Alternate Title: Beyond Hamburgers and Hot Dogs
This article has been a long time coming. After countless debates about the merits of American cuisine with Europeans, Latins and even other Americans, I have finally put together both the arguments why American food is the best* and a profile of the best dishes.
* Best is subjective. Here I will make a case for a degree of objectivity.
Foreword from the Ugly American
I was the last person to write this article. Before I moved to South America, I was fed up with American food. My international experience at that point amounted to three weeks in Europe and one in Brazil, and I had accepted the common belief that American food sucks. But I didn’t really define in my mind what American food was. I just wanted to be an enlightened globalist.
Then I moved to Peru, where the food is really good. Peru was not yet rich as fuck in 2008, and there simply weren’t any American chains (one Burger King) if I wanted comfort food from home. So I never ate American food for that first year.
But I didn’t need to. Even if you don’t agree that Peruvian is the best in the world as the World Travel Awards have ruled six years in a row, the fact they keep winning at least indicates the food is not bad. So I left the States and not only arrived in a country with good food, but a city with its own cuisine. A year with no American food flew by.
But then I moved to Colombia, where the food is not very good. In fact it’s awful. Once I got myself established in Bogota, I would occasionally want to eat something tasty in the neighborhood, especially at night after a long day. I found a good Colombian restaurant open late, but you can only eat Bandeja Paisa so many times. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help noticing the armies of burger joints and pizza-by-the-slice on every corner. I mean, if you don’t want to degrade yourself with arepas and empanadas, it’s going to be hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza.
So I discovered a chain called PPC with a location in Plaza Lourdes which always had some kind of special on either cheeseburgers which tasted very much American or little pepperoni pizzas. In time I saw they also did chicken wings, and if I added aji to their barbecue sauce I could make them spicy. So when I wanted to eat something tasty on a rainy night in Chapinero, PPC became a standby.
And that’s when it first occurred to me that maybe American food wasn’t so bad. Here I was, desperate for something Colombian, but they just don’t have much. That’s why American food is so prevalent in Colombia.
Later in my time in Bogota, I did some work for a lawyer who spent 20 years in the States. He had traveled all over the world, and he was fond of telling clients (almost always over lunch at the TGI Friday’s or Hooters), “The three most popular kinds of food, which you can find anywhere in the world, are American, Italian and Chinese.”
I started seeing American food everywhere. Not just the McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday’s. I noticed local companies serving American food, from Bembos and Mis Costillitas in Peru to El Corral and Qbano in Colombia. One Peruvian company even ripped off the name and logo of popular American steakhouse, Longhorn.
In 2012 I married an arequipeña. She does 95% of the cooking, but occasionally I like to cook. I did Philly cheesesteaks, Buffalo wings, meat loaf, chicken parmesan, chili. She loved it all. Then we moved to the States, where she got all that and more from proper restaurants. Today she prefers American food, and her favorite is BBQ ribs.
We moved back to Peru, and now she demands American food. I’ll make either ribs, wings or chili once a month. On top of that she wants pepperoni or Hawaiian pizza from Papa John’s every week or two. When we’re in a crunch for something fast, she orders up delivery from Popeye’s. When at the mall with the children, it’s McDonald’s or Burger King. When it’s her birthday, she wants Tony Roma’s or TGI Fridays.
I never want American food here in Lima. It’s not that I don’t like American food. I would just rather have Peruvian, Italian or something else instead of TGI Friday’s or McDonald’s. We spend at least a month in the States every year, during which we can get the good stuff. I don’t need more than that. But I have to fight against a wife who wants it every week, if not every day. That’s what really solidified the 180-degree change in my opinion toward American food.
I want to make it clear that this article is not against the other cuisines of the world. You know I love Peruvian food. I also Love (capital L) Italian food. I love French food, Indian, Mexican, Thai, Spanish.
I love your food! Even if you’re from Colombia, I love some of your food! Even if you’re from England, I had a few good items during my week in London, and not just at the Indian restaurant.
I’m not saying anything bad about the other cuisines of the world (except maybe German). I only want to set the record straight that, far from American food being bad, it is a culinary giant which objectively may be the world’s best* cuisine.
On Objectivity (the asterisk)
First of all, the asterisk in the title addresses the subjective nature of “best.” For example, I don’t like The Beatles. If you told me I could not listen to any songs by The Beatles for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be a big deal.
