Much has changed in the 35 years since Ella Brennan hosted the American Cuisine Symposium at Commander’s Palace in 1983. On Sept. 17, in celebration of the restaurant’s 125th anniversary, the Commander’s Palace restaurant group is hosting a day of panel discussions about food and hospitality in America at the Orpheum Theater. The American Cuisine & Hospitality Symposium includes Ruth Reichl, Danny Meyer, Barbara Lynch, John. T. Edge, Dominique Crenn, David Wondrich and others. Reichl, a former New York Times food critic and a participant in the 1983 event, spoke with Gambit about the original event and the state of the food and hospitality industries.
Gambit: The question 35 years ago was whether America had its own cuisine. What do you recall from the event?
Reichl: (At the time) I was a very young writer, and I was in awe of being in the presence of all these big guns. I remember looking up wide-eyed at all of them. And I also was one of the representatives from California. Everybody sort of thought that the food movement began and ended with what was then called “California cuisine.”
All of the younger people were really proud of what was going on in this country. (I remember) feeling like (we) had something to be proud of. It was a very exciting time in American food. For years, everybody had said there was no food here — that American cuisine was hot dogs and hamburgers. Everybody was looking at France and how great France was, but we were saying, “No, there is really great food in America.”
I think it’s very hard for people who weren’t there to understand how different (it was). This was the time before farmers markets, when we just had supermarket produce and you couldn’t get a strawberry that had any flavor or a tomato that had any flavor. We were very proud of the fact that in California — and some chefs in New York — were having farmers raise things just for them. It was sort of thrilling, and the things that chefs like Jonathan (Waxman) and Jeremiah (Tower) were doing, were really cutting edge and thrilling. Then we started to discover the whole New Orleans food revolution when Paul Prudhomme was on the road and all of America discovered that there was this regional food called Cajun cuisine. My parents had a house in the country in New England, and we started to think about all that food as regional. I grew up with lobster rolls and clam rolls, and that’s pretty great, right? Then we started looking at the Pacific Northwest and what they had up there. We understood that there really was an American cuisine and it was incredibly exciting.
G: What do you think of American food now?
R: We’re at a completely different moment in American food. We’re at a moment of maturity, where we now have to take a look at things like race and gender and ethnicity and who owns what, and we also have to look at things like social justice for food workers. We have come beyond excitement and deliciousness to understanding that food very much defines who we are and that we better think about it in a more serious way. I think it’s an amazing moment in American food.
I just edited The Best American Food Writing (2018), which comes out next month, and it’s really wonderful to me that food writing has changed so much. It’s about the #MeToo movement, it’s a lot about whose food (it is) and about what we’ve done in this country. If you’re a rich person you can eat organic food that’s been picked by angels but if you’re a poor person you’re struck with some stuff that’s literally killing your family. These are all issues that we in the food movement are (dealing with). We have finally come to the point that we understand that food is much more than something to eat. It’s much more important than recipes and reservations.
G: What is the most pressing issue facing the culinary world today?
R: For me, it’s pretty much social justice. I think more than anything, the idea that the entire food system basically runs on the backs of unprotected and undocumented workers is shameful, and that the people who are picking our food can’t afford to eat. If we’re going to be a decent society, everybody needs to be able to sit down at the table and eat clean and healthy food.