American culture is often a difficult one to speak about. Just think about the history. There were diverse cultures to be found among the native peoples scattered across this vast land. Then take Europeans from various countries and deposit them in mixed concentrations in assorted places. Over the years add Africans taken from a great number of tribes and cultures and subject them to slavery, splitting up families and moving humans around. Add more and more Europeans and Asians from a myriad of locations, languages, and cultures. Allow for a lot of intermarrying and migration within the country; continue to add people from all over the world at various intervals. Continue the intermarrying. This pattern—or lack there of—yet continues today.*
And then people ask me about American culture, music, food, norms. (Please give me a subculture or some GPS coordinates before I’m forced to answer.) As a result, early this summer I decided to attempt some American culture documentation by photographing some of my meals. Disclaimer: this is a horrible example of inductive reasoning because I did not photograph every meal, hence an insufficient sample size. Nevertheless, I will proceed.
Point 1: Americans love strange mixes of food.
I arrived in the USA on 2 July—two days before the 4th of July, United States Independence Day. This day of celebration in the USA is replete with decorations, fireworks, community, and food. I first had lunch with three close friends at my friend Sharla’s house and then joined a group at another home for a 4th of July cookout that evening. At the lunch (picture lower right), we ate salmon burgers, corn-on-the-cob, tabbouleh (Arab salad), hummus (Middle Eastern), grapes, apples, blueberries, and watermelon. A very American lunch. Then at the cookout (picture lower left), we ate burgers and hot dogs on buns with your choice of salads, cheeses, fruits, and desserts.
As is evident from the photos, the meal was buffet style, with a variety of dishes to be chosen from at will, a model also demonstrated within the beloved American potluck as well as in buffet-style restaurants. The next day, a friend wanted to treat me to dinner, so we went to Big Marina’s. It’s buffet style, so for a flat price, customers choose whatever they’d like from the food and dessert buffets as well as the drinks. You can see my plate (don't worry; I didn't eat all of this). It has two different types of bread, a samosa, shrimp, salmon, tahini, and stuffed grape leaves.
Point 2: There are healthy options in the USA.
Burgers, brats, and America-themed desserts don't look too healthy, and, granted, I did feel some concern before the summer about whether I'd be able to access healthy options. I was pleased this summer to not dine out as much as last, and moreover, in the times that I did, it was often at my favourite restaurant, Good Earth. It’s a restaurant that features local ingredients and organic produce. Moreover, the meat used includes things like free-range chicken and grass-fed cows. The menu contains recipes inspiried by many different cultures and countries. One of my favourite menu options is the “just right for you”. You likely know that American portion sizes can be grotesque. However, this meal starts with a small salad of greens (or cup of soup), followed by some meat course, and then fruit or dessert (I chose fruit). I tried this a couple of times, once with salad, once with corn chowder, once with chicken, once with tilapia. Pictured above, you can also see two entree items, one a salad and the other chicken served with mango salsa, sweet potatoes, and broccoli.
Point 3: Many Americans live by a strong set of dietary convictions.
The rate of increase in Diabetes, food allergies, Celiac's Disease, and more has led some Americans to become proactive and oppose those parts of American eating culture that are so dangerous (ie processed foods, fast food, added sugars, MSG, etc.). When I went to the Porcupine Mountains to camp, I went with my friend Heather, who eats an almost exclusively Paleo diet. I think there’s something to say for that philosophy of eating, so I was happy to adhere to her food preferences. Among the foods we packed or prepped were: steaks, sausages, chicken, boiled eggs, raw eggs (to be cooked for breakfast), peppers, carrots, lunch meat (to be wrapped around cheese or filled with cream cheese and eaten), berries, cashews, Caveman crunch (a granola-esque snack without grain, consisting of various nuts mixed with coconut, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a touch of honey), and dark chocolate.
Point 4: American Food takes from every culture possible.
You see, “American food” is just as diverse as the people who live here. My first meal in the USA this summer was a Mexican salad. While here, I’ve cooked or been served Middle Eastern, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Greek, Mediterranean, Central European, Indian cuisine, and more. All of it becomes part of the American culture, which absorbs whatever and whomever crosses its borders.
And finally, point 5: American food is nearly impossible to generalize.
Throughout the summer, I had a variety of foods. Yes, I definitely have food preferences, so your sample here isn't extensive, but my summer included things like kale chips, vegetables and hummus, potato salad, corn-on-the-cob, chili, corn chowder, bean sprouts, spinach, shrimp, salmon, steak, burgers, protein shakes, sausage, pork loin, pizza (a bit too much pizza), mango salsa, grilled vegetables, eggs, raspberries, blueberries, watermelon, snap peas, chicken kabobs, and more. Though I didn't photograph every meal, here are a few examples.
You take people from all over the world and drop them in a single country at random intervals in random concentrations over a vast expanse of land, and you get a diverse cuisine.
So what food did I miss from the Czech Republic?
Having spent the majority of the last two years in the Czech Republic, there are some food-related things that I missed while in the USA this summer, such as:
- having a relaxed pace in restaurants; American restaurants tend to want people in and out as fast as possible
- mineral water; I love that you can be served water for free in American restaurants, but being an avid water drinker, I began to crave some diversity in my water—like minerals
- light evening meals; in the USA, the evening meal is often the largest, which may have gained me an extra kilo this summer, considering that my body’s reset to consume more food in the afternoon, yet I still often had a heavier evening meal
- smaller portions; American portions in restaurants are huge. I went out for ice cream last night and had to order the kid’s size, because I knew the regular sizes would be obscenely large. Also, during the summer when I ordered a “small” cappuccino, I would typically receive 12 ounces (0.35 L)
- cooking; living under other peoples’ roofs often led to being a guest and not a cook. I greatly did let me take over their kitchens to do some cooking.
Perhaps this is no clearer a view of American cuisine than when you started, but I hope you at least gained from seeing the genuine plates of one semi-genuine American living out the summer in the ol’ US of A. And, if you ever make your way to the USA, a word of caution: always order a small. That and beware of American dessert. (Being a "visitor" this summer, people often served dessert as a treat to me or suggested various sweet outings, leading to things like the following . . . )
*On Sunday I learned that up to 7500 Congolese refugee families have been allowed to move from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota).