In Search Of American Food
If I invited you over for dinner, is this what you’d expect me to make for dessert? Maybe, because of its resemblance to a classic American strawberry shortcake, it wouldn’t be totally unexpected. Until I cut it open, that is, and revealed its heart of arborio rice simmered in milk and folded with ricotta. It’s a lovely Italian Easter cake, and so, doesn’t that make it perfectly American?
We had a quartet of French dinner guests last night, all new to us, and we debated long and hard about how to feed them. We ourselves, if invited by a French family, would be really surprised if they served us American food, or anything other than French food. Didn’t it follow, then, that French people coming here expect to be served American food? And would it please them if I did? And even if it would, what the heck could I serve that would really seem American? I say “seem” because, as all Americans know, Chinese food is American, Mexican food is American, as is Italian, Japanese, German, Thai, and so on. Americans know this, but it’s not necessarily the case that French people understand it. Because of their long and noble culinary tradition, it’s nearly inconceivable to the average French person that Americans have trouble defining their own cuisine.
On the other hand, whatever I serve then, French people always make gratifying guests. They really taste their food, dissect its elements, talk about how it was made, ask for recipes mid-bite, discuss the merits of various accompanying wines, and they always clean their plates. They’re super well brought up, always bringing wine, flowers, gifts, and interesting conversation. One reason that lunch or dinner here can easily last four or five hours is that good mealtime conversation is highly prized. I’m sure that somewhere in France people sit down in front of the TV, eat, and go about their business, but we haven’t met them yet. Politics, philosophy, cuisine, jokes, and a second helping of politics are all fodder for discussion at the French table. That, plus at our house, there’s often the added element of “we didn’t know that Americans could cook.” It’s sweet, but sad.
The movie SuperSize Me has recently made it across the Atlantic, and McDonald’s invaded France long ago. There’s really no other American food that’s widely available here, and so we’re not the only ones wondering what real American food is. I honestly think that when we invite people they’re half-expecting to be served hamburgers. There you go, a real hamburger, a juicy beef patty on good bread, maybe a bit of cheese, some lettuce, a few condiments, now that’s American food. Except for the fact that Hamburg is in Germany.
If you have a good response to the question “what is American food?”, please tell us, so that I’ll have a better answer the next time someone asks. And if you want to make the beautiful and delicious cake I made last night, the recipe is here. I made it exactly according to the recipe, except that my springform is considerably larger than the specified pan, more like 10″, and I think that size works best. It’s a tall cake at that diameter, rich, heavy, and irresistable. The next time I make it I’m going to add a little orange flower water, just to lighten it up a tad. And I have to admit that it’s also great for breakfast the next morning. Hey, maybe that’s what makes it American. Would an Italian eat dessert for breakfast?