On American Food

From July 4th to July 16th, my girlfriend stayed with my family in a suburb of Tampa, Florida called Brandon. We had a great time, and they all loved her (of course). I’ll probably be writing about that visit a few times, but first I just want to talk about her reaction to American food.

She has to travel to other countries for her job, so my girlfriend is no stranger to Western food. She likes cheese and pizza — she’s not one of those Chinese people that can’t get used to a lot of Western foods. (She’s a Shanghainese girl!) She was excited to be able to discover what kind of food my family ate, as the American homes she had eaten in before had all been families of Chinese immigrants in L.A., and they ate mostly Chinese food. In the end, there were a few things she couldn’t get used to in two weeks’ time.

The first day, my mom gave us beef and barley soup with cold cuts sandwiches for lunch. She loved that stuff. She didn’t know Americans could make such a good soup (good job, mom!).

One night we had a make-up Thanksgiving Dinner, with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry orange relish (a family specialty)… the whole thing. I don’t think my girlfriend is too crazy about turkey, and she didn’t get into the gravy much (mmm, gravy…), but she enjoyed that meal. She just felt like it was so much food. She told me my appetite seemed to increase when I got home. Damn right it did!

She liked the chilli my mom made. And she definitely liked my sister Amy’s Asian fusion stir fry. Those two nights, though, when the dinner consisted of mainly one big dish, gave her a mistaken impression about American food. She thought that was the norm because we really didn’t have that many dinners at home. I had to explain to her that (in my family, at least) there are usually at least three or four dishes, but occasionally one dish will dominate the meal.

She enjoyed the meals less on the nights we ate out. The food she got at the Akershus “Princess Palace” at Norway in Disney’s EPCOT Center wasn’t that great. My food was good, though. What made that place amusing was the five Disney princesses that came out and chatted with you and took pictures while you ate. The five princesses of the day were Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Sleeping Beauty, and Belle. Sitting there, I realized that the dining epxerience was meant for five-year-old girls. Whatever, though — Jasmine was hot!

We learned from our experience at Busch Gardens that meal portions at the fast food-type restaurants are way too big, and we were better off sharing one entree and getting a few side dishes. That worked well for lunch at SeaWorld. The pasta dish she ordered at Sharks Underwater Grill was a little rich, and the immensity of the appetizer shocked her. The jumbo shrimp I had there were the best shrimp I’ve had in a looong time, though. Chinese restaurants take great pride in having only the freshest seafood, but why is it so rare for me to eat such tasty and succulent shrimp in China for a reasonable price? OK, rambling.

The night we made dumplings (饺子) dinner was good, of course. We made so many we had to freeze half of them. (You guys better remember to eat those!) Unfortunately I earned extreme contempt from my girlfriend for my creative ing efforts. I tried all kinds of cool new 包 techniques. No one was impressed. Oh well, they still taste the same when they look ugly.

Oh, and fresh, crisp American corn on the cob was well appreciated. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get her to smother it with butter (the way it should be eaten).

12 nights of dinners, and I’m having trouble recalling many of them. Anyway, my girlfriend wasn’t crazy about stuff with rich creamy or buttery sauces, but she liked most stuff. The one meal she really couldn’t stomach, though, was one of my favorite meals of the entire visit. It was the bagel brunch.

The morning of the 16th my mom went and bought fresh-basked New York-style bagels at Brandon Bagel. According to my neighbor, it is the only source for delicious authentic bagels in Brandon. So, with my neighbor, my mom got the everything bagels, the pumpernickel bagels, the salt bagels, the honey wheat bagels, etc. They got cream cheese with chives, veggie cream cheese, cream cheese with lox, and some kind of cinnamon cream cheese. We also had fresh sliced tomatoes and onions for additional toppings. I was in heaven. Normally I have little appetitite in the morning so I eat only one bagel for breakfast, but I had three bagels (six different halves) that morning.

