I think that one of the most prevalent and difficult-to-defend-against stereotypes about the U.S. is that we all eat greasy, disgusting, fattening, butter-smothered crap fast food for every meal in portions large enough to kill a normal healthy European, Asian, African, bear, elephant, alien, etc. When asked about typical American food, the first response is always hamburger/McDonalds, then french fries, hot dog, then people start getting into food which some defend as food of other countries (Pizza, Mac and Cheese: people go crazy about these two being Italian), and then they start talking about eating an entire turkey, as if we each sit down every night and personally consume the corpse of an enormous bird. Then inevitably breakfast comes up where people are shocked and alarmed at the idea of eating anything other than toast and coffee before 2pm, and then they just start naming off unhealthy foods that they saw once on some TV show about how horrible Americans are. Now, while this offends me as a reasonably healthy eater and someone who hasn’t eaten McDonalds anywhere outside of EUROPE in a number of years, after many years of consideration, I think that the stereotype is misguided but in essence totally true. I also blame “American” restaurants abroad for about 70% of this stereotype. Also I am currently craving Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles so I guess I also have myself to blame a little bit.
What I have also realized is that Europe is no stranger to horribly unhealthy food or large portions of food. Some examples: Menu del día: MY GOD this is a lot of food to eat for lunch. Two courses plus a dessert and a beer? I would normally eat a sandwich or a salad and a glass of water or something at home. But here, because I am here, I can eat stew followed by ossobuco with french fries and a salad, all accompanied by a large beer, and then polish it off with coffee and cream puffs. No big deal. Also, the incredible foie a la plancha:
This particular specimen was collected and consumed at La Cuchara de San Telmo, a fantastic pintxos bar in San Sebastian with one of the worst websites I have ever seen. Anyways, it was accompanied by a nice little pool of some kind of apple preserve (basically fancy European apple sauce), some sea salt, and a nice little swirl of obligatory extra virgin olive oil. And oh my god.
I will try my best to explain foie to the uninitiated because before this trip, I thought that it was just paté from happier ducks/geese. NOPE! Foie gras comes in a variety of levels of quality, ranging from the kind you get in a can that is only a certain percentage of force-fed duck or goose liver, to the really really awesome stuff which is literally just a liver of a duck or goose that has been fattened via tube feeding its entire life. Poor duck/goose, I know; but lucky me. I would never eat liver in the U.S. just because I imagine 7th grade biology and all the fun images that might conjure up for any person, and also because any paté I’ve ever tried before this trip (even paté of foie gras) just kiiiinda tastes like cat food to me. BUT THIS. This is different. Imagine the most succulent, flavorful, sinful piece of food you have ever eaten, then stick it on a grill to get the edges a little crispy, then put it and all its delicious juices into a pool of subtly sweet apple compote and eat it with some nice bread. I’ve also tried the fois-on-toast iteration at a tiny little tapas bar in Chueca here in Madrid, and honestly…just as good. Just as incredibly, incredibly, good. But, the point of all this is, it’s not healthy. At all. I mean this is the opposite of healthy for you, for the duck with the tube down its throat, just for everyone involved.
But I mean look at that thing! What you may not be able to tell from the picture is that it’s small. That plate is the size of the plate you’d get your dinner roll on and the foie itself is the size of a meaty little cell phone (I apologize to the world for not being able to think of a better comparison). It’s bad for you–it’s oh so bad for you–but it’s small and genuinely totally enjoyable. I savored every last bit of that thing, even towards the end when I was starting to think about it too much and get creeped out. And that is what makes the bad foods here different from the bad foods I am used to. The bad foods here are really good.
I still think it’s unfair to generalize about the evils of the American diet versus the virtues of the Mediterranean/European, but I think I can really see why Europeans will so genuinely defend their eating habits as being so much healthier than Americans’, even with a caña and plate of deep fried fish in hand. They eat to enjoy, to pass time with friends, to have something to do for hours and hours and hours. We eat to eat, to get energy in, to satisfy a craving, whatever, but rarely do I see people sitting for three hours at a restaurant in the U.S. without getting dirty looks from the entire waitstaff.
I went out to lunch here with Marshal the other day because I wanted a menu del día. He was tired and we decided to do an early lunch so we could fit in a pre-train siesta. We ate our two courses and our dessert and were basically the only people in the restaurant when we walked in at one. At the end of the meal, which lasted just over an hour and included salmorejo, risotto, chicken, lamb stew, a kiwi, berry cheesecake, and two beers, the waiter said to me “You guys eat really early and really fast!”