Posts tagged ‘food’

July 31, 2015

Sweet and salty

A long while back I wrote a short blog post about acquired taste and today I want to point one out that is – at least in my mind – very American: the combination of sugar and salt on any given food.

In Germany I grew up with the notion that these two flavors are mortal enemies and could never, ever co-exist in one dish.  You have to make up your mind whether you wanted one or the other, you can’t have both.  Period.

The first serious shake to this fundamental belief came when I had an American boyfriend in Germany, who, to my utter shock and surprise put salt on apples.  Apples are in the sweet category and may only occasionally and for a very good reason cross the border into savory territory, e.g if served as part of a meat/main dish (Berlin style liver comes to mind, fried liver served with sautéed slices of apple and onions or latkes with apple sauce),  By themselves, however, they are considered sweet and sprinkling them with salt is an abomination (or pretty damn close to one).

Much later I should learn that American boyfriends are not the only ones that put salt on fruit.  I remember a fruit stand in Guadalajara, Mexico on a hot day selling containers full of fresh, juicy slices of water melon, mango, etc. I ordered a container and before I realized what was going on and could scream “no, por fovor, no quiero sal!” the vendor had put a generous helping of salt over everything.  Try as I did, I couldn’t eat most of it.

But Americans take it far beyond the apples and water melons to things like popcorn, ice-cream, and chocolate.  They see nothing wrong with putting sweet and salty stuff on the same plate at a buffet without erecting a Chinese Wall or something between the two enemy flavors on the plate.  They heartily bite into a mini cupcake that has been exposed to salad dressing.  Oh, the horror of it.

In grad school I asked a friend about this once, rather I expressed my shock in such weird habits and he had no idea what I was talking about.  He had grown up combining sweet and salty, and to him it was the logical brother of sweet and sour.  He added – a bit tongue in cheek – that Americans just like to have it all and don’t want to choose between the flavors.

Over the years I have learned to tolerate the mixture in most instances and even appreciate it in some.  The one example where it is outright delicious is kettle corn style popcorn.  Made fresh in huge  kettles at farmers markets with a lot of sugar and some salt it is delicious.  Sugar alone makes it overly sweet and uninteresting, salt alone is not exciting either but put both in and you have a winning combination.  On first try it is hard to even determine whether the popcorn is sweet or salty but once you had a few you can’t stop eating it.  I will however, stay away from any bakery products that have been exposed to meat sauce, salad dressing or are sprinkled with rock salt.  That taste isn’t “acquirable” for me.

For you visitors of the US, if somebody offers you some very unintuitive sweet/salty concoction, please keep in mind: this is no attempt on your life and not meant to be an assault on your taste buds – just simply the American idea of “having it all”.

December 28, 2012

Drive-thru Nation

I never thought that eating while driving was a good idea.  I also always thought it was a rather good  idea to actually park your car, get out, walk 30 feet to a door, walk in,  order your food, sit down (or the other way around if you choose to not go to a fast food restaurant) and eat it without spilling ketchup all over yourself because you are eating that double burger with extra cheese and the curly fries with one hand while maneuvering a big ass truck (or a Honda Civic or anything in between).  Alas, I seem to be in the minority as some recent observations have confirmed.  We are all used to the Drive-thru fast food joints, all the big names of this world and slowly getting use to the drive-thru upscale coffee places (yes, I am talking Starbucks) although I am still wondering why I would want to pay almost $5 for a medium (they call it grande) Frappuccino and then not enjoy it because I am  negotiating Los Angeles/Bay Area/Toronto/add other places as appropriate traffic.

The latest, and I have seen it several times now including today, is a Drive thru drug store, like Walgreens, or Rite Aid or one of those.  I am waiting for Drive thru Safeways, and Drive thru fine dining (you’d get a complimentary linen napkin and probably one of those self-heating containers to keep the bisque warm ), for men only I could envision a Drive thru haircut place, I assume most women would not go for that one, but one could definitely drop off dry cleaning in a Drive thru kind of a way.  Why hasn’t anybody thought of that yet?  They probably have and I am just too out of touch to have heard about it – yet.

Drive Thru - so very convenient.

Drive Thru – so very convenient.

What I still don’t understand is the appeal of all of that.  Is the act of getting out of the car so inconveniencing people that they avoid it at all cost, although we are reading constantly that even a little exercise every day helps a lot in terms of health outcomes or do people love sitting in their cars so much that they don’t want to get out ever?

One thing, I believe, Drive thru anything is often not: faster.  The Starbucks this morning had a line of at least 5 or 6 cars whereas we were the first in line inside.  I remember distinctly one time when, on a road trip, we went to have lunch at a fast food restaurant and on our way between tour parking spot and the door had to cross the Drive thru lane.  We almost got run over by a driver too focused on deciding between the tantalizing meal options so I remembered the car.  When we came out, after ordering food and eating it, sitting on a chair with a table in front of us, washed our hands in the bathroom, and walked out, that driver was just ordering his food at the Drive-thru window.