But being the fair-minded guy I am, I recognize how many billions of people listen to The Beatles, and how many great bands were influenced by them. So I don’t try to try convince anybody that The Beatles suck. I recognize that while I personally don’t like their songs, The Beatles are actually quite good.
American food may see a similar effect. No matter where you’re from, you’ve probably eaten a lot of it. It’s ubiquitous. Maybe you’ve had so much you don’t ever want it, and you never think, “Let’s go eat American food.” In fact, that happened to me with Chinese food.
So for you personally, American food may not be the best. It may be the worst. But if we’re talking about the world, as in World’s Best* Cuisine, we need to go beyond your personal opinion and take everybody’s opinion into account.
You could take a poll of everybody in the world, but even that may not be objective. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words. Many people will cite cuisines to make themselves look like enlightened globalists. Nobody would vote for American even if they eat it every day.
A behavioral economist wouldn’t even bother asking people what they like. He would categorize their expenditures into Peruvian, American, Italian, Chinese and so on. And whatever they spend the most hard currency on is their favorite.
I said earlier that I love French food, and I do. But we go to the French restaurant twice a year. I also said I love Indian food, and I do. We eat Indian food less than once a year. Meanwhile, Wife wants pepperoni or Hawaiian pizza every Friday night. That’s got to count for something.
So for this article, I’ll ask you to consider an objective measure such as expenditures in judging the world’s best food. Which cuisine fetches the most dollars outside of its own borders?
But that’s no contest. Not only would American food be first, it probably outsells all the cuisines of the world COMBINED. And if all non-American cuisines combined did happen to edge American by sales, they only do so with the help of the Italians.
But going back to the asterisk, should sales alone determine “best”? Sure, McDonald’s is kinda tasty. I would never personally call their food “good,” but from a quantitative perspective it’s the best in the world.
So maybe the objective measure should be tweaked to give less weight to the cheap junk that American food is known for. But if you put a price minimum on the foods to be considered “best,” you’ll knock out most Mexican and Chinese food. If you put any kind of health requirements on “best,” you’ll eliminate the bestselling Italian foods, and you don’t want to do that because Italian is the only cuisine that really has a chance of topping American.
Unfortunately most people who criticize American food (including many Americans) only think of the cheap junk like McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut. But that’s like me saying British rock sucks because I don’t like The Beatles. I would be thrilled never to listen to The Beatles again, but I would not want to live without British rock.
What is a classic rock playlist without the Brits? Aerosmith, The Eagles, Van Halen, The Beach Boys, ZZ Top, ACDC, Motley Crue – utter shit. I’m cherry-picking the worst, but classic rock wouldn’t be much better without the Stones, Zepellin, Clapton, Bloody Sabbath, Dire Straits, The Clash. Give me British rock or give me death!
Like British rock is not just The Beatles, American food is not all junk. You can tweak whatever objective sales measure how you like, but you won’t knock American food out of the top contenders. While it doesn’t have a high-end image because it started among rednecks and blacks, southern barbecue is not cheap junk. The American steakhouse is not cheap junk. Real food, real expensive. America has a mean salad game, maybe the world’s best. Many of our sandwiches aren’t too bad if you don’t get them with fries.
On Origins and Fusions
Most Americans themselves don’t know what American food is because they classify it by the nation whose immigrants inspired it. The United States has seen more immigration, and more diverse immigration, than anywhere in the world. America didn’t exist 300 years ago, and was a kernel of its current profile 200 years ago.
In that time we’ve seen mass immigration from the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Mexico, China, Japan and Korea, as well as small-scale immigration from every other corner of the world. It’s the cultural melting pot, and many of those foods have inspired American cuisine.
Defining what is American and what’s from the old country can be difficult, but there is nothing Italian about pepperoni pizza. To the Italians’ infinite credit, they don’t claim anything like Meat Lovers or deep-dish, and obviously not the Hawaiian or Barbecue Chicken pizzas. They don’t just decry it, they don’t eat it. Domino’s and the other chains peddling American pizza have failed to enter the Italian market multiple times. Likewise, Taco Bell has failed to take root in Mexico with their hard-shell tacos topped with cheddar, lettuce and tomatoes.
