Sawyer and Van de Pol.

“You get to X point and you start having physical problems,” Sawyer said. “And probably having physical problems changed the diet more than any one other thing that we’ve gone through.”

Van de Pol said she strives to eat a healthy diet and is glad the Lanier Village Estates dining hall now offers more vegetable choices.

“When I first came here eight years ago there was a big push for more vegetables and less starch,” she said. “Now I’m glad to say we do have a choice of three vegetables with our dinner on the buffet as well as the salad bar.”

But growing up in Holland, Van de Pol said there was little access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“My lifestyle has changed so immensely that I now eat a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables and very little red meat,” she said.
Sawyer also depended on Mother Nature for what she could eat.

Seafood was only available in moths ending with -er. The food wasn’t easily frozen and shipped across the country; it had to be eaten when it was fresh. But living in Georgia, there were plenty of fruits and vegetables at certain times of the year.

“My mother was a big believer of whatever was in season, that’s what we ate,” Sawyer said. “... Any time rhubarb was growing in the garden, we ate rhubarb pie. But it wasn’t something that she canned to have later on in the year — you only ate it in season. Of course, the kids today don’t even know what the season is for anything.”

Less knowledge about food and cooking has influenced how Miller and her staff put together cookbooks like the “New Cookbook,” which has been published since 1931.

“The instruction and how we communicate those recipes is a little bit more in depth than it used to be,” she said. “Because skills are lost from the kitchen.” Cookbooks produced by Better Homes & Gardens now include more how-to photography and detailed instructions about how to tell when a dish is done.

“You used to be able to say ‘bake until done,’ and now inexperienced bakers and inexperienced cooks don’t know what it means when it’s done,” she said.

But many of the younger cooks do have one advantage over some of the more experienced. They’ve heard of things like couscous.

“The other day I asked what that was and they said ‘couscous,’” Sawyer said of something her grandchildren were eating. “Well couscous was not something I grew up with. I didn’t even know what couscous was.”

Young cooks do seem to be turning to days past, though, with more emphasis on nostalgia and comfort food, Miller said.
Dishes like pot roast, chicken noodle soup and chocolate chip cookies stand the test of time.