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Saturday February 11, 2006
What Does American Food Taste Like?
I'm happy to no longer be a "world traveler." I spent far too much time away from my family, and all I got out of it was a few hundred thousand sky miles ("Hey! Look! You can travel some MORE now!") and the ability to name-drop cities in casual conversation.
I traveled a lot in the continental US, and got to spend time in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, France, England, and South Africa. And one side-effect of all this was the discovery that I like eating new things.
Anywhere I traveled I made a point of asking the concierge at my hotel for the names of a few restaurants that did good "local cuisine." In Nice and Barcelona that meant something. (In Nice that meant food poisoning, but that's another story). In South Africa I got to try some traditional tribal food, as well as a sampling of what I like to call "we-have-all-these-different-animals-here-let's-see-what they-taste-like" cuisine at a place called "The Carnivore." Somewhere I have a list of all the different animals I've eaten. The largest is elephant (think "cheap, gamey, tough stew-meat"). The smallest is mupawni worm (think "crayola crayon filled with fish oil"). Or maybe chocolate-covered ant (think "chocolate! Wait... something's crunchy.")
In places like Kansas City and Chicago I got directed to restaurants that did really good steak or really good Pizza. A quarter of the smallest deep-dish pie Pizzaria Due makes filled me up. (My buddy and I ended up giving half the pie to a homeless man on our walk back to the hotel. It probably fed him for three days.) I had fantastic seafood in Maine, with shrimp so big that the analyst we were treating to dinner thought they were chicken breasts. I had scrod in Nova Scotia ("ummm... this is just batter-fried white fish, right?") and cheescake in New York ("is it still on my hips 7 years later? Yes").
Through it all, though, "American Food" has been hard to pin down. Chinese food, Thai food, Mexican food, and Italian food are easy -- you can find restaurants claiming to serve those all over the western world. Whether or not this is ACCURATE is irrelevant. There are elements of those menus that are consistent across every (for instance) chinese restaurant you'll set foot in (except in Manchester, where "chinese food" means using soy sauce instead of malt vinegar on your fish and chips.)
Well, today I found it, while enjoying a McDonald's Double cheeseburger. The defining element of "American food" is the FRANCHISE CONTRACT. When you go to any franchise restaurant, from Outback Steakhouse to Carrabba's Italian Grill, you're eating AMERICAN food. Sure, they started with (supposedly) authentic recipes, but somewhere along the line it had to be documented such that any minimum-wage spatula pilot could serve it up.
Americans appear to have invented the franchise (Singer and Western Union both did franchise-type things in the 1850s), and certainly perfected and exported it (beginning with McDonald's in the 1950s). And now you've got franchises from $1.00 a plate (McDonald's doublecheesburger) to $50 a plate (Ruth's Chris tenderloin, rare, with a side of potatos au gratin and asparagus spears), coast-to-coast here in the United States, and increasingly abroad.
But what does a "franchise contract" taste like? Well, when it's done properly, it tastes THE SAME. When I was exhausted, hungry, and homesick in Barcelona I ordered a double cheeseburger at the McDonald's on the Ramblas. BAM! I was back home. I had the same sandwich in Scheveningen, and with the same effect. Better, even, because it was stormy and cold right there on the North Atlantic coast, and the "sameness" brought me further into my toasty-warm comfort zone.
It's nice knowing what to expect. Depending on my budget (slim beyond reason these days, but I digress) I'll eat at Ruth's Chris, Joe's Crab Shack, Carrabba's Italian Grill, or Carl's Junior and know that I'll get a meal the same way Ruth, Joe, Mr Carrabba, or Carl intended it. And it'll be the same regardless of what city I'm in.
There are those who will no doubt decry franchises as something horrid, poisoning local cultures, and making the whole world into a bland, press-molded facade. Me, I think there's still plenty of diversity out there (right down to the campylobacter jejuni in my oysters in Nice), and that there always will be. And as much as I love diverse cuisines, being able to find "sameness" is also a good thing.
To me, anyway, it tastes very American.