Assimilating into America changes how immigrants eat, while they in turn influence the American fast-food landscape.
Whenever my French friends begin to criticize the food in the United States, I wholeheartedly disagree with them. Yet I like neither fast food nor sugar in my bread, gravy, soups, etc. Granted, it’s very easy to eat poorly in the States. Fast food chains abound and except for Qdoba (a Mexican fast-food chain like Chipotle but more expensive), I have always had very poor meals in them. On the other hand, it is fairly easy to find good quality meat, fish, fruits and vegetables.
I spent 20 years in Germany before moving to the United States in 2013. I remember Germany from before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. My oldest memories stem from 1981, the year of my first visit. At that time, the stores closed at 2:00pm on Saturdays and the city centers were soon after deserted. The only breath of fresh air during those gloomy weekends was going out to an Italian restaurant or for gelato
The war on fat, but not on sugar
With the exception of Vietnamese restaurants (I’ll talk about them later), all the Italian, Mexican, Chinese, etc. restaurants modify their fare to better suit local tastes. This happens in Germany as well, where they use Gouda or Edam on pizza instead of mozzarella. French pizza features goat cheese, escargots and even duck breast and figs.
I can do my groceries more easily in Washington than in Frankfurt, but my husband and I are challenged to find great little restaurants. It took me a full year before I could find “pure” products in the supermarkets, meaning those without any added sugar. Interestingly, Americans have shunned fatty foods, but sugar is omnipresent. Canned goods, soups and bread are sweeter, while ice cream, yogurt and cookies contain much more sugar than in Europe.
Assimilation into the United States vs. integration in Europe
Immigration is historically an accepted practice in the United States. In a Le Figaro article, historian François Durpaire pointed out that “All Americans, including those opposed to legalizing migrants, share the idea that immigration is an asset for the nation.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 59 million people have immigrated to the United States since 1965! Personally, I don’t know many Americans without at least one European ancestor.
Assimilation into American culture is reflected in their food. Assimilation means that the immigrants embrace the standards, rules and habits of their host society. Most immigrants coming to the United States today are Hispanic, whether they arrive legally or illegally.
In South America meals play a significant sociocultural role, yet this hasn’t hindered the growth of Hispanic fast food chains in the United States, with Chipotle being one the best known.
Asian restaurants are not immune to this assimilation. The Chinese sell fast food from little holes in the wall found on every street corner. The only exception to tradition is that the meals can be eaten with chopsticks as well as cutlery.
Is food more authentic in Europe?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that! Pizza in both France and Germany is very different from its Italian origins. Indian and Thai dishes differ between the two countries, and both are adapted to local tastes.
However, I will point out the exception that is Vietnamese food. My husband and I love Vietnamese cuisine and have found that it’s the same in all three countries in which we have lived the longest: France since childhood, Germany from our 20s to 40s, and now the United States.
An article from La Documentation Française probably best describes the Vietnamese phenomenon:
“The insertion process is less pronounced. While being recognized as an integral part of the host society, the foreigner keeps his original identity and his cultural characteristics are recognized; they are not considered as a barrier to his integration as long as he respects the host society’s rules and values.”
There is little evidence of the war on fat in Asian cuisine, simply because it is naturally lighter fare. In Mexican restaurants, the portions are always gargantuan and streaming with melted cheese.
In addition, organic foods are readily available. Chipotle, the main Mexican-style fast food chain, announced a ban on genetically modified ingredients last April. Chipotle was also one of the first to offer organic salads.
You can easily order a nice salad with salmon in any American restaurant, even in the depths of West Virginia. There are many salad bars like SweetGreen, Chop’t, Tender Greens. I am a very loyal customer of the first two chains, while I impatiently await the arrival of Tender Greens on the East Coast.
Why so much hatred?
The main issue faced by my fellow Frenchmen is that it is more complicated to run errands here in the United States than in France if you want to maintain your eating habits. I must confess I too spend a lot of time in my car just to properly fill my fridge.
I get my fruits, vegetables and dairy products from Trader Joe’s, my meat and fish from Whole Foods or Costco, and my laundry detergent and soap from Target or Giant. However, the quality of my food is far better than it was in Germany where there was only one fish market serving a city of 250,000 people, and where my butcher was located in the Turkish quarter.
Yes, I miss buying slabs of meat with the bone still in them. But you can eat well in the United States, at least in its capital, Washington, DC. For a good restaurant, we go to the Bistrot du Coin in Dupont Circle, or to Le Diplomate on 14th. But our favorite restaurant right now is the Four Sisters in Fairfax, Virginia. It’s a delicious Vietnamese restaurant that was recommended to us by our Vietnamese realtor, Xuan.