If you want to study the velocity of change in this country, just compare restaurant menus from the early 1950s with today’s. Back then our Main Streets sported steak and chop houses, Italian and Chinese restaurants, seafood eateries, and the dependable diner. Fast food in the form of burgers and shakes was still an unexplored notion. Gino’s Hamburgers didn’t open its doors until 1957 and McDonalds was still marching east.
Families seeking respite from tuna noodle casserole dinners could find only a limited menu in restaurants. For entrees, they had their choice of baked and fried chicken, steaks, pork chops, lasagna, ravioli and spaghetti with meat sauce, baked fish and ham, plus clams, oysters and crab cakes in season. It appeared that things would never change, until they did.
Julia Child introduced the country to French cooking via TV in 1963, and home chefs started to experiment with steeping beef in burgundy. Foreign travel broadened consumers’ interests and they began to demand the authentic foods of Italy, Spain, the Middle East, Japan, and other locales. Waves of immigrants from Southeast Asia, China, India, Mexico, South America, and other world regions brought their native dishes and ingredients with them. Cooking schools like Baltimore International College and the Culinary Institute of America churned out ambitious grads wishing to make a mark with novel cuisines. Lastly, the advent of the Cooking Channel in 2010 and rise of celebrity chefs turned up the burners even more. The result? A complete transformation of America’s food scene.
Today Chipotle is giving Wendy’s and McDonalds a run for their money and it is not unusual for people to announce that this past weekend they ate Thai, Afghan or Indian. In our own kitchens, we may reach for the Sriracha hot sauce or make a snack for the kids of hummus and pita chips. In supermarkets it seems that yogurt selections now comprise one-fifth of the dairy department. Who knew that Greek, Danish, and Aussie-style yogurt were so good for you?
The point of all this is not merely to catalogue the history of food, but to establish that radical change in America is possible. We don’t have to settle for the status quo. Sure, 1955 to 2015 didn’t pass in the blink of an eye, but in those 60 years key players reinvented American gastronomy. If we’re now much more sophisticated about what we hunger for, then why can’t we change some other essential facets of our society?
Why has it been so difficult to transform the way we educate our children? In the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment that compares performance among 65 countries, our teenagers again earned below average scores in math. This pattern has remained unchanged since the 1960s. In overall performance, our schools rank only fourteenth when compared to countries like South Korea, Canada and Russia. Why is this and why haven’t we stemmed school drop-outs in cities like Baltimore where the four-year graduation rate for the class of 2013 was 68.5 percent?
The Commonwealth Fund did a recent study of the health care systems in eleven first world countries, including Germany, France, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Why did the U.S. come in last? It ranked eleventh in cost, efficiency, equity, and healthy lives. The study notes that “Other nations ensure the accessibility of care through universal health systems.”
Why have we not taken a quantum leap in race relations since 1955? Sure we have a black family in the White House, but we also have a fraternity in Oklahoma singing a song about lynching and the “N” word, a pattern of racist behavior on city police forces, and some states using retooled Jim Crow tactics to suppress the minority vote.
I believe in American exceptionalism, and we’ve proven we can change dramatically when it comes to our dining habits. Now it’s time to address some more important issues, even gun control and the so-called entitlement programs. When will voters step up to make this happen?
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.