Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sandwiches, the Great American Food

This year as last year, I wondered what I would eat when I got to America. After sampling western fare only minimally this entire year in China and enjoying the sheer variety of food one can make of just a few ingredients here, again I pondered: what is classic American fare?

Come to find out, it is the sandwich.

Yes, the humble sandwich stands out as a classic in American dining. How did I come to realize this? My first day and a half in America, I had consumed no less than 3 sandwiches.

When Darrell and Sammi picked me up at the airport at 3PM, I was flight weary and confused as to which way is up. No, I’m using that as an excuse to hide how bewitched and entranced I was by Baby Bun, my newest grandchild. I literally could not take my eyes off of him. Such a beautiful baby!

I actually have pictures to prove it. Screaming, feeding or sleeping (him, not me), I was completely riveted by that child. So, when Darrell and Sammi suggested drive thru sandwiches for dinner I agreed with little awareness to what I was agreeing to.

The next day, a little more conscious – those international flights do take it out of you, don’tcha know, we went on a picnic at the beach. It was quite cold so we ate quickly, standing up and shivering. Of course, it is easy to eat a sandwich that way. Standing up, I mean. Shivering and quickly are optional, and not options I would normally prefer. But Darrell and Sammi were trying to make my first few days there fun and I went along, even though I was still a bit out of it.

I ‘came to’ at about 2AM that night/morning, and was ravenous. Quietly I went to the kitchen and inventoried the contents of the fridge. Ah, whole grain wheat tortillas, good. Also lunchmeat, some cheese and… what’s this? Champagne/honey mustard dressing? A must! All the makings of a good, quick wrap. I devoured it over the kitchen sink and reflected that, in my first thirty-six hours in America I had consumed no less than 3 sandwiches, a wrap being considered a sandwich for the carb conscious. Surely there is a blog entry in there somewhere, right? 

I went back to ‘couch’ – my bed for the nonce, pondering on that. I recalled the time my students and I went on a day camp out in the country just outside Wuhan. A busload of us rumbled out to what would be considered a Day Recreation Area in the States. There were swings and a pond to fish from. There were other outdoor activity areas as well. A small chalet had rooms for ping-pong, a few billiard tables and some rooms for karaoke.

The camp hosts provided each group of 8 with a wok, a coal burning canister, a few sets of chopsticks and some paper plates and cups. We had one 2-liter of Pepsi and one 2-liter of Sprite, one fish, 3 hot dogs, 2 cucumbers, 1 onion, 1 pepper, 4 potatoes, 4 eggs, a pod of garlic, a small baggie of shredded pork and a small baggie with minced chicken, and a few other veggies. Each ‘camp’ got to cook the dishes they were most familiar with. Namely, each student cooked one dish.

I cooked nothing, being the revered guest. I got to make the round of the camps, and was treated to a sampling of each group’s efforts. At Jinkey’s camp they offered me a squat plastic stool to sit on prior to digging into their dishes, the same stools as those that littered the entire campground. Unfortunately Jinkey’s group set up camp on an incline and, as my posterior grazed the stool’s surface gravity took over and I went ass-end over tea kettle down the hill.

The kids were mortified! Till I got up, laughing what was left of my tea kettle off. They laughed with me, dusted me off and sat me down on a more secure stool. I tasted their food, declared it more than tasty and moved on. There were other ‘camps’ to visit, more food to eat and more memories to be made.  

I headed to the camp where a crowd of students had gathered. More were walking away from that particular camp, shaking their head in amazement. I had to go see what made that camp so special. 
Our bus driver had taken over the cooking. Bossing the students about like minions, in quick succession he cooked up no less than thirty dishes from just those few ingredients while they chopped, skinned and prepared. Astounded we watched as, repeatedly, he emptied his wok into one metal bowl after the other and commenced to cooking yet another dish.

After witnessing a display like that, I had to wonder: what can an American chef do with just one fish, 3 hot dogs, 2 cucumbers, 1 onion, 1 pepper, 4 potatoes, 4 eggs, a pod of garlic, a small baggie of shredded pork and a small baggie with minced chicken, and some other veggies?

That’s not fare… I mean, fair. The Chinese have been cooking for over five thousand years. American cuisine is a melting pot of tastes and cultures, all rolled into a few fabulous dishes and presented with panache. Wait… the Chinese have panache too.

They also have cooking specialized by region: Beijing, Sechuan, Cantonese and Mongol being the four greats that most other dishes are derived from. Beijing is rather bland while Sechuan is spicy, Cantonese plays heavily on seafood while Mongol is mostly meat and rice based.

OK, back to the original question: what is traditional American fare? 

Most times, a decent, salt-of-the-earth guy is described as a ‘meat and potatoes’ man, when talking gastronomy. And, in fact, most American dishes involve a meat – usually beef, chicken or pork, some kind of starch and a veggie. And a dessert… AH, DESSERT!!! America wins, hands down, at dessert. The Chinese are truly lacking in the dessert milieu.

Beyond a classic meat and potatoes meal, what do Americans eat the most? Well, just look at American restaurants for that answer: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Chick-fil-a, Whataburger and Braum’s – offerings only in Texas, Subway – now gone international, Which wich?, Jason’s Deli, ANY deli… and what do you find?


What did you brown bag to school when you were a kid? What do your kids brown bag nowadays? What do you take on picnics? What do you eat at a standard barbeque? What do you eat on the 4th of July? What did we eat at Aaron and Ashley’s baby shower? (answer: hamburgers and hot dogs).


What did I eat with Ann and Ron? What did I eat with Kevin? What did I eat with Darrell and Sammi? What did I eat the most of in Florida?


What did I eat with Chris and George, with Mark, with Suzanne?

Not sandwiches. However, George and I had one of the best stromboli I’ve ever had the pleasure of putting my teeth into. Chris opted for pizza.

And that leads me to America’s international gastronomy. While I still maintain that sandwiches are standard American fare, that country’s menu offers an impressive list of foods derived from its many ethnicities: soul food – normally deep fried, with some type of greens on the side; southern cooking, rich in flour-based dishes like gravy this and biscuit that. Then we have pizza – a national favorite, Italian, a nod to those immigrants, French for the more cultured palate, German for those of Teutonic ancestry, vegetarian/vegan for those avoiding animal fat. Creole hails from the Gulf region and Mexican from our southern neighbors; Latino, from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic/Haiti. In minority: Australian, Hungarian, Russian, Latvian, Greek… if you really want to get eclectic. Just about any country is represented, even Japan, Korea and China, which to my palate is not authentic Chinese but Americanized Chinese food. And I am somewhat of an authority in that matter, having lived here for 2 years.    

Not that many people want to get that eclectic. That is why I conclude that traditional American fare is indeed the humble sandwich, in all of its varieties: from cold cut po’boys to hot-off-the-grill hambugers, from fancy, artisan bread creations to the newfangled wrap for those venturing on the light side, sandwiches… sandwiches ALL.

Final cry: I found, much to my initial delight and ensuing dismay, that Subway has opened several branches in Wuhan. Yes, I am guilty: I ate at Subway the other night, just to see if the Subway experience here is the same as in the States. I’ve already told you that McDonalds’ has tailored their menu to meet Chinese appetites and KFC has put things on the menu in China that would never feature in America – seaweed congee, anyone?

From what I can tell, Subway is exactly the same, whether here or there. They do not offer the same variety of breads and they are definitely more conservative on the veggies here, but the principle is the same. The way you build your sandwich – same, and even the chips were an acceptable barbeque flavor rather than shrimp or tomato flavored. I washed down the last of my wheat bun, 6” sub with Sprite, served not stingily by the attending clerk but at an open fountain where you can take as many refills as you want, just like in America.

The ancient chefs of China must be rolling in their graves. 

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