RICHARD writes...: Eating, USA [ excerpted from the August newsletter ]

Seems that the August newsletter which included a commentary about American eating habits hit some receptive ears. A number of visitors responded very soon after I sent the letter. It made me think that I needed to publish the full version of what I wrote.

Americans have weight problems, big time

When on vacation, one has to eat in restaurants all the time. The chief observation in restaurant dining in the USA is the seriousness of weight problems for many Americans. It has been a lifelong struggle for this writer, food denials are constant, some kind of exercise is on the agenda daily, but for many Americans, the problem seems to be immense.

Americans likely cannot cook a meal from scratch?
Judging from how busy the franchise restaurants were each night we had supper in a restaurant in State College, PA which was our center of operations for the better part of a week while we motorcycled throughout Pennsylvania, one would likely guess Americans do not eat at home on a regular basis. Franchise restaurants like Red Lobster, Chick-fil-A, Texas Roadhouse, Papa John’s, Applebees, and others abound in State College and seeing how full their parking lots are, one can safely assume many of these restaurants are doing a whopping business any night of the week.

My travelling companion, my 28 year old nephew, knows good food as his father is Italian and his mother is a very accomplished cookbook user. We did not dine in franchise places but for one dinner when we wanted seafood instead of red meat. We ate at the Red Lobster. The restaurant was reasonably filled for a midweek evening. Many restaurateurs in Canada would be thrilled to have as many patrons as that Red Lobster had on what presumably is a quiet night for restaurants, a Monday.

Americans look like they eat in restaurants much more frequently than at home, much more than Canadians do and if “delivery food” counts as dining out, then Americans probably never eat home cooked meals. I have doubts that the average American can prepare a home cooked meal from scratch without using a cook book. Creating a meal from raw ingredients is not just science. it’s creative art which can be taken to great heights of creativity by any reasonably competent and imaginative cook.

Americans destroy a menu
Restaurant menus have temptations that challenge even the most stoic among us. Worse, the caloric content of many menu items is far beyond any person’s normal daily caloric needs. In Canada, restaurants are beginning to publish the caloric count of menu items for the benefit of diners. A better-informed diner can make better choices if they wish. Displaying a calorie count topping out at 1200 or 1600 calories is sure to jar anyone’s food conscience but not if you are an American as I see it. Profit margins must be a thin as truffle shavings in fast food restaurants in Canada today. Americans would rip our menus to shreds with such obscenities as calorie counts.

American restaurant patrons, at least in the region in which we rode, have serious weight issues. Often, I felt svelte sitting among the overweight patrons of some of the restaurants I was in. Not only are many restaurant patrons significantly overweight in the USA region where I vacationed, but they choose food poorly, from restaurants to menu items. If caloric value were posted on the menu, I have doubts American eating habits would change. Display of caloric count on menus in the USA would likely serve no purpose other than give work to the menu printer.

Americans eat as they want
One of the most popular restaurants in State College was Chick-fil-A, the American legacy of KFC [Kentucky Fried Chicken, formerly, Colonel Sanders]. The night we rode by State College’s Chick-fil-A franchise, its lineup of automobiles spilled out from its parking lot into the main roadway out front. The number of cars was amazing. The restaurant must have been giving away free dinners or something to attract so many diners on a weeknight. Kudos to that franchise owner for attracting patrons so effectively. I will assume Chick-fil-A doesn’t encourage healthy dining as its menu glorifies fried food and very few hungry Americans would ever give fried chicken a pass.

Supersize it; top it up and add a side, please
Then in any restaurant, when one glanced at what others were eating, one could see a problem with almost every dinner being served. Americans want size, sauce and sides.

Americans want size, sauce and sides.

Portion sizes are gargantuan in American franchise restaurants more often than not. Some chain restaurants pride themselves on platter sized plates ladened with portion loads that would challenge the eating capacity of  of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle or that of most average Canadians. Americans can eat. They hold celebratory contests to glorify quantity eaten. The annual hot dog eating contest held in Coney Island, New York broke records again. The winner ate 72 hot dogs with buns and accompanied by glasses of water to wash it all down…in under 10 minutes. Think about it. Where an 8 oz steak is more than necessary, many Americans would feel cheated if the steak they are served comes in at under 16 oz. Look how McDonald’s emphasizes the “quarter pounder,” not the 4 ouncer on its menus. Ordering an ice tea in an American restaurant likely means one will be served a quart sized monster, enough to service a platoon of French foreign legion soldiers in the Saharan desert. An exaggeration? Order one a few times on your next summer holiday in the USA and draw your own conclusions. The first half of the tea quenches one’s thirst, refreshes one from the heat of the day but then one’s bladder and kidneys balk as they become hard pressed with the incredible volume of liquid. Super sizing takes on whole new portions in American dining and it is the order of the day for almost each restaurant there.

