Humans love flavor. Archeologists have found evidence that hunter-gatherers in Stone Age Europe used garlic mustard seeds (a broccoli relative with a mustardy, peppery kick) to season stews 6,000 years ago. For almost as long as we’ve been cooking, we’ve been adding ingredients to our pots that contributed flavor, not just calories. Salt, herbs, and strongly scented seeds all have nutritious properties, but if you consider the time it would take to gather the seeds from garlic mustard plants, when you could be digging tubers or fishing, then it’s clear that the drive for deliciousness is ingrained and powerful.
So why does bland food exist? Why, indeed, is there a whole group of people known for their love of underseasoned potato salad, passion for plain chicken breasts, and adoration of mayonnaise?
I’m talking about white people. More specifically, white Americans, though Europeans are also complicit in the rise of blanditude.
If you are white, as I am, you may be rebelling against this idea in your head, and thinking about all the spicy, richly complex dishes you enjoy all the time. That’s fine—I am too. I don’t want to be associated with mac and cheese from a box or Taylor Swift’s cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”(paywall) any more than you do. This is not about creating a taxonomy of who eats what and how. It’s about unpacking why anyone, ever, would make the culinary choice to embrace less, not more, deliciousness.
White people and our bland food is not just a current meme. It’s a trope with a long and storied history. You may not agree with the characterization, but when white girl potato salad is a punchline on Saturday Night Live, comparing a white performer’s cover of a classic R&B tune to unseasoned chicken breast is a sick burn on Twitter, and calling someone “white bread” an insult, there’s definitely something there to unpack—and douse with Frank’s Red Hot.
There’s no denying it: The food of white America, whether you’re talking poached halibut on massaged kale or Kraft singles on Wonder bread with mayo, is bland compared with South Asian curries, Korean kimchi, or African peanut stews. If you can have any food, and in modern America, many of us can have pretty much any food we choose, why does blandness ever win?
One might predict that the rich and powerful would prize deeply flavorful, complexly seasoned food—more money, more flavor. That’s not always how it works, though. Our seemingly innate human preference for flavorful food has battled with our powerful human tendency to create and reinforce class, racial, and aesthetic hierarchies—and those have often coalesced around the rejection of easily accessible pleasures such as food augmented with spices and flavorings. Meanwhile, moral movements from Christian crusaders to modern “clean eating” advocates have associated unadorned and “simple” food with good taste and a kind of moral purity. This push and pull has profoundly shaped the way people around the globe eat.
The spice trail brought flavor—perhaps too much flavor
Most spices are grown in tropical or subtropical climates. Sure, spicy peppers can be grown all over the world, and saffron, the world’s most expensive spice by weight, thrives even in very northern climes, but the history of the spice trade in one broad, peppery sweep, is about the movement of flavors and aromas from the Global South to Europe and North America.
Those flavors, in the form of spices like cardamon, cloves, and cinnamon, propelled global trade, sending boats packed with dried berries, seed pods, and bark curls from one continent to another, long before the rise of the shipping container. Wherever the spice trade led, the food got more flavorful, and the demand for spices grew, making complex deliciousness the exclusive domain of the rich, particularly in Europe where it was impossible to grow a kitchen plot of black pepper or nutmeg.
In medieval Europe nobles used richly spiced dishes the way modern Americans signal their wealth with a tricked-out SUV (or an understated but unmistakable Tesla). Layers of cinnamon, sugar, and mace combined in sweet and savory dishes alike, well into the Renaissance. Pepper, the same kind you find for free in every diner booth today, made family fortunes from Venice to Salem, Massachusetts.
By the 1600s though, the European market for spices had leveled out, and they had become, generally speaking, widely affordable.
Once spices became common, nobles decided they reflected middling taste. To distinguish themselves from the baser appetites of the masses, the upper classes embraced a new essentialism, demanding that food taste like itself. Instead of cooking meat in sauces layered with spices and herbs, rich Europeans started cooking meat in meat stock and meat gravy to make it taste even meatier. Classic French hotel cuisine relied upon stock, butter, and cream-based sauces and English manor house cookery favored giant, unspiced joints of meat turned on spits (sometimes, bizarrely, turned by kitchen dogs).