Some argue a wider attribution to a food’s origin. Unbelievably, there are people (always northern Europeans) who argue that the hamburger is not American, but German. The hamburger has its roots in the ground beef patties first popularized in Hamburg, Germany, where they were probably even served on bread. And while ground beef on bread was first served in Hamburg, you’re kind of bending over backwards not to give credit to American food if you call what is eaten as hamburgers today “German.” I mean, how popular were American cheese and ketchup (most popular ingredients) in postwar Germany? Barbecue burgers (bacon, cheddar and BBQ sauce), Mushroom-swiss burgers, bleu-cheese burgers – this is American as far as this article is concerned.
If you don’t agree, you can live in your own alternative-facts reality where McDonald’s is a German restaurant, KFC is a Scottish restaurant because the Scottish were the first to fry chicken in fat, Pizza Hut is authentic Italian cuisine and most of what you think is Italian is actually Chinese because the Chinese invented pasta. And 9/11 was an inside job!
Dear Germans, I get it, you need something that people outside Germany eat. Take solace in your off-premise game – pretzels and Nutella. Although if processed foods are considered the world has no chance against America’s potato chips, cornmeal chips (Doritos) and chocolate-chip cookies. But at least Germany is in the game and not on the bench.
So What is the Objective Measure?
If you want to eliminate “cheap food,” then put a price minimum on food items eligible for consideration. But then you’re implying that good food has to be expensive and hence poor people do not eat good food, they cannot afford it. If you put a health requirement on good food, then you might as well have a different conversation about health and not taste. As much as I like ceviche, a majority of people will never overcome their base cravings for fat, salt and sugar to prefer raw fish with lime.
No matter how you tweak the methodology, the only way to knock American food out is for European votes to count for four or five times the weight as one vote from the rest of the world’s unenlightened mongrels. And even then I’m not sure you’d knock American out. I haven’t traveled extensively in Europe, so I’m not sure how much their commoners eat in cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza and southern fried chicken.
The basic methodology I suggest is how much food measured in dollars or by weight is eaten outside that country’s borders. If you measure local cuisine eaten by native population, your results will reflect the world’s countries ranked by population. While the United States would still make the top three, the world’s true gourmet chefs and only legitimate contender to America would not even be close because there are only 60 million people in Italy.
By requiring food to be eaten abroad you lose many amazing regional specialties. In St. Louis we have Imo’s and gooey butter cake. But no matter how delicious these foods are, they can’t be that great if nobody is selling it abroad in the age of globalization. But, you say, some foods face significant economic barriers to be viable. For example, southern barbecue is expensive because it’s a lot of meat and has to be smoked overnight with uncertain demand. But still, there are southern barbecue restaurants in your city.
So add whatever rules you want on top of this one: how much of a country’s foods are eaten abroad.
Obviously grilling or pan-frying whole cuts of lean beef isn’t only American. Middle- and upper-class economies with strong cattle traditions like England, France, Brazil, Argentina and Japan have their own steak cuisines. But America’s is distinct.
New York City was ground zero for America’s steak evolution with historic restaurants like Delmonico’s, Peter Luger and Gallagher’s, but also famous houses in Chicago, Texas and California pioneered America’s steak game. A quintessential steak dinner in America is a ribeye, NY strip or filet mignon grilled medium rare, baked potato with butter and sour cream and grilled asparagus. It can also be mashed potatoes and other green vegetables. Uglier Americans get tater tots, fries or macaroni and cheese.
The American steakhouse is one of the most expensive fine-dining experiences you can pay for. When you’re not fucking around you get a “surf and turf,” where your steak comes with shrimp or lobster tails. Corporate chains selling American-style steak outside the United States include Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Outback and Tony Roma’s. You can get less specialized, cheaper steak dinners at TGI Friday’s and their ilk.
Peruvians selling American steaks in Lima include Osso and Carnal Prime. Osso is a Michelin three-star restaurant ranked #12 in Latin America, and Peruvian chef Renzo Garibaldi trained as a chef in San Francisco, where he fell in love with beef.
Baby-back ribs and pulled pork are the most common meats in American barbecue, served with typical sides such as baked beans, cole slaw, green beans, garlic bread, potato salad or yellow corn. The meat is “smoked” by heating specific wood chips (hickory, mesquite, apple) for six to eight hours overnight. You can smoke anything. Chicken and beef are common, but brisket is the true test of skill.
