We are Americans Obsessed with Food Now?

Why have Americans become obsessed with food now, over the last three years in particular?

I had a blow to my ego last week when an article that I wrote and majorly revised for a food magazine was firmly rejected. Nine months earlier, when I first pitched the article, the editor had thrown praise at me, saying it was one of the best pitches she had read. After such long process that had started so well, I just felt beaten at the final negative response.

I thought about how food writers are becoming a dime dozen and considered, frankly, moving on from food writing for a while. There's a glut of it anyway. Why should I bother trying to do better what thousands of people are already doing, too? Why would I want to compete in that environment? (Bear in mind that I was feeling really down about the article rejection. I've since cheered up.)

Food readers have exploded in numbers recently, too, and the exercise of stepping back and thinking about the food reading and writing scene in the U.S. sprouted many questions and moments of contemplation.

The other area that I write about, technology, is equally strong from a content perspective. Technology — consumer tech, business tech, academic study — became ubiquitous so quickly, and we Americans (and others, of course; but I can speak most confidently of the U.S. landscape) adopted technological ways and products seamlessly into our lives so quickly. That mass and speedy adoption greatly informs my overall understanding of the modern Way of being, thinking, acting, and interacting.

Then, I think about food, one of the oldest things in our lives, right up there with sex, which has for tens of thousands of years been thought of by the masses as a completely unsophisticated and simple thing. We all have eaten since the beginning of human time. We have been cooking for ourselves since before we had perfected the art of written language to communicate skills and methods.

With the tecnhonogical changes we've seen in our nation and world, why have we turned our attention and thought back to this most simple and basic of things? Small groups of people have followed food and studied it from multiple disciplinary perspectives for a number of years, but it only really took off in a popular culture sense very very recently.

It seems in opposition to our fascination and adoption of technology, though, and things that I'm going to refer to as "sophisticated."

The obsession with food and cooking could be explained as part and parcel of the campaign to fix our nation's health. Health has been a timeless topic for Americans who are also obsessed with purity (clean food, unadulterated or "natural" health) and outperforming others ("my diet is more effective and 'better' than yours"). If you've never seen the movie The Road to Wellsville, do see it when you have a chance. It shows health nuts from 100 years ago; watch for the psychological and social aspects that are still prevalent today.

The one question that I'm still mulling over is why are we obsessing over, or at leastbecoming seriously more interested in, a topic that returns us to a simple past? Despite new cooking methods and high tech kitchen tools (which, by the way, are shockingly unsophisticated compare to techy tools and gadgets in other areas), taking an interset infood, learning and caring about its origins, taking a wholistic approach to diet and wellness, feeds and fuels the mythology of returning to a Golden Age—returning to the land, reconnecting with nature, returning to a simpler way of life (which is necessarily seen as "better").

It all just clashes with the technology movement. On the other hand, my observation that these things don't make sense together is a very dialectical way of viewing the world. I guess my real interest is in wondering how the American Way allows these two things to coexist, or even somehow encourages it.

Mild Tastes, or Why I Ate the Tofu

Tofu dessert in Penang, Malaysia.

What happens when we taste food that contains more spice, more herbs, new flavors, and brighter colors than what we're used to?

In the book The Taste of Sweet, the author mentions that Americans got hooked on convenience foods that had those elements: sweet and colorful sauces (think Heinz ketchup, for example) and stronger spices, as in Kentucky Fried Chicken (an Asian favorite, I should mention) and many make-at-home, premixed, quick-cooking meals of the Betty Crocker and Duncan Heinz variety.

My friends and I (three Americans and one Malaysian) were browsing menus in a slightly upscale Cantonese restaraunt in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, enjoying a decent meal out as part of our vacation in Southeast Asia. The plan was to eat family-style. As we starting calling out the dished that we wanted to order, it became apparent to me just how much the American palette favors strong flavors, highly spiced foods, and dishes whose focal point is meat.

What happened was I wanted to order tofu in bean curd skin. The two other Americans struck down the suggestion ferociously, as if I had just suggested we lick the walls of a nuclear reactor. They jumped on the very idea "bean curd skin" like it was an affront to their dignity. Their refusal would not be compromised, and had I order it even for just myself, they would have batted it off the table like a cockroach.

