Do Americans settle for mediocre food?

In the 1st issue of David Chang’s quarterly journal, Lucky Peach, one topic that resonated with me was his animated discussion with Anthony Bourdain and Wylie Dufresne about mediocrity in American tastes…their palates. Chang concluded that “people are comfortable just staying in the middle.” Dufresne says, “ America doesn’t have a long history of rewarding those who have taken risks, culinarily…” and Bourdain says that restaurants that aspire higher “get slapped down from the get go.” To paraphrase Bourdain a little, it’s all about compromising and keeping your food and labor costs according to template. It’s insanity to try it any other way.

So here is an immigrant’s point of view…

When I first moved to the U.S. 14 years ago I was smacked right in Charleston, West Virginia. My hometown in the Philippines had more restaurants per capita. When the recruiter asked me where I wanted to go for dinner I said, “Mc Donald’s!”

There is that colonial mentality (the Philippines was under U.S. governance for a couple of years) rearing its head and everything that is American is popular in the Philippines courtesy of Hollywood movies and TV shows.

My first U.S. meal in McDonald’s was a disappoint because there was no fried chicken with rice. Apparently fast food franchises adapt their menu to a country’s taste.
The next fast food to disillusion me was KFC, chicken was bland and the gravy tasted of pepper and nothing else.

Got me wondering, why do fast foods in the Philippines taste better than their U.S. counterpart. You would think it would be the same formula. Up to this day when I go home for a visit, I can’t wait to have a midnight meal at KFC before heading up to my hometown of Baguio. The food is definitely tastier, the chicken is served with rice and you’ve got the tastiest gravy courtesy of a gravy pump by the condiments section – a gravy pump! Warm gravy that tastes like well-seasoned drippings from a roast chicken.

To eat at an American fast food chain in the Philippines isn’t cheap. It’s almost a treat to do so, one you would reserve during payday or the family weekend out. Most families still cook their meals from scratch and frozen dinners are not very popular because not everyone has a freezer so when they spend money to eat out, it better taste good and that includes fast food restaurants.

Twelve years ago I moved to Richmond and I was excited thinking the fast food was better – bigger city, right? I still didn’t cook remember? My recruiter this time asked me if I liked seafood because there’s this place known for their crabs. I was thrilled remembering the whole dungeness crab I had at Fisherman’s wharf in San Francisco. This was the “The Hard Shell” and no there were no piles of steamed whole dungeness crabs…just crab legs. Best pizza in town that time apparently was Bottoms up pizza.

I had an eerie feeling that all food tasted the same.

I was new in town, I didn’t know of Carytown or the Fan area yet. I was too timid to explore the Metro on my own because a friend told me there were some places I didn’t want to get lost in and I hate parallel parking.

When my brother and his family came for a visit, I took them to Olive Garden. I was almost apologetic about that meal because it was the most expensive I could afford and it tasted like nothing. We were eating crappy fast food most of the time. I figured when we head up to New York, we’d eat better.

A few months later, things started to happen, a new co-worker who was originally from Berkley, California befriended me and asked me if I tried this incredible noodle bowl from this Chinese restaurant. That’s how I got my introduction to Full Kee.

Then I had another friend come in for a visit and I was desperate as to where to take her – this person loved good food.That’s when “Hungry” Hubby (HH) who was then just a co-worker and sitting a cubicle away, told me about Franco’s (Paolo Randazzo of Sensi ‘s old place). He said I’ve got to try this place and was I glad I did. Both my friend and I were transported to heaven by our meal there.

From then I followed the trail down the rabbit hole and uncovered a whole new world of food.

I could see some reasons why the American tastebuds are so middling.

If they do not know what they’ve been missing in the first place, they are less likely to look for it.

This is more apparent when raising a family in the suburbs. In between a day job, picking a child from day care and running the other kid to soccer practice, one would likely dine closer to home, and what do we have in suburbia? Chain restaurants and mediocre Italian joints in strip malls. But then do fast foods purposely keep the flavor that way because that’s what people want? Vicious cycle.

So one starts to feed their kids that stuff and likely shaping their palates into mediocrity all the way to adulthood.

