How We Eat Now: The New American Table
We the people of the United States... don't eat like we used to
And that’s a good thing. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, my mom’s dinners were limited to a short rotation of roast chicken, London broil, shrimp scampi, frozen Hungry-Man meals and takeout. To be fair, she was working with limited options. At our local supermarket, the lettuce was mostly iceberg, the apples were only red and not delicious, and there was one variety of mushroom—the kind that will make you hate mushrooms for your entire life. Still, we ate pretty well. Actually, we didn’t.
These days we’ve got more choices, more knowledge and, yes, more guilt than ever. Our food stores not only offer multiple varieties of produce but also ones that are organically and, often, locally grown. Meat is free-range and/or grass-fed. Seafood is sustainably harvested. Coffee is fair-trade. We are so food-woke, our choices around what we eat are nearly as central to our identity as our Instagram feeds that obsessively document those choices.
Plus, our food is so globalized now. Not only can we find real tacos from coast to coast, but we can also find real Oaxaca- or Baja-style tacos. While nationalists may be having a moment politically, they are getting killed in the aisles of Trader Joe’s, which is the United Nations of packaged foods. People in Houston can discern between northern Thai and southern Thai cuisine, while picking a Chinese food restaurant in Seattle or Chicago or Philly might mean choosing between Sichuan, Cantonese, Hunan and Taiwanese. Kids regularly eat sushi, soup dumplings, baba ghanoush and pho. Once, my son, fed up with the globe-trotting succession of meals he’d been served, actually cried out: “I just want American food! Like hamburgers! Or tacos!”
I don’t recall what we were eating on the night of that outburst—it might have been tikka masala delivered by UberEats or chicken souvlaki pitas assembled from one of those hand-holding Blue Apron kits—but it happened to be a meal when the entire family was sitting down together. And that’s a rarity these days.
For much of America, dinner is very often not in a dining room, unless you’ve turned that room into a home office, in which case you probably do eat there. More likely you’re eating on a stool at one of those islands everyone puts in their kitchens. Or maybe you’re hunched around a coffee table in front of a TV, or at a Michelin-starred restaurant in front of your phone. And yet, the activity of eating in this country has arguably never been more social. Food continues to serve as a catalyst that brings us together—especially around the holidays.
So, as our nation prepares for its most secularly sacred feast on Thanksgiving, this seemed like a perfect time to take a closer look at our dining habits as individuals, as families, as a society. Featured on the following pages are some of the people, trends and issues now shaping the country’s food rituals, captured in various moments across a 24-hour period. Think of it as a day in the life of the evolving American table. Come, pull up a seat.