This post will take you through two opposing aspects of food culture in the United States, and explain how I think tea fits more into one side that the other. It also explains my desire and intention to use RateTea as a platform for shaping the tastes of Americans in the direction of one of these types of food culture and away from the other.
Bland or Strong, Fast Food, and Corporate Influence: The Desert of American Food Culture
There is a degree to which the United States is viewed by the international community as a desert of food culture. When dining at a Vietnamese restaurant with my friend Brent the other day, he remarked that most of what he thinks of as American food is either bland, or hits you in the face with strong flavors, like very sweet or very sour. I’ve heard a lot of my friends and relatives complain about the food culture in America, but I think it’s more telling how people from other cultures perceive the U.S.
I once attended an event hosted at the International Center at Franklin and Marshall college, in which U.S. students and international students came together to discuss food culture, with a particular focus on how each of them perceived the others’ cultures. Although there were many interesting aspects of the discussion, the one trend that stuck out to me the most was that, when foreign students were asked what they thought of as American food, the response was always something similar:
Fast food. Burgers. French fries. Soft drinks. McDonald’s.
On some level, I’m really saddened by this impression. I think of this particular type of fast food as one of the worst aspects of American culture–one of the least healthy (with its huge portions of factory-farmed meat and refined carbs), one of the least sustainable, and one of the most devoid of culture. Rather than being formed from a rich and continually evolving culinary tradition perfected and passed down through generations, American fast food is something that I see as originating in corporations and being motivated primarily by profit rather than holistic health and culinary mastery. American fast food is a recent phenomenon, less than 100 years old. The corporate machinery of the fast food restaurants can spin out of control, overpowering the original culinary traditions behind the restaurants. As an example of this, I read that the famous fast food icon Colonel Sanders, who originally founded KFC, later sued KFC for using his image on products that he did not approve of because he considered them poor quality.
This type of food culture though is unfortunately not limited to fast food, nor is the corporatization of food or the industrialization of the food supply. There are many subcultures within America where something similar to fast food really is what people see as “food”. I often encounter such food at church events, like outdoor BBQ’s or other events…white bread buns, hot dogs and hamburgers taken out of packages, iceberg lettuce, and the like. To me, it’s a food desert. If it’s bad enough, I sometimes even choose to go hungry and eat before or after such events. It is bad enough that it has sometimes been a wedge that has divided me from communities that I would otherwise want to participate in, like a church where I enjoyed the community and found meaning in the spiritual message.
Where does tea fit into this picture? It doesn’t have much of a place here. Tea is a subtle beverage. It’s primarily aromatic, it doesn’t offer the same caffeine kick that coffee does, and the flavor, even of bold teas, is subdued compared to coffee (or soft drinks). Culturally, tea is associated with slowing down, taking a reflective break, more than speeding up or ordering food on the run. And artisan tea, the sort that I love to drink, and am looking to promote through my work on RateTea, has even less of a place in this culture. In short, I think tea, especially the sort of tea I am most passionate about, is more about slow food than fast food.
The Food Culture in the United States is Actually Very Diverse
If you found the section above a bit depressing, don’t despair: the food and drink culture in the United States is much more diverse than the first impression of the international students above suggests. The U.S. is a hotspot of ethnic diversity, and with that diversity comes a richness in culinary traditions. Virtually everywhere I have ever lived in the U.S., even in smaller towns, I’ve found numerous ethnic restaurants. I once drove across the country myself, and have taken numerous other road trips, and I’ve often been surprised at where I encounter little ethnic enclaves, often accompanied by restaurants that I end up giving 5 stars on Yelp.
Mexican and Chinese food are available virtually everywhere in the U.S., and while they aren’t always “authentic”, they sometimes can be. When I’ve lived in larger metro areas, I’ve been surprised at the level of diversity I encountered. Many of these types of foods were initially a bit alien to me; Korean food, pictured above, is a good example. The first time I ate it, it was a bit intimidating. I needed to develop a taste for it, but I have come to really love it, to the point where I often actively crave Korean dishes, and even keep a jar of kimchi in my fridge.
I’ve eaten at Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants–multiple of each–and Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Japanese, and Korean restaurants. Indian Restaurants. Afghan, Lebanese, Israeli, Moroccan restaurants. In Chinese cuisine, I’ve eaten at restaurants specializing in Sichuan, Cantonese, Yunnan, Taiwanese, and Liaoning regional cuisine. I’ve eaten at restaurants specializing in New Mexican food, Guadalajara-style food, and food from South Mexico, as well as California-style Mexican food, which is its own unique fusion tradition. I’ve had many forms of Latino food, from Puerto Rican to Columbian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian. I’m sure I’m forgetting quite a few ethnic cuisines in this list.
Note that already I’ve already mentioned some regional cuisines peculiar to and originating in the U.S., in the different variants of Mexican food that occur on the U.S. side of the border. The U.S. also is the origin of Cajun cooking, and southern cooking or “soul food”, which incorporates elements from West African traditions–as I realized when I first ate proper West African food and tasted many of the same spices, ingredients, and methods of food preparation.
What is the difference between these rich, complex traditions, and the more uniform fast food traditions that the foreign students mentally identified as the food culture of the United States? I think the distinction here is subtle and hard to pin down, but I think it has to do both with the traditions of preparing the food, and with how fast the people are eating the food, and whether or not they are paying attention to how the food tastes. I found that many of these foods were initially a little strange to me, and in different ways. The Sichuan dry pot, pictured above, was so intensely spicy and pain-inducing that I could barely eat it the first time I tried it. Yet I found myself craving it and now it’s my favorite item on the menu at the restaurant where I first ordered it. What made it so enjoyable though wasn’t the volume of hot pepper–it was the nuance…a little flavor of anise here, the cilantro leaf on top, and the wonderful aromatic quality of the Sichuan peppercorn (before it numbs your mouth!) are what keep me coming back to that dish.
