America and Food

Of all the culinary concoctions and gustatory delights conceived and created in America, we have few originals—Twinkies, cheesesteaks, Buffalo wings and maybe sweet potato pie, but that could be a derivation of an American Indian tradition. Most American foods, as American people, are a consequence of the extreme influx of 18th-20th century immigration. Germans brought hot dogs and hamburgers; Italians brought pizza and pasta; English brought fish and chips; Polish brought water ice, but it melted on the way over and they forgot the recipe—it took years of trial and error before they figured it out again. 😉

America has delicacies throughout her large landscape. The chowders and lobsters of New England, the great Italian hoagies of the Northeast, the soul food of the south, the cheesy meat and potatoes of the Midwest, the Tex-Mex of Texas, the haute hippie cuisine of California are all gems of American traditions, borrowing largely from our collective past. We are all proud of our families and where we came from long ago. Soon, we must allow our mutt genes to seep into our consciousness and become merely Americans instead of hyphenations. We owe it to ourselves to realize we are much more American than we are European, Asian or African.

We are, and continue to be, a diverse country of differing tastes, beliefs, and backgrounds. We are also (possibly due to the permanence and conspicuousness of fried/salty/sugary foods) many different shapes, with a slight majority in the comfortably plump variety. Americans are viewed by most of the world as that perfect stereotype of loud and fat, but usually pleasant. We are like jolly bags of tourist money. We visit Paris and comment on how small the “Mona Lisa” is; we visit Berlin and ask why there are bullet holes in all the buildings; we visit Rome and complain about portion size or the abbandanza of walking there is on this “walking tour.”

Of course, we are not all ignorant bags of discretionary income ready to boost foreign economies. There are many polite, articulate, well-informed and well-traveled Americans, but they are not always the ones who stick out in crowds wearing pornographic t-shirts in the Vatican or ordering water at increasing volume in English in Spain. The crude and rude of a species get remembered. All Parisians are not inhospitable, but the ones who are become the goats of stories told back in the American heartland over Coors Light’s, ribs and potato salad.

But, once an American travels abroad and learns how other parts of the world eat, I believe he or she can have two reactions: confusion or cravings. I have had both now. I am confused as to the amount of rice I didn’t eat while in America, and confused as to the amount of bread I did eat. I crave certain things, things that are easily found here in Korea, but with a slight twinge of mediocrity and clumsiness.

They make cheesesteaks, but the bread is stale. They make deli sandwiches, but use plastic wrapped slices of cheese. They make pizza, but it has corn on it. It is all there for you in a muddled form, but never really satisfies you the way it used to stateside. Korean food is delicious and healthy; and Seoul has every type of restaurant a city of 10 million inhabitants should have, but they don’t do a perfect burrito or a perfect turkey club yet. (That I have found, it’s a big city!)

However, luckily, I have found a place of perfection for the most American of American pleasures—cheeseburgers. I found this place in my first month in Korea, and not a week has gone by when I haven’t frequented the establishment. It’s not a McD’s or BK, it’s called BurgerHolic, and I would do free advertisements for them, if only they’d ask.

It is a four-top seating area hole-in-the wall with fresh cut fries, mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers and burgers. They are excellent and completely comparable to any In-n-Out, P. Terry’s or Five Guys type chains. For 8$ I get a large double cheese, bacon burger, fries and drink. Every Monday, more regular than a Metamucil swilling grandpa, I am there. They know me, they know my order and they are consistent with quality.

When I told my students about my weekly habit, they were silent in bewilderment for a few seconds at how anyone could do such things to their body and then commented, “But, teacher [faces contorted and puzzled] not fat?” Koreans are wary of American food, and seem to indulge sparingly, for they have seen the ravages our diets have inflicted on some of our expats. These young, brainy kids couldn’t understand how I could eat a burger a week and not become morbidly obese the way their parents probably tell them they would.

I didn’t have the heart to tell them how many hamburgers I consumed while substitute teaching in Austin, when Wendy’s was a two minute drive away and my budget for lunch was in the 4$ range. (Coincidentally, my total cholesterol level during those years was also a worrying 237.) I have a strong metabolism, but as my family will attest, after four months of convivial alcohol consumption backpacking Europe, eating baguette and croissant breakfasts, pizza lunches, huge dinners followed by midnight kebabs and crepes, I had quite a belly when I arrived back home. I’m not immune to weight gain in the midsection. I also work out hard to maintain core strength; therefore, I treat myself in the food department.

I do know what they are talking about in their fear of fast food. American obesity is a huge strain on our already feeble preventative health care culture. We treat the cancer, not the cause. Anyone who has seen giant, greasy burgers consumed in a rather gluttonous and disconcertingly seductive way by a corpulent chap spilling out of his booth at Arby’s or Carl Jr.’s knows how appetite suppressing that can be. Nobody will wonder how he got that far, it’s written in the stains on his napkin, highlighted by his blubbery bottom.

It has been said that fat is the “last acceptable prejudice.” I know there are people born with glandular problems. I know there are people who were raised in a house of loose dietary restrictions. I know there are people who have a disease whose main symptom is the inability to get full. I tried to make it a point in my life to only insult people’s choices, i.e. their clothes, hairstyle or words, things they choose. It’s not okay to make fun of birthmarks, family problems or big noses. Those things couldn’t be helped and were not choices. Is chunkiness a choice or a form of birthmark? Whatever it is, they have a decision to make every day of their life, as Tracy Chapman said, “Leave tonight or live and die this way.”