With my Open University student hat on, I got invited to give a talk in the US, so I embarked on my first proper long haul flight to Las Vegas (of all places!). Not being comfortable with just coming over, talking and going straight back, I embarked on a little self-funded tour around the Southwest via hostels and cheap motels. During that trip I learned a lot about American cuisine – the hard way.
On the first day I desperately tried to eat at least half of the enormous portion that got served to me. I learned that the way to deal with it is not to cause yourself severe stomach pain by attempting to consume as much as possible, but to eat as much as you feel like and wait for a friendly person to bring you a container to take the leftovers home for breakfast! This way you also end up paying only once for (at least) two full meals – ha! Make sure you select a dish that you can stomach first thing in the morning.
The next day I learned some more things: if you are offered nice home-made lemonade or desserts, make sure you don’t accept re-fills (Americans seem genuinely worried that they might underfeed you!), however nice they are, because too much sugary stuff – especially in combination with deep-fried or heavy cream containing food – causes untrained stomachs to expel said stomach contents shortly after. It causes huge embarrassment on public transport, I can tell you! Thanks, again, to the lady who gave me a new plastic bag after mine was full…
Likewise, large iced donuts for breakfast, even if they are offered to you for free, are a no-no, unless you want to be in pain for the next few hours. Also, when ordering a plate of vegetables, make sure your food providers don’t add random bits of sausage or bacon for ‘flavor’, because that also causes stomach contents to return if you are a long-term vegetarian. Btw vegetarianism is a more alien concept in the Southwest than extra-terrestrials visiting in UFOs – unless you happen to bump into a Chinese-American Buddhist chef like I did (he didn’t even eat onions and garlic)!
But once I had learned these important lessons, it was all-go – well, mostly! What else did I learn during the journey?
1. Americans eat raw cauliflower with dressing as a salad. While not only the raw cauliflower, but perhaps even more the dressing’s super-thick consistency takes a bit getting used to for a wimpy European, the combination of raw cauliflower/dressing is very successful. I often had a pile of raw cauliflower for lunch (delicious!), also, because there was no other sensible vegetarian alternative. Raw cauliflower tastes much better than the European cooked, baked, pickled or steamed versions. Must continue eating it!
2. Corn pancakes with butter are superb!
3. Corn-syrup seems to be in everything. Corn-batter seems to be around everything.
4. The white fluffy stuff is butter.
5. You could probably survive a whole holiday on eating a (vegetarian!) 7-layer burrito from Taco Bell (price: around two dollars!) a day. But make sure you bring your own orange juice as Taco Bell only serves soft drinks.
6. Food seems to be either really fatty or really low fat (try getting a ‘normal’ live yoghurt to de-traumatise your body!), really sugary/salty or everything sugar/salt free and substituted, really unhealthy or superhealthy. Also, taste (and size!) always seems to be maxed to its absolute limit. Americans seem to like extremes!
7. Subway veggie patties seem to be bacon-flavoured in the US – very off-putting.
8. Mexican food – YES!
9. Ice cream & cookie sandwiches are nice.
10. Green tea and desert fruit ice cream with sweetened cream and cornflakes is also nice.
11. Listening to Leonard Cohen (who I don’t normally listen to much) seems to ease stomach pain. Must be the resonances of his deep voice.
12. Only Americans can think of a dish like ‘pink and orange tiger-striped butternut squash ravioli with tomato sauce’.
13. Date-shakes rock! (and substitute at least one meal)
14. Really healthy and affordable food can be found in ‘hippy’ communities in the desert – or amongst other people’s leftovers in backpackers’ hostels.
15. American vegetables have a different taste. Most notably: tomatoes & carrots. Especially tomato paste.
16. Ordering the largest size costs insignificantly more than the smallest size. Especially noticeable when ordering pizza (small pizza: $11.95, medium 12.49, large: $13 – large being four times as big!).
17. Everything is displayed without tax.
18. There seems to be some really tasty fusion cuisine going on in certain corners of the country. Mexican-Japanese Sushi (with habaneros), Chinese-Italian (seaweed lasagna), Japanese-American (green tea sundae), you name it!
19. According to the gentleman at the Tucson post office, you can eat every plant in the desert – if you know how to prepare it.
20. I learned a bit about how Tohono O’odham people prepare food from various desert plants. Thanks for the recipes, the mesquite meal and the cactus jelly!
The latter insight I gained during a ranger talk at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The park is on the grounds of the Tohono O’odham Reservation and is heavily plagued by the US-Mexican border drug war amongst other things. Other that learning about this obvious conflict mostly second hand, it was very interesting to observe what I’d call interactions between different cultural groups (Native American, Mexican, Asian American, Caucasian American, African American and whatever people identify as) in the Southwest. The ones I witnessed were very moving and seemed informed by the desire to learn from each other and to look after each other. I hope this vibe is more wide-spread and spreading!