Where an 8 oz steak is more than necessary, many Americans would feel cheated if the steak they are served comes in at under 16 oz. Look how McDonald’s emphasizes the “quarter pounder,” not the 4 ouncer on its menus. Ordering an ice tea in an American restaurant likely means one will be served a quart sized monster, enough to service a platoon of French foreign legion soldiers in the Saharan desert. An exaggeration? Order one a few times on your next summer holiday in the USA and draw your own conclusions. The first half of the tea quenches one’s thirst, refreshes one from the heat of the day but then one’s bladder and kidneys balk as they become hard pressed with the incredible volume of liquid. Super sizing takes on whole new proportions in American dining and it is the order of the day for almost every restaurant there.

Compounding the caloric content problem, Americans see any dish not swimming in a gravy, not submerged in a sauce, or not buried in a salsa as being a dish worthy of nudist colony menu. The steak without gravy is nude. The fried chicken without some kind of covering is not fully dressed. Americans want something added as a topper to their dish. And if it doesn’t arrive that way from the kitchen, watch out. The American diner will do a do-it-yourself top up themselves draining the ketchup bottle or emptying the mayo squeeze bottle on to their bare meat. Take notice of the current Applebee’s TV commercial where the patron raves about how the restaurant tops up with top ups to the cheering approval of his wife/significant other.

Finally, sides. Americans love accompaniments to their main dining order. The more the merrier. A steak with a baked potato and some steamed veggies just won’t do it without a side dish. Perhaps some garlic bread; maybe some corn muffins; possibly some deep fried vegetable fritters. I believe most Canadians would accept the main course with a couple of veggies as an adequate meal. I think most Americans would feel they have been cheated by the restaurant if they do not have an accompaniment to the main entree. And a salad, puleeeze. Health food is served to the patients in a hospital not a diner who is paying for a “proper meal.” Salads are offered on menus in American restaurants but they neither add to the restaurant’s profit line, nor do they fill the bill as to the diner’s satisfaction in getting a complete meal. When I ordered broiled halibut with lemon butter at the Red Lobster, the server kept pushing extras, baked potato with sour cream and butter, garlic bread, and homemade pretzels with rock salt. Pretzels with dinner, rock salt rock, really?

American restaurants are not dens of inequity, opium dens of decadence. They do not force diners to eat unhealthily. Their menus offer diners healthy choices though these may be somewhat buried in smaller print or unphoto’d pages of the menu. Still, the choices are there. But the American diner chooses the path of obese destruction. Many families I observed when dining out demonstrated that they either do not eat properly. They overeat and by the look of them, like me, they do not do enough exercise to compensate for the extra caloric indulgence.

Why do Americans eat poorly?
Americans may be emotional eaters. They are a nation with serious problems and eating may bring them national comfort. The USA is constantly at war somewhere; full employment is a vanishing dream in the USA given the changing times, the technological revolution and the unstoppable march of robotic automation; the coal industry is dead; the steel industry died years ago; China has usurped their manufacturering crown. Economically, Americans are suffering gloomy times. Now, add to the gloom with the political upheaval in Washington. It’s a wonder the nation isn’t a national alcoholic driven to drink by the chaotic confusion in their White House. Compound their problems even more: authorities use guns as readily as were used in the wild west some 200 years ago; racism thrives in America even though every public figure pays lip service to the idea of racial equality; guns are as ubiquitous in main street America as as footwear by pedestrians ducking along streets. Walk down almost any American ‘main street’ and inevitably you will see war veterans either wearing military jackets like badges of honour in having served, or injured men in their 20’s or 30’s, with canes or crutches, missing limbs, sitting in wheel chairs. America is a troubled society and maybe they compensate by overeating, drinking too much and escaping into drug steeped worlds.

Donald Trump

Perhaps Trump’s clarion call is actually on target, “Let’s make America great again.” It really isn’t right now, is it?

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