Prairie Meets the Post-War

Reader Lee comments on the A Word of Warning post below:

I wonder if you aren’t conflating two separate trends — one, the prairie ethic of making do with what is at hand, the other, the post-War industrialized-processed food glut that, in many ways, was the opposite of the first. I admire the prairie baker of legend who had the considerable skill necessary to make something delicious out of meager ingredients; I’m less impressed with someone who drives to the supermarket, dumps the results into a bowl and calls it baking. Besides, I think we Americans tend to overdo the whole prairie thing, as though we were the only cooks in the history of the world who ever had to make do with what was at hand.

Those are all good points. However I’d argue that the line between pre- and post-World War II culinary scenes is really an artificial one. American cooks had already driven well off the culinary map (at least as it was defined by European tradition) before the war ever broke out. Mass-market candy bars, cookies, crackers, snack cakes and potato chips, to say nothing of base ingredients like shortening and chemical leaveners, all predate the post-war period by decades.

My point is that I think “making do” is one thing, and an improvisational spirit untethered from established tradition is another. I think Americans (and New World bakers in general) have exhibited the former for perhaps hundreds of years. That’s not always a good thing, mind you. And when you combine a tendency toward wild improvisation with affluence and industry you’re going to get some some very dubious outcomes. However for my part, I’d rather that we had that spirit as part of our national character — and suffer the neon colored snow balls and cheez curls — than not.

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