“Why is American cuisine so pervasively sweet?” asked Naomi Duguid three years ago, the last time we sat down for a chat.
For those of you who don’t know Naomi Duguid, she is the author of a series of cookbooks that depend on her sallying forth into interesting and often dangerous regions and to an extraordinary extent dispensing with the middlemen (people) relied on by so many authors of “ethnic” cookbooks. Her latest, Taste of Persia, arrived today and will rightly be on all the best-of-2016 lists that will soon begin appearing. Fine recipes worked out for North America, meticulous research, and an introduction to the current state of one of the world’s greatest cuisines.
So in honor of that book, which many more qualified than I will review, I want to raise her question–which I think exemplifies the questions she takes to her culinary adventures, to the readers of this blog.
First question, is American cuisine sweet? Oh yes, it is. American sugar consumption is the highest in the world at 126 grams a day. The Germans, second on the list, eat only 103 grams a day. And the quantity falls off dramatically.
Second question. Is it pervasive? It certainly hit me when I came to the States. Then Americans ate sweet breakfasts. They drank sweet drinks with every meal. They loved cookies and cakes and muffins. My visiting English family, on being served corn muffins, asked why Americans ate cake with dinner.
Yet, the sense of sweetness is confined. My American husband find English pies unacceptably sour and English cakes not nearly sweet enough. American friends express upset at the intense jolt of sweetness of Mexican or Indian sweets. I think that’s what Naomi meant by pervasive–always there, not super intense.
Third question. If American cuisine is pervasively sweet, what are the historical and political ramifications?
Here my head begins to spin. Why do certain cuisines depend so heavily on sugar? It can’t just be industrialized food because America is far from alone in eating industrialized food. It can’t be some supposed national character because America has people from all over. What does current American consumption say about Sidney Mintz’s idea that there was a symbiotic relationship between the English working class drinking sweetened tea and slavery? What does all this say about plans for a sugar tax?
And, back to Naomi’s original question. I’ve been puzzling to find an answer for the past three years and failed. Over to all of you. Why is American cuisine so pervasively sweet?
Thoughts and comments, please.
Edit. Thanks for all the comments here and on FB and Twitter. Clearly a question lots of people have considered. I’ll try to reply later today.
Several have proposed the introduction of inexpensive high fructose corn syrup as the answer. It does seem to have accentuated the pervasive sweet taste of American food. I think, though, it is not the cause. My memory, having arrived in the States in the early 1970s, is that American food was already pervasively sweet.