There’s safety in blandness
Even as the Europeans were perfecting their meat roasting and sole saucing, the middle class taste for spices persisted in North America. In her fantastic book, Eight Flavors Sarah Lohman, a culinary historian, writes of 19th century American cooks whose dishes were spiked with curry powder, soy sauce, and black pepper, noting that The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook first published in 1824, included instructions for, “curried catfish, curried veal fillets, and curried baked leg of mutton, as well as home curry powder.”
The twentieth century brought social and food system upheaval, from the mechanization of food production, to the privations of the Great Depression, to the intense demand for new, shelf-stable foods to feed the armies of World Wars I and II. These developments stirred a lot of pots, almost none of which were delicious.
As the US rapidly industrialized, the rural poor took jobs in factories in cities, including African Americans moving from the agricultural South, as well as waves of European immigrants. Huge numbers of people who had once eaten food mostly grown within walking distance of their homes started to buy food prepared and grown by strangers, in increasingly squalid conditions. It wasn’t just the slaughterhouses that Upton Sinclair described in grotesque detail in The Jungle in which the working and food safety conditions were appalling in Gilded Age America; it was also the basement bakeries and city dairies, that provided the working poor with insect-studded loaves, and “swill milk.”
Reformers sought salvation in mechanization, gleaming new factories capable of churning out pre-sliced bread and rectangular blocks of American cheese, introduced in 1916 by the Canadian food scientist James Kraft. That trend—from local flavors, pungent cheeses, and chewy breads, to soft, bland uniformity—was bolstered by the massive demand for easily shipped and stored food during World War I and II. During the wars, and the Great Depression in between, the American palate came to recognize bland as safe and nourishing.
During the Great Depression, there was so much food insecurity that recipes were developed around what was available and what would pack in the most calories, not what would be the most delicious. White gravy—flour and milk cooked in butter, margarine. or lard, seasoned with maybe some salt and pepper–was poured over everything. Eleanor Roosevelt promoted a starch-heavy casserole of noodles and cooked carrots baked in the stuff, and it’s the base for the classic Depression dish, creamed chipped beef.
According to Jane Ziegelman and Andy Coe, culinary historians and the authors of A Square Meal, a history of the food of the Great Depression, Progressive reformers who sought to provide families with relief boxes of food during the Depression didn’t see blandness as a bug, but as a feature of their charity work.
“They didn’t want people to be too excited by the budget foods, because they wanted to force people to get jobs and to earn enough money to buy spices and seasonings,” Coe and Ziegelman said in a radio interview. “When they were handing out relief boxes, they deliberately didn’t add such things as mustard and vinegar with the relief boxes, because they didn’t want people to become too happy with receiving food relief.”
Writing in Salon, Aaron Bobrow-Strain, author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf describes the relationship between class and food choices in post-war America:
During the postwar era of rising wages and decreasing inequality, consumption largely took the form of standardized, one-size-fits-all, mass-market commodities. As with enriched white breads on supermarket shelves, differences among competing commodities were relatively small. During the 1980s, however, fueled by the rapid segmentation of American society, consumer life diversified into ever-more precise niche markets. Massive department stores lost ground to boutique chains catering to narrow bands of consumers, who increasingly began to tie their identities to specific niche markets.
The relative social equality of the postwar era in the US, as well as the memories of military food and Depression meals, served to homogenize various white ethnic groups into Americans. They may have still eaten garlicky greens, stuffed cabbage, and bright hasenpfeffer at home, but at school and other institutional settings, American food was coalescing into a middlebrow mess of perfect squares of white bread fried in margarine with melty processed cheese inside, instant potatoes, casseroles, and fish sticks. Baked chicken breasts, not to mention nuggets, weren’t far behind.
“Clean eating,” and elimination as aspiration
Generally, unless they’re recovering from the flu, people don’t eat bland food because they like it better. They eat bland food because it makes them believe something.
The US has a long history of belief that a certain diet will not just change your physical self, but reflect or confer upon you moral purity. By and large, the architects of those belief systems were, and still are, white.
