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Change of Course: Food in Contemporary America
Excerpted from The Flavor of Wisconsin, Second Edition, by Terese Allen and Harva Hachten, to be published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press in Spring, 2009

Before exploring Wisconsin’s food landscape…we must first view it in the light of what has transpired on the national front in contemporary times, which has been called nothing less than a food revolution.

During the post-World War II decades, and due in large part to the profit-conscious food technologies and advertising of big business food companies, most American cooking had an open-a-can ethos, a philosophy that extolled Wonder Bread, boxed cake mixes, and ten-minute meal preparation. Since that time, as noted on the jacket of David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, we have “gone from the overcooked vegetables and scary gelatin salads of yore to our current heyday of free-range chickens, extra-virgin olive oil, Iron Chef, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and that breed of human known as the ‘foodie.’”

Most observers identify Julia Child as the key person in leading Americans “out of the culinary wilderness” and into a new relationship with food. Beginning in the 1960s, Child, through the massive influence of her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her public television cooking show, “The French Chef,” not only taught Americans how to prepare quiche, beurre blanc, and pâté à choux, she also empowered women by elevating home cooking to the rank of art. In time, the transformation of attitudes toward food also helped diners appreciate American regional fare. “Before Julia, the words ‘American’ and ‘cuisine’ were rarely used in the same sentence,” wrote Karen Lehrman in a 1997 U.S. News & World Report feature called “What Julia Started.” “Today, the nation celebrates hominy grits, corn timbales, and Boston baked beans as part of America’s cultural inheritance.”


Although convenience remains a dominant trend on the contemporary food scene, countertrends have grown increasingly strong. Knowledge of international cuisines grew steadily throughout the second half of the twentieth century and continues to do so. In 2007 Michelene Maynard wrote in the New York Times that “interest in new flavors has accelerated…as the country’s racial and ethnic makeup becomes more varied and as new ingredients and combinations appear on television.” The writer indicated that ingredient trends are graduating faster than ever from upscale kitchens to chain restaurants, where “everyday eating” happens. And Kamp noted that “the historically unrivaled run of prosperity in the United States in the eighties and nineties, compounded by the culinary advances…in the previous decades…led to the creation of an expanded leisure class that treats food as a cultural pastime, something you can follow the way you follow sports or the movies.”

Indeed, by the turn of the millennium Americans were reading recipe-filled detective novels, flocking to food-focused movies like Big Night and Ratatouille, and devouring culinary magazines such as Saveur and Cook’s Illustrated. Cooking had gained a new respectability, evidenced in everything from a New York University program offering master’s and PhD degrees in food studies to psychological research that showed how culinary challenges produce transcendent experience. Today, celebrity chefs have publicists, food-related blogs and chat rooms abound on the Web, and cookbook sales have never been greater. And while most contemporary food writing remains largely about recipes or lifestyle, there is increasing scholarly and journalistic coverage about such topics as industrialized food, sustainable agriculture, and the politics of food.

  The heightening of the country’s food consciousness has encompassed myriad phenomena, from Slow Food to sous vide, from the Food Network to fusion restaurants, and from the booming organic movement to rise-and-fall health fads like the low-fat, low-salt, and low-carb crazes. Why all this has occurred is a matter for other books; how it has played out in contemporary Wisconsin is explored in the following review of food trends and themes, including some of the places and ways they have surfaced in the Badger State…

Try a recipe for Raspberry Vinaigrette.