But my poor girlfriend didn’t like them. She felt the bagel bread was too dense and the cream cheese was just too much for a breakfast item. I pity her. Thinking back, though, I used to be unable to stomach a lot of fried Chinese breakfast items, like 煎饺.

So that’s the end of that report. I imagine my family will be a little surprised to realize that the bagel brunch was my girlfriend’s least favorite meal, as she was very polite and ate an entire half bagel before begging off. Oh well. That just left more for the bagel lovers. (And I did eat her second bagel: everything bagel with chives cream cheese, tomato, and onion! Yummm…)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Da Xiangchang Says: July 23, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    Tastewise, American food is mediocre; healthwise, it’s disastrous! I can’t imagine the last time I had a really good meal at a typical American place. And I’m with your girlfriend: bagels are NASTY as are most standard Amerian breakfasts (eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc.). And the most tasty American foods–say, pastrami sandwiches–are just BAD BAD BAD for your heart.

    I’ve been pretty much everywhere, and I’ll tell you, the best food (taste- and healthwise) in the world is in the Orient–East and SE Asia. Chinese rice and noodle stir-fries, Japanese sushi and udon, Thai papaya salad and pad thai. Oooohhhhhhhhhhhhh! That’s the thing I miss most about Asia–the availability of tasty, healthy, and ridiculously cheap food. Cuz there’s more good food in a typical Shanghainese food court than in most midwestern American cities!

  2. DXC,

    Isn’t this comment of yours a rerun?

    You’re most definitely wrong about one thing in particular: Bagels are awesome.

  3. There are so many bad bagels available in the States (supermarket bagels, frozen bagels, McDonald’s bagels, etc.) that many people don’t have any idea what a real bagel tastes like. A freshly made, New York deli bagel is delicious. Case closed.

  4. I found that I liked Thai food much better, once I learned that there are other dishes besides Pad Thai.

  5. I agree with your girlfriend. I never understood how anyone could consider bagels edible. It’s like eating bread designed as combat rations. Too dense and salty. Yuk.

  6. When you say sour cream, do you mean cream cheese? I can’t imagine eating bagels with sour cream.

  7. I think bagels are one of the rare foods that I miss in China.

    That and Mexican food.

  8. DXC — all American food can be good. What makes it “bad” are the choices that people make. There are some healthy, slim Americans here. It always comes down to choice. Not only are there a variety of foods to choose from but also a variety of ethnic restaurants. I wonder if any of the other countries offer such a variety? It’s not only the ethnicity of the restaurant but also of the people that fix it.

  9. Staurt — Yes, John did mean cream cheese. We save the sour cream for the burritos.

  10. I believe it’s Cream Cheese that John is referring to: Sour Cream & Lox (Yum!), sour cream is what you put on a baked potato, did you serve up a proper baked potato for Song Shen?

    The only access that the mainstream has to NY style is NOAH’S BAGELS (think Starbucks except food based) .. their Asiago Cheese bagels are bomb.

    Hey John, did you treat your girlfriend to proper DONUTS usa style… they have the donut store next to the train station (isn’t it like 18 RMB per donut?) but I’m sure the authenticity is lacking.

  11. As with everything, It takes time to like eating american. Speaking from chinese american perspective. Bagel is just to tough to eat in the morning, Chinese people tend to eat something that is soft and easy to the stomach especially for breakfast.

  12. haha, all of us hunger for the pics ;P
    btw, you’re not the first one to try new 包 techniques, ‘cos Korean and Japanese already done that, they call it 抄手, you ever heard of it when you in Japan?

  13. Kastner — 抄手’s a kind of dumpling in Sichuan — don’t know if it’s the same thing.

    Bagels are good – actually, American breakfast sandwiches on the whole are something the mainland could use more of. There’s a Korean lady operating out of a combination sandwich shop / laundry in downtown Philly who makes, for my money, the finest bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich on Earth.

  14. Oops. Yes, cream cheese, of course.

    Wow. Not only did I write the wrong thing, I did it six times! How embarrassing.

    It’s fixed.

