As a dietitian, one my favorite things to ask people from different countries is what first comes to mind when they think of American food.
By far the most common answer is “fast food,” with “hamburgers” as a close second. Unfortunate, but I expected as much. However, some other very common answers did genuinely surprise me:
“Big breakfasts- like bacon and eggs… and pancakes!”
“Barbecue. You know, like ribs, corn…”
Well, they’re not wrong. Hearing these answers made me realize I hadn’t thought past my assumption that everyone only associated America with fast food. Over the past 6 months, I’ve noticed the way American food culture is portrayed here in Europe. It’s been eye-opening to look at my country’s food culture from outsiders’ perspectives.
First there are the American chain restaurants that have gone global: McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, KFC, T.G.I. Fridays, Starbucks, and “Dunkin Coffee,” whose doughnuts are even more perfectly manufactured than ours, to the point that they look like plastic toys. It’s always entertaining to read the “Spanglish” menus – American trademarks and inventions mixed with Spanish translations and descriptions. It’s also fun to see the traditional Spanish food they offer as well. For example, in no other country would they offer Iberian ham or Spanish omelet on the breakfast menu at McDonald’s. And here in Madrid, Mickey Dee’s is no match for the King; the BK Lounge dominates these parts with almost a 2:1 ratio to the Golden Arches. Plus, Burger King’s advertisements are way more ubiquitous than in the States. And while it’s rare to find a “McAuto” or “AutoKing” drive-thru, they will deliver – on vespa no less!
But besides the infiltration of American brands, there’s the use of “American” words, ideas, and trends as selling points. Tommy Mel’s is a popular restaurant chain modeled after a classic American 1950s diner serving up cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes complete with neon signs, pastel and chrome decor, and black and white vinyl checkered floors. I don’t know why but I can’t help but chuckle a bit when I pass one. I had another real good laugh at this sign advertising “The Genuine Hot Dog of America!”
What’s more, “brunch” has become a trend here in Madrid in the past few years. This is funny too because having a large, late morning meal does not fit Spaniards’ traditional meal pattern in timing nor size, but thanks to globalization, you can now find several places offering bagels, Bloodys, & bottomless mimosas on the weekends. And yes, they use the English word “brunch.” In fact, it’s very trendy nowadays to use English words in branding (i.e. restaurant names, store names, on clothing and bags, etc.)… regardless if it makes sense.
But the best (or worst) of all is a chain of stores called “Taste of America,” which sells products imported from the States. The succession of emotions I experienced the first time I happened upon this store was amusement, embarrassment, and then disappointment. Duncan Hines cake mixes, sugary cereals, Pepperidge Farm cookies, and Pop Tarts filled the shelves alongside unhealthy peanut butters, Kraft Mac’n’Cheese as well as canned and squeezable “cheeses.” THIS is a ‘taste of America’? It was like an ultra-concentrated reflection of our sad state of affairs. It felt like a bad joke.
Gaining a more global perspective on American food has only stirred up more motivation within me to be a force for change in my country’s food culture. I hope that our food culture will mature, emerging from this hyper-processed period like a kid out of those awkward middle school years. What happened to the ‘melting pot’? We have a country made up of people from dozens of different, rich and beautiful cultures from around the globe, each with nutritious, traditional eating habits. We have so much potential to build a wonderful cuisine by taking pieces from many other world diets. Why haven’t we done so? Why can’t we make international synergy be outsiders’ first association with American food?
I hope that in my lifetime these stores will be cleared of these food-like substances teeming with unhealthy fats and refined sugar and instead stocked with an array of products made with real, wholesome ingredients. I hope that we can move towards creating a unique food culture in America that is as authentic and diverse as her people. I don’t want to be ashamed of the food people from around the world associate with my country; I want to be proud of my food culture. Don’t you?