Debbie Does Salad
A modern epicure is almost always eating the present dish as a kind of introduction to something else.
—William Alcott, 1846
In the year 2000 an American Cinco de Mayo celebration featured the world’s largest taco, fashioned from nine hundred pounds of meat. The taco generated a fair bit of press but could not compare to the sensation created almost two hundred years earlier when supporters of Thomas Jefferson presented the president with a New Year’s gift, a nine-hundred-pound “Mammoth Cheese,” said to have been produced from the milk of one thousand Republican cows. Such tales amuse but don’t amaze us anymore. The outrageous demands of the American stomach have become our daily bread.
But back in the day when Federalists walked the earth, the stomach could still engender shock and awe. In January of 1803, not too long after the presentation of that mammoth cheese, a young journalist who called himself Jonathan Oldstyle traversed the most fashionable streets of New York City, astonished by the extraordinary abundance of food, and by the extraordinary might of its consumption. He published his cultural observations in New York’s Morning Chronicle:
I had marched into the theatre through rows of tables heaped up with delicacies of every kind—here a pyramid of apples or oranges invited the playful palate of the dainty; while there a regiment of mince pies and custards promised a more substantial regale to the hungry. I entered the box, and looked around with astonishment . . . The crackling of nuts and the crunching of apples saluted my ears on every side. Surely, thought I, never was an employment followed up with more assiduity than that of gormandizing; already it pervades every public place of amusement . . .
The eating mania prevails through every class of society; not a soul but has caught the infection. Eating clubs are established in every street and alley, and it is impossible to turn a corner without hearing the hissing of frying pans, winding the savory steams of roast and boiled, or seeing some hungry genius bolting raw oysters in the middle of the street.
Within a decade, this young food writer would become America’s most famous author. His name was Washington Irving.
Irving was a social critic, and his food writing, social commentary. In an 1807 edition of Salmagundi (a literary magazine he founded with his brother and a friend), Irving declared that
the barbarous nations of antiquity immolated human victims to the memory of their lamented dead, but the enlightened Americans offer up whole hecatombs of geese and calves, and oceans of wine in honour of the illustrious living . . .
Irving had perceived that eating and drinking in the pristine nation introduced an entirely new set of rituals and sacraments, for food and food alone could embody “the sublime spectacle of love of country, elevating itself from a sentiment into an appetite.”
A few decades after Irving’s magazine pieces, the obsessions of nineteenth-century food maniacs had matured from raw oysters, raw apples, and nuts into the liver puddings and chicken jellies of Miss Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery. The most popular cookbook of the nineteenth century, Directions plowed its way through sixty printings, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and made its author one of the first in a long line of celebrity chefs. And Miss Leslie, famous for her sarcasm and wit, grew so expansive that in her final years she could not walk.
A century and a half before the advent of Zagat online and starchefs.com, American food delirium had already engendered a sect of haute-bourgeois extravagance—our first clearly recognizable foodies (as opposed to the chowhounds, who had been gnawing bark off the trees from the very beginning). Hard-line nineteenth-century food moralists such as Sylvester Graham and William Alcott may have railed against the immoral luxuries of white bread, store-bought milk, and more than two ingredients per dish, but Jacksonian gastrosophisticates continued to lust after Miss Leslie’s peach leather and gooseberry fool, cocoa-nut pudding, and raspberry charlotte. The food protestants knew that beneath such culinary desires lay perversity, sickness, and damnation, but their rhetoric could hardly diminish the popularity of America’s first haunt of high cuisine, the restaurant Delmonico’s, where the menu featured chateaubriand, lobster Newburg, and limitless liters of Château Margaux. With dread imagination, the reformers could envision a marketplace glutted with disease-inducing excitements (i.e., spices) and chemically tainted butter. Never could they have conceived of our present debauched trade in chocolate fountains and olive stoners, thermoforks, ergonomic meat hammers, and bidirectional marinade injectors.
America’s eating infection has progressed, just as our obsessive need to possess recipes has morphed from shoe boxes stuffed with file cards to cookbooks.com, a database that brims with one million possibilities. To sample every one of them (at a steady rate of three meals per day, one new recipe per meal) would take more than nine hundred years.
But don’t be absurd. Nobody cooks all those recipes. In fact, everyone knows recip...