Monday, April 27, 2015

You Are What You Eat...... And Others Want To Be Us???

What does it mean to be American? I guess it all depends upon who you ask or even where you are. Here in Europe the common perception of Americans seems to be that we are loud, brash and like our things big--big vehicles, big houses, big food portions covered in ketchup and big egos. As frustrating as it may be at times, I can't say that these stereotypes are all that off target. But there are other perceptions and notions about Americans that I am flummoxed by and simply find kind of amusing.

When we lived in Albania it often felt as though the American flag and symbols of the country were everywhere. The flag was found on clothing, waving from flagpoles that weren't associated with the U.S. Embassy or American owned businesses and generally just about everywhere you looked. American pop music from the 1980s (particularly Michael Jackson and MaDonna) seemed to be the most popular songs played in cafes. At first it felt odd but on some days it felt like a little retro piece of home. On more than one occasion while we were out and about, upon hearing our speaking English with an American accent youth would shout the words "we love Obama" and "we love America" in our direction. I'm sure they would have been saying this regardless of who was sitting in the White House. But then again, in all of my traveling with the exception of being in Albania and neighboring Kosovo, I have yet to have an exuberant love of my home country shouted out in my direction. But that doesn't mean that America's influence has escaped the rest of Europe.

Take food for example. Long before John Kerry became Secretary of State the Heinz brand was spreading their Americanism to all parts of the world. (John Kerry is married to Heinz heiress Teresa Heinz). And their condiment business is so much more than ketchup; the most peculiar topping of all is an orangey-gold colored concoction called "American sauce". I have never seen such a thing in the United States but here in Europe it is everywhere with small squeeze bottles lining grocery store shelves to gallon sized vats of it being dolloped out from frite carts. I personally never tasted the sauce but found its name slightly amusing. But when I was gifted with a bottle by a fellow American I took a closer look at it. From the ingredient list that I translated from German to English it appears to be a combination of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and pickle relish along the lines of a thicker Thousand Island dressing (another combination that I find less than appetizing). Looking at it with humor I guess it does sum up America's fixation with ketchup and related condiments but just the same I'll let my European friends enjoy this great American export.

But this isn't the only oddly American monikered food item found in Europe. Steak Americain or filet American is a popular menu item in many Belgian restaurants. I'm sure more than one American has sat down at the table, ordered and expected to cut into a thick steak. That isn't what they will be eating, though. Rather, Steak Americain is actually what much of the world calls steak tartare, a mound of finely chopped raw beef that more often than not (in Belgium anyway) is topped with a runny egg. I don't have the faintest idea how this dish came to have the word American tacked onto it; yes, many Americans may prefer their steaks bloody but raw is a whole other category. And I've seen other Americanized menu items as well; American pizza is dotted with chopped up hotdogs; the same goes for the omelette American. American style beers have a color so pale they look more like colored water and American chicken is oddly fried and coated in the afore mentioned ketchup. I once saw a menu where food portions were served in "petite", "normal" and "America" sizes. I kid you not.

Countries and cultures are often associated with their foods but are the above examples really what others think of America? Maybe. After all our local Carrefour has an "American" aisle filled with Hershey's syrup, Old El Paso taco kits and "American style" over stuffed Oreo cookies. And of course ketchup. Big bottles of ketchup. And it isn't just the Americans who are shopping here.

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