Seeing as we were dining family-style, I let it go, but not without a few words on the matter first.

The softer foods in "ethnic" cuisines balance the more assertive ones on the table. Bean curd's light flavor and texture contrasts well with the heftier foods. A silky tofu dessert leaves the mouth tasting refreshed and soft. Bites of a fluffy egg omelet (which we did order that day at lunch) float through the mouth and down to the tummy quietly, unlike the slurpy noodles that slither around the tongue. Clear and cold broths, cups of yogurt, steamed savory custards, and a final plate of fresh sliced fruit all serve the same purpose.

But these options are often missing or diminished on menus in American restaraunts that attract a majority of Western diners. Soft foods with subtle flavors are pushed to the end or omitted entirely and can only be found in restaurants that cater mire to immigrang customers from the motherland.

One thing my friends convinced me of is this: You can't change someone cultural palette easily. It's developed from a very early age, and while many people will enjoy foods from other cultures, they usually don't want to eat outside of their cultural palette for more than a few meals in a row.

It's understandable, of course, but I hadn't even thought of it in those terms before.

Let me tell you about the two photos on this post. They were taken the night we had an extreme pig out at midnight, after a very long day of traveling from Koh Phi Phi, Thailand, to Penang. We took a long-tail boat, a ferry, a car. We crossed the border. We drove in the dark. We got a little bit lost getting to the right spot in Penang, and then we had trouble finding parking. By the time we reached our feedbag, we were all ready to just descend upon it like Tazmanian devils.

My friend, Tong, did the ordering while five of us squatted a picnic table in a huge food market. Tong disappeared, circled the scene, and placed orders like they were bets at a race horse track. Then the food started coming... and it dish after dish, it didn't stop.

These two photos are of tofu desserts that arrived at the table early, mostly because they didn't require any cooking time. Order them, and they come straightaway. As hungry as we were, no one really wanted to eat the tofu dessert except me. I started to worry that I was hogging it, and that I was filling up on dessert before any of the main dishes hit the table. But I really enjoyed them, especially the one with the dark sauce. Silky mouthfuls of tofu, cool but not cold, sweet but not sticky, slithered down my throat. I picked up the little plastic soup spoon again and again, then darted my eyes around the table once more to check: "Do you guys want some of this?" Everyone waved it off with the flick of their hands, waiting instead for char-siu, spiced fish packets in banana leaves, greasy noodles, deep-fried pigs' ears, a whole fish filleted and charred, and more and more and more. And no one else ate the tofu.

I didn't eat every bite of it. There was just too much else to try. But I did savor the contrasting flavors and textures, looking to the tofu for balance and serenity.

Tofu dessert in Penang, Malaysia.

Shaved Ice in Penang

In Penang, Malaysia, my friend told me we had to have shaved ice before we left. He lives in Kuala Lumpur now, but he did his undergraduate degree in Penang, so he knows the town pretty well. He said we'd have to go to one of the covered market areas to find the vendor he liked, which was fine by me seeing as "covered" markets meant shade and it was 90 degrees outside with a blaring midday sun on my pale skin.

He ordered two bowls to start, one for himself and one for the other friends who were traveling with us, and asked me which one I wanted. There were three pictures above the vendor's cart, though I couldn't tell the difference between two of them. So I said, "I want the one that's different from the one you're getting so I can try at least two."

The one I got was what you see in the picture above, and I'll be damned if I pretend I know what all the things are in that bowl, but I can at least describe for you what I tasted.

It starts with a mound of shaved ice. This isn't sno-cone ice. It's soft like snow, and hand-cranked on a machine that looks like a large vice. Next, the pink coloring is a flavored syrup. My friend said it was rose syrup, but I disagree. It tasted distinctly like bubble gum, or to be more specific, the bubble gum flavoring of a dental fluoride treatment circa 1986, which was the one and only year I ever picked bubble gum to take the edge off a dental hygiene procedure. (By gosh, what a mistake...)

Next, see those bright green balls? They are the size and shape of chickpeas with the texture of a very firm gummy candy. However, they are nearly flavorless.

Seeing as the green jellies don't add anything to the mix, a heaping spoonful of red beans, small black beans, and yellow corn skis down the ice imparting their own contrasts. A few strands of green jelly noodles, buried beneath a layer of snow, wriggle and poke out here and there.

