An American cuisine develops from abundance and ingenuity
What is ''American cuisine''?
More than a hundred food and restaurant professionals gathering from around the country, examined, discussed, and sampled some of this country's food at the first symposium on American cuisine at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The first question on the agenda was never actually settled because nobody could agree what name to use - what to call it.
''Cuisine'' is, some said, a French word and ''cooking'' doesn't pinpoint the overall subject. But this was a relatively small part of the program of exploration of the current trend of identifying a native American cuisine.
What was determined is that American cuisine, especially cooking today, both at home and in restaurants, is a many-faceted phenomena that includes the revival of old traditional dishes and new applications of old methods and ingredients.
Nouvelle cuisine triggered the seeking of simplicity. The Far Eastern, especially Japanese, emphasis on taste, texture, and visual beauty of the finished dish, has had a great role in the movement.
Locally grown and produced foods are another part of the trend as shown by Grisanti Inc. of Louisville, a brilliant young group headed by Michael Grisanti and Vicenzo Gabriele, owners of a cluster of restaurants.
They served pasta in an all-American style by using locally produced products , such as country ham and Gethsemani cheese made by local Trappist monks.
It is my opinion that the River Cafe, Brooklyn's barge restaurant, with its fresh steamed cattails sauteed with wild mushrooms, wild quail, and muscovy ducks with molasses and black pepper, is just as American as Cajun Paul Prudhomme's jalapeno cheddar biscuits, black redfish, and sweet potato pecan pie and maple syrup with johnnycakes.
Chef-owner of the famous River Cafe in New York, Lawrence P. Forgione, talked about ''creating the new American menu'' and shocked and surprised the audience when he said he would like to throw away every freezer from every kitchen.
He said he'd rather not serve anything at all if he couldn't get it freshly delivered from the neighborhood.
My approach was more practical. I tried to emphasize that the opposite of frozen is not fresh, but unfrozen, and the opposite of fresh is not frozen, but stale.
I raised the question, ''What can you consider fresher - green beans picked in California on the first of the month and delivered in Louisville chilled or cooled on the 16th to the warehouse, then prepared on the 20th, or greens picked in the fields at 5 a.m., expertly prepared and frozen at 8, and kept frozen until a few minutes prior to consumption?''
My remarks left a part of the audience frozen. Nevertheless, we simply cannot ignore the fact that the American restaurant industry is responsible for more millions of meals consumed outside the home per day than the restaurant industry of other countries provides in a whole month or more.
Our agricultural technology developed in a direction resulting in fresh frozen vegetables as an integral and indisputable part of our economy.
It would be counterproductive to try, as one speaker suggested, to throw out every freezer and go back to consuming fresh produce only. As each person talked, the comments merged toward a new style of food preparation that is more direct, more simple, and more honest than the previous trend.
Emphasis was on strong regional differences, the Far Eastern stir-frying method, the light, less complicated sauces, and grilled and baked instead of fried and roasted meats.
There now is more extensive use of widely grown but not always available fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms and games birds, venison, and fish, both freshwater and from the oceans.
A panel of four culinarians talked on a panel about American cuisine. Joseph Amendola of the Culinary Institute of America, who is perhaps the best-known culinary educator on a practical level in the US; Pierre Franey, New York Times columnist and author of ''The 60-Minute Gourmet Cookbook''; Lawrence Forgione, River Cafe chef-owner; and John Bowen, associate professor of Johnson & Wales Junior College of Business, Providence, R.I., were on the panel.
Barry Wine, proprietor of the Quilted Giraffe of New York, gave his presentation of the nouvelle American cuisine: phyllo dough stuffed with Maryland crab and scallops presented Japanese style.
Specifically, no one answered the question, ''What is American cuisine?'' but it is premature to look for a definite answer.
American society is so large, so dynamic, so kinetic, and so entirely different from any other society in the Western world, and so relatively young compared with the Greco-Roman culture or even with the French, Hispanic, Italian , Scandinavian or other cultures that it would be dangerous to formulate rigid, restrictive definitions.
Every participant in the conference contributed something to my definition coined a long time ago for my own satisfaction: ''To be American means to give the world today the best of tomorrow.''
Louis Szathmary is owner of The Bakery restaurant in Chicago and author of several cookbooks.