  15. I like most foods, including American. But bagels were never high on my list and I can forego them and not miss them at all. My wife, Japanese originally, does like Bagels for some reason. She also makes a great turkey. We have turkey, while living in the states, quite often. Having written all that, I think my favorite ethnic food is Japanese, I miss it quite often.

  16. Meh I have to agree with your girlfriend John, bagels aren’t quite my thing. A bit too tough to chew and dry, perhaps its just I haven’t had the good kind. I do however like a good pizza bagel. The odd thing is, my mother, a mainland 老太婆 if ever there was one, really enjoys bagels for some reason. In addition to McDonald’s chicken sandwhiches, which I admit are also one of my guilty pleasures.

    p.s. John I only now found out that you had left a comment at my short-lived migratory blog. I’ve since ditched that host, Slovakia has even poorer internet infrastructure than China apparently. The new wordpress installation is at http://thosewhodare.matzoo.com which is thankfully lag free and running along smoothly for the time being (knock on wood). I’d appreciate any customizing tips if you got them. I’ve already changed the background image from that bland monotan, trying to find someone who can help with a new header graphic.

  17. I have to wonder more – what did she think about the American kitchen? With its abundant counter space…and especially, what did she think about the GARBAGE DISPOSAL in the sink? Man, along with a clothes dryer, a garbage disposal is probably one of the things I miss most. I hate cleaning the stupid plastic filters – yuck.

  18. Brendan, yup, they call dumpling 龙抄手 there. In fact, dumpling should be translated into 馄饨(including 饺子、大馄饨、小馄饨 or something), and 云吞、抄手 are some special 馄饨, hehe.
    In all the Chinese food, I prefer 饺子 best!

  19. I like Everyting TASTY !
    Well my first time here, Be Friends ! Duke !

  20. To add to Krovvy’s comment about the kitchen, how did she like counter-tops that were higher and cabinets that were actually low enough to reach?

    I sure like bagels a LOT better than mantou. But I like bing (饼 I think) better than bagels.

  21. Da Xiangchang Says: July 25, 2005 at 6:14 am

    Tim P.,

    To say American food is mediocre is, I have to admit, silly on my part. I was just talking about the most stereotypical of American foods: hot dogs, apple pie, hamburgers, etc. In actuality, you can’t pinpoint what “American food” is anymore than what an “American” is. For example, the much-maligned (and praised) bagel originated in Poland; Polish Jews brought it over to America in the 19th century. So is the bagel Polish or American? Since there’s no good definition of “American food,” then it’s silly to say whether it’s good or bad. I revise my statement therefore to: “It’s generally harder for me to get cheap, tasty, easy, and healthy fast food in America than it was in China (or SE Asia).” How about that?

  22. In the make-up Thanksgiving dinnerr, sweet patato is not listed. That gets a lot of Chinese (girls’) attention.

    I like bagels. I seem to observe that Chinese of the northern variety, of whic I am one, accept bagel easier, maybe because bagels remind us northerners of the “hard” mantou. Another breakfast item I like is English Muffin, got a ring to its name: 英国马粪.

  23. dxc,
    good ammendment to your prior comment. i can go w/ that. when i want “healthy” fast food, i tend to go w/ chick fil-a, esp. their salads, or the grilled chicken club, but whatever.
    fast food hamburgers are definitely not healthy, though every once in awhile you find a particularly tasty one (checkers succeeds fairly often). but what you gotta do is build your own burger! the best i’ve ever had was on a kaiser roll w/ fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and red onion w/ horseradish and bleu cheese crumbles. YUM!!!! made my nose run, and still makes my mouth water just thinking about it…. (made w/ lean meat and not too much cheese, that wouldn’t be TOO bad for ya)

  24. Hello,John.I’m a chinese student.And English is my major.After reading your writing,I know better about American food.Thank you !
    Maybe you and your girlfriend have already married !Have you had a baby now ? a ha `~

  25. John, are you saying there are no bagels in China! I can’t live without bagels!

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