Barbecue is Wife’s favorite cuisine, and fortunately I’m from a hotbed where you can’t drive 10 minutes without passing a barbecue joint. It’s always our first stop out of the airport.
There aren’t any specialized chains I’m aware of, but you can get ribs or a pulled pork sandwich at TGI Fridays and their ilk. And from what I’ve seen of the world there is probably a restaurant serving southern barbecue in your city.
Italian-American: More than Pizza
As explained earlier, the pizza you eat is probably not Italian. Especially if it was delivered or by the slice. It’s cheap American junk, and it feeds millions of bellies every minute of the day. Wife wants a pepperoni or Hawaiian every Friday night (the Hawaiian was actually designed by a Canadian, but is Canada really a country?).
I totally dig the Italian styles like the Neopolitan, but when it’s time to feed my wife and children as well as another family on a play date, I’m not getting five Margherita pies. I’m calling Papa John’s. Back in the States my new fave is the Sweet and Spicy: pepperoni, jalapeños and pineapple, a fine American mess. As I tell people, just try it!
Italian-American cuisine doesn’t stop at Chicago-style, pepperoni and stuffed-crust pizzas. American-born pastas include chicken parmesan, cajun chicken pasta and baked ziti. Salsiccia with peppers was also born in the USA. Fettucine alfredo originated in Italy, but apparently nobody eats it there, it’s considered American.
One of my favorite illustrations of the difference between Italian and Italian-American food comes from ugly American Paulie Walnuts in Naples. Interestingly, many clips from that episode served as anecdotes in one of my international-business classes.
Tex-Mex and Southwestern Cuisine
A full third of the American mainland used to be Mexico. And once it formed part of the United States, not only were the resident Mexicans now Americans but many other Mexicans have moved to the United States, bringing their Mexican tradition with them. Wikipedia has separate articles for Tex-Mex and Southwestern cuisines.
And from that tradition, American fusions such as chili, fajitas and breakfast burritos were born. In southern California I used to get fish tacos which had poached Mahi Mahi with pineapples in a flour tortilla. After a day at the beach it’s the the kind of thing that hooks people to SoCal life. But the main export here will be chili. Restaurants serving the Mexican-American fusion include Taco Bell and Chili’s.
I’d understand if you don’t want to count all of Taco Bell’s menu item sales toward American cuisine, but then you’d have to give credit for all restaurants’ sales of nachos if they come with orange cheese.
If we were to have a contest for the best food to accompany beer and getting drunk, you just can’t beat American bar food. Salty, spicy, tangy, shareable foods include Buffalo wings, jalapeño poppers, potato skins, spinach dip, mozzarella sticks (American style) – mostly junk but it sells.
In fact I’ve noticed across Latin America that American bar food is so dominant that if you want to open a British brewhouse or Irish pub, you can have authentic beers and décor. And maybe a shepherd’s pie or fish and chips to seem fully authentic, but you’re also going to have to serve cheeseburgers and some of the appetizers listed above. Otherwise you will have the kind of place that is only for British and Irish expats, with no local clients.
Get American bar food at TGI Fridays and their ilk, the local brewpub or at a local wings joint. I was too embarrassed to disclose in my Mexico City article that Wife for just one moment got sick of Mexican food and insisted on lunch at Wingstop. The secret’s out. We also went to an American steakhouse, but that’s just because it was almost 11 p.m. and everywhere was closed. But it was all the wife — I was true to you, Mexico!
A perfect follow-up to bar food is the American salad category. The big boy on the block is the Caesar salad, which you probably thought was Italian. In fact the Caesar salad was created in Mexico, but we’re going to rightfully claim this one given the creator was an Italian-American immigrant who operated restaurants throughout California.
Caesar Cardini opened a restaurant in the border town of Tijuana to accommodate Americans crossing the border to avoid Prohibition laws. The salad just happened to be born in that restaurant, which Cardini abandoned soon after Prohibition was repealed, and the salad was popularized in the States. If you want to call it Mexican food, I would just warn you to be careful not to hurt your shoulder because you’re reaching!
The Cobb salad is another healthy meal typical of California cuisine, as is the less popular Chef salad from New York. You can get the Caesar salad almost anywhere, but the Cobb salad is probably only found at the American chains.
