The Dumpster: Un-American Food
We have been invaded. The Europeans snuck in and now all our signature foods are named after their home towns. Hamburger. Frankfurter. We call the latter a hot dog, but in our hearts we know the truth. A hot dog is never very hot, and God willing, does not contain much dog.
American pizza originated in Italy. It evolved from the Roman concoction of flat bread topped with cheese, honey, and bay leaves. The word pizza comes from the Roman word placenta.
There are French fries on the side. In a fit of posey patriotism we tried calling them freedom fries, in honor of us invading another country. Even Dick Cheney gave up on that name. We concede that nobody makes a french fry as good as the French, so they won at least one war. (As I type the word French, it looks like a German word. Who named them French? Shouldn’t they be called Froisebleaux, or something?)
The only food I can think of that even sounds American is the Philly sandwich. But even the Historical Society of Philadelphia admits it was invented at a frankfurter stand in an Italian market. Really, it’s just a French dip sandwich non au jus.
Ice cream? Persia, 400 B.C. But we did invent the ice cream cone. No one knows why we didn’t give it a clever American name, leaving it as literal as if you called a hamburger a lips and tendons purée sandwich.
It is distinctly American that we don’t trust chefs (cheves?) to make a hamburger properly. Bobby Flay himself could make you a $50 hamburger, and without tasting it first you’d pry open the sandwich and dump salt and ketchup on it.
So why don’t chefs put the salt and ketchup on it for you in the first place? Because they know you’d open the bun, discover it is already complete, and not know what to do next.
How did ketchup get to be an American staple? Ketchup sounds distinctly German. (Catsup, a word used on some ketchup bottles and otherwise only by a remote tribe of Appalachians, sounds like an anagram. Indeed, I was alarmed to rearrange the letters and discover cat pus.) You can’t get five Americans to eat a raw tomato, but every refrigerator sold in the United States comes with a bottle of ketchup in the door.
Why? Because it’s mixed with vinegar and salt. Nobody eats cucumbers, but everybody eats pickles. Go to any neighborhood bar and you’ll see a jar of pickled whole eggs on the counter. Try to sell a regular egg at the bar and it’ll hatch into a dinosaur before anybody buys it.
You’ll see Slim Jims for sale at the bar too. Although the name sounds Western, they are nothing more than dried up frankfurters. Sort of a hot dog raisin.
Notice what our German-inspired foods have in common: they are made from ground up things. It’s not that Germans are too lazy to chew. God knows Russia would be named Hitlersburg right now if there had been a hamburger stand outside Leningrad to save the invaders from starvation. It’s that the Germans don’t throw food away like we do. They grind up all sorts of leftover animal parts into hamburger and sausage, and people line up for it. Why not serve those parts separately? Just try to get anyone to eat an ear and sphincter sandwich.
When I was a little kid they passed a law preventing anyone from calling something a hamburger if it didn’t contain beef. I was surprised because I presumed hamburgers were made of ham. I was further troubled when the flashing sign over the Koo-Koo fast-food joint down the street was shortened from “Hamburgers” to “Burgers.”
You can see why as an adult I pay attention to nomenclature.
The truth is this: In spite of all our border guards and flag-waving jingoism and Jan Brewer immigration laws, we cherish our foreign hamburgers, French fries and frankfurters precisely because they are what all Americans are: made somewhere else.
Michael Campbell is a regular humor columnist for Food & Spirits Magazine, where his “Dumpster” essays close every issue. His first book, Are You Going To Eat That, is a collection of 60 essays released in 2009. His off-beat observations have appeared in Reader’s Digest, and he was recently named Humor Writer of The Month by the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Campbell is also a singer-songwriter known for purposeful melody and evocative storytelling in the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, Paul Simon and James Taylor. His newest album is due for release in fall 2014. michaelcampbellsongwriter.com His mom is still waiting for him to get a real job.
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