Musing in the USA. | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer, Locavore on Mar 12, 2018

[Sumfood staff frequently travel from New Zealand to the United States. Things are ... different there. Here's a couple of observations from Helen, a proud Kiwi foodie and overseer of the Sumfood Instagram feed.]

PART I: The Ubiquitous Ketchup

Some years ago I watched a documentary about certain species that were predicted to become increasingly dominant. Aggressive, invasive interlopers like eucalyptus trees or magpie birds that would take over, reduce variety and displace native or endemic species. Think delicate, melodious birdsong replaced by the 'scraw' of the magpie.

Similarly, when traveling anywhere in the US you can’t help but notice The Ubiquitous Ketchup -- poured into a small dish beside your meal in more up-market establishments, or plonked front and center on your table in mom-and-pop greasy spoons, or lined like sentinels across counters in glistening diners. Is ketchup the magpie of the food world, drowning out unique flavours and textures and replacing them with a security blanket of taste? A gustatory familiarity that belies location, context or foodstuff? Extreme comfort food? Its ubiquitousness becomes even more graphic when you consider that, for a traveler, one doesn't come across many varieties of ketchups. Oddly, it always seems to be from one producer: Heinz.

So, what constitutes the condiment that populates US restaurants like weeds in an abandoned field? According to the Heinz website, their ketchup contains tomato concentrate (specifically from 'red ripe tomatoes'), vinegar, salt, spice, onion powder, natural flavoring (unspecified), high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup. If you remove the vinegar and onion powder, it would seem that diners in the US plaster savouy food with something akin to jelly or jam. And, they seem to do it with careless abandon at breakfast, lunch, dinner ... and every possible meal in between.

It's confusing to a visitor from New Zealand, where by and large food flavors ‘stand on their own’ with only occasional seasoning (salt/pepper) or the delicate dollop of an artisan relish. Watching fellow diners in the US, I wonder whether we are dumbing food down to the point where only a limited number of flavors are expected. When something falls outside of this shrunken range we either add the condiment to make it ubiquitous or reject it.

Why does this matter, you may ask?

First, a disclaimer: There is no accounting for taste and people are free to do with their food as they wish (after all, the US is the country with ‘cheese’ in a can). When it comes to Sumfood-focused issues like food sustainability and food safety, however, we have to build knowledge about food. Crucial to this is experiencing different tastes and food types -- homogenous food experiences do not lend themselves to burgeoning awareness about food preparation, food origin, food sustainabilty, etc.

Another, more insidious side to this ketchup ubiquitousness involves safety. Our senses are our first defense when it comes to food: what something looks, smells and tastes like provides important insight into whether it is safe to eat. We cannot see micro-organisms of course, but we can see if something is fully cooked or as fresh as advertised -- smother it with a red blanket of ketchup and we potentially lose, alongside a unique gustatory experience, an important safety feedback opportunity.

Part II: Plastic Fantastic

No, this is not a commentary on body enhancement procedures; rather it's a reflection on the attachment between the average person on an American street and their beverage of the moment. A desperate liquid insecurity must grip the inhabitants of a nation who fear that both the proverbial and actual well may run dry. Is it required to be firmly gripping a drink at all times, even when entering establishments like cafes and restaurants that offer such beverages for purchase? Or is it standard to always question the ability of an eating establishment to provide fluids to its customers?.

Now, there is good scientific evidence to support hydrating ourselves. The maximum time, it would seem, that you can go without water is a week (this time is shorter in hotter weather) but it seems a tad extreme to think that dehydration may occur in the distance between Starbucks and the office.

The real issue, however, is not the dependence on the drink-at-hand, but rather confusion about why ‘takeaway’ is always the default order. Everyone seems to opt for disposable cups -- even when ‘drinking in’ and good, old-fashioned crockery is within reach. One of the strangest observations of American dietary habits is watching people take paper cups and then not to take away their beverage. What am I missing? Do drinks taste better when delivered in something destined to be thrown away? Do plastic lid infuse extra flavour as the drink is sucked through them? Do scalded hands shock the system and generate additional nutritional enhancement? I’m guessing it’s a big fat ‘no’ to all these questions and we're looking at disposable cups being a matter of habit.

The real -- genuine -- takeaway from this? Our eating and drinking habits extend beyond the food we consume to the way we consume it. Taking time to think about that could have a significant positive impact on relationships, sustainability and diet.

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