“AMERICAN DISH” by Merrill Shindler, originally published in 1996 (reprinted in 2003) is such great fun for those of us interested in the history of American foods – and looking for favorite comfort foods.
Merrill Shindler was the affable eccentric host of KABC talk radio’s weekly DINING OUT WITH MERRILL SHINDLER program and as recently as 2010 was being featured on YouTube. If you Google his name, you will learn that the world-renowned food critic is as busy as ever…but I would like to focus on the Merrill Shindler, author, who wrote AMERICAN DISH.
In the introduction to AMERICAN DISH, Shindler writes, “Looking at the twentieth century with twenty-twenty hindsight, it can be argued that this has been the single most remarkable century in the history of getting a bite to eat…it’s been said that prior to the twentieth century, Americans ate only three vegetables—and two of them were cabbage…”
Shindler says that Voltaire’s famous observation that the English have forty-two religions but only two sauces could easily be transferred to Americans on the cusp of the 1900s. As a nation, Shindler writes, we did not eat well. And along came the twentieth century.
Shindler credits a combination of pluck, ambition, good ol’ American know-how, inventiveness and the desire to make a buck with making food a Big Business in the United States.
Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, the author says that the more he learns about the history of food and the corresponding world of food in history, the more convinced he is that it’s written on Jello-O. He explains that this is because very little in culinary history can be nailed absolutely.
“It’s the most non-linear form of history imaginable,” writes Schindler. “It’s hardly even cyclical. If anything, it’s random and arbitrary with no imaginable way of stating when and where the first tuna noodle casserole or turkey meat loaf was conceived and consumed. Like Athena from the heat of Zeus, most culinary innovations seem to have emerged fully formed. One day they don’t exist, and the next day everyone was making them. The Food Stork brought them….”
Shindler explains that his decade-by-decade history of American eating and drinking habits if a book of informed opinion. “I’m not suggesting that the recipes included in each decade were born in that decade, though in many cases that’s true…there’s something about Baked Alaska and Oysters Rockefeller that speaks volumes about the 1900s: onion dip and cheese fondue are very much the 1950s ad turkey burgers and tiramisu are so much the 1990s…when it comes to food.”
States the author, “The 20th century has been a wild and wacky ride across a culinary landscape filled with TV dinners, M&Ms, microwave ovens, granola, Spam, kiwifruit, Tang, Diet Cola, Crockpots, electric can openers, pasta machines, Coffee-mate, Caesar salad and Tamale pie….” (Don’tcha just love it?
For all of us who have grown up with Tang and TV dinners, Spam and Diet Coke (and let’s not forget Reddi-Wip and Cool Whip, the latter of which now comes in fat free and sugar free versions), AMERICAN DISH is a part of our culinary heritage.
I found AMERICAN DISH listed on Amazon.com new nicely priced at $4.85, used $2.50 & up, or collectible for $6.99. It’s also available on Alibris.com – copies starting at $2.50 but new available for $4.02.
Angel City Press, the publishers of AMERICAN DISH, established in 1992 is dedicated to the publication of high-quality non-fiction books, including the cookbooks HOLLYWOOD DU JOUR and CHASEN’S.
Review by Sandra Lee Smith