Food culture is an interesting concept.
Before moving to France, I don’t know that I noticed America’s lack of all-encompassing food culture: food, like everything else in America, is linked to capital. More is better. Food in excess in the States is the norm: we “supersize,” we are habitually served plates of spaghetti that would feed a family of four. We take home our leftovers in “doggie bags” and unceremoniously reheat them in the microwave for dinner the following night. Middle class American children often dine alone, if you can call reheating a frozen dinner or ordering Chinese takeout “dining.”
Americans are accustomed to having things–food included–the way we want them. “On the side is a big thing with you,” as Harry Burns memorably told Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally. It’s a big thing for all of us. Food lacks ceremony: it is just another purchase, another thing that drives our capitalist economy forward and keeps the dollar from plummeting lower and lower (.66 Euro cents, by the way… oh, how we expats suffer in persuit of a culture that actually cares enough to refuse to serve a steak well done.)
I exempt you all, my foodie brothers and sisters, from this rant. I swear, I didn’t have politics in mind when I started writing today. But really, living in France puts things into perspective, and traveling to Spain has made me remember all of the things I noticed when I first moved here almost two years ago.
In France, food is a way of life. Food brings people together, and everyone, from the tiny bakery to the giant French fast food chain Quick, to housewives serving dinner to their families, prides themselves on the quality of what they serve. Restaurants have no problem telling the customer “no.” “No,” you can’t have ketchup, “no,” you can’t have sauce on the side, “no,” you can’t take the rest home with you, “no,” we don’t do oil-free-egg-white-only-vegetarian-carb-free omelettes. It’s refreshing. And it infuriates most “the customer is always right” Americans.
I am currently in Barcelona, a foodie capital. Food snobbery, for lack of a better term, is nowhere near as intense as it is back in France, but the Spaniards retain their own brand of food culture, in the laid-back sort of way that Spaniards seem to do everything.
Dinner in Spain is late: people often don’t get around to sitting down to dinner until 11 pm because they’re too busy doing what Spaniards do so well: socializing over tapas and drinks. Dinner here is not the immense affair it is in France. The French may love their apéro, but dinner is the star. Not so in Barcelona, where choices for main meals are generally so-so. Here, tapas are the kings of the night. From stuffed pimentòn peppers to baccalà (salt cod) to pulpitos (tiny octopus), even the smallest bars and restaurants take painstaking care with their tapas, even if they serve mediocre pizza or sandwiches to those who choose to venture from the bite-sized bar snacks.
As for me, I’m perfectly happy to do as the Spaniards do when in Spain and focus on tapas and Sangria. I am American, after all, so who am I to judge?