Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What is White America Eating?

There are jokes amongst colored people about White people's cuisine. That White people don't know how to really cook, that they are the consumers of all that packaged food filling grocery store shelves. But of course they're just jokes, or so I thought.

I recently picked a copy ofShauna James Ahern's delicious memoir, Gluten-free Girl and came across this passage about the food she ate growing up in the 70s and 80s:

"We ate what [my mother] thought the rest of the country did. ...She cooked breaded and fried food. We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on bleached white bread. Day-Glo orange macaroni and cheese out of a box. Green beans from a can, clotted with cream of mushroom soup and crusted with fried onions."

Did you eat like that? Is that a cultural thing, because Ahern seems to imply that everyone (and though she doesn't say so specifically, 'everyone' means White Americans) in America was eating like that. From personal experience, I can only say that I never ate a piece of Wonder Bread in my life, even before the whole grain revolution took hold. And my mom made the macaroni and cheese from scratch. I remember the first time I tasted Kraft Mac & Cheese from a box at a friend's house (yes, she was White) and almost cried knowing I had to eat it or risk being rude. But that's just me. Maybe we were the odd ones out.

It's hard to say if White-American cuisine truly exists because in every region of the country people eat different things, like White people in Wisconsin (and Black people too, let's be honest) hanker for good bratwurst and kringle. But there is probably some common denominator, right? Or maybe not? Ahern seems to think so though.

So can anybody define White-American cuisine, without making jokes? Next up for discussion, Black-American cuisine: tastes beyond Big Mama's table.


Christina said...

Ouch, but yeah, we ate all those things (and more) at my house growing up. I'm still not a very healthy eater, but I thank goodness that I'm now a pesca-vegetarian.

Beth said...

I ate like that, but my kids do not.

It's hard to say if White-American cuisine truly exists because in every region of the country people eat different things[...] But there is probably some common denominator, right?

Damn, this is such an interesting can of worms! Short version: the concept of "white" food (in both senses) is at least as much a construct of authority/conformity/correctness/fear of the internalized Other/industrial conflation of efficiency with right action as any other aspect of "whiteness;" one could make a compelling argument that it's been one of the major vehicles through which compliance with a white identity construct is maintained and enforced. It's food that's been systematically stripped of ethnic identifiers while made both more "healthy" (it's not; there's also a connotation of "purity" there, which is also not) and "convenient" (which it is also not, after the externalities are figured in). The long version is the subject of some really intriguing and important research and debate.

LT said...


did you eat pop tarts and sugar cereals? I have to admit I always begged my mom let us try a pop-tart but she always refused.


Yeah it is pretty deep. Maybe a topic for a good magazine story. Or a book...hmmm

riffraff814 said...

We ate generic-equivalent Wonder bread, homemade mac&cheese, and the green bean casserole thing was not a family tradition. We did the "Cheap White" thing, apparently. :) Oh, we did get pop-tarts in high school, and sugared cereal sometimes as kids, but not always.

Mom splurged on the Brownberry bread for her to soak up juices from the roast, but didn't force us to eat her "good" bread, if we were gonna wrinkle our noses and look for the cheaper stuff.

I don't know if there is a White-American cuisine, to be honest. I mean, I'm White-American, but I'm also Grew-Up-Lower-Middle-Class/Midwestern-With-Northeastern-Influences/Parents-Hated-Liver-Thus-Never-Served-It/Perpetually-On-A-Diet -- which, I think, shaped my food history more than either the White or the American. My kids are W-A, but they've got a different super-hyphenated-history, and they eat differently already than I did as a kid.

Anonymous said...

Funny because in the Bay Area (SF, California) "white food" is more like gourmet hippy food. Have you seen that website, "stuffwhitepeoplelike.com"? Hilarious!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

There were a lot of Italians in my area (the exterior of the Soprano's house was a town over) so I have a different idea of "white food".

You couldn't pay me to eat mac and cheese from a box.

Spring said...

I think there's a class issue here too...