So much for faster.

I think it comes down to the word I have learned to hate: “convenience”.  Getting ones butt out of the car and walking a few steps  is so not convenient so people much rather sit in the car longer to avoid that hassle.  How sad is that!

October 23, 2011

Baker’s Dozen

Modern version of the baker's Dozen - the glazed donut dozen, pic:

My husband asked me about this expression today and I knew the correct answer but had no idea where it comes from so I thought this might be a good blog post.  A Baker’s dozen is not – you guessed it – 12 but 13.   My original notion, namely that it was some clever marketing ploy to get people to buy at your bakery, not another by giving them 13 bagels for the price of 12 proved to be overly modern.

The expressions seems to be predating modern marketing ploys and date back to the 13th century.  An interesting but historically dubious explanation is that in the England of Henry III bakers who short-changed their customers where severely punished.  We are not talking stuff like jail time or a fine here, we are talking having your hand cut off by an axe.  To avoid such unpleasantness – so the story goes – bakers would bake a 13th of whatever with the dozen thereby reducing the risk of being one short.

Another explanation is that it is easier to bake 13 – as this makes an nice arrangement on a tray 3+2+3+2+3.  I find this unconvincing – baking 13 doesn’t mean you have to sell them all at once – but maybe I am thinking modern marketing again.

May 17, 2011


Love my free water, pic:

So here is something I absolutely love about US restaurants and would terrible miss if we ever moved back to Europe: free tap water.  Every restaurant you go to from the fast food joint to the high end French you always get free water.  Depending on where you are it comes in a styrofoam cup or a crystal glass but it is always free and generally served without asking.

That doesn’t need to keep you from ordering your diet coke or red wine or iced tea – it is just something to quench your thirst without adding outrageous extra cost to your bill.

Little thing, you think.  It is really not.  If you ever traveled with a child (thirsty husband, etc.) through Europe and every time you went to a restaurant you get a shock when you see that a teeny weeny little bottle of mineral water or apple juice costs like 3 Euro and your son drinks the whole thing down in one big gulp and asks for more and you, who always tells him to hydrate well, can’t really now tell him to tough it out – then you know what I mean.

The prices for water and soft drinks in pretty much all of Europe border on extortion.  I remember having lunch in a restaurant in Vienna on a hot summer day.  The food was decent and amazingly affordable and still we ended up paying roughly twice of what I thought we should pay.  One glance at the receipt explained it all: the three “large drinks” (mineral water, medium size by US standards) we had cost almost as much as lunch.  I thought it was a big scam – charge me more for the food, I don’t mind paying a fair price for that but don’t lure me into the restaurant with promises of cheap food and then screw me over by doubling my bill by selling  me overpriced water.

So every time a go to a restaurant here in the US I cherish the free water (with ice, always with ice!)

May 10, 2011


I don’t like coffee so I am not speaking from experience here but the topic coffee has to be covered in any blog about America and American culture.  Coffee is very much a part of American everyday life, from morning until night.

Coffee in an American dinner - served with lunch, pic:

Most of my coffee-drinking European friends have little more than disdain for the American brew, which they consider too weak and flavorless.  Coffee these days comes mainly in the form of large, overpriced take-out products with all sorts of additions, from the usual milk and sugar to the less common one like caramel or hazelnut flavorings.  The variation of sizes, flavors, additions and permutations seems as limitless as the Americans desire to drink it everywhere and all the time.

The opposite end of the fancy coffee drink is the lowly dinner coffee – brewed and then kept on a percolator until empty, weak, made generally of inferior quality beans this is the stuff you get served in traditional American dinners.  The stuff they used to dring in that form back in the 50s, probably even before then.

One wired thing about American coffee consumption (especially the dinner type) is that people consider it a “regular drink”, like water or maybe even iced tea.  They have it with lunch, like the Germans have beer (or mineral water) with lunch and the French red wine (or mineral water).  So they order a burger with fries and coffee for lunch.

My coffee drinking European friends find that quite strange.

May 3, 2011

Things I might never learn

There are some things that are very unintuitive and hard to learn in another language.  Maybe the things that are difficult to learn are individual – maybe not.  I’ll have to ask around.

For me something that I probably will never learn are names of bird and fish.  With fish, my main problem is with the critters one eats.  I know what a shark looks like, I even know the Spanish word for shark.  I can also handle salmon and tuna with bravado –  but as soon it gets much more specific I have to pass.  I eat Mahi Mahi and striped bass, talapia, sole and haddock without any idea what these things are and how they are called in German.  Same for birds – but there I know the few ones one eats – but the rest: forget it.

