travelog 42

Lowfat & Fatfree

Anyone's first impression of America is: BIG. Everything is bigger than in Europe, the cities, the houses, the cars, the roads, the shopping centres, the people ("big" in this context meaning "horizontally challenged"...). You get used to big cities and skyscrapers as well. Our car isn't small either, and with a decent road map you can find your way through even the worst road jungle. The shopping malls, however, amaze us again and again. Just as we can never take our eyes off the many fat (and we mean really fat, not only European fat) people. Even though it's practically forbidden to say such things out loud without being sued for discrimination or anything else, we want to give you an intimate insight into supermarkets, restaurants and in general the dietary habits of the American people.

A shopping "spree" in an American supermarket is always an experience in itself! Most of the large towns have several supermarket chains which spring up like mushrooms in strategically favorable locations, which means town entrances and exits. Out in the country you may find that you can only buy some canned food and chips at the gas station because the locals prefer to do their grocery shopping every few weeks 130 miles away in the next bigger town. In yuppie neighbourhoods or other trendy places, it's possible to find a farmers market or an organic food store. But once you step into a real consumer temple, you are overwhelmed by the size and especially by the selection offered. One question inevitably comes to mind: who is supposed to eat all that...

Umpteen shelves are lined up next to each other in long rows, packed from beginning to end with groceries. For example, there are not only two brands of spgahetti available, no, you have to dig through many brands until you find the product you like. Little labels with the price for 100 grams (or 1 oz.) of spaghetti for each brand help you keep track of the price per unit, so as to save you from a lot of tiresome mental arithmetic. Freezers take up a huge area with their infinite possibilities of frozen food, snacks, pizzas, etc. Next to the freezers you find aisle of canned soups, canned meat, canned vegetables, canned fruits, and canned sausages. Fresh veggies and fruits shine artificially, they are sprayed automatically every few minutes: newcomers are always surprised at the sudden rumble of thunder over loudspeakers. If you're there at the right time to select your lettuce, you'll get sprinkled with water. Even (legal) drugs, in Europe often only available on prescription or in pharmacies, can be bought over the counter - the best-selling drugs within reach and at eye-level.

Buying bread turns out to be especially difficult for Europeans because we're used to crusty bread. In the US they produce bread with as little crust as possible - and most people still cut off this thin layer which still could be recognized as "crust" because it's too hard for them to bite. "Wonder Bread" for example is a label which is easily remembered. Without any use of force, it's possible to compress a loaf of 30cm (12 inches), of course pre-cut, to just 5cm (2 inches), that's how soft and rubbery it is. It's probably a lot easier to transport this way... Black Forest bread, which naïve Swiss think is named after the Black Forest and dark German wholewheat bread, turns out to be a sweet rubber-bread which was more likely named after the Black Forest cake. If you're lucky enough to find freshly baked, crusty bread, they will pre-cut it and wrap it in plastic. Only in a few supermarkets do you find a shelf with a nice selection of crusty bread - there are even paper bags to wrap it.

To search for sausages and real cheese is