Sunday, November 03, 2002

Eric Raymond (via Instapundit ) discusses the changes in food in America over the last several decades. In particular, he talks about what he calls the capsaicinization of America: the trend of Americans to eater spicier and spicier food. He compares the food Americans eat now with the bland and unexciting food that they ate twenty or thirty years ago, and also how chili based food and cooking is "mens cooking", whereas most cooking is generally a female responsibility.

I think that there are actually two different trends here, that are mixed together in the US. One of them is the trend to spicier food. The other is the trend towards more diverse food. The first is largely (but not entirely) a US trend, and the second is a worldwide trend.

To illustrate this, let me compare Eric's experience with my Australian experience. I was born in 1968, and was a child in Australia in the 1970s. At the time, Australian food was generally a matter of “meat and three vegetables” type cooking. It was English style cooking, and it was generally pretty awful. (It was somewhat better than English food at the time, however, as Australia is a land of agricultural abundance, and the food was therefore made from fresher and higher quality ingredients than could normally be obtained in England). We would also have barbecues a lot, and this was something that men would cook. What was barbecued was steak and sausages, and maybe a few onions. The only condiment that these would be served with was tomato sauce. (Australians do not generally use the word "ketchup". When I first went to the US in 1991, I was asked if I wanted any ketchup in a McDonald's and I had no idea what that was. The word was used in both the US and the UK but not in Australia, which is etymologically quite unusual. The word is now used in Australia a little, but still is not standard).

At this time in Australia, there were actually quite a lot of first generation immigrants in the country from southern and Eastern Europe: from Italy and Greece in particular. Australia was also then opening its doors to people from Asia, and a substantial number of Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Indian people arrived in the next few years. People from these countries obviously brought their food with them, and such things as Italian and Greek food must have existed in Australia in the 1970s, but this was not something that had really worked its way through to the kitchens of Anglo Australians. I don't recall eating much in the way of "ethnic" food in the 1970s, but in the 1980s I recall an explosion of it. My mother started buying pasta from a local Italian delicatessan that I now realise was every bit as good as you get in Bologna. Australia was suddenly full of all manner of interesting restaurants: Italian and Greek, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Indonesian and a huge number of others. While Australia has had Chinese restaurants for a long time - since Chinese people came to Australia during the 1850s gold rushes - it was suddenly possible to get fairly authentic regional Chinese food rather than general westernised blandness. Suddenly Australians seemed to be eating all kinds of foods, both out and at home. Supermarkets were suddenly full of all kinds of ingredients and spices that had not been widely available ten years earlier. I thanked immigration for this revolution and I was certainly at least partly right to.

That said, the trend to spicier foods that Eric describes did not happen in the same way it did in the US. The variety of what we ate increased dramatically, and some of the cuisines that became available (particularly Thai, which Australians took to in a big way) were spicy, but there wasn't a general trend to spicy food. The update to the Instapundit article alludes to this. Australian men do not trade capsaicin-zap stories the way Eric descibes. Our barbecues are still are much the same (although we may now drink wine as well as beer with them). Australia lacked the Hispanic influence, and although our food changed immensely, it did so without the capsaicin-zap. Tomato sauce still dramatically outsells salsa in Australia.

As I said, I had thought that the trend to greater diversity in food in Australia was due to the large amount of immigration Australia had received. However, having now travelled a lot, I don't think this was as important a facter as I once did. One thing that we have seen is a reform of the supermarket business. When I was a child, supermarkets in Australia sold largely dry goods: canned and packaged food. Now, go into a supermarket in Australia and you will find a huge amount of the store devoted to fresh food: a wide diversity of fruit and vegetables, fresh pasta, cheeses, meats and the like. Plus you will find a choice of a great many spices, sauces, and ingredients from all over the world. The change is dramatic. (My mother uses these ingredients and cooks much more interesting, varied and appetising food than she once did. These days she is an excellent cook of a wide variety of different cuisines).

When I travel, one thing I always find interesting is to visit a supermarket, as you can learn a great deal about a country by seeing people buy groceries. And the revolution in what is sold in supermakets that has occurred in Australia has occurred in a great many other countries. I have seen it in the UK, in South Africa, in Finland, in Hong Kong, in Japan. Some of these places are immigrant countries. Some are not. In all of them however, the diversity of ingredients that are readily available has increased dramatically, and eating habits have changed considerably in the last two decades. Sure, people are travelling more, discovering foods and ingredients and then wanting them at home but I don't think this is the whole story either.

Why is this? I actually blame a fair bit of this on the computer revolution. Inventory management is now an advanced science. It is possible for a supermarket to carry a vastly greater number of lines than was the case a decade ago. A store can keep track of what is purchased, and how often, and can keep track of deliveries, sales and shelf life of every item it carries. Refrigerated container shipping means that is is much easier to move products from one part of the world to another. It has simply become logistically much easier to provide diverse food than it once was, and therefore people are eating more diverse food. This has happened everywhere.

Finally, a story. The biggest influence on British food in the last 40 years has been Indian. (Some would say that the Indians were the people who brought edible food to Great Britain). In any event, the UK is full of excellent Indian restaurants and British people today eat a lot of curries. British people eat much spicier food than they used to. This is an Indian influence. When I was studying at Cambridge, an English student of my acquaintance made a comment to an American friend of mine that Americans did not have this Indian influence, and therefore that Americans couldn't handle spicy food. (While one can get excellent Indian food in the US, I think it is fair to say that it hasn't been the huge influence it has been in the UK). My American friend was outraged by this remark, and challenged the Englishman to a duel. They went to a local Indian restaurant, explained the situation, and over the next couple of hours they were served hotter and hotter curries. Eventually they were served the hottest curries that the restaurant was able to make, and both managed to eat them. We all found this deeply amusing, as did the staff of the restaurant. Both the British and the American diets have become much spicier than they used to be. However, the influences from which they did so were different, so the sort of cultural misunderstandings that led to this duel do occasionally occur.

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