In the 1830s, Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and early health crusader, railed against meat, sugar, spices, alcohol, coffee, tea, and sex, arguing that they were too stimulating and would overload the nervous system, ruining the vitality and purity of anyone who partook. He also scolded against white bread, insisting that fibrous loaves, baked only by a home’s matriarch (not in a bakery or by servants), would set a household upon the righteous path. He was basically anti-deliciousness and anti-fun, and as a lecturer on the temperance circuit, set antebellum housewives up to be the humorless keepers of the flavorless hearth.
We see this again and again: a quasi-religious conviction that indulging in gratuitously flavorful food isn’t just superfluous; it’s somehow corrupting. This often comes up in discussions of food aid for the poor—and most of the gatekeepers, policymakers and professional scolds in this arena are white. Moby, a rich white man, lecturing US food aid recipients about how they should eat more beans and less sugar, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, is the moral great-grandson of Sylvester Graham, chastising his flock for their coffee-drinking, sex-enjoying ways.
White people don’t just shame others for their food choices, they shame themselves, too. Just like European nobles decided that spicing their food made them common, rich white Americans have sought out ever more rarified diets that eliminate ever-more-specific ingredient groups—low-carb, paleo, keto, sirtfood. The mostly white gurus of “clean eating” have elevated concern about healthy eating to a movement, “wellness”—and it has also morphed into a disorder, orthorexia. “And thus, we don’t just eat food, we fret over and forage and grow and grind and ferment our food,” wrote my colleague Rosie Spinks. “Some intermittently forgo food entirely, as if it’s a competitive sport. And we demonize the cheapest and most easily accessible foods and shame those who favor them—such as that true pariah of wellness: fluffy white bread.”
Foodies too are in the cult of bland food
Any discussion of cultures that idealize unadorned food must eventually land, for me, close to home.
I will admit to having once spent $18 in a fancy Brooklyn restaurant for a “salad” that was simply a plate of beautiful tomatoes and some scattered basil leaves—that did not have enough salt and wasn’t actually that beautiful. I just signed my family up for a summer-long CSA from a farm that plows the rocky Vermont soil using horses. So I can’t deny that I number among the growing tribe of Americans who identify themselves as “foodies,” though I can barely speak that term out loud and would never willingly use it to describe myself.
The farm-to-table movement (paywall), appealing as its pastoral imagery can be, is often mocked for idealizing its photogenic produce to the point of simply serving uncooked food on a plate and calling it elevated cuisine. The ghost of Graham’s moralistic condemnation of culinary indulgence probably lurks within every farmer’s market fanatic preaching the gospel of swiss chard (which tastes like dirt).
Foodies don’t eschew wine (so long as it’s biodynamic) or coffee (so long as they’re fair trade beans from a third wave roaster), or sex (one hopes). Instead, they reject any whiff of an industrial process or time-saving technique: The more old-fashioned and labor-intensive our ingredients were to produce, the better.
Simply prepared fresh produce can no doubt be delicious. And simple—as in unadorned, unsullied, pure—is as much a foodie obsession as pork belly or that new restaurant everyone is talking about. In their book Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann explain the class condescension inherent to the appeal of elemental foods that evoke an idealized agrarian peasant life: “…’simple’ settings exist outside of modern life, their simplicity is authentic not only for its straightforwardness, but also for its distance from the complexities of life in advanced industrialized societies.”
A generation of food manifestos and cautionary tales from Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, and fresh-picked promises from chefs-cum-activists like Alice Waters and Dan Barber, have made our dinner tables political, and that’s great. All that righteousness, however, often comes with a side-order of shaming those who don’t want, or can’t afford, that sliced farmer’s market tomato or grilled grass-fed beef.
Of course, despite the mockery that the internet has loaded upon white people and their unseasoned food lately, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating unseasoned food. The vast majority of Americans eat way too much salt, which can lead to high blood pressure and other problems.
But it’s worth taking a moment to ask why that stereotype of white America persists, and to recognize the quasi-religious belief system underlying it. And let’s make sure that the simplicity of what’s on our plates isn’t just a way to ignore the complexity of the modern, globalized world, with all its spice.