Food Culture

Saturday night we dined with friends.   It was a superb meal.   The hosts prepared the menu, assigned each participant a dish to prepare, and then starting about 6:30 PM when we began with a sparkling wine toast and the salad, continuing to about 10:15 when we ended with dessert.  The food was delicious, there was lots of laughter, and a sense of community.

Americans have lost the art of fine dining.  Oh, I know — everyone reading this experiences something like I described now and then.   In general, though, our lives are so hurried and our food culture so focused on quantity and speed that we lose a sense of community and joy.

Consider:  In Italy, as in much of Europe, you go to a restaurant and you expect to spend hours there.  Unless you’re at a real touristy place frequented by Americans, there is a professionalism and sense of dignity with the wait staff.   They take your order, make recommendations if appropriate, and serve the food.  In many cases you order multiple courses, and they assure that there is the proper spacing between when you end one course and start another.  They do not come and ask if you are enjoying your meal.   It’s assumed that you are, otherwise you’d say something.   They also don’t zip to your table as soon as your wine bottle is empty or your finish the last swallow of beer.   Whereas in America it feels like waitstaff are vultures, ready to pounce when your glass is empty, in Europe the expectation is that if you want more, you’ll ask for it.

It’s not difficult.  You look at the waiter, look at the empty wine bottle, and sometimes the waiter will just gesture to the bottle and nod, a non-verbal form of communication asking if you want another.  You nod back, the waiter smiles briefly, and soon you have another bottle.  Or you gesture the waiter over and say if you want something different.   Then, when the food is consumed, nobody rushes a bill to you in order to increase the table turnover rate.   You can sit there as long as you wish.   I’ve known Americans who have been frustrated in Italy or Germany, wondering why they weren’t getting the bill.   They have to signify to the waiter that they are ready to go; it would be rude for the wait staff to do anything to insinuate customers should hurry!

Moreover, portions here in the US are huge — and tend to be weighted down with fat, butter, cheese, or whatever pleases the palate at a relatively inexpensive cost.   We don’t do well balanced textured sauces and exquisite flavors.  We’re for the big bacon cheese burger, or portions of heavy dishes that are often upward of 1500 calories.   In the US one leaves a restaurant often feeling nauseatingly overfilled, especially as the fast eating pace we tend to embrace means that we can eat a lot in the 20 minutes between getting full and having the brain register that we’re full.   Our deserts are huge masses of chocolate, cream, or some rich gooey cake full of fat and sugar.

One can eat a lot of calories in Europe, but usually over a longer period of time, with portions smaller, focused less on the brute force of fat and sugar than fine well crafted sauces and preparation methods, designed to bring out the flavor of spices, mixing and matching interesting tastes.  One consumes and savors them, rather than gobbling them up, and then relaxes between courses.

Our coffees also show the difference.  Whether northern European strong coffees with cream and sugar, or the flavorful burst of espresso in Italy, the focus is on coffee.  The cream and sugar augment the coffee, as with a cafe latte (coffee and hot milk) in Italy.   Here one can get that kind of experience, but more often than not its flavored coffees, iced coffees with loads of cream and sugar, or others weighted down with extras that seem to want to overpower our taste buds rather than serve them.

All that wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t in such a hurry.   If the meal takes more than fifteen minutes to arrive, we look around, “what’s keeping them?”   We expect everything at once, and everyone is supposed to be served at once, and start eating together.  When we eat, conversation stops as we zip through the food, almost hurrying to finish the last bite before our stomachs scream at us to stop.   It is rare that Americans at a typical restaurant spend more than 40 or 45 minutes “dining.”  And if we linger, the wait staff does everything it can to let us know that we need to move on so the next group can be seating.

It’s not that the differences are night and day.   A German can grab a Bratwurst and beer at a kiosk in downtown Frankfurt and scarf that down in three minutes.   An Italian at a cafe eats breakfast standing — usually a pastry and cappuccino, and may end up getting a panino (sandwich) or pizza slice at a snack bar for lunch, eating that quickly.  We, of course, have our very fine restaurants where we do spend time enjoying the meal.   Everyone eats fast sometimes, and slow and willfully others.  It’s just that we seem to do the fast and heavy route most of the time.

Some people might think this whole idea misplaced — those who eat 95% of the time at home with family often have very meaningful and well established family traditions.   Not everyone is caught up in the fast and heavy food culture in the US.   But more families than ever are eating on the fly, often at different times, and the rates of eating out in the US have sky rocketed in recent years.   We seem to be uniquely willing to give up our food culture in order to play harder in the rat race of modern life.

And therein lies the problem.   Our food culture reflects problems in the culture at large.   Our scattered, shallow, high quantity low quality food culture represents a disconnected, materialist, and often meaningless culture at large.   We are in to things, not experiences; stuff, not people.   Community matters less than how much we can accumulate.   Maybe the best way to start to counter that in our own lives is to think about what we eat and how we eat it.   Perhaps we should move towards organic and naturally raised crops and meats, rather than the cheap mass produced products that seem to treat animals inhumanely, and give us less healthy diets.   Most importantly, maybe we should treat meal time as a time for communing and sharing, rather than gulping and gorging.   That might start us on a better path.

  1. #1 by Josh on September 7, 2009 - 17:30

    I usually don’t dwell on the comparison between cultures. I think the problems you speak of in your post can be found in every culture. In America, perhaps it is manifested in eating habits, but I’m sure every society does things in order to “play harder in the rat race of modern life.”

    The real problem is our own personal attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors. Everybody in every society must work to become more thoughtful of others, more humble, more patient, etc. If we would all first deal with the unique issues in our own lives, I think the problems you speak of in your post would diminish quickly.

  2. #2 by notesalongthepath on September 8, 2009 - 05:20

    It’s all so complicated, isn’t it? We do need to get to know ourselves better, to understand our own motivations, yet our imbalances are also societal issues, the pushing, the rushing, the mad-collecting, the keeping up appearances rather than deepening our relationships. But don’t ask me. Only one of my children would eat whatever I cooked. The other two complained me right out of the kitchen!

  3. #3 by Mike Lovell on September 8, 2009 - 14:39

    I grew up in an environment where it seems that none of the parents cared what you did or did not like to eat, you either ate what they made or starved, this included eating over at a friend’s house as well. I admit, I ate VERY fast. From an early age, I had things to do and places to go. If I didn’t wolf down my food in record time I might be late getting to the meeting place where us kids could complain about how bored we were! Then I joined the army, where rushing to get to a place for an activity that wouldn’t start for at least two hours after we got there was mandatory!

  4. #4 by ptola on September 8, 2009 - 23:16

    Very true. At my college, while there are sporadic groups of students who occasionally meet and cook a meal together, most people I know treat mealtimes as obstacles. They pop in to the dining area and eat as fast as possible because time spent eating is time not spent working. Or, “working”.

  5. #5 by henitsirk on September 13, 2009 - 03:15

    Funny that I’m reading this having eaten lunch at Olive Garden today. I don’t usually like eating there — the fakey Italian, the HUGE portions. But I chose a healthier entree this time (seafood in a light sauce over pasta) instead of my usual heavy choice like manicotti, and made sure to eat plenty of salad and no dessert. It wasn’t so bad.

    One thing I think Americans probably lack in comparison with the more tradition European food cultures like France and Italy is a consciousness of flavors and textures and how to artistically combine them in a healthy and pleasing fashion across an entire meal. We’re more “Cheese makes everything better”!

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