Food Culture Shock – Europe v. the U.S., pt. 1

Years ago, I participated in a year-long cultural exchange program in the U.K.  I’m a picky eater, and at the time, loved my food plain (no condiments, no fancy spices).  England was the perfect locale for me because the food was, no offense, pretty dull.  But, after a month or two, I began to notice a distinct lack of foods that I took for granted when I lived in the U.S.  I started to crave brand-name, sweetened peanut butter, my mom’s homemade chicken soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and maple syrup.  The peanut butter was nowhere to be found, there was no cheese like the stuff at home, and I looked for months trying to find a good substitute for the Polish egg noodles that are the centerpiece of Mom’s soup.  Every time I pondered a grilled cheese and chicken soup, I’d get a little more homesick.  Thankfully, after a lot of trial and error, and a care package or two from home, I was able to find the familiar flavors I loved, and fill in the gaps with some new local favorites.

Food has a lot of power.  The smell of a familiar dish can trigger an intense memory, and the lack of familiar foods can really begin to drive you crazy.  This is a series.  In this post, I’m going to tell you a little about the differences you’ll see in American groceries and food habits.  Then, in subsequent installments, I’ll show you how Indianapolis’ history of immigration makes it a great city for finding some of the familiar foods you miss.

One of the first things visitors to the U.S. notice about food is probably the relative lack of small specialty shops compared to their home country.  For good or ill, the typical American diet includes a lot of packaged, processed foods and meals at restaurants.  Most grocery stores multi-task as pharmacies or general retail outlets, stocking fresh, frozen and packaged foods as well as a small selection of  medicines, toiletries, gifts, and office supplies.  Larger retailers (locally, you’ll find Target, Walmart, Meijer, Kmart) also include pets, clothing, electronics, garden supplies, and furniture among their merchandise, and some even have banks, hair salons, and portrait studios inside.  It can be overwhelming, even if you’ve lived your whole life in urban America.

Indianapolis does have local food shops that specialize, like bakeries and butcher shops, but they are concentrated down town.  If you miss the shopping experience of your home country, a great place to get fresh artisan-quality foods is the farmer’s market.  Markets are held year-round in various parts of the city and boast seasonal produce, specialty baked goods, and sustainably-raised meat and poultry.  Click here to see Indy’s most popular markets.

The other major difference you’ll notice between European and American food is regulation:  foods banned in the E.U. are permissable in the U.S., and not all of them are required to be labeled.  If you’re concerned about genetically modified foods and additives, it takes a little savvy shopping.

  • You’ll find food dyes in the “ingredients” list on the side or back of the box.
  • BPA is still used in the U.S.  It’s used by some brands to line the interior of food cans.  Plastic storage containers and packaging not intended for infants and children are not required to be labeled if they contain Pthalates or BPA, but most manufacturers now boast “BPA-free!” on labels if they’ve removed it from their products.
  • The U.S. does not prevent the washing of poultry in chlorinated water.
  • Farmers may use pesticides, antibiotics, and bovine growth hormone.  The “Clean 15/Dirty Dozen” is a list of the least and most risky fruits and vegetables.  If you are concerned about pesticides in produce, consult this list to help make an informed decision at the grocer.  Public outcry about antibiotics and growth hormones has resulted in some companies ceasing their use.  As with BPA, companies are generally keen to label their products when they are free of these additives, as it is a major selling point.  But, be careful, because non-regulated marketing claims can be misleading.  For example, a certification system exists for organic food and only certified growers may use “Certified Organic” on a label; in contrast, no reliable certification process exists for the use of the word “natural” on labels in the U.S.
  • Genetically-Modified Organisms are not forbidden in the U.S., and they are also  not required to be labeled.  There are a few Organic brands that undergo a third-party certification process and can boast that they are GMO-free.  Corn, soy, and beets are the most common GMO crops in the U.S.  Otherwise, it can be tricky to avoid GMOs, especially in convenience foods.    Here are some tips.

All these concerns aside, there’s a lot to love about American cuisine.  Next time, we’ll look at the great food in Indianapolis (both ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook) that can help you battle food-induced homesickness.

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One response to “Food Culture Shock – Europe v. the U.S., pt. 1

  1. Pingback: More on Culture Shock | Go Au Pair Indianapolis Area

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