Meanwhile, our cherished native sustenance has been abandoned in favor of edgier fare from foreign lands. What did you have for lunch yesterday? Probably wasn’t peanut butter and jelly. Maybe a pescado burrito, or a rajas con queso, or a chorizo torta? Or perhaps you opted for the seductive flavors of the East: did you try some negi hamachi rolls, or spicy salmon maki? Some bar mee rad nar or pad kee mao fried rice?
No one could blame you if you did. They are delicious repasts. But it’s hard not to notice that American cuisine has fallen from grace and fallen hard. What have we now but an endless SUV highway of Applebee’s and Bennigan’s?
And it’s not like we’re uninterested in food — the ratings at the Food Network are boiling over. But who are the culinary personalities people know and trust? Jamie Oliver (born: Clavering, Essex), Nigella Lawson (daughter of Nigel Lawson, a/k/a Baron Lawson of Blaby, PC), and Gordon Ramsay (born: Johnstone, Scotland — and now starring in an American remake of his hit UK television show). And, uh, Iron Chef (whose English overdubbing is as comical as the bizarro food creations prepared therein). Who’s America’s ambassador to the world’s foodies? Rachael Ray. Fantabulous!
Meanwhile, we eat up whatever foreign countries say we should. One of my favorite baseball bars is now a high-end Italian bistro. Thai food. Tapas bars. And, of course, more sushi than we’ve ever eaten before.
Why? Well, marketing, sure. But Nick Tosches, in a must-read recent article in June’s Vanity Fair, has another, more pernicious theory: “America is addicted to sugar.”
Well, we knew that. Look at the skyrocketing obesity in this country. But even when we try to eat healthily, we screw it up. In America, as recently as the 1980s, “the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich was the real vanguard of fish-eating,” Tosches writes. Today, “in a nation that never ate much fresh fish, it’s interesting that eel sushi is so very popular. I mean, from fish sticks and Filet-o-Fish sandwiches to conger eels? ‘Mommy, Mommy, I want eels, I want eels.’ This can’t be understood other than in light of the fact that the sauce, anago no tsume, used in confecting eel sushi is a syrupy reduction made with table sugar, sake, soy sauce, and the sweet wine called mirin, and that, during this reduction, caramelizing causes the browning sugar to grow in mass through the formation of fructose and glucose.” So now eels are sweeter than candy.
At least we’re being shrewd in one regard. With typical Yankee ingenuity, we New Englanders are taking full advantage of the situation. In Japan, when they eat sushi, they’re often eating our sushi. Much of the uni (urchins) so prized over there come from Maine.
And “thanks to innovations in modern logistics,” writes Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, “bluefin tuna can be delivered to a Tokyo diner just three days after being reeled in by a fisherman from Gloucester, Massachusetts.”
Then again, maybe we’re not so smart. Tosches writes of a rather silly phenomenon: apparently, especially for rich folk, it just ain’t sushi if it ain’t from Japan. “[S]o it is that a bluefin tuna from Gloucester [is] flown from New York to Tokyo, where it is auctioned, bought, and cut into pieces of three hand widths at Tsukiji [fish market], is flown back to New York and delivered — three to nine days after it has left the sea — to a sushi chef there, or even in Boston.”