Posted: Jun 13, 2005 8:45:46 PM
Well, I've left Palmerston North and my class behind and I'm now in Santa Rosa, California. As I mentioned in the last report, this time around I'm adopting a new style: for my European trip I wrote on monuments, museums, and places I visited, and while I'll still be doing that I also plan to write about the little nuances and things that make America so different from my home town. I'll also be including pictures as I go, although I plan to make the gallery ... eclectic, at best. They'll all be of America, except this first one, which is of my class at IPC in New Zealand. Hopefully they're still studying hard, even though I'm not there to goad and prod them. I'm planning to write a report every Monday, so keep an eye out for them and leave your comments below.
San Francisco Airport wasn't nearly as bad as I had feared, although the imperious "Why are you staying so long?" question was interesting - I forgot that most Americans only get one or two weeks of vacation a year. The armed guards were only vocal to those who got in the wrong queue or hadn't filled in their immigration forms correctly (sarcasm? in a public servant? who would have guessed?), and the queues were long, but overall it wasn't an extremely arduous process.
The first couple of places we visited were a huge Redwood forest bush remnant called Armstrong State Reserve and Bodega Bay, the beach community made famous by the Alfred Hitchcock movie 'Birds', but I'm going to save my description of those until I have photos to back it up. Foolishly forgot to bring the camera on that trip, but I won't make that mistake again. Instead, I thought I'd write this report on some observations I've made about American food.
Yes, the food! Anyone who has seen the documentary 'Supersize Me' will know something of the mythology around American food (or at least the fast parts of it). Before watching that documentary I ate four Big Macs, for no other reason than I wanted to say that I had. And now I've said that, it's strangely unsatisfying. Much like the burgers. But what is American food really like? Not just the fast food, but the diners, the cafes, the restaurants...
There's the size. No-one does super-sizing any more, but the portions border on the absurd anyway: what would be an extra-large cola in New Zealand is here a medium, and their large drinks are large enough to need buoys and a lifeguard. Breakfast is a titanic struggle against the horrors of not finishing your meal (I was raised to finish what you begin), wading through never-ending flurries of hash browns and buttermilk pancakes. The Credo of one diner announces this proudly:
" 'WOW!' - if you don't say that when you get your food you either ordered toast or my cooks reverted to some training regimen received elsewhere. We always want you to feel that you have gotten your money's worth. We buy huge platters and we fill them."
Siobhan has observed that American restaurants often thrive on quantity over quality - something like effort over nuance I guess - but the quality of the food can only rarely be faulted.
Speaking of which, don't eat the orange cheese.
In some restaurants (Chilis being the best example), even an order of Sprite is cornucopian. You're halfway through a glass and the waitress brings another. And another. And another. I must have burned through five glasses over the course of one meal, and I get the feeling that if I hadn't waddled slowly out of the place I'd still be there now, buried under a mass of glasses and melted ice, crying mournfully for more boneless buffalo wings.
Which takes me to my next observation: the service. New Zealand does not have a tipping culture, and aside from Turkey you can get through most of Europe without learning this skill also. Here, it's essential. I always get a little apprehensive about tipping, but it seems to be working out okay. I was worried that a tipping culture would produce an enforced-helpfulness type of attitude, where deathly cheerfulness and overeager suggestions are the norm, but I have found the service staff to be as a rule very polite and happy to help. You still get the odd rise of latent aggression, never directed at the customers but instead fired across the bows of other staff-members: while paying for one dinner our cashier announced loudly across the restaurant that she needed someone to take over the register while she attended to her own customers, delivering that line with a death-grin and a tone dripping frustrated bile. Mostly, however, people are fine and service actually is with a smile. Some customer service customs baffled me at first - asking for a product in a supermarket met with a completely tangential offering of another product, for example. It has since been explained to me, however, that this is considered good customer service. In New Zealand replying to "do you sell vases?" with "we have some lovely bouquets you may consider buying!" is considered evasive and rude. Maybe she didn't understand my accent? I tried both 'vays' and 'vahs'...
Anyway, back to food. There is one thing about the American dining experience that just has to be mentioned. The kitschiness. It ebbs and it flows based on the establishment, but the kitsch, she is omnipresent. That's okay, part of why I wanted to witness the States was to revel in the tacky and the magnificent (as the upcoming trip to Vegas and the Grand Canyon will no doubt demonstrate), but even I was shocked at the level of out-and-out corn circulating in these places. This picture is of a wooden bear - one of a half-dozen - outside the Black Bear Cafe. Inside, the walls were covered in signs bearing messages like "Almost Bearadise", "Talk to the Paw", "Just Bear It", and "Grin and Bear It". At the IHOP (International House of Pancakes), you don't order a breakfast with fruit pancakes, you order a 'Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity'. Some of the rhymes don't translate into New Zealand pronunciation, leaving me to giggle at a sliced deepfried onion called an 'Awesome Blossom' and the label on a pin that announces "Sass with Class". Indeed, the kitsch is delightful and endearing, especially as you feel that even the staff are embarrassed at the level of corny jokes that flood around them.
So, I'm having a great time with my eatings, as you can tell. Next week I'll be back to writing about places, probably beginning with the grand old city of San Francisco. See you then.
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