Round Robin: Note from Lansing, New York

A History of Taste

| October/November 1998

Lansing, New York—Great gastronomic strides have been made in this country during the past fifty years or so. When I was growing up, the British exercised more significant influence over us—our laws, literature, gardens, and unfortunately, our cuisine. Even the most fervent Anglophile must admit that their performance in the kitchen has not been stellar.

The British influence over us was so pervasive that for many years even immigrants from countries such as Italy, where fine cooking is a tradition, felt constrained to adopt the bland cuisine of America as the price of acceptance. My mother-in-law, the daughter of a Venetian who munched raw garlic like an apple (a habit which he credited with preserving all his teeth in perfect condition), served her family garlic-free, herb-free, spice-free, appallingly tasteless Anglo-Saxon food. She did this, one assumes, to prove how properly American she was. When she was growing up, it wasn’t good to be Italian, or Greek, or Middle Eastern, or anything that wasn’t at least northern European.

My own mother, whose parents came from Holland, was an excellent American cook, but she never used herbs more exotic than parsley and chives, except for sage in the turkey dressing and saffron in her Dutch Easter bread. Years later, when my husband and I went to live in the Far East, then the Middle East, then Europe, we discovered new foods with new seasonings. Imagine my delight when the greengrocer in Florence included a free handful of herbs to go with my stew vegetables, or when I found a branch of rosemary tucked inside the chicken I had bought at the street market—not to mention the marvelous food in the tiniest neighborhood restaurant. I used to think that it would be worth living in Europe just to eat.

Now we need not look back nostalgically to the old days; things have changed here at home. In all but the smallest towns, you can find ethnic restaurants, and people are experimenting with herbs and spices. Immigrants and their descendants happily cook the food of their homelands. It’s now okay to be Italian, Greek, Turkish, and even to give your neighbors cooking lessons. My daughters brag about their Venetian blood and hope I don’t feel too bad about being only Dutch and English. Supermarkets carry dried herbs from all over the world and lots of fresh ones as well. In Ithaca, we have an excellent farmers’ market on an inlet of Cayuga Lake where homegrown fruits and vegetables, fine cheeses, local wine, and breads are sold. There you can also buy plants, including pots of many kinds of basil, thyme, oregano, sage, and tarragon—all you would need to start an herb garden of your own.

—Elisabeth Sheldon

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