Monday, May 14, 2012

Wall Street Journal :: Colonel Sanders and the American Dream

The American Way of Eating
Harlan Sanders and Clarence Birdseye, just like today's locavores, saw a meal as a way to improve people's lives
By Henry Allen

Colonel Sanders and the American Dream
by Josh Ozersky
 Fine, fast and frozen: three food groups that changed America after World War II.

Let's take them in order, by contemplating the revolutionaries chronicled in three biographies:

First, there is Craig Claiborne, the New York Times columnist who taught us how to know good from bad veal fricandeau and how to bedizen our kitchens with copper pots from France. Second, Colonel Harlan Sanders, a founding father of fast food—his was Kentucky Fried Chicken and he sold it by the bucket.

Third, Clarence Birdseye, the frozen-food man who believed in a future built by industry, an inventor who gave us seafood far from the sea and fruits and vegetables far out of season. Birdseye and Sanders aimed at the masses. Claiborne, however, addressed the emerging classes known variously as creative, culture-bearing and knowledge, along with the rich, who could afford to eat Henri Soulé's food at Claiborne's beloved Pavillon in Manhattan before it closed.

During a life chronicled by Thomas McNamee in an insouciant biography called "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat," Claiborne joined with heros of the table such as M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child and Alice Waters to create a new kind of gourmet or gourmand—what we now call the foodie.

There had once been gourmet splendor in hotels and railroad dining cars for the rich in America, but it faded with the Depression and the decline of railroad travel. After the war, new suburban lifestyles and the end of servants for all but the rich brought us instant everything—bricks of Birds Eye frozen spinach to be heated and served and Betty Crocker cake mixes.

Diners looking for the Big Meal went to prime-rib or lobster joints with little waterfalls out back, and the popover was the pinnacle of pastry. Ultimate praise was "you can't eat it all," as diners patted their stomachs and shuffled out to Buick station wagons monogrammed with yachting flags. They had never heard of heirloom tomatoes or extra-virgin olive oil. They cooked from Peg Bracken's "I Hate to Cook Book" in linoleum kitchens. They drank milk with dinner.

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