The Sandwich Game
Assuming your city already has a southern barbecue restaurant, I think the best opportunity for a restaurant business in Latin America would be a sandwich shop. Not something fast and cheap like Subway or Jimmy Johns, something like Penn Station.
The Philly cheesesteak is the exact kind of comfort food that people the world over want, and in Latin America a proper Philly is difficult if not impossible to get. The Cuban sandwich was invented in Florida (like Cubans eat that much meat in a day). The Reuben is a personal favorite, as is the Italian sandwich, in which the meats can vary but should have pepperoni if you’re going to sell it abroad.
The misnamed French Dip from Los Angeles is certain to please, the BLT is surprisingly delicious for how simple it is and the Po’ Boy could be categorized under New Orleans regional cuisine but it’s a sandwich, like the Italian-American Caesar is a salad.
Surprisingly, all these sandwiches sell abroad but there is no specialized sandwich chain I know of to get a really good one. You have to go to TGI Fridays and their ilk.
Seafood: Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, Gulf, Lakes, Rivers
The signature American fish is salmon. Smoked salmon, grilled salmon, teriyaki salmon, salmon salad, salmon sushi. New England clam chowder, Maryland crab cakes and popcorn shrimp began as regional specialties which you can find outside the States.
For expensive dining, Alaska king crabs have legs long and thick enough for a meal with melted butter. Lobster from New England used to be considered garbage because they washed up on the coast by the millions. The colonies had laws which prohibited the jails from serving lobster more than three times a week. That is what you call an upwardly mobile crustacean.
American seafood is sold at Red Lobster, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and the usual chains.
Americans weren’t the first people to fry chicken in fat, but what makes fried chicken as eaten throughout the world American is breading the chicken with flour mixed with pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and maybe even an egg- or milk-based batter for an extra crispy outside. And serving it with mashed potatoes and gravy or green beans. Known in Latin America as pollo broaster, an interesting innovation I saw in Colombia was serving it with honey — like ketchup-bottle quantities. Respect!
That same breading is used for country-fried steak but covered in a milk-based gravy. I don’t think grits are too common outside the States, nor are okra or black-eyed peas. And I don’t think America can claim cornbread.
The typical American breakfast features eggs, hash browns, sausage or bacon, toast with both butter and jelly and both coffee and orange juice to drink. A bagel with cream cheese is one of few contributions from America’s Jewish community.
But the bestselling American breakfast outside the United States is probably pancakes with maple syrup. Pancakes are older than Columbus, but combining them with maple syrup is the American innovation. Canadians, I know your blood is boiling, but I just mentioned you. You’re welcome. You are your own country with your own distinct culture, just like Guatemala or El Salvador.
Get an American breakfast outside the States at IHOP or Denny’s restaurant chains, as well as your entrepreneurial locals who know the stuff sells.
But my favorite dessert in the world, maybe tied with Lima’s signature dessert Suspiro de Limeña, is the cheesecake. Cheesecakes date back to ancient Greece, but what makes American cheesecake is cream cheese. And what makes it New York cheesecake is graham-cracker crust and strawberry sauce. In Peru I make Lucuma sauce, a taste of which is worth a day of your life.
As far as regional dishes, no city has as unique of a cuisine as New Orleans’s Cajun food. Popeye’s has branded itself as a Louisiana Kitchen, but I don’t recommend going there for Jambalaya, gumbo, or red beans and rice.
Thanksgiving food might not be available in every city worldwide, but in the bigger cities you’ll be able to get a proper Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving Day. That should at least have roasted turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and yams, with pumpkin pie for dessert. Ideally cranberry sauce and cornbread as well.
Before You Hit Back
Dear Europeans, I am interested in your opinion … as long as they’re thoughtful. What I’m not interested in are reactionary, Ugly Europeans offering kneejerk vitriol as if I’ve written about the Iraq War or Donald Trump. I might delete those comments.
Wanna be influential? Take my advice. Leave a comment that illustrates you’ve read the entire article and are countering my claim only after critically thinking about it. Maybe acknowledge that American food is at least good (otherwise why would so many of your countrymen be eating it and imitating it?), but that it’s not the best* because [insert your thoughtful and objective insight].
But don’t stop there. If American food isn’t the world’s best, you have to say which cuisine is. There can only be one. So after your thoughtful insight, explain your reasons why Italian cuisine is the world’s best.
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