a writer's journal - politics, music, american culture, esoteric aspects of life, and stories

Thursday

You eat what you are

I was wandering around the grocery store last night, thinking about American food.  It's greatly misunderstood - when people discuss it, they either talk about things like pigs in a blanket and mac'n'cheese, or they talk about things like California fusion and other types of really random trends on the coasts that happen to represent the last few decades, or they talk about various types of honorable southern cooking: Cajun, grits and collared greens (that word "collared" is chosen for a reason, you know), Tex-Mex, etc.

The way I see it, American cuisine is best understood as an industry, and you should look for it in the grocery store itself - in aisles and aisles of specialty foods devised in American laboratories.  I'm talking about snack crackers, Little Debbie, soda pop, all that kind of thing.  I have no time for recipes about spam - but spam itself, upended and on a dish, with the gooey tin crumpled like an empty beer can - that's American cuisine, right there.  Spam in a recipe - you know, mock olive loaf with spam chunks as a surprising substitute for pimentoes - this is an admirable form of mental gaming, like crossword puzzles or presidential debates.  It's cute I suppose, I'm not up in arms against it, it's just not my thing.

But grocery stores are amazing, here in america.  I get my produce, my meats, my alcohol, and typically either cheese, or milk, or eggs; then I need usually to either go down the spice & baking aisle, or the mexican aisle for some refried beans or canned peppers or something.  There's like three times as many aisles, with things that just hypnotize me.  If you want to know what american cuisine's all about, your answer is is in those aisles.  Cooking with sauce packets, fruit flavored yogurt whose main ingredients are sugar and gelatin, and of course chips of all sorts.  I eat this stuff quite a bit when I'm staying with other people, but I run a pretty tight ship at home, for various subtle reasons like it makes me feel guilty when I buy it.

It's an interesting thought experiment, wondering what grocery stores in Europe would look like if America didn't exist.  Would they lose their endless aisles of colored cereal and pop tarts?  Obviously, but you wonder, precisely, how american every last prepackaged item is.  Surely they'd have salad dressings in bottles, pre-packaged.  Actually, they'd probably still be in tins, and there wouldn't be any creamy ones or low-fat ones or raspberry-balsalmic vinagre ones.  It'd be drastically different, for sure.  Consider that Japan is also famous for its weird food, but it hasn't overrun supermarkets in any other country the way our fabulously successful cuisine has.

You sometimes hear complaints that "Olive Garden" & co. don't really do very good Italian food, that they invent silly things like lobster spaghetti and their breads and sauces are incredibly poor.  Well, in a funny way, the American system insures the opposite - that over in Europe, they really get pretty good copies of American food.  Their Coke isn't always perfect, but it's pretty acceptible.  Now, if it's clearly an imitation, I wouldn't go near it, but if it says Coke, you can trust it.  The Bagel Bites in France are actually superb - sometimes I think they are even better than the ones my mother buys.

Who would expect americans to create the kind of flimsy culture that cannot be reasonably exported?  Our potato chips truly are robust.
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