ColumnWhy is it that America is only known for hamburgers and hot dogs when we have a burgeoning foodie culture?
A surprising discovery when I lived in France was L’Americain. In the land of gourmet cheeses and perfected baguettes, food is more than something that you just consume for nourishment; it’s art. Which is why I was a little shell-shocked the first time I came across L’Americain, a late night favorite, post-pop music dance party, made up of a baguette stuffed with hamburger meat, french fries and ketchup.
If the French vision of American food had been unclear before, after this particular sandwich run in, it was very clear. For the French, there was no point in glorifying this version of junk street food, when they could just call it what they thought it represented: America.
As a nation, we have often been at the bottom of the list of culinary tradition. Sure, at home we’ve created a foodie culture and mastered combining dishes from around the world, but abroad, there remains a view that we’re all about pizza, hot dogs and chips. Our global foodie reputation is defined more by sugar and fat than by local ingredients with a cosmopolitan twist.
In fact, enter any “American” food store in another country and you’ll get a handful of classic ingredients. I’ve seen everything from swirled jars of peanut butter and jelly to marshmallow cream (things my American counterparts would never dream of buying at home), and much less abroad. But the international crowd loves this stuff. One of my best Swedish friends has specifically requested that next time I come visit she wants Reese’s Miniatures and several bags of Sour Patch Kids.
What is it that has made the rest of the world crave some of our most terrible exports and glaze over our more respectable creations? You don’t see Alice Waters shrines or bookshelves stocked with Mark Bittman translations abroad, but you’ll most certainly come across a sampling of the following.
McDonald’s has swept the world like a virus, but it’s not just Big Macs that have made their way around the world. Grab an “American” menu in Southeast Asia and you’re sure to find some version of a meat patty wrapped in a bun. For some reason this American classic has other people hooked, albeit poor spellings on menus and misconceptions of what a bun should look like.
It’s not just chips in general, but there’s something about “once you pop you can’t stop,” that has seduced the international consumer. Turns out they’re marketed in at least a hundred countries and bring in $1 billion in sales. Sure, in other countries the packaging is often smaller, because other places know better than to serve up ten servings in one container that we’re sure to down in a single sitting — but those brightly colored canisters with the goofy, mustached man are all over the place.
Mediocre – yet complicated – coffee drinks
Leave it to the global coffee chain Starbucks to make it perfectly acceptable to order a caramel machiatto in countries where coffee consumption is holy. The result is, well, abhorrent. Thanks to the chain it’s trendy to cruise the streets of Paris with a disposable cup and you can now buy Frappacinos in Guatemala. The company’s new instant product alone was responsible for $100 million in global sales last year.
It seems like such a staple product and yet for many it’s a luxury. Some love it and some hate it, but peanut butter to Europeans is just as exotic as caviar and foie gras are to many Americans. Try tracking it down outside of the U.S. and you’ll have a difficult time, and yet somehow, everyone knows about it. A former, very typical French roommate of mine (he wouldn’t dream of keeping his smelly cheeses in the refrigerator), thought there was nothing better on his weekend brioche than some good old Jiffy, imported by friends of course.
But forget our foodie reputation for a second.
Although it would be great to be known for all the fantastic, organic and healthy items that many American chefs whip up on a daily basis, wanting to be respected for our food culture is almost a little vain. What we should be more concerned with is how we’re physically impacting the rest of the world.
With obesity rates skyrocketing around the world, and often attributed to imported food, maybe it’s time we took a step back and asked ourselves what we want our global food influence to be.
Hot dogs and high fructose corn syrup? Changing what’s on our plates at home has a larger influence than we may think.
This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, taking a conscious look at what’s bubbling in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.
Images: USDA China, permanently scatterbrained, Brett L., Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Alaivani, egarc2