I grew up in a working class/blue collar white family eating processed food only (and bad food at that), but all the neighbors in the Italian enclave where we lived were eating homemade ravioli and sauce, macaroni with calamari, and fresh baked Italian cookies...so I ate at their houses and developed a different idea about food and cooking.

With my own kids, I cook. We eat super healthy. I was obsessed with organic food before it became so expensive. We continue to emphasize veggies, my kids eat (and like) tofu twice a week, and the only processed food they consume is at their grandparents' house.

I agree with the other commenter who said that there's an interesting magazine article here. You are on to something!

Anonymous said...

Oh my ... I'm a Black woman from Iowa who grew up eating ... Wonder bread and bologna, cheese and Dream Whip. We were happy to eat what we could get, including that macaroni and cheese. Sometimes, I still eat things like that: just to remember where I came from.

Oh, the stuff we ate! Bisquick and ground beef pies, sardines and Wonder bread, but also fresh Mississippi River catfish, and of course, fresh sweet corn ... and great Sicilian pizzas (because a gorgeous Sicilian made them)...and good homemade Mexican food from the Mexican-American community.

On my first trip as an student in France, after three months I really almost went crazy until I found a substitute for that bologna and cheese. I did "have to" do the fried chicken, potato salad, spinach (instead of greens) thing for my host family: because I wanted to do it!

Back home, for the school "family origins" day, Mom sent me to school with a pot of neckbones, black-eyed peas and cornbread. Everyone wanted some, but it burned on the stove! I don't think food is a Black or White thing!

My grandmother, I heard, made the best sauerkraut around -- because that was her job, and she had her own shiny Black Buick to drive to show her success.

Every culture has something: lutefisk, gefilte fish, andouille sausage, chittlins! I've "enjoyed" them all (jokin', but not really). It's all about who you're eating with, right? It's almost a rite of passage.

Finally, I ate plenty, plenty, of jello, Pop-Tarts, and hot dogs at the homes of my very well-to-do White classmates and at home, too.

-- Harvetta

riffraff814 said...

Oh! I forgot a quintessential part of my White American food past!

Velveeta. The loaf of "cheese food product" in the cardboard box.

glamah16 said...

This reminds me of a recent post from that satirical blog Stuff White People Like. The last post was all about Hummus.

Sara said...

I've been doing a little bit of culinary comparison lately, thinking about compiling a cook book of sorts that details the differences in food culture in my Southern Black family and my Midwestern White family. Green bean casserole is still a staple of my family's Thanksgiving; and worse: canned cranberry sauce. I think American cuisine is an amalgam of borrowed cuisines, made easy. I'm writing a rather long response to your question on my blog. I didn't want to expound too lengthily as a comment...

Anonymous said...

I'm another north-eastern state italian, who never had meatloaf or any of the other stereotypical 'white american' food until just a few years ago (my husband is from Appalachia). Any special occasion in my house called for lasagne! It was quite a surprise to me to discover in college that not everyone knows how to make tomato sauce from scratch, or considers garlic an essential part of most dishes...

ShannonC said...

White girl typing here: much like you we never had "wonder"bread, twinkies or boxed mac and cheese. I always thought it was cause my parents were cheap, now I know that stuff was cheaper and the stuff she fed us was better. But, yes, I felt left out cause most of my friends and relatives all ate that crap. Of course now you couldn't pay me to eat it!!

R. said...

I will say this maybe related to one's socioeconomic status rather than one's race. I am Black American woman and growing up I ate Kraft's Mac and Cheese, white bread, and green beans from the can. I later learned in one my sociology classes that white bread is directly related to class (lower classes mostly eat white bread). I cannot attest to the validity of that paraphrased statement.

Of course, we ate homemade mac and cheese but not often and even now it's only served on special occasions like holidays. It's just not something that I make often. I LOVE homemade mac and cheese and I'm always perfecting my own recipe. As I got older, I found that I prefer the much healthier whole grain wheat breads and I can't stand Kraft's mac and cheese, lol. Green beans are seldom eaten from the can but I prefer fresh green beans as I like the cook them with slight blanching and quick sauteing....leaving them a little "green" and crisp tender.