Cowen’s book offers more than ethnic-dining tips, however; it situates them in a broad historical context. Many of today’s mainstream foodies, Cowen argues, have the history of American food all backwards. They assume that American food is so terrible and unhealthy because of agribusiness: We eat terribly, the thinking goes, because our food is frozen, packaged, and trucked over vast distances before we eat it. Cowen has an entirely different explanation for the mediocrity of American food. As he sees it, American food was ruined by a series of entirely contingent historical events — Prohibition, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the rise of TV — which effectively ruined the restaurant industry. Those events were especially damaging, he argues, because immigration was so severely restricted during much of the 20th century. Immigrants were the people who can do the most interesting things with the cheap food on offer in the United States; without them, American food became boring and bland.
Now that immigration is on the rise again, America is a food paradise: the extended food supply chain created by American agribusiness means that food is plentiful and cheap, while our vibrant immigrant communities take that cheap food and make it awesome in a million different ways. (Barbecue is an example of a home-grown food culture which acts, in many respects, like an immigrant one.) The essence of American food, Cowen argues, is that it’s inexpensive, innovative, and various. To eat well in America, you have to embrace its unique history, and start from the fact that “the United States is a country where the human beings are extremely creative but the tomatoes are not extraordinarily fresh.” If you’re obsessed with the farmer’s market, you’ve got American food wrong; instead, think of America as a hotbed of “food innovation,” where the best food is getting made at strip malls and in food trucks. It’s an alternate vision of food in America.