When we were in Turkey, we met up with a Turkish friend who travels between the US and Turkey a great deal, staying for a few months in each place. Alex asked him, “What foods do you miss from the US when you’re here?” He looked at us like we were crazy and said, “I don’t miss anything. When I’m in the US, I miss Turkish food.”
On the streets of Turkey, there would often be no fewer than 15 restaurants all serving almost identical menus. And the food was traditional Turkish cuisine, meaning it probably isn’t all that different from what people cook in their homes. Coming from San Francisco where we have 15 different types of cuisine within 10 blocks of our house, the lack of variety was a bit surprising. Until I realize that it’s because Turkey has what SF, and the US, doesn’t – a food culture.
Austria had it as well – breakfast was the same every day, simple whole foods. And lunch was pretty much like breakfast with the addition of a salad bar. Dinner was the same ingredients, assembled differently. As the main vegetarian option always included cheese or cream, Alex and I found it a bit tedious. But there were also plenty of fresh vegetables – mail order some quinoa and you’d be good to go. If you at meat, I can see that you’d probably have no problem enjoying similar meals day after day.
There are parts of the US that have more of a food culture than others. I was just in New Orleans this past weekend and there’s definitely a food culture there (and it’s delicious, even for a vegetarian!) But growing up in northern California, there was nothing that defined our dinners. Meals were traditional in the sense that they often included a meat, a starch and a vegetable, but we also ate lasagna, or breakfast for dinner, and taco night was always a favorite. We had Chinese takeout and occasionally McDonalds or Taco Bell. My parents experimented and came up with some successes and some failures, much like I do in the kitchen now.
However, our family definitely had a culture surrounding meal time – unless I was at a friend’s house, we ate together, at the table. Sometimes the TV was on, but mostly it wasn’t. When friends came over, they sat down at the table too, we weren’t off the hook just because we’d rather play Barbies or Donkey Kong and eat Pop Tarts. I’m happy to say that Alex and I have continued that tradition. If we are home, we sit down at eat together, 99% of the time at the table.
Turkey too had a very defined way of eating. Sit down meals are long and leisurely. Tea is served afterwards, so you can linger and people watch or chat. Servers don’t bring the check unless you ask. Obviously, both in Turkey and the US, that’s not always appropriate. We can’t always take an hour and a half at breakfast. But it’s nice that when they do go out, and when they have the time, they take it.
My point is that the US doesn’t have an ingrained food culture the way many other countries do. We are at the whim of our desires, in where, what, and how we eat. And don’t get me wrong – I love the variety. I’m happy I can get Thai food one night and Italian the next. I’m happy I can indulge those cravings. But when I’m abroad, I also appreciate the consistency. I like being able to go to multiple restaurants and order the same items and taste the differences. I like that there is a specific flavor profile – certain spices are used, there are traditional methods of cooking, and you can really get to know an ingredient. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the things I want to make but if I only made one type of food, I wouldn’t have to.
But regardless of that, I am trying to create a food culture in our home as well. Eating at the table for one. Making food from scratch. Shopping locally and seasonally. Using more spices and less salt. Growing herbs in the backyard. Maybe I use different ingredients in every meal, but at least I have the how and where covered.
If you could only eat one cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be? What kind of food culture do you want to create?