A few posts back, I enumerated the Georgian foods I’d pine for most after leaving and promised a rundown of what I missed most about American cooking and eating while I was abroad. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Kale, and other dark green leafy things
Maybe it’s the subconscious boost I get from all the nutritious green stuff inside, or the fact that it requires very little prep time or skill to cook decently, or the way it goes with almost anything, or because it’s just so darn delicious. Whatever the reason, kale makes me deeply, inordinately happy. I feel almost as passionate about the peppery kick of arugula and cress, the hearty heft of collards and chard, and, on occasion, the delicate creaminess of well-cooked spinach.
I still have not managed to figure out why greens like these aren’t more widely grown and used in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Even lettuce is notoriously difficult to find in stores and markets. Leafy greens are more common in Georgia than in Russia, and Georgia’s traditional cuisine makes liberal use of spinach, beet greens, and what I’m fairly certain is a variety of chard. But in both countries when people say “salad,” they mean something more akin to our potato or tuna salads, based on mayonnaise rather than greens. And kale–a hearty, cold-weather crop that would make a perfect addition to the root vegetable dishes, meat stews, and soups so common in the region–seems to be completely unheard of in this part of the world.
2. Sipping my wine whenever I feel like it
The cultural “rules” regulating wine consumption in Georgia effectively require drinkers to wait until the tamada (toastmaster) has spoken a toast before they are permitted to take another sip (better: gulp). This is all well and good if you down half your glass at each interval (another norm)–theoretically, the tamada is there to set the pace and ensure that no one imbibes to excess. But for those more accustomed to washing down bites with a tipple here, a tipple there, this custom tends to become frustrating.
In addition to pacing my own mealtime drinking, I’ve also been reveling in sips taken leisurely while cooking dinner (usually involving kale, these days) and attempting to soak up Spanish through musical osmosis.
This meal encapsulates so much that’s unique about American food culture. It implies a certain constellation of foods you don’t find everywhere: buttermilk pancakes, challah French toast, maple syrup, peanut butter, granola, thick-cut bacon, bottomless cups of drip brew coffee with real cream. It’s a common occasion to meet up with friends, we often eat it outside the home, and it gives us an excuse to drink alcohol at what is essentially breakfast.
I’d been craving the fried chicken and waffles at DC’s Birch and Barley since I left and, as so rarely happens, it was even better than I remembered it. The rich brews at Chinatown Coffee Company have been keeping me sufficiently (perhaps excessively?) caffeinated lately, and I’m looking forward to whipping up a batch of James Beard’s mom’s biscuits while it’s still biting cold outside. (Thanks to Domenica Marchetti for posting the recipe!)
4. Smoke-free dining
I can’t believe I’ve only been enjoying smoke-free restaurants and bars since 2007, when I spent the summer in Boston where a ban was already in place. (Minnesota’s own ban went into effect later that year.) The days of segregated restaurants and waking up to smoke-soaked bar clothes reeking on the floor seem stuck in some long-gone past. The stench of spent cigarettes reposing in the ashtray on the next table at any given establishment in Georgia did not have me waxing nostalgic even for a moment. Food tastes better–a LOT better–when no one’s smoking. Leaving the country, even for just a short while, has given me a chance to love this legislation all over again.
5. Diversity in the kitchen
While part of me (the vocal part) believed that I could never get sick of Georgian food, my inner reason acknowledged that, having grown up in the middle of the Great Melting Pot (and possessing a set of unnaturally curious tastebuds), I was liable to tire of eating just one national cuisine day in and day out.
“American food” is notoriously hard to define, for it is a category as broad and varied as the people who call this country home. Contrary to popular belief in Georgia and Russia, it is much more than hamburgers, hot dogs, and microwavable meals. The act of cataloging the foods and food-related experiences I miss most while abroad helps me pin down what, for me, represents the food culture of my homeland (to use a term we Americans tend to apply to “the old country” from whence our ancestors came).
By this measure, I reason that cold cereal and green salads must be part of our national gastronomic heritage, along with black bean burritos, guacamole, and green salsa. Can’t forget pad kee mao and saag paneer and spicy ginger beef. Greek yogurt, hummus, naan. These foods may not have been first cooked within the 50 states, but many of us consume foods like these more often and with greater pleasure than we do “all-American” classics like steak and baked potatoes.
I’m curious. What defines “American food culture” for you? What do you miss most about US foods or eating habits when you go abroad? Or miss least? (Certainly there are aspects of American food culture that I, too, would happily leave behind!)