Continuing in our series of posts about the things that surprise foreign visitors and immigrants about America, today I’m going to talk about food.
More than one person has commented that it seemed odd that buying more of something ended up costing less. Stores in the United States encourage people to buy in bulk, but the consequences are that a great deal of food is wasted in this country. Another way in which food prices seemed contradictory to folks is that fruits and vegetables often cost more than meats, and fresh food costs more than fast food.
We have a great deal of variety in our stores and restaurants, and people from certain countries can’t get over how well-stocked our grocery stores are. Folks also comment about the vast amounts of processed foods available here. Something that I noticed for myself when I lived in Japan, is that the size and shape of vegetables varies greatly from country to country. In Japan, they had very thin cucumbers with thick, bitter skin, while in the United States, we tend to have fatter cucumbers with thinner skin that is not too bitter to eat. The size and shape of other produce items such as tomatoes astounds people. They also notice our uniquely American foods, such as sweet corn, squashes, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. Some have commented on the prevalence of pumpkin-flavored breads, coffee, and dessert items served or offered for sale in the autumn, especially around Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Serving and Package Sizes
The most common comment, by far, about American food always has to do with how huge our portions are in homes and restaurants, and how big the bags of potato chips and cans of soda are. I did notice, after a decade of living in Japan, that American portions started to go down slightly in the 1980s, but they are still huge compared with portions in other countries. This is one of the big issues dieters have to deal with in the United States, and “portion control” is now a watchword among Weight Watchers members.
Foreigners can’t get over how much sugar there is in a lot of food, and that many of us expect to have a “dessert” course after the midday and evening meals.
Visitors express disbelief that soft drinks such as Coca-Cola are cheaper than bottled water, and they can’t believe the amount of soft drinks that are consumed here. They are amazed that restaurants offer unlimited soda refills, and that the typical soft drink machine in a restaurant has a lot more choices in this country than in their own.
Ice cubes are a novelty for many, and it amuses some people that ice is put into the beverage container first, before the beverage. One person expressed amazement that he was given ice chips in the hospital instead of water. Many people are not used to drinking ice water the way many Americans do. The practice of serving ice-cold water right away in American restaurants also impresses people, unless it is not what they want. Then they are annoyed.
Foreigners are not so surprised at the variety of fast food as they are at the fact that so much of it is fried, and that some Americans eat it almost daily. Pizza in the United States is nothing like what you can get in Italy. The sheer variety of thickness of crusts, toppings, and sauces is mind-boggling.
The thing that impresses foreigners about restaurants, other than the huge portions, is the practice of having leftover food boxed to be taken home. Many are unfamiliar with our system of tipping the wait staff, but they comment that the service tends to be very good, on the whole. Many people are astounded at the idea of “all-you-can-eat” restaurants, wondering how you can make a profit selling unlimited food.
There are a lot of comments about variety and the necessity of making lots of size and flavor choices when ordering. One person commented that he thought the fact that food is often cut up, bones taken out, seeds removed, and sweetened with glazes gives the food the appearance of having been made for children.
The practice of splitting the bill is also unique to the United States. In other countries, people vie to be the one to pay the bill, knowing that their social standing is increased by their ability to pay for everyone.
One person commented that when the servers take away empty plates while customers are still seated and present the bill before customers are finished eating, it makes them feel rushed. 🙂