Random thoughts on American food

 | 3 min

Steve has already posted a trip log covering Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Las Vegas, so I won't duplicate his effort here. Instead, I just want to jot down some random observations and thoughts about American culture. To me, American culture seems to have about three major components: food, shopping & TV. This post will cover the food.

Firstly, restaurant portions really are huge. I don't think there was one single meal that I was able to finish in the whole time I was there. And we pretty much only ever ordered just the main course. We seldom had a starter, and never the soup, salad and dessert that the waiters constantly urged on us. It seems pretty much standard to ask for a doggy bag, although when we were staying at a hotel we didn't usually have that option since we had no way to reheat the meals.

Every restaurant started with a free bread basket, unlike here where you usually have to order a bread platter separately if you want one. Also, if you order a soft drink, they will come around and refill it for you for free. And it's generally a pretty large glass to start with. This is quite a contrast to here where you pay $4 per refill of a 250ml glass. Overall, you get excellent value food in the US.

On my first night there, we cruised around Walmart giggling at the odd food items.

  • Cheese whiz? I can't even stand the plastic cheese you get in slices at the supermarket here, never mind cheese sprayed from a can.
  • Cookies. Those poor Americans don't have anything akin to toffee pops, timtams or real biscuits. Instead, their cookies are more like our Farmbake biscuits except that they are chewy. Apparently Americans like their bikkies chewy for some reason.
  • Sticks of butter. I was always a bit baffled by recipes that called for a stick of butter. Apparently they buy their butter in 500g blocks that look the same as ours, but internally are divided lengthwise into four sticks.
  • Sweet bread. Stephen warned me of this but I didn't actually experience it until later. American bread is very very sweet. Here, even the bread in chocolate chip easter buns isn't anywhere near as sweet as ordinary American bread. It was always a relief if a restaurant had fancy non-sweet bread in their bread basket.
  • Sausage wrapped in chocolate chip pancakes on a stick. I was disgusted and horrified by this. Here we have hot dogs on a stick, but the sausage is enclosed in batter. Savoury batter. Not sweet chocolate chip pancakes. It's just so wrong. (However, having subsequently eaten American bread and corn dogs, it probably isn't such a big deal to Americans. The corn dog batter is far sweeter than any batter you'd ever get here)

The food isn't the only strange part - the drinks were also an experience. Firstly, tea. Every restaurant and fast food place has tea as one of the options for cold drinks. I suspect if you asked for hot tea you'd get some very funny looks, because they only kind of tea they seem to know about is iced tea. I always thought it was a little strange that my Spanish books (designed for the American market) gave you instructions on how to order tea with or without lemon. I always wondered why they didn't tell you how to ask for tea with milk and sugar, but now I know.

As far as coffee goes, the standard addition to an ordinary filter coffee here is milk and sugar. Not so in the US. Instead of milk, you have a choice of "cream" (actually half-and-half - half milk and half cream) or creamer (non-dairy white stuff made from god-knows-what). Instead of sugar, you have packets. Every table has an assortment of colour-coded packets. White is for sugar, pink for Sweet n Low, blue for Equal and yellow for Splenda. Some Americans seem not to even know what each type of packet actually is - they just know they like "two pinks and a blue".

Anyone who's tried Starbucks knows that Americans like their coffee very burnt. That's what the coffee was like everywhere we went. In fact we eventually found Starbucks to be actually fairly palatable as American coffee goes. And we found that Starbucks sells a fantastic bottled iced coffee. It is far nicer than anything you can get Starbucks to make for you. Still, I'm glad I'm back in New Zealand where I can go to Esquires.

Pretty much everywhere we went we had great food, but the highlight for me was the BBQ Baby Back Ribs from Saltgrass. You must try this if you ever go to Texas.