What is American food?

In my opinion, cereal is the most American of foods. Though maybe not worthy of the term cuisine, I do think cereal is part of our cultural heritage.

This past week, I traveled to Indian Springs, Georgia in order to see the Smithsonian’s Key Ingredients exhibition. The local historical society, along with the community of Indian Springs, is hosting Key Ingredients in partnership with the Georgia Humanities Council.

In 2010 and 2011, Key Ingredients will be here, in Wisconsin, hosted by six Wisconsin communities. I am working with the project leaders from those six sites, on behalf of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jessica Becker in a cheesehead hat

The author visiting Key Ingredients in Georgia. Photo by Carol Harsh.

When you first enter the exhibition, the text reads: What is American food? It’s a simple question, then further explored with sections on the patterns of cultural settlement, regional flavors and traditions, the revolution in food preservation, distribution, and marketing, as well as changes that have taken place in the home and on the road that affect how and what we all eat. Wisconsin food stories are interspersed throughout,  including a place to try on a cheese hat!

The exhibition, curated by Charles Camp, leads the visitor through a fascinating overview, touching on many important stories in American history, but I didn’t find mention of cereal anywhere.

I have argued, and do believe, it’s one of the most American things, up there with Apple Pie (which is no doubt a close relative to the apple pies of Germany and Austria). Just picture the cereal aisle at your favorite grocery store. Where else in the world is that much commercial shelf space dedicated to colorful boxes of breakfast food? Check your cupboards…I’ll bet there is at least one box representing a regular habit or fall-back plan. Ask your friends about their favorite cereal at your next dinner party and I guarantee you an interesting conversation.

Michael Pollan, in his best-selling book “In Defense of Food,” examines the American attitude toward food. He points out that Americans rely on the nutritional information, determined by a scientific break-down and parceling up of nutrient parts, provided by experts more than other cultures do when choosing what to eat for dinner. The brothers John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg were at the forefront in starting this trend in the late 1800s. Will Keith was an industrialist in food manufacturing; John Harvey a medical doctor. Together they ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a health center focused on nutrition and exercise, and they invented Corn Flakes Breakfast Cereal. A patient of the sanitarium, Charles William Post, started his own dry cereal company, a rival brand of corn flakes, and the rest is history.

These inventive, and persuasive, characters revolutionized what American’s typically eat for breakfast…and, admit it, sometimes for dinner or a late night snack!

Local Flavors panel of Key Ingredients

A section of the Key Ingredients exhibition. Photo by Jessica Becker

Here in Wisconsin, we have rich food traditions and specialties, from wild rice to cheese curds to lefse. The six communities who will host the Key Ingredients exhibition will have their own unique stories to tell, recipes to share, and heritage to celebrate in connection to American food.

The exhibition opens in October 2010 in Reedsburg. I just wonder: When visitors enter the Woolen Mill Gallery on October 20th for the Key Ingredients grand opening and read the question, “What is American Cuisine?” how many will remember what they ate for breakfast?

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

One Response to What is American food?

  1. Carol Harsh says:

    I am really excited about working with you and the six communities in Wisconsin that will be hosting Key Ingredients. I agree that cereal is important, but my favorite food is Apple Pie. I am hoping to learn some tips from you about making good pie crust. I know you make excellent pies!

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