Let's make it even more complicated and throw in some French, pic:

On a day to day basis this isn’t a real issue – I am not a bird watcher so who cares what that little fluffy looking birdie over there is called.  Where it really matters and I fall woefully short is when it comes to different kinds of meat.  Here I am with my husbands ultimate Austrian cookbook in hand in the meat section at the supermarket puzzling whether I should get a Porterhouse steak, or a skirt steak, which one is better and which one translates most accurately into what the recipe calls for.

Unfortunately, the people working at the local supermarket are no help.  I learned that the hard way when one day I waltzed in and after some searching asked where the veal was.  The  guy working the meat counter looked at me with a puzzled expression “veal, veal …. hmm …. that’s baby cow, right?”

So I keep puzzling and buying the wrong stuff and inventing recipes around the wrong piece of meat.  Helps my creativity.  Got to look at the bright side, right?  That’s a very American thing to do.

March 6, 2011

Triple chocolate

This really belongs with the “bigger is better” series – the same desires that drive people to drink 900 some odd milliliters of coffee drives them to triple up not realizing that there can be too much of a good thing.  There is a tendency here in the US to believe that if, for example, chocolate is good, the double chocolate is better and triple chocolate is even better than that.

It generally seems to stop at triple, quadruple apparently is a little excessive – even for the bigger is better crowd.

Triple chocolate, mouse etc cake, pic:

That leave us very often with lots of something generally good – like chocolate – but at a bad quality.  Good triple chocolate – or anything – comes at a price but since people want lots and cheap, that is what they get: huge portions of triple something that nobody really wants to eat because it does not taste all that great but since it is on a plate right in front of you already, you eat it.  All of it or at least most of it.

Overblown portions of mediocre quality are the rule.  Every time I go to Europe, or Australia for that matter (as I just discovered) I need to adjust my internal portion-size calibrator and tell my self that the little thingy on my plate, made from delicious dark Swiss or belgian chocolate is so much more satisfying than the “Great Wall of China triple chocolate delight” at the Chinese restauarant around the corner.

It’s always hard at first, just like getting used to not eating the huge portions of whatever – jus because they are there.


February 18, 2011


The integration of people from other countries is never an easy task but in Silicon Valley we seem to have managed it quite well.  My evidence is anecdotal but I think never the less convincing: just look at the menus and staff or your average Silicon Valley restaurant.

Thai chicken taco - what else? pic:

Last Tuesday we went to a pizza joint.  It had a giant plaster statute of Liberty in the window, the owner was Italian or Mexican, can’t tell he spoke both Italian and Spanish, the guy behind the counter looked Middle Eastern.  The pizza available had names like “Times Square”, “Don Corleone”, “Bella Indiana” and most noticeably “Indian Veggie Pizza” with ginger, cilantro, garlic, mushrooms and bell peppers.

Today we went to Aqui – which implies Mexican food – and it is, sort of – as Mexican as artichoke lasagna gets.  Of course there are chili verdes and quesedillas on the menu along with that walnut mango organic greens salad that I have to yet be served in any restaurant in Mexico.  Then there are the interesting options:  Thai carnitas  with peanut sauce (what else?), Teriyaki beef burrito, and chicken Vindaloo tacos.

Got to love it.

February 10, 2011

Cutting mustard

… no, nobody is actually cutting any mustard here.  This is not a blog about table manners.  Cut the mustard is an idiom that means to succeed, to live up to the expectations,  to have the adequate skills to perform a task.

A very literal take on "cut the mustard", pic:

The idiom is often used in the negative form “he didn’t cut the mustard” to indicate that somebody did not live up to the expectations that where set into him or her.  As such it is a fairly mild way of saying that somebody failed.  The expression can therefore be used in conversations as long as they aren’t very formal.  The idiom is not particularly frequently used and certainly not hip – but even if you don’t ever use it, it is important to understand it.

The origin of the idiom is unclear and there is speculation abound what mustard has to do with performing at the expected level.  The most reasonable – and least interesting – explanation I found was that simply a mistaken version of the military term cut the muster.    It looks like we might never know – and that is okay.

Here is an example:

“They had to let Phillipe go.  He just didn’t cut the mustard.”

February 2, 2011

In a pickle

A pickle of the kind you eat, not are in, pic:

Today’s phrase is “being in a pickle.”  First let’s define pickle.  A pickle is generally a small cucumber that has been brined in a solution of vinegar and salt, often with other preservatives and flavors for some time.  It could be other veggies as well, like an onion or zucchini or carrots.

Pickles are spicy and sour due to the vinegar and in the US a pickled cucumber is an absolute must with a hamburger.

So now:  being in a pickle.  The expression means being in trouble but particularly serious trouble.  If you are in a pickle it might be uncomfortable or embarrassing but not life threatening.

Here is an example:  “I am in a pickle.  I am invited to this dinner party on Saturday and don’t have a date.  I really to find a date.”

Where the phrase comes from isn’t clear and as often in such situations the stories are manifold, convoluted, and date back to the 14th century.  That’s why we are skipping them.