“We would like to eat American food. You know, you are American, so it would be great if we could try American food with you.” — A dinner request from our Iranian CouchSurfing guests a few weeks ago in Berlin.
Dan and I looked at each other, deer in headlights. American food? What's that?
The first thing that came to mind was Thanksgiving dinner, one of my favorite meals in all the world. As much as I wanted to be the good host, cooking a full Thanksgiving meal — turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie — in a couple of hours was beyond us.
After a few false starts (hamburgers? tuna casserole? deli sandwich?), we settled on chicken fajitas and refried beans Tex-Mex style. That counts as American food, doesn't it?
But as we cooked away and our guests queried us about other typical American dishes, we strained: What exactly is American food anyway? A frequently asked question for the American traveler, but one for which we still don’t have a satisfying answer that rolls off the tongue.
American food inspiration in a German grocery store?
In my search for the ultimate American food, I visited a Berlin outpost of Lidl, a German grocery store chain, advertising “America Week.”
Curious. What does “American food” mean to them?
Here are a few examples of the American food I found:
I know I've been outside the United States for the better part of the last decade, but are these oddball yogurt flavors really the norm these days? Chocolate muffin? Really?
Any Americans here who are caramel popcorn or cranberry-chocolate yogurt fans?
Lady Liberty ought to be shedding a tear.
Microwaveable mini-hamburgers. Getting closer to more authentic. Never tried one of those myself, but they do look like White Castle sliders. I can imagine seeing them on shelves across America.
But I've also seen similar items in almost every big grocery store in the world. Call it American cultural hegemony.
Bright orange chemicals pressed into a cellophane sleeve and sold as cheese? Getting warmer. But do American stores really sell plastic-wrapped cheese slices expressly for hamburgers?
Jackpot! What says American food more than marshmallows? But barbecue(!) ones? There's a specificity itch being scratched during America week.
Note: Notice the clever branding: McEnnedy. No, that's not a misspell on my part. That's a bizarre end-around on trademark. A typo embraced for its uniqueness.
American Food, Our Take
Ask across street corners and in villages across the world about American food. Hamburgers maybe, hot dogs, too. Pizza, too. Everyone's got that, though. McDonalds and KFC also appear high on the list. Sure, America downs its share of fast food, but show me a country in the world that doesn’t have their own version of hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken.
Though they may be spun with a local twist, those foods have fast become universal.
I'd be remiss if I didn't tap the usual American food icons Spam and Velveeta (whose generous use of the term “cheese” does not go unnoticed). Tuna casseroles (Hamburger Helper, anyone?). Actually, any sort of one pot meal that combines various packets, cans and some sort of meat could well be characterized as American cooking. (Or is that co-ed cooking?)
Surveys turn up all these usual suspects, but are they really representative anymore?
Maybe I'm missing barbecue (or BBQ) — be it from Texas, Carolina, or Kansas City? Throw in some apple pie, but I often wonder where that was invented.
The reality is that the United States is a country of immigrants, and American food — at least as I have known it –reflects this melting pot. What food Dan grew up with as a kid – poppyseed stuffed pastries, kielbasa, pizza and rye bread – is different than what I grew up with — because our families are of different origins, from different cities populated by descendants from different ethnic groups.
When we think of the food eaten in the U.S. these days, it's things like pasta, stir fry, tacos, sushi, pizza, curries, deli sandwiches, burritos. The list is long. I could go on.
Or maybe all we need to do is watch the candidates for President of the United States trying to out-America each other while on the stump.
Mac and cheese and corn dogs, anyone?
Help us out here. Next time we host someone who would like to eat American food, what should we prepare? When you hear American food what comes to mind?