The other day, when I hinted at the fact that I would be writing a post detailing American sins in food, there were several interesting responses. The one that caught my eye was the one where people asked me not to write the post, ostensibly because there’s already enough negativity out there.
For a few moments, I did reconsider. We do hear quite a bit about what’s wrong with our system, and how no one can really come up with a workable plan to make it right. The sins of our corporate food system are rather well documented, and really, do we need another post telling us things about Pig farms or the excessive consumption of fat?
Then I thought about it some more, and realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to comment on taste and quality. And besides, my take below was really nothing more than my opinion of generalizations, something for people to mull about in their noggin before deciding I was full of it or not. Generalizations based in fact, mind you, but generalizations none the less. So note, some of these things below do not apply to you personally, but I feel apply to America as a whole.
The result was a list of items that I feel that we Americans have culturally decided upon, rather than something someone in a corporate board room. The lines that separate these two positions may blur from time to time, but in the end, we still have a choice to do something about them.
- Tea: After the revolution of 1776, Americans made a concerted effort to avoid many things seemed as “British”. Apparently with that went the way to make a proper cup of tea. I’m not talking about serving it hot or iced, because both can be quite good. But many restaurants out there don’t give a hoot on the quality of said tea. Whether it’s the restaurant that lets the huge bag of Lipton sit in the tea dispenser for hours on end, or the four star restaurant I’ve visited recently who offered second rate tea bags to the patron who requested some Oolong. What we do to tea is a shame. And don’t even get me started on sweet tea.
- Coffee: This is slowly changing as the coffee house culture fostered by Peet’s and Starbuck’s takes hold across this country, but we, for the most part, like to have coffee made by beans that have been over roasted. Finding a good cup of coffee should be a reverential moment in anyone’s life, mostly because that moment is so rare here in the States.
Milk: This may be one whose responsibility falls upon the boards of various dairies, but milk no longer tastes the way it used to. Some blame it on ultra-pasteurization, others on the way we feed cows. I think it starts with the fact that we Americans treat clotted cream (that thick-gooey layer of dairy found on the top of non-homogenized milk) as something disgusting. The reality is that cream is the bacon fat of the dairy world and should be revered, not dismissed. Once we decided that, every other decision on milk’s future became easy.
The taste of milk in Europe was notable when I was there last, because its taste was so different from the every day milk I get here in Seattle.
Beer: Yes, I called beer one of the things we get right, which makes its place here all that more confusing. But my position here is that, while we do have a growing and laudable craft beer market, 80% of beer sales still goes to Anheuser-Busch or MillersCoors. And the beer they sell is a sad, sad, reflection upon those of us who buy this stuff. Quite frankly, the beer world is so much larger than light lagers, but it’s hard to know that by the sales numbers.
This, by the way, may be a global sin, as light lagers are popular everywhere, including Belgium, whose most popular beer is one by the name of Jupiler, and has more in common with Miller Genuine Draft than Duvel.
- Hot Sauce: Check out any of the titles in your hot sauce aisle, and it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that most producers (and consumers) treat hot sauce, not as a flavoring, but as a dare. Any food product that makes a dish more difficult to eat, rather than more enjoyable, should be approached with trepidation.
Bakeries: I’m not sure at what point in our cultural development that we moved the baker’s trade into the grocery store, but it was at that point we lost a bit of our soul. Fresh bread and pastries are something that, in my opinion, are best when served closer to when it came out the oven or fryer, not later. Just as Krispey Kreme had fans of their “Hot Now!” doughnuts, we need to apply that attitude to breads, cakes, and pies.
Part of this perspective comes from my recent trip to Amsterdam, where the apartment I stayed in had a bakery a mere two blocks from my doorstep. Oh how I wish we had a bakery culture here in the States. We, as a nation, would be better for it.
Misunderstanding Convenience: I’m not sure where this one started, but I suspect it came from our love affair with the grocery store around World War II, and the belief that corporations could solve all of our kitchen problems.
But not all of our problems needed to be fixed, as they were never issues in the first place. Case in point? Whipped cream. It takes less than a minute to prepare. The same with pancake batter, or guacamole, or vinaigrette. And is boiling potatoes so difficult that it makes instant mashed potatoes a viable alternative? For some reason, we Americans love the…I don’t know, novelty?…of instant foods, often without realizing that the basic recipe was already pretty damn quick.
For those of you keeping score, that was seven things I found good about American food culture, versus
only six seven bad. Granted, taking food corporation decision’s off the table likely helped Americans look better.
Feel free to add your own kvetching below.
UPDATED: To reflect the “convenience angle” which I had down in my notes, but had forgotten about when I sat down to write this.