A long time ago in a semester far, far away I started a blog post on democracy and food. Well, my website crashed. I had exceeded my storage limits apportioned by the school. This led to a cascade of cyber angst. Today, nearly six months later, I found a comma in the wrong place on a random file, and here we are.

Note: This blog was going to track my reading for my comprehensive examinations coming in March. I decided that was a boring thing to blog about. Therefore, I decided to shift the focus to my own research. I do need to have a dissertation proposal by the end of the year. Therefore, I will keep reading the ridiculous amount of books required for my exams and share my random thoughts in a non-systematic way. Basically starting over again, since I was going to post weekly when I first wrote this a month ago.

Consider the Olive Burger:

The advertisement on the left is from the Flint Journal, September 30, 1954-The one in the middle was placed in the Flint Journal, Muskegon Chronicle, and the Grand Rapids Press in the summer of 1967, incidentally three years before Mr. Fables built their first restaurant [The family ran the Grand Rapids Kewpee Hotel Hamburg restaurant from 1929]. Coincidence? -The Fables ad is from the Grand Rapids Press, October 16, 1997

I come to food history after a long circuitous path, and my personal history casts a strong bias over my thoughts. I got my anthropology degree after almost a decade of working on and off in various restaurants in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was no surprise, then, that I leaned toward food studies. People like Sidney Mintz made food a serious subject around this time, and his work on American foodways was an early influence. His opinions still greatly color the trajectory of food studies in the United States. Notably, he eschewed the concept of American “cuisine” because he felt that the unique history of the United States and its expanse made it impossible for us to have foods we argue about on how they should be prepared (this really is what a cuisine is for Mintz in a nutshell). I feel we do have a cuisine or at least legit regional/social ones. The problem is that most people who study food tend to search out cuisines through cookbooks, menus, and other bourgeois places (of course, Mintz’s first food experiences came from a petit-bourgeois perspective, as his father owned a diner).1

Yet, people talk about food all the time outside these spaces. For example, there is much lively discussion around the olive burger where I live. Yet, if you do a search for olive burger in the academic literature you tend to come up empty-handed. Why? It was and is a mainstay in most diners from southern Indiana to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I bet most people my age who grew up in Michigan can tell you where to get the best one, even if they don’t like them. This combination more than likely found its genesis in the Greek diners on the east side of Michigan over a century ago (There is a bit of debate about this, with Mr. Fables in Grand Rapids still holding on to the “secret recipe” even though they are out of business). Yet, it seems regional foods like these are relegated to trivia because they did not gain the national exposure of, say, Rice-a-Roni, which according to food historian Paul Freedman. “exemplifies some of the basic trends in American taste: the adaptation of recipes by immigrants, industrial production, mass-market promotion, flavor options, and obsolescence.”2 While this may be true for boxed nationwide foods that were a mainstay on prime-time network television commercials in the 80s but fizzled with fickle national trends, isn’t there more to what Americans eat than these trends?

New York City?!

Also, why does it seem, as is unapologetically the case with Freedman, that New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans are the places where food trends start? I don’t want to sound like a Pace cowboy, but New York City is not the be-all-end-all for deliciousness.

Why are menus of New York restaurants considered serious primary sources? Would the menu from a diner in Groom, Texas be just as informative as the Four Seasons? What about stories of the killer green chile stew that used to be served at the Fat Chance Bar and Grille where I was a cook for a few months in the mid-1990s, working for $4.75/hr plus all I could eat and drink? The recipe was so guarded that the owner only trusted one bartender to make it. I just ladled it into bowls for hungry students, professors, hippies, and bikers listening to the latest alternative, jam, and punk rockers drifting through town. It was damn good!

The outside of the Fat Chance Bar and Grille with 90s punk band No Empathy: picture swiped from punk rock photographer Patrick Houdeck’s Flickr page. https://www.flickr.com/photos/msig/2036167225/

Okay. Enough rambling and time to read. I could talk for hours about the vanishing cuisine of out-of-the-way America, but now I need to buckle down and read. See you next week [or in a month. Who knows]!

  1. Sidney Wilfred Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past (Beacon Press, 1997).
  2. Paul Freedman, Ten Restaurants That Changed America (Liveright, 2018): xxxv.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Gray

    So where is the best Olive Burger?

    1. admin

      You tell me…

Leave a Reply