In defense of American food

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From the so-called “pink slime” formed into chicken nuggets to spray-on cheese and microwaveable everything, American food gets a bad rep abroad. But there is a lot to love about eating here in the US.

1. Potato chips

Kai Schreiber, CC.
Potato chip love for New York. Photo: Kai Schreiber, CC.

We take them for granted but chips are just freaking delicious. The story of their invention, though almost certainly apocryphal, goes thus: New York chef George Crum was annoyed by a customer who sent back to the kitchen his fried potatoes for being too thick and soft, so he sliced a potato as thinly as he could and fried the chips to be as crispy as possible. What’s more American than a cranky chef creating a culinary sensation by trying to shaft the customer?

2. The Hamburger

The not-so-humble hamburger. Photo: Alpha CC.
The not-so-humble hamburger. Photo: Alpha CC.

OK, so most hamburgers sold in the world are awful. Those slapped together from preservative-laden and processed foods by someone earning $7.73 an hour at a fast-food joint are hardly worth putting in your mouth, let alone claiming as a national treasure but a good hamburger is a thing of beauty. It’s so simple but you can do so much with a burger: swap out the meat for boar or tofu; add bacon or onion rings; perhaps serve it on an english muffin instead of a roll. America should be proud of this portable, versatile and delicious meal.

3. Tootsie Rolls

Tootsie Rolls melt hearts but they won't. Picture: Gilgongo, CC.
Tootsie Rolls melt hearts but they won’t. Picture: Gilgongo, CC.

These were the first penny candies to be individually wrapped – in the late 1800s – and have changed little since. The maker, Austrian immigrant Leo Hirshfeld, wanted a chocolate substitute that would not melt in the heat. They’re not at all like chocolate but that’s OK by me. They’re creamy and sweet without being too much of either; and they taste strangely nutritious.

4. Brisket

Brisket. Photo: Jack Newton CC.
Brisket: One of Texas’ treasures. Photo: Jack Newton CC.

Holy balls, this stuff is tasty. I reckon the US has the rest of the world on wood when it comes to the combination of meat and fire. What the US calls “barbecue” usually involves smoking, ovens and sometimes hotplates in a euphony that respects and indulges the meat its unique flavors. Go to Texas and get your fingers dirty. You’ll love it.

5. S’mores

S’mores can be messy but are worth it. Photo: Chris Dag, CC.

So you’re out camping and you have an open fire. You toast marshmallows over the coals until they’re soft and foamy, and melt in your mouth. There’s nothing better, right? Wrong. Not content with that, some genius bookended the gooey marshmallow with chocolate and Graham crackers (sweet and wholewheat) to create a s’more, which is a cross between a dessert and a full-service call girl for your taste buds.

You are what you eat

Of course, it helps that I am married to a chef and that we live in California, the nation’s food bowl. Produce here is fresh, cheap and readily available in dazzling variety. Which begs the question: why are there seven fast-food joints within a quick stroll from my house?

Eating out now equates to half the money we spend on food. And it turns out there’s more to it than convenience. For some, it’s poverty of knowledge about what is good for us. Last year, a poll found people found it easier to do their taxes than to work out how to eat healthy. For others, it’s just plain poverty. Unfortunately for them (and our overburdened health system), bad food is often cheaper than healthy options. This is because it has a longer shelf life and because America’s rich farm subsidy model supports agribusinesses churning out awful foods, like high fructose corn syrup at the rate of 9.2 million tonnes a year.

There is a lot of really awful food available. My teeth hurt just walking down the cereal aisle at my local market, and most chocolate is barely passable. And there are some foods which America just doesn’t seem to understand. I was astounded to find that in a country where there seems to be a donut shop on every city street corner, no one will sell me a hot one, straight out of the fryer, rolled in cinnamon sugar. Nom.

But my biggest gripe is with the coffee. I’m a Melbourne girl, which for a coffee-drinker is tantamount to living in western Europe. Lattes are easy to find, plentiful and for the most part delicious. Not so here in the US, where you really have to search for a cafe that has an espresso machine and even when they do, the staff rarely know how to use it. So I’m no longer a coffee drinker, something my blood pressure and wallet have to thank America for.

America says ‘eat me’

Among the strange food peccadilloes of this country is its obsession with competition eating. Many diners will have a wall of fame for those who can finish their giant burger/steak/barbecue plate and serving sizes are just ridiculous. At our local, the wait staff bring you food and wish you luck with it. Signs outside stores offer the biggest rather than the best because quantity seems to equate to quality. And then, there’s the eating contests that happen at every fairground come national holidays. My husband can name the country’s two top hotdog eaters. Why? Because they’re heroes.

It’s no wonder one third of our adult population is obese and we waste an estimated 133 billion pounds of food a year at the retail and consumer levels alone.

Say cheese

The ultimate convenience food: cheese in a can. Photo: Ming Xia, CC.
The ultimate convenience food: cheese in a can. Photo: Ming Xia, CC.

Which brings me to the much-maligned “American cheese”.

We, as a nation, eat a lot of cheese. In fact, we eat 32.6 pounds per person, per year (that’s only #15 on the list of cheese-eaters, by the way, well behind Greece at 68.5 pounds, and France, at 57.5 pounds). We produced 970 metric tons of cheese last year. And I’m not talking about sitcoms.

As cheese expert David Clark explained for Mental Floss, the processed yellow stuff is only called cheese on a technicality. It is refuse cheddar, re-pasteurized and mixed with sodium phosphate for a longer shelf life. Ew.

But a lot of the cheese made in the US is wonderful stuff – and cheap! Those who know good food will have no trouble finding decent fare (food deserts not withstanding). The reputation of American cheese overseas is unwarranted in my view.

The truth is, the famous fare of many countries could be called terrible: English food is considered drab and boring (but Yorkshire pudding is amazeballs), Germans eat too much sauerkraut (schnitzel, though, OMG), and Indian food has poor ingredients (but the best spice combinations known to man).

The food of my home country is also not known for its quality or taste. Australia is famous for that horrendous yeast by-product Vegemite, as well as gristly minced meat pies, which both borrow heavily from English staples. But most meals there are a standard “meat and three veg”, overcooked, under-seasoned and thoroughly uninspired. Even our trademark dessert – pavlova – is probably from New Zealand and our sweetest export – Tim Tams – owe a debt to choc-dipped US cookies. I hope the irony is not lost to those Aussie ex-pats that spend $8 importing a packet of Tim Tams for “a taste of home”: Arnott’s is now owned by Campbells Soup Company, which is about as Yankee Doodle Dandy as they come.

But the thing that I respect most about the way Americans talk about their food is that they recognize its faults. People know this is the home of McDonald’s, spray can cheese and the deep-fried twinkie and whether they’re proud or just aware of it, they seem content to accept it because there’s so much good to wash down the bad.

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