Getting to grips with the culinary quirks of a country is part of the joy of living somewhere new. Disgust, delight, bafflement – the everyday foods of other cultures can invoke a wide range of responses in the diner.
Food from the United States has been successfully exported throughout the world – it’s difficult to think of a place without the golden arches of a McDonald’s sign for example – but like Cambodia’s deep fried tarantula or China’s century (old) eggs, there are some American foods that would make foreigners’ eyes, not mouths, water. The following list goes to show that we humans are not classified as ‘omnivores’ (all-eaters) for nothing…
1. Root beer floats. If you ever thought that sweet carbonated beverages could use some more sugar and a big dollop of fat, the root beer float is for you. From the sickly flavour and bright colour scheme, to the volcanic eruption that occurs when bubbles meet ice cream, these things are the stuff of kids’ dreams – and dieticians’ nightmares
2. Corn dogs. The humble hot dog is a fantastic way to get your recommended daily allowance of pig cartilage and salt. Trouble is, your body is still crying out for some deep-fried cornmeal batter. Thank goodness then for the heroic innovation that is the corn dog which proves that even a fast food classic can be enhanced with the carefree application of a deep fat fryer and a stick.
3. Biscuits and gravy. This dish is exactly what you think it is – if you think scones are biscuits and gravy should ideally look identical pre and post digestion. Its appearance may challenge European gastronomic expectations (its grey!) but Southerners swear by biscuits and gravy and one has to assume that it tastes better than it looks.
4. Red velvet cake. Americans have typically done away with the obvious practice of naming cakes after the ingredients they contain in favour of a more poetic approach. Chiffon cake, Devil’s food cake and Whoopie pies all show a tendency towards the evocative rather than the descriptive although Red velvet cake, a dessert menu staple in the US, is named after a primary colour and a tufted woven fabric, both of which are tasteless and therefore perfectly descriptive of one of America’s more synthetic treats.
5. Grits. As we’ve seen with biscuits and gravy, they do things very differently in the south, although the enduring appeal of grits speaks to the history of the Americas, dating back to Native American corn preparation practices that were already ancient by the time Europeans arrived. Essentially ground corn turned into soul food using lashings of butter, it’s heavy, bland and arguably a bit of an acquired taste.
6. Monte Cristo Sandwich. A classic example of the US taking a European concept – in this case croque-monsieur – and turning it up to eleven. Commonly found in delis and diners across the country, this really is the devil’s work: a fried cheese and ham sandwich dipped in egg batter, coated in icing sugar and served with jam.
7. Deep fried… anything. While we’re on the subject of fried food, let us marvel at our transatlantic cousins’ tendency for deep frying everything. The sound of bubbling vats of animal fat is just part of the white noise of the US. And it’s not even that bad for you – American hero Elvis Presley consumed vast quantities of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and he lived well into his early forties.
8. Frito pie. Some people think that the US leading global obesity tables means they’re winning. They must, or else why would Texans and New Mexicans be arguing over who created this dish. Containing chilli, cheese and corn chips (Fritos), it’s another classic example of going over the top in the name of freedom.
9. Twinkie wiener sandwich. Bearing some relation to the classic appetizer pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in either bacon or pastry), this curious item is more like a pig in a fat suit. Ok, so you may not see Weird Al’s recipe on too many menus, but it takes some beating as a shameless example of American food culture at its most playful, synthetic and recklessly unhealthy.
10. Free refills. It’s easy to mock American food, but let’s not forget the good stuff. Yes, American fast food outlets have colonized every nation on earth, and it is partly due to our addictive urge for dangerous levels of salt, sugar and fat. In a country where the free market is king, customer service has left the rest of the world for dust, and it’s the one aspect of American dining that has not been successfully emulated in foreign markets.
The free refill policy is symbolic of that attitude. Most tourists ordering their first soft drink in the US are blown away by two things: first, the apparent bottomlessness of the beverage, and second, the actual bottomlessness of the beverage. Even the most hardened anti-consumerist goes all gooey when the coffee waitress comes over with a steaming jug and a beaming smile to perk them up.
Finally, a word of advice for those who denounce the portion sizes as ‘obscene’: you don’t have to eat the whole thing. Any American who finds themselves with a mountain of food on their plate simply takes half home and turns it into two meals. However, please note that eating a Monte Cristo for lunch and dinner does not make it any healthier.