And now the good news. In the 1980s the United States will emerge as a major world power in a new field -- gastronomy.
The ingredients necessary for this to happen are three: knowledgeable and adventuresome cooks, consumers who recognize quality and are willing to pay for it, and access to superior foodstuffs. All are available and in increasing quantities.
With so much attention focused on what is wrong or suspected of being wrong with the foods we eat and the manner in which they are prepared and sold, an essential point has been missed. Not everyone in our society has enough to eat or eats well. But the 1970s clearly established that those who have the time, taste and temperament to make and consume hand-tailored meals need have no fear of being sentenced to a lifetime of Big Mac's or a world where pills have taken the place of real food.
One can travel this country today with fair assurance that a good meal can be found at day's end -- in a restaurant or private home -- featuring fresh ingredients translated into one of many possible ethnic quises. You have to look, you have to care. But it's there.
The great hotel dining rooms and gastronomic fare on trains all are gone. But even in the old days, you still had to care and you had to be lucky. Maybe there was less opportunity to go wrong because there were fewer choices. Nonetheless, then as now you couldn't decree good taste nor guarantee anything more than a mediocre meal if you were summoned to supper at the boss's house. The food gifts of yore were no better than what was found under many Christmass trees this past week. Church socials were never as unremittingly glorious as they have been painted, nor was the choice of food as broad or its quality superior to what can be found at the church sales and international bazarres held regularly in this city.
Through the century this country has been a major producer and consumer of foodstuffs. But for various reasons, ranging from the Puritan ethic to the 30-minute lunch "hour," Americans tended to ignore or downplay the sensual and esthetic aspects of food and found themselves classified as culinary barbarians.
Whether we were or not is beside the point. The bland, boring stereotype American meal of steak and potatoes, accompanied by coffee or milk, need be the norm today only for those who haven't the curiosity or desire to eat anything else.
Conversations with leading foreign chefs and winemaker touring the United States during the latter part of the decade have revealed an admiration for our natural resources and an increasing appreciation of the knowledge and sophistication of the Americans who have visited them.
These Americans are more demanding customers in restaurants because they now know from first-hand experience what the real French or Northern Italian cuisine tastes like and they have the option of making it themselves at home. Remember, looking back to the beginning of the decade, how difficult it was to obtain specialty ingredients or -- Burton Wolf points out in his "Equipment" column today -- professional quality cookware.
As 1970 began, volume two of Julia Child's landmark, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," was not yet published. Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee did not publish their successful volume, "The Chinese Cookbook," until 1972. Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook" came on the market only in 1973.
In the years since, there have been a lot of cookbooks, a lot of cooking lessons and a deeper and wider fascination with international cuisines. A good thing, too. Eating well in the decade ahead is going to be expensive. Food will cost more and almost certainly will take a higher percentage of Americans' disposable income. The burden will be greatest for those who feel they have neither the time nor the skills to make meals from scratch. Now, as always in the past, the best tool for those who want to eat well and healthfully is an ability to cook well.
There is no question that there is an element of fadism in the fascination with a multitude of mustards and a wide variety of vinegars. They can be merely chic and expensive playthings, or they can be useful tools for the kitchen craftsman. There is an element of fadism, too, in the affected designs of so-called nouvelle cuisine chefs who declare that flour is the root of all evil and garnish their creations with cross-sections of kiwi fruit as lavishly as caterers use chopped parsley.
These excesses shouldn't go unchecked, but they are understandable. After all, it was only a short time ago that the choice of mustards in a supermarket was limited to French's and Gulden's. And one still finds restaurants wall pallid and incomplete creations are presented dressed in the names codified by the great Escoffier. It is a time of change in the kitchen and the dining room, a time of revolution.
Whether Americans continue to pamper themselves with such purchases and support such variety remains to be seen. The increase of choice and quality is apparent in more pratical foods, too: cheeses, vegetables, even meats.America hasn't lost or surrendered its national sense of taste. The very people who say so never credited us with having any taste in the first place. Instead we have the broadest, if not the best refined, food tastes of any nation. Slowly we are coming to realize that the "best" restaurateurs and home cooks are those who accomplish best what they set out to do, be it presenting classic French cuisine or hamburgers, and that both deserve recognition and patronage.
In the meantime, only a few short years after the doomsayers saw an end to professional cooking this country, young people have rediscovered craft work and are finding its own values and rewards. The training of cooks is going forward and producing some impressive results in the face of a lack of discipline and an impatience that been hallmarks of youth in recent years. There seems little prospect for restaurants ever again to have the huge serving staffs and kitchen brigades of the Escoffier era. But at least intelligent restaurateurs are no longer pretending.
They are experimenting with recipes and methods of presentation that suit them. They are realizing that there are limits to size, to franchise possibilities, to the capability that there are limits to size, to franchise possibilities, to the capability of machines. The human factor -- the value of real people -- has begun to reassert itself and young people, many of whom entered the field working for large companies, have begun to meld fresh ideas with modern technology. They are finding an audience prepared to dine out and far more willing than ever before to experiment.
The opportunities are great.
World-wide inflation and political unrest mean that Americans almost certainly will be doing less foreign travel in the decade ahead. Those who do, it seems, will be more critical and perhaps more appreciative of what is available in this country. Recently a spate of articles from traveling American critics has found fault with top French restaurants, so often held up as virtually flawless in days when we knew less and meals there cost less.
The number of immigrant foreign chefs will dwindle. As standards of living equalize in the developed countries, there is less temptation to seek one's fortune in America. But more foreign tourists and businessmen will be visiting us. One hopes they will be spending money in our most distinctive restaurants, as in the postwar years we Americans subsidized a continuation of European culinary culture.
Two trends should become apparant in our full-service restaurants and in the kitchens of passionate home cooks. One will be the emergence of a distintive cuisine that will draw upon the traditions of the Orient and Europe without being slavishly devoted to either, mixing tastes, cooking concepts and ingredients in the same menu or even in a single recipe. The second will be a reinterpretation and updating of regiona American recipes in light of contemporary cooking methods and health concerns.
America's wines, already among the best in the world, will continue to improve and will give added stimulus to dining -- as opposed to eating or snacking.
Bad food -- faulty raw materials and ill-prepared meals -- is with us still.
It won't disappear, nor will we suddenly find ourselves next week eating in the best of all possible worlds. But we enter the 1980s better educated than ever before as to value and nature of good food and good cooking. Demands for more healthful foods and meal choices, economic necessity and the pursuit of pleasure should keep us from turning backward.