I don’t expect everyone to like the particular dishes or types of cuisine that I like best, but I notice that if people start paying attention to their food, they naturally gravitate more towards “slow food”. And with this change in focus, I think comes an increase in health and well-being, as well as a great improvement in the joy and pleasure that comes with both eating and preparing food. A couple of my friends have recently read the book Health at Every Size, and that book provides a compelling argument that a more mindful approach to eating has compelling benefits to health. There was also a fascinating study of attitudes towards food in different countries, and their implications for health and dieting; this study examines what it calls the “French paradox”, that Americans think more about the health impacts of their food yet end up eating a less healthy diet, whereas French people think about health less, and focus on enjoying their food, and end up eating a much healthier diet. These observations have led me to believe that a shift away from generic fast food culture and towards a richer food culture could have sweeping benefits for society.
Tea as a Gateway to Food Culture
I think there is a degree to which tea, especially if you drink it unsweetened, forces you to develop a level of nuance in appreciation of food and drink that naturally nudges people in the direction of slow food and traditional food cultures.
Most tea doesn’t hit you in the face with the strong flavors that my friend Brent referenced. Some of my other friends have jokingly remarked that tea is little more than “flavored water”. In some sense, I agree. In order to really appreciate tea, you need to seek out its flavors a bit, paying attention to what you are sensing as you are drinking it.
The dominant flavor sensation when drinking tea is usually bitterness, a flavor that has little role in the generic “American palate” referenced at the beginning of this post, the one that demands strong sweet, sour, or salty flavors. Even in the sweetest or sourest teas, or the teas with the greatest savory or umami flavor, these other flavors are subdued, and easy to overlook if you are used to drinking something like soft drinks or even black coffee.
Another key aspect of tea is that its aroma is more interesting than its flavor. Flavor is itself pretty limited–the human taste buds are only able to identify sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and savory (umami) flavors. It is the aroma that makes food and drink truly come alive, and develop into complex culinary traditions. I think that tea has the potential to nudge people in the direction of a more nuanced slow food culture in part by getting people to focus on aroma. When people focus on aroma, it opens up the door to using herbs and spices, as well as the many vegetables that have subtle flavors but interesting aromas.
One of my goals and hopes with RateTea is to encourage people to start paying attention to how their tea tastes and smells. My goal is that by writing about the flavor and aromas of tea, and by reading what others write, it will change how people think about and experience food and drink in general, and that this will push them more in the direction of slow food.
My Story of Discovery: Beer, Not Tea
As much as I wish I could tell a personal story about how tea opened me up to experiencing food and drink in a more nuanced way, I think it was actually beer, more than tea, that did this for me, although tea certainly played an important role alongside beer.
I remember sampling beer as a kid; my parents would pour me a tiny little glass, or let me sip it, telling me: “This is beer. It tastes bitter, so you probably won’t like it at first, but if you keep trying it, you’ll develop a taste for it.” And develop a taste I did. By the time I graduated college, I loved beer, and began seeking out craft-brews. I fell in love with Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. I began rating beers on RateBeer, to keep track of which ones I liked.
I think beer is actually very similar to tea in its potential to nudge people in the direction of nuance. As with tea, the dominant flavor in most beer is bitterness, and the other flavors are more subdued. And, just with tea, the aroma plays a key role in distinguishing between the finer nuances of different beers. Just like pure teas are able to produce an astonishing variety of aromas, qualities suggesting cocoa, or wintergreen, citrus, mint, malt, orchid, apricot, and all sorts of other aromas, pure beers, brewed with only barley, yeast, water, and hops, are able to produce all sorts of fascinating aromas, resembling various fruits, grassy or herbaceous characteristics, nutty and caramel tones, and many other qualities.
I think that it was the process of rating and reviewing beers, actually writing things about what I was drinking, that took me to the next level in terms of perception of food and drink.
The Potential of Beer vs Tea to Catalyze Change: How These Beverages Differ
I think in the long-run, tea may have an even greater potential than beer to catalyze the sort of cultural transformation in perception of food and drink that I outlined above, for several reasons. One is that tea tends to be consumed more often throughout the day, and in different contexts, than beer. I.e. people generally only consume beer in the evening, whereas they often consume tea several times throughout the day. The alcohol in beer makes it less appropriate as a beverage for a broad range of situations. Another issue is that there is a degree to which the alcohol in beer seems to have an effect that is at odds with the finer nuances of appreciating food and drink: while one can easily appreciate the first or second beer in a more nuanced way, after that it begins to go downhill. I’ve heard serious beer connoisseurs remark on this phenomenon–and how they often like to sample the most nuanced beers first in an evening for this reason.
Yet another reason is that people see much more likely to drink tea than beer when in a reflective mood, such as when taking notes in a journal, or taking a break from work, as well as sipping tea while at a desk or computer, and both of these situations lend themselves more to the sort of exploration of nuances than the contexts (sitting at a bar with friends, or in a more party type atmosphere) in which people most often enjoy beer. The caffeine and other psychoactive chemicals in tea, like theanine, also seem to lend themselves to a state of mind which favor focus, reflection, and awareness. And the culture of tea also is tied to mindfulness and reflection.
What do you think?
- Do you think my analysis of the two opposing facets of American food culture is accurate?
- Is the idea of “slow food” something you think about much?
- Do you think RateTea will be able to nudge casual tea drinkers in the direction of paying more attention to their food and drink, much in the same way I experienced such a shift in my perception as I started using RateBeer?
- Do you think that, in the long-run, tea has greater potential than beer to catalyze a cultural shift in the direction of paying more attention to the finer nuances of food and drink?