Posts Tagged ‘American Food’

“Now, therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim July 1984 as National Ice cream Month and July 15, 1984, as National Ice Cream Day, and I call upon the people of the United States to observe these events with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

1984 made it official: Americans love ice cream. PBS says it happened way earlier; the founding fathers loved it too! Back then though, ice cream was reserved for those with ‘ice houses’, as ice cream was difficult to make without a modern freezer. Dolley Madison, the fourth First Lady, is attributed with making it popular in the White House.

Americans eat more ice cream than any other country. The average person in American eats 48 pints each year (that’s 48,000 calories!).   Of the 50 states, California produces the most at 142 million gallons per year.

I vividly remember going with my teammates after a sports game to get ice cream (sorry to the people in line behind us!). My dad coached many of my teams, and we often had an ice cream social at my home before the season started to meet everyone and fill the parents in. These are some of my fondest memories from growing up. People eat ice cream because it’s delicious, but also there is a social benefit too. Going out to get ice cream is often an event, a way of being part of a group, of relaxing and being. Ice cream is used to celebrate, to ease the tension of a first date or of a breakup, to celebrate birthdays, and for me, a yummy way to help my headache. Today ice cream is inexpensive, and no longer has class implications like in Dolley Madison’s time.

Getting ice cream often provides a small town appeal; or at the least, a homemade appeal. I love ice cream, and I love going out to get ice cream. But I really prefer to go to Handels in Berwyn or Freddy Hill Farms in Lansdale. The ice cream is homemade and tastes better, but you definitely feel a sense of community and hometown-ness at both locations, more so than at a Dairy Queen or Baskin Robins. Waiting in lines at these homemade ice cream shops, there is a mutual understanding with the people around you: you both know where to go for the best, most homemade ice cream; you wouldn’t go to Dairy Queen, you have something in common. I feel better about being at Freddy Hill than at chain shops.

In class we discussed that many of our American food Icons are unhealthy. I agree, but I would argue that many of them are iconic, because they are the treats that people allow themselves. You’re not just enjoying junk food; you’re enjoying an experience that surrounds consuming junk food! We may get one scoop with no toppings, but in my experience, most people don’t pass up the frozen treat in a social setting. It’s almost uncomfortable to say no to ice cream when with a group where everyone else is getting ice cream; you become the un-fun, uptight, obsessed-with-calories person who can’t enjoy a scoop of ice cream. I would say it’s the same with pie on thanksgiving: everybody has a small slice.

http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=40141 (Reagan quote)

http://www.californiadairypressroom.com/node/356 (How much ice cream we eat)

http://www.pbs.org/food/features/ice-cream-founding-fathers/ (Dolley Madison, ice houses)

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As did many of my other classmates, I began my search for the American meaning to Mac and Cheese on Urban Dictionary. I will tell you right now that I strongly recommend no one else follows my lead. But, I affirm my stance on the “American-ness” of Mac and Cheese.

The most American thing about this iconic food, to me, is it’s mass commercialization. Even without the photo attached, I’m sure that at the mention of Macaroni and Cheese 90 percent of us would conjure up images of a blue box, yellow-orange cheese sauce, and the distinct little noodles we have come to associate with Kraft. Kraft has become the symbol for Mac and Cheese, though it does not, in fact, contain any real cheese. Indeed, even Urban Dictionary made reference to this. Its most popular definition for the dish was “What my friends to the north call, ‘Kraft dinner.’” We tend to do this as Americans. We find something authentic — macaroni and cheese was originally an Italian dish, supposedly brought to the States by Thomas Jefferson — and reproduce it until it has lost its authenticity. Other examples include: pink slime-filled burgers, the Taco Bell crispy chicken crunch wrap, and the invention of the fortune cookie.

It’s no secret that we like to “Americanize” our food. We’ve heard our whole lives that “This Chinese food isn’t what they really eat in China” and “Taco Bell isn’t real Mexican food.” Of course it’s not. Yet we continue to purchase inauthentic versions of foreign foods all the time. Maybe because we like familiarity. Possible. Maybe because we think it tastes better. Doubtful. Maybe because it’s easier and cheaper to produce. Probable.

The thing about mass commercialization of food is that it means that it’s less expensive to produce and therefore less expensive to buy. We like that. It’s easy to get, easy to make, and it’s something we enjoyed as a kid. Macaroni and Cheese is American comfort food, made possible mostly by moms hoping to feed their kids something they’ll actually eat on a budget. Because most working Americans don’t have time to spend two hours making gourmet Mac and Cheese at home. Nor do they have the money to go out and buy that gourmet Mac and Cheese already made, especially when there is an inexpensive alternative.

Macaroni and Cheese has become an American staple because it’s made for the working man and the working man’s family. It’s made for the middle class, and we love to define America as the epitome of middle class life.

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As far as fast food goes, Chipotle has a unique position. The now iconic chain does not share the reputation of many other fast food chains in being simply greasy, cheap food that will eventually kill you. Urban dictionary definitions of Chipotle mostly contain glowing praise for the chain: “They are sort of the higher-end answer to Taco Bell” says one. “A heavenly food experience involving burritos, tacos, quesadillas, burrito bowls, etc” reads another. The chain is seen as more high end than many of its counterparts. It is still fast food, but it is not seen that way.

