Preserving America’s National Cuisine

On the way back from visiting the Anna Akhmatova apartment museum (quite moving, by the way) on our last group day in St. Petersburg, Shaw and I stopped for lunch in a little cafe called “Ketch Up Burgers.” It was a fairly random choice–pretty much the first place we saw on our way home that looked like they might have an English language menu. Upon entering, a tiny waitress (hearing us talking to each other) scurried away and came back with a young man who spoke a few words of English. He proudly informed us that this was only their second day of being open for business. We applauded politely. Shaw had a salad, I ordered their “Original Burger,” basically a BBQ cheeseburger, and some fries and ketchup on the side. The food came, and it was predictably delicious; a notable difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg is the consistent excellence of the food in the latter city. The burger was tasty and well-cooked, the fries thick-cut, the ketchup sweet and fresh. As we finished eating, another man came to our table with even better English. He informed us that he was the owner of the restaurant, reiterated that they had just opened, and asked us our opinion of the food. “It is important,” he said. “This is your culture, your national cuisine.” He pronounced the last word like “cousin,” which actually seemed a bit more accurate to me. We reassured him that the food was good; I asked him if they made their own ketchup and he said “of course”; I told him that this was the only inauthentic portion of the meal, that REAL American ketchup comes from a bottle. He seemed to think I was joking, but he still gave us a very nice discount off our check.

This incident reminded me of a grumpy-old-man, “get off my lawn”-type letter I’d seen in the Charlotte Observer a while back, where a guy was complaining about all of the ethnic restaurants in Charlotte. The gist of the letter was, “It’s nice to have something different now and then, but where are all the American restaurants?” I laughed when I read it, because there surely isn’t an actual American cuisine. Everything we eat comes from somewhere else, probably. Let’s take a look at some popular “American” foods:

*Hamburgers (German)
*Hot dogs (German, probably, though they’re basically just sausages, and sausages come from everywhere, they come from the ether)
*Steak (English)
*French Fries (French)
*Corn (maybe, it’s native to our continent, at least)
*Fruit roll-ups (actually, probably American)

So, Americans don’t have a “national cuisine,” we just appropriate parts of other peoples’ foods. But here was a very earnest Russian cook, who wanted our input, who wanted to make sure he was doing American food correctly. And who could blame him? If I were starting a Russian restaurant in the US and a couple of Russians came in on our second day, I’d do the same thing. From his perspective, American food is a style like any other, like Italian or Indian or Chinese food.

So this raises the question: what or who defines a national culture? From the inside, American culture seems plainly like a big mishmash of influences that often don’t cohere, the ultimate post-modern society. But from the outside, perhaps it looks more hegemonic and clear, not to mention a tradition worth respecting and upholding. I wonder if this contradiction is unique to our country or if other nationalities and cultures sometimes feel equally bemused at an outsider’s perspective.

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