I know a couple who used to frequent the Fan and Carytown restaurants but when they had kids they didn’t really want to travel too far from their suburban home because the babysitter costs money.

Another is sports bars and America’s love for sports. If there’s a sports bar that serves decent food, please let me know. I could be wrong.

The franchises are the ones with money to advertise so it’s a losing battle at that end for locally-owned restaurants.

But locally-owned, neighborhood restaurants are not any better. Yes, there’s more than a few that open with such promise only to fall back into the formulaic mediocrity of their chain restaurant counterparts. Are crabcakes on every restaurant menu really necessary?

I’m ready for more exciting food, aren’t you RVA? Let’s let our chefs take risks in their creativity and lets go support them.

I do see a glimmer of hope, at least in Short Pump. We now have Lehja. Also Pescado’s had their start in the Southside, opened Pescado’s China street in Oregon Hill and now have The White Anchovie in the West End. We need more folks like them who have enough clout to pave the way for good dining and to raise the bar past mediocrity in Richmond.

Sorry for rambling….

* I do eat fast food sometimes. I think Chipotle rocks as a fast food chain. I like Chick-fil-a and you’ll most likely find me at Mc Donald’s on a hot day ordering a quarter-pounder with cheese with one of their perfectly-carbonated sodas.

10 thoughts on “Do Americans settle for mediocre food?

  1. Nice thought provoking article, Veron.

    I think you are right on target when it comes to the convenience of the fast food places.

    Whenever I travel, I stop a person on the street and ask them where I should go for good food. The locals know best, they never refuse and they are 99% right!

    Thanks for sharing…

  2. An interesting post! Unfortunately, I can say nothing on that subject as I have never been to the USA. One thing is sure though, Americans have great food magazines!



  3. You’re right. How can you ask for more when you don’t know what to ask for? I didn’t get it until I left the country for the first time. If you’re never exposed to flavor, how do you know what flavor is?

  4. So true! Same is true for desserts! I’m not a big dessert fan but when I see some folks eat up the sugar-loaded, tasteless frostings off cakes and such and rave about it, kinda get despressed…

  5. I never experienced this growing up in the U.S. (although I don’t live there anymore and immigrated to Japan) but I grew up thinking the opposite that America had all this culture and food because of the melting pot that it is, and its quite true, but if you step outside the city zones, or uncultured suburban areas, its dire, and we are left with cake icings that have crisco in it for goodness sake, might as well eat a ho-ho.

    I lived outside the city once and it was dire, Olive Garden.. that is NOT real italian food ,but it’s okay fast food, mc donalds tends to only hit the spot when I’m having PMS.

  6. Traveling does open your eyes to other cultures and food. It’s not being able to afford to travel either since I’ve run into a lot of foreigners in the Philippines just backpacking their way through, if you want to travel and explore the world you can do it on a budget instead of playing it safe and staying on a cruise ship.
    elle marie – yes I was referring more to suburbia but in rva most people moved out of the city so some city restaurants r not raising the bar but simply following the menu of chain restaurants that majority of folks go to. In a big city like NY or SanFran where like you said is a melting pot of cultures, this is not a problem. Haha, MCD’s I think I do go maybe once a month or less it’s just when I have this odd craving for their carbonated sodas.

  7. I will not eat fast food anymore, it makes me sick. I will however get a slice of utility pizza here in NYC and food from a halal cart, but only from one of two guys whose food doesn’t make me sick. Fast food is gross. I haven’t had McDonald’s in years and have never eaten at Olive Garden.

    I grew up in the ‘burbs of NYC, my parents had their own garden, then got too busy with work and life to have a garden and food started reverting back to the “pre-garden” days. It is pretty depressing going home and seeing the choices around that are supposed to be “good.” Granted, they aren’t places like the Olive Garden. Q’uel horreur!

    Traveling, moving to different places, and being around people who love really good food definitely influence your palate. I do think a lot of it is just accepting what is put in front of you and not demanding better: better restaurants, better produce, better meat/fish…

  8. Pingback: The Roosevelt gets it | Kitchen Musings

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