Tete-a-tete Archives

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Tete-a-tete: As American as apple pie: U.S. culture, through other eyes

It’s quite an intriguing experience to see your own culture through the eyes of another culture, and I believe this is especially true for those of us who are from the United States. I’m not referring to encountering stereotypes while traveling abroad about how Americans look or behave but rather to coming across a physical representation of American culture created by people who are not part of that culture.

I had such an adventure while vacationing at a resort in the Dominican Republic with Mom and 16-year-old Younger Sister, who insisted on going someplace where there were palm trees. One of the draws of this particular resort was that many of its restaurants were centered around different types of cuisine: Italian, French, Dominican, Mexican, Mediterranean, Thai, and … American?

Our curiosity was piqued. Since the United States is a very diverse country ethnically and geographically, it was difficult for me to envision dishes ubiquitous enough to characterize the cuisine of our entire nation. I tend to think in terms of regional specialties – clam chowder in New England, beef dishes in the Midwest, collard greens and cornbread in the South. You also have the myriad ethnic cuisines that have become part of America’s food culture.

With so many factors at play, how can any one restaurant (and any reasonably-sized kitchen staff, for that matter) encapsulate American cuisine? Such a feat is nigh well impossible.

It turns out, however, that there are enough distinctly American restaurant traits – as well as distinctly American foods – that you can indeed create an “American” restaurant.

The first thing we noticed upon walking into the “American Grill” was the booths. All of the resort’s other restaurants and various buffets and snack bars only had tables and chairs. The waiters elsewhere in the resort wore polo shirts or white dress shirts with ties, but here, they had short-sleeved, cowboy-style plaid shirts and plaid baseball caps.

We couldn’t help laughing. We’re so accustomed to restaurants with booths and waiters with snazzy uniforms that it never occurred to us to think of these as “American” traits. Seeing them in the context of a theme restaurant in a foreign country, however, we had to admit they’d hit the nail on the head.

Instead of placing a roll on each individual bread plate like in the other restaurants, our waiter brought over a loaf of bread in a basket and set it in the middle of our table – yet another common aspect of chain restaurants in the United States, but one that we hadn’t considered as such until we experienced it in this context.

“Can we ask for more bread?” Younger Sister inquired while buttering up a slice. “Because that’s American, too.”

We gave it a try, and to our delight, the waiter obliged. Excited by the joy of discovery, we put our bread consumption on hold to visit the “salad bar” and see what obvious yet surprising foods it might hold.

It turned out to be quite the assortment – onion rings, loaded potato wedges, tomato soup, Caesar salad, bleu cheese dressing, chicken wings, chicken nuggets and chicken noodle soup, just to name a few. I hadn’t realized that we Americans have such a taste for chicken. Entrees on the menu included chicken fingers (of course), baby-back ribs with a Hawaiian marinade, and a hamburger that quite literally turned out to be the size of my face.

I had previously been aware that large portion sizes are considered an American thing, but I had never seen it interpreted quite this way. In the United States, restaurants tend to increase a hamburger’s size by building up. They stack on additional patties, toppings, even layers of bread. This was the first time I had encountered a hamburger made bigger by dramatically increasing the circumference of the bun and the patty. I almost needed a third hand to lift it.

True to its American style, the restaurant had bottles of ketchup and A1 steak sauce out on the tables, which we hadn’t seen anywhere else at the resort. Our table was sadly ketchup-less, so we did the American thing and borrowed a bottle from a nearby empty table.

The dessert menu was another treasure trove of obvious surprises. There was apple pie (naturally), strawberry cheesecake and a brownie a la mode, among other offerings. There were some subtle differences in flavor and presentation between these versions and what you’d expect at a restaurant in the United States, but they were certainly tasty and recognizable.

And last, but definitely not least, one of our fellow diners happened to be celebrating their birthday. All the available waiters and kitchen staff came out with musical instruments and sang “Happy Birthday to You” in English and Spanish. They were very enthusiastic about performing (we could hear them practicing in the kitchen), and the song continued for a good ten minutes, with everyone else in the restaurant clapping and singing along. I can say with certainty that we did not encounter this in any of the other restaurants.

The concept of culture in the United States is a fascinating one. Just as many cultures from all over the world have contributed their influences and ingenuity to American cuisine, various aspects of the United States’ non-food culture – like blue jeans and baseball – have become integral parts of other cultures. Due to this combination of assimilation and dissemination, it’s difficult to point to any one cultural element as solely and distinctively “American.” At least, that’s the way it looks to me as someone who was born and raised in this culture.

To those who were not, however, the distinctions are clear and involve comfortable restaurant seating, bottomless bread baskets, a salad bar, burgers and chicken and the birthday song. Those are distinctions I can certainly embrace.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published June 4, 2015

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