Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Infantilization of American Taste

Increasingly, Americans are eating like children. The most recent bit of evidence comes from an article in The New York Times about milkshakes served at fancy New York bars (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/08/dining/08shake.html?scp=1&sq=milk%20shakes&st=cse).

Americans have a fondness for drinks containing ice cream that goes back to the nineteenth century when soda counters were a respectable alternative to bars and taverns. In that abolitionist era, milk and milk products were the antithesis of the devil’s brew, associated with mother’s milk and purity, though not necessarily with childhood. The first ice cream-laced beverages were often carbonated “ice cream sodas” or “malts” made with malted milk and ice cream. (Malted milk is dry milk powder mixed with malted barley.) Shakes as we know them didn’t come along until the invention of the blender in the 1920s, which happily coincided with the beginnings of American road culture. Soon enough these calorie bombs became a favorite treat at roadside ice cream stands like Dairy Queen. Today’s “large,” (almost a liter) Dairy Queen chocolate shake is over 1100 calories. While ice cream sodas tend to have a Frank Capra small town association milk shakes evoke images of roller-skate outfitted waitresses in California drive-ins à la American Graffiti. They elicit early adolescence rather than childhood, an age of furtive kisses rather than teen pregnancy.

And after that excessively wordy digression, let us turn to The New York Times’ article which reports on the reinvention of the milkshake as a cocktail. In Brooklyn, now New York’s coolest borough, a reimagined bowling alley serves bourbon-spiked milkshakes. The rest of the menu, according the owners was designed with “childhood memories of birthday parties” in mind—but with booze. The trend has jumped the East River into creaky Manhattan where milkshakes have been spotted at the ultra-trendy Momofuku. In one recipe, the pastry chef Christina Tosi takes cereal milk (that is milk left over from eating dry cereal) and spikes it with Kahlua and vodka. There’s ice cream in there too. In Los Angeles where cool is always much cooler, chef Maria Swan, serves milk shakes based on such combinations as añejo tequila with dulce de leche (a sort of caramel), and Cherry Heering with lavender vanilla ice cream. She readily admits her inspiration is Bob’s Big Boy. While in and of itself, the trend is little more than a clever conceit, when you begin to see it as part of a wider phenomenon it heralds a significant shift in culinary culture. Some years ago, American restaurants and bars came to be afflicted by a plague of cocktails. It started with frozen margaritas but them moved to increasingly more complex mixtures. The result is invariably sweet. Moreover the drinks often share the palette of Crayola crayons. Foods associated with childhood, especially mac and cheese, now have restaurants dedicated to them. A place down the street from me offers a version with “Brie, Figs, Roasted Shiitake Mushrooms and Fresh Rosemary” along with more conventional offering. “Sliders,” small hamburger-type sandwiches are now filled with sophisticated fillings like duck confit and braised venison. Childhood desserts like cupcakes have turned into a global phenomenon. This is reflected elsewhere too.

Fancy restaurants offer deconstructed s’mores, the campfire dessert made with packaged graham crackers melted Hershey’s chocolate and marshmallows. Of course in the white-tablecloth version, the biscuits are home-made, the chocolate is French and the marshmallows are made with Tahitian vanilla. But the result is a little like the ten year-old smearing her face with her mother’s lipstick. Or perhaps the forty-five year old buying a toy car for fifty thousand dollars? Is this kid food masquerading as grown up food, or adult food pretending it’s child’s play?

Recently, social scientists have postulated that we should add another stage to the development of the human animal. In much the way that adolescence was invented in the 19th century, they propose a period of life called young adulthood that spans the period between the teenage years and “real” adulthood, which now seems to arrive at thirty. If this is indeed true then these childhood foods offer a sort of the booster seat to the grown-ups table. Or do they? Do the thirty-year olds then advance to a more adult phase of taste. Or do they simply continue eating more highly sweetened foods you can pick up with your hands for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

American brides now often turn to cupcakes instead of wedding cakes to celebrate their nuptials. It’s an interesting shift in symbolism. Whereas the white wedding cake so clearly stood for virginity devoured, the cupcakes seem to indicate that a wedding is just another childhood birthday party. I’m all in favor of parties but does the food have to cater to the tastes of a six-year old?