I’ll wager that more than a few serious pastry bakers out there, including many of you on the Continent, are going to be seriously put off — dare I say even repulsed — by some of what goes on here this week. For many, bar cookies typify all that’s wrong with American sweet baking. Too many ingredients, most of which come from bags, boxes and cans, all slapped together and stuffed into the oven…it’s trash baking at its worst: fast, rich, sweet and easy.
I completely get that. However I think it’s important to remember that there’s a reason America evolved this particular style of slapdash sweet-making, and it has to do with our history as a frontier nation. Frontiers, by definition, don’t provide access to terribly much, and the people that live on or near them are forced to make do with what might be on-hand. If, come dessert time, that means scouring the cupboard for whatever’s handy, then so be it. It’s for this reason that American (and New World Bakers in general) are among the world’s most prolific and innovative. It’s by necessity. Once, cookery in America was one long, never-ending episode of Iron Chef. No wonder that show is still so popular here.
It’s easy to say that those days are over now. However they’re not as far into the rear-view mirror as it might seem. Since the missus and I relocated to Kentucky some 7 years ago now, I’ve met probably a dozen people who grew up in rural parts of the state, whose families raised all their own food and who shopped for sacks of flour, sugar and coffee maybe twice a year. That’s unusual now, even in Kentucky. However I think it shows that even those of us who live in cities are not as far removed from our make-do past as we might think. The American urge to do for ourselves is still quite strong. And while in concrete terms that impulse might deliver some wacky desserts, I hold a deep respect for the tradition from which those oddities spring.