I’ve recently started writing about my perspective on Russian culture, as an American, for another blog. It’s a language blog to help Russians learn English and to provide insight into the cultural norms in English and Russian speaking cultures. This is the third article I wrote for English in Russia, and I wanted to post it on my own blog as well. Here is the link to the other blog sight, in case you want to follow any comments there or check out any other articles:
without further ado…..
Russian vs American: Cuisine
Within the first few weeks of living in Russia, I lost about 10 pounds (4.5 Kilos). It did not take me long to gain all of it back (and then some), when I returned home…now I am on a diet (typical American cycle). No, this article is not going to talk about why Americans are so obese, but I merely wanted to use my scenario as an illustration for what I rediscovered about American food when I came home. It’s a contradictory statement, but American food is probably some of the best food in the world, as well as some of the worst food in the world. How can this be, you ask? Don’t worry, I will elaborate on this in full detail.
First of all, let me clear up one misconception about Americans and our cuisine. We do not only eat food from McDonald’s and Burger King. In fact, the last time I was in a McDonald’s was in Russia, and only because it had a free public toilet. And I had never before seen a Carl’s Junior until I arrived in Saint-Petersburg. I hate to break it to you, but I think Russians like our fast food more than we do. After all, it’s because of Gorbachev that Russia has Pizza Hut! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9lvzzH0STw) Yes, we have a lot of fast food and chain restaurants to accommodate our busy lifestyles, but a lot of Americans (myself included), choose not to poison our bodies by eating at them on a regular basis. Fast food restaurants are one example of why American cuisine is some of the worst in the world, not only because they sell unhealthy food, but also because, here in the States, they are driven by the livestock and corn industries – powerful lobbies that are poisoning our foods and wreaking havoc on the environment (in my opinion).
You see, the biggest difference between American cuisine and Russian food can be summed up in one simple truth: we don’t make anything from scratch. Everything we eat or cook at home comes in packages, and they are loaded with ingredients whose names I cannot even pronounce. Fortunately, many Americans are beginning to catch on to the fact that the food industry and science have been poisoning our food for years and many of us are becoming vegetarian, eating organic and avoiding foods with GMO’s (such as myself). The market is finally beginning to shift to accommodate a healthier diet.
So then how is American food some of the best food in the world? It’s simple really. We are one of those countries that has been blessed with a diverse ethnic population and we get the benefit of adopting all of their cuisines. Russia also has this advantage, but there still remains a distinct “Russian” cuisine. Nothing we eat is truly “American” (okay, maybe hamburgers and Coca Cola). We’ve got every cuisine you could possibly imagine and we get to experiment with them all and see how they will taste with a new American twist – in fact, we’ve coined this cuisine American Nouveau.
We’ve also developed very strong regional cuisines. America is big and food varies as you travel from state to state. I grew up in Maine, a coastal state known for its lobster. The southern states are known for having heavy, fattening foods that taste delicious. Louisiana has a heritage of French and Creole cuisine that is out-of-this-world and loaded with flavor. The New York tri-state area is a smorgasbord of ethnic and reinvented cuisines – it is the culinary capital of our country. Texans like barbeque and Tex-Mex, Chicago cuisine has a lot of Polish influence, and California is one of the largest economies in the world, in and of itself, and produces amazing wines, produce, seafood, etc. And we love wine and beer. Another secret: I’m going to be bold and say that we have the best beer in the world. Microbreweries have exploded in recent years, utilizing the same entrepreneurial spirit to experiment with beer recipes inherited from our European ancestors. When I came home, I couldn’t wait to have a “real” beer (sorry Baltika!). In a small nutshell, real American cuisine has strong regional and cultural ties and is always open to experimentation.
So what did I think of Russian cuisine? Let me sum up Russian cuisine with a few simple ingredients (keep in mind I’m a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish): cabbage, potatoes, dill, beets, cucumbers (pickled or plain), black bread, smoked salmon, caviar and of course, vodka. In my honest opinion, the best thing to happen to Russian cuisine was the ethnic Georgian population! What I wouldn’t give to have a Georgian restaurant over here, which reminds me – Caucasian cuisine might be the only cuisine I’ve never seen here in the States, although I think it’s been incorporated into the Russian menus on Brighton Beach (the “little” Russia of New York City). In America, you could say that Mexican is to the American cuisine what Georgian is to the Russian cuisine.
Despite my critique of the bland Russian cuisine, I confess I grew to love it. The soups are some of my favorite – borsch and shi especially. I love draniki and salat vinaigrette, although I’ve heard a few other countries claim draniki as their own. I’ve always been an avid fan of all things pickled and I am still searching for a recipe for vitamini salat. Lest we forget, on top of everything goes the dill (I’m actually planning to write an entire article about dill, so stay tuned!).
Occasionally I find myself popping into our local Russian produkti (yep, we’ve got one in my town), to buy sushki and enjoy the nostalgia. Speaking of which, does anybody know how to make grenki? Best beer snack ever! Oh yes, and Russians know how to take a potato and transform it into many different things – even flavored mashed potatoes in a cup! Just add hot water from the samovar on the train and you’ve got yourself a meal. And in summertime, enjoy potatoes sautéed with fresh mushrooms picked by the Russians themselves. But what I don’t understand is, what is it with the pasta and hot dogs, even at breakfast time! Furthermore, Russians love ice cream. My Babushka’s daughter told me they always had ice cream, even amidst the shortages of the Soviet times. I ate the Russian ice cream occasionally, but again I must confess, Americans also love ice cream and I think ours is better.
American cuisine vs. Russian cuisine…sorry, but I’m going to root for my own country on this one, mostly because we have a larger variety. Nevertheless, I will always have a place in my heart for Russian cuisine, as it was all a part of the cultural learning experience. And on a side note, mine and earlier generations of American children grew up being told to eat everything on their plates because there were starving children in China, no joke. Maybe that is why we are obese!