By far, hands down, without any hedging, this was the most disgusting thing I ate in southeast Asia. Or, at least I tried to eat it. I nibbled at the ice first, which is when I decided it was best to avoid the ice altogether. Then I picked at the beans and corn, slurped a few noodles, chewed on a green jelly chickpea, and called it a day.

Then I moved to the other option, shown below.

It looks uglier, but it actually tastes refreshing and sweet. This concoction has far less ice (the seller will serve you an extra bowl of plain ice on the side to add it as you eat), but much more liquid. It's more like a cold dessert soup than an "icy," with a milk that has been steeped with barley cereal and sugar or maltose. The same wriggly green noodles were in this dish, but you can taste them much more clearly here. The red beans held their own better in this simpler dish, too.

Fruits of Southeast Asia

In Thailand and Malaysia, there is no shortage of sumptuously ripe fruit. Mangoes drip with juice that's almost like honey. Papayas practically melt in the mouth. Kiwis are the same vibrant green as the litlle lizards that dash and skitter along the walls. Coconut water and coconut milk are pervasive.

I've had a bit of fruit education, too, trying for the first time rambutan, mangosteen, dragonfruit, jackfruit, rose apple, a different varietal of orange that's small, perfectly round, green on the outside, and tastes similar to a tangerine. Unripened guavas are served precut in a plastic bag as street food with chilis, spices, and crushed peanuts to mask their sour-bitter flavor. Like the seasoned guavas, almost any fruit you can think of can be found peeled, precut, and ready to eat on the street, including pineapple, watermelon, and lychee.

In Panang, we ate a special dish called Rojak, which is a plate of fresh fruit cut into bite-sized pieces and drowned in a thick, dark, and sticky sauce, the color and consistecy of a very dark chocolate sauce, sprinkled with peanut meal. We had it at an outdoor food market at midnight, when many of the other stalls were closing; but this tiny food cart had a line of about 7 or 8 patient locals waiting for their rojak. The sauce is clearly what makes rojak special, but the mix of fruits is refreshing too, blending bitter (bitter melon), sour (something like a very tart kumquat) sweet, mild, juicy, soft, crunchy (there are oblong crouton-like pieces as well), sticky, and smooth all together.

Another fruit I tried for the first time is one whose name I have yet to learn in English. A Thai man called it kathong. It's the size of an apple but more closely resembles an oversized, beige fig. It tastes as if it might belong to the squash and melon family, teasing my tongue with a memory of raw pumpkin. Boyfriend said he noticed the faint taste of basil, and I did too after he said that, something herbaceous but distinctively basil-like. If anyone knows this fruit's common English name, I'd love to know it!

Buddhas and Offering in Thailand

(Not my photo.)

I'm in southeast Asia on vacation and after three days in Thailand, I found myself fascinated with people's relationship with Buddha images. During a long car ride earlier today from Chumpon to Krabi, I jotted some notes:

Little shrines are everywhere: in hotel lobbies, outside large bank buildings and shopping malls in Bangkok, on the deck's of people who live along the canals, and of course within the temple walls. People buy garlands of jasmine on the street that have a loop and tail similar to a rosary, and offer them to Buddha. Women and children can be seen on the roadside stringing the flowers, and in Bangkok we saw people walking along the divider line in traffic selling them to drivers through car windows.

In one temple at the Golden Mount, there was a small Buddha statue covered in gold leaf that fluttered gently in the air conditioning (photos were not allowed inside), and four plastic water bottles, filled to the brim yet uncapped, had been left for the Buddha. They were clearly not left mistakenly because the sat on the statue's platform and were spaced evenly and straight, like toy soldiers.

Unlike in Chinese shops in San Francisco, were devotees of shrines (I don't think the ones I've seen there were Buddhist) leave oranges, in Thailand it was never food left for the Buddha, but usually flowers, coins, incense, and candles.

One taxi driver in Bangkok had a dollhouse-sized shrine on his dashboard. A tiny golden pagoda brought a sense of calmness and peace, always in the driver's sight, amidst the chaos and frustration of Bangkok traffic. And just in front of the little figurine was a faded photo of an old man whom I can only guess was the driver's deceased father.