This could be a result of the demographic. In Philadelphia, most of the Chipotle Restaurants are located in Center City, or University City. The only Chipotle in North Philadelphia is on campus at Temple University. The other locations are within the suburban areas of the city. This suggests that the Chain is targeted at a younger, more affluent demographic than other fast food chains. The prices to most of the food at Chipotle also suggest this. This demographic target could be why Chipotle has a relatively positve public image as opposed to McDonald’s, which was a majority investor Chipotle until 2006.

The food itself might also contribute to this. Unlike McDonald’s, Wendy’s Burger King, or countless others (sans Chik-Fil-A),  Chipotle focuses  entirely on Mexican food, not on stereotypically American food such as Burgers, Fries, etc.

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Taco Bell perfectly embodies the authenticity/conformity contradiction of America by walking a fine line between the two ideals. Authenticity, or at least the appearance of its existence, is important to Americans, especially in food. Taco Bell attempts to maintain authenticity through its use of the Mexican language and an ode to Mexican Missions. Inside the store, traditional Mexican words are used for most of the menu items as well as in half of its slogans. Outside the store, the architecture is reminiscent of Mexican Missions featuring “adobe-like tan brick exterior walls, a red clay-tile roof, and … a simple, Mission-style bell.” [source] Additionally, the brand’s company overview on Facebook reads, “Taco Bell is the nation’s leading Mexican-style quick service restaurant chain.”

As for conformity… the taco that most Americans come into contact with today is an American invention popularized by Glen Bell during the 1950s when competition was heating up for fast food burger joints. [source] Bell altered the traditional Mexican fare to suit American tastes (a different mixture of toppings) and to make it easier to eat on-the-go (trading a soft, corn tortilla for a crunchy, flour tortilla). [source] Doing so would launch his chain to McDonald’s level fast food stardom. Not only is the Taco Bell taco very unlike traditional tacos, so is everything else on the menu. The items have been Americanized for our palate. After the jump, Mexicans can be viewed trying various items from Taco Bell’s menu for the first time. Their reactions, and Taco Bell’s failure to open in Mexico, say it all.

But what about all this makes Taco Bell so American? Aside from its American invention, Taco Bell resonates with the American ideal of the melting pot. There are many cultures here; we accept everyone. Look! Mexican food is the 6th best quick service restaurant, following McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, Wendy’s, and Burger King. In reality, it’s not Mexican food at all. It’s just altered traditional items, and items made up altogether. So, in reality, we accept cultures as long as they conform to the current mainstream cultural values and behaviors. As Americans, we love to feel like we’re the cosmopolitan example for the world, but it’s not easy to be an immigrant here. The country that’s built on immigration has a hard time letting go of where people came from. Both positively and negatively.

Side note: A few of the definitions on Urbandictionary help my point, like this and this, but most were disgustingly funny like this.

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In The Hamburger: A History, Ozersky talks about how the hamburger has functioned as a symbol of prosperity. Because beef has historically been expensive, a consumer can gain social prestige by eating it. It can be a way to express class and wealth. Because hamburgers are made of ground beef, they can function as a middle ground that is at once aspirational and attainable. Ozersky considers this part of the hamburger’s longstanding appeal. However, in the past few decades, fast food chains that had originally been the province of the middle class in years before are now coded as “poor”. This is very obvious in popular culture. On Urban Dictionary, the top definition of McDonald’s is:
Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 10.38.28 PM

A place where people eat a lot, get fat, and then sue to get money.

I ate at McDonald’s everyday for 7 years and now I weight 500 pound, so I’m gonna sue them to make some cash

(click image to enlarge)

The whole site feels a little like a peek into the id of popular culture, but this is a helpful definition. It shows what’s the most commonly accepted read on McDonald’s as a brand. None of the associations are good ones.

In the (relevant) definitions of hamburger on the site, it’s interesting to note that the food itself is still valued–but with specific mention that a true hamburger is not the same as the ones sold by fast food joints. Here’s the top definition for hamburger:
Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 10.48.41 PM

A very tasty food which consists of beef, hamburger buns, and a wide variety of toppings including, but not limited to: Mustard, Ketchup, Pickles, BBQ, Bacon, Lettuce, Onion. The best hamburgers can be found at bars or are homemade.

You can find fake, nasty hamburgers at many fast food places.

Burger King…more like King of fake burgers! Bob’s Bar in the small town of Smallville has the states best hamburgers!

This definition subverts several aspects of the hamburger as interpreted by fast food joints. Burger King’s burgers are “fake” and “nasty”. The author’s statement that the best hamburgers are either homemade or come from bars implies that real hamburgers come from unique establishments or as the product of hard work. Because Americans live in a society in which our patterns of consumption are configured as statements of identity, hamburgers as defined by Urban Dictionary user Meijer’s! express individualism. The hamburgers that fast food corporations manufacture to uniform standards across the globe lack the same authenticity that hamburgers are meant to embody. Often, when we talk about food being authentic, it’s in the context of whether a dish is made the same way it would be by the people that originated it. We can apply that meaning here, but I also think that the question of authenticity gets a little more complicated. McDonald’s is regarded as a symbol of America. It follows that McDonald’s hamburgers would be authentic, since hamburgers are an iconic American food intertwined with the development of a major brand and a particularly American way of dining. So excluding fast food burgers from the designation of authentic has to be a deliberate choice. It’s a rejection of the things that McDonald’s represents in favor of another view of America.

McDonald’s is associated with obesity, laziness, cultural imperialism, and poverty. These themes come up again and again in the entries on the site. There’s a certain level of vitriol in the definitions that’s a little shocking until you consider how loaded the topic is. It’s not just food at this point–because of the associated concepts, discussion of McDonald’s veers into the territory of moral judgment. Talking about the ways in which patterns of food consumption are read as moral or immoral probably goes beyond the scope of this post, but food from McDonald’s and the people who eat it are positioned as an immoral. This is not only because of the lack of nutritious options on the menu and the extremely low wages paid to employees, but also due to the brand’s association with poor customers, who are also coded as immoral in much of public discourse. Part of the demonization of the brand is a result of the moralistic way in which poverty (and obesity, which is in some respects a related issue) is framed in America. The bars in Meijer’s! definition of the hamburger are much more evocative of the working or middle class, an American fantasy of hard work and comfortably modest living. Hamburgers as an American staple must always contend with the legacy of the major fast food corporations, but Meijer’s! repositions the icon to show another face of America, one that they find more palatable.

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The creation of the peanut butter and jelly can be traced to the early 1900s in America when its recipe was published in a cooking school magazine. It started out as a snack or meal for wealthier people as the cost of peanut butter was high, but eventually, as the price dropped, became widespread, with children becoming the highest demographic. PB&J sandwiches are still incredibly popular with children; it’s a semi-healthy meal that’s easy to eat (no utensils required), and due to its lasting freshness can make a great lunch option. A study in 2002 showed that an average American will eat over 1500 pb&j’s before graduating high school. source

Whether you’re for or against crust on your pb&j, a consensus can be reached on the nostalgic effects a pb&j holds. One look or taste of the sandwich can transport the person back to a simpler, better time. As a person grows older, the consumption of these sandwiches decline as more complex or more expensive meals become available; however, college kids who need a fast and cheap meal increases this consumption for a time. This overall declining trend is due to most seeing a pb&j sandwich as childish. Although it reminds them of a better time, they are “too old” to eat the meal. This contradiction of wanting to relive the past but also putting the past behind to enjoy the modernity and complexity of today is easily illustrated through a pb&j sandwich and readily seen as a theme in America.

This contraction can also be seen in the many ways people have changed or “improved” the simple sandwich. Through grilling it, using french toast instead of white bread.  to deep frying the sandwich, steps are taken to make this sandwich “better” by making it more complicated. Although we value the pb&j sandwich for its effortlessness, we actively search for ways to destroy that simplicity. America is known for its progressiveness in infrastructures and a wide variety of other ways, but we still think of days long ago as better due to its straightforwardness. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich, to me, is one of the most iconic American foods. An unpopular meal in the rest of the world, but an embodiment of American ideals and contradictions.

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I did some background research (by research I mean Wikipedia–that’s what everyone does, right?) about the origins of the hot dog and its ties to America. The hotdog got its start in Germany, known as the frankfurter, and made its way to the United States right before the beginning of the twentieth century (circa 1870).

The hotdog became an American staple because of its association with baseball. Baseball has been deemed “America’s game,” although in a more modern context one may argue that the country now believes its main game to be American football. Nonetheless, you almost can’t go to a baseball game without getting a hotdog–it’s like, so “Un-American.” Since baseball has maintained a relatively popular stance in American sports culture, the hotdog has continued to be a popular food choice.

So what’s American about the hotdog itself? Well I thought of two reasons. The first has to do with what it’s made of. While doing some background research, I found the hotdog to have originally been comprised of sausage. However, when I was younger, word on the street was that a hotdog was just a compilation of fat and pieces of meat that didn’t get used when making other types of meat products. Effectively, a hotdog is a “melting pot” type of food product–it has no true identity but rather boasts ingredients from many different products. That’s American, isn’t it?

The second thing that makes the hotdog American is that we stole it. It’s has its origins in Germany, yet somehow it has been reworked to become an American food or an integral part of the American experience. In class last week, when posed with this assignment, the first American food that popped into my mind was indeed the hotdog. But, what about Germany? Do they also claim the hotdog as their own (They should, I mean it is theirs)? This is a curious phenomenon, America’s ability to take things from other cultures and make it their own–it has been ingrained into American’s perception since the country’s inception. For example, settlers took the land that now makes up the United States from people who had originally claimed it. Need another? American’s took people from Africa and the Caribbean Islands and repurposed them for slave labor. So, what gives? Are we, as Americans, instinctively piratical? While the hotdog is not genocide or institutionalized slavery, it does reflect an unwanted reality about America–we are a country peppered with examples of cultural thievery.

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