The American Food FAQ
Etikett-Professorn is often asked to explain the strange eating habits of Americans. In his never-ending struggle to explain the behavior of Swedes and Americans to each other, he is pleased to present this first edition of what he hopes will grow to be an invaluable reference work for the benefit of his Swedish readers.
Would you like to contribute a Frequently-Asked-Question to this list (or even an answer)? Contact Etikett-Professorn at firstname.lastname@example.org. ( It is no longer possible to write)
The current version of this FAQ is last updated March 11, 1996.
Table of Contents
- 1.1 Just how bad is the coffee in the USA?
- 1.2 Why do Americans drink coffee with their meal?
- 1.3 What should I offer an American to drink?
- 1.4 Why canít Americans walk/drive/sit around without a beverage in their hand?
- 1.5 What is the most important feature of an American automobile?
- 2.2 What makes a real sandwich?
- 2.3 Why is American cheese orange?
- 2.4 Pancakes for breakfast?
- 4.1 Why canít Americans eat with knife and fork AT THE SAME TIME?
- 4.2 How do the Americans skåla?
1.1 Just how bad is the coffee in the USA?
This is perhaps the most widely-held opinion about any single food in the USA: the coffee is undrinkable. The most common complaint, of course, is that it is simply too weak. There is nothing like the disgusted tone of a Swede as he describes a cup of coffee: "I could actually see the bottom of the cup!!!!" By and large, this is true of the coffee you will be served in many homes, in certain types of restaurants, and other tradition-bound places such as truck stops and church picnics.
In the past five years or so, however, Americans, particularly the young, trendy sort, have discovered what a good cup of coffee should taste like. An enormous industry has grown up around the humble coffee beans, led by the coffee bars that you now find on practically every block in any decent-sized city. Big chains such as Starbucks offer a great place for a cup of coffee, and, not coincidentally, a good place to see and be seen.
As usual, the Americans have taken something as universal as a cafe and turned it into something uniquely American by driving it to extremes. You go into a Swedish cafe and you order either plain old coffee or nothing at all. At an American coffee bar youíll need to choose between brewed coffee, espresso, cafe latte, and a number of other combinations of hot water, coffee, and dairy products. Moreover, you will have to specify decaffeinated or regular coffee, and regular or skim milk. The other day a woman standing next to Etikett-Professorn at Java Jackís ordered a ďdouble decaf skim latteĒ. This is the height of absurdity. What is the point of drinking coffee if you donít want caffeine? What is the point of ordering a latte if you donít want milk? But Etikett-Professorn digresses.
The other truly American feature of the coffee bar is that the majority of the patrons take their coffee "to go". See "Why canít Americans walk/drive/sit around without a beverage in their hand?, below.
1.2 Why do Americans drink coffee with their meal?
This is indeed curious behavior. In many parts of the US, particularly the Midwest, you will be offered a cup of coffee with your meal. Etikett-Professorn has no explanation for this. He finds it truly bizarre. Swedes view coffee as a process or a ritual to be carried out at specific times: as an after-dinner complement to a meal, or as a part of a conscious pause in the workday. In either case, the consumption of coffee is clearly set apart from dining in general. Many Yanks, on the other hand, drink coffee like water (which it often resembles in strength) all day long and drinking it at a meal is no different to them than drinking it at their desk at work or drinking it in the car on the way to work.
1.3 What should I offer an American to drink?
In a word: EVERYTHING. What an American loves most, more than any particular beverage, is a CHOICE. The Swede will offer a carefully chosen and presented välkomstdrink to his guests as they arrive at his dinner party. Everyone will happily accept and enjoy this drink. Try offering the same thing to a Yank, and he will think you a cad for not offering a full bar full of things to choose from: liquor, various mixes, wine, beer (both regular and lite) and soft drinks (including low-calorie and decaffeinated varieties). The more you have to choose from, the better the host you are.
1.4 Why canít Americans walk/drive/sit around without a beverage in their hand?
This is truly a puzzler. Americans have some sort of collective oral fixation and need to have a can or a cup near their lips at all times, even when they are in motion. In recent years there has been a trend towards beverage containers with tight caps designed specifically for that purpose. Particularly amusing are the liter-sized containers that have a big straw sticking out of the top of them that many Yanks now have at the workplace. Etikett-Professorn suspects that there are a lot of Americans that were not breast-fed as babies, and who are still using a bottle as a substitute.
1.5 What is the most important feature of an American automobile?
The cup holders. A current television advertisment for a large family car vividly portrays about a dozen drink cups flying through the air and settling comfortably in the cup holders strategically placed around the interior of the vehicle.
2.1 What makes a real American sandwich?
Two slices of bread. Meat and cheese in between. Lots of both. Not open-faced.
2.2 Why is American cheese orange?
Etikett-Professorn is still looking for an answer to this one.
2.3 Pancakes for breakfast?
An American classic, but one that many Swedes find repulsive, unfortunately. Pancakes, some bacon or spicy breakfast sausage, and real maple syrup (not the disgusting brands of fake syrup like Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima) make for a delicious weekend breakfast. WARNING: not appropriate for every day of the week, unless you want to die young.
Note that the American pancakes have a different texture than the Swedish - they are less eggy, and they are often smaller. Often served in a tall stack with butter. The butter part is optional, for you cholesterol-watchers.
3.1 Why so many choices?
This is the most bewildering aspect of dining in an American restaurant. You think you have ordered a simple meal, let's say barbequed ribs. Well, you can't stop there. Your waiter will demand to know whether you want that with cole slaw or a baked potato. And do you want sour cream on that potato? A salad is included, but you can't just say you want the salad - you have to choose from about 14 different dressings [tip for those who hate choices: ask if there is a "house" dressing]. And what did you want to drink? A soda? Well, you'll have to decide. Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Diet Sprite, blah, blah, blah.
You'll know you have become a real American when you have made all your decisions up front and leave the waiter with nothing to ask: "I'll have the ribs, baked potato with sour cream, salad with ranch dressing, and a diet coke." (That last item will definitely fool the waiter into thinking you are a Yank. Only an American orders 5000 calories of food and tops it off with a diet beverage).
4.1 Why canít Americans eat with knife and fork AT THE SAME TIME?
Check this out: they actually think that this is the polite way to do it. They cut the food, then put the knife down, switch the fork to the right hand, and put it in their mouth with the fork. Or, worse yet, they just cut everything with the edge of the fork and scoop it into their mouth.
If you are an American who eats like a Swede - with knife and fork simultaneously - your Swedish dining companions are certain to comment on it and praise your manners in a truly condescending tone. You are not all bad; at least you eat like a Swede.
4.2 How do the Americans skåla?
Do not use the fine wine glasses from Orrefors if you invite Americans to dinner. Where Swedes are content to just lift their glass a bit and nod to their dining companions during a toast, the American will want to reach over the table and clink glasses with everyone else. This gets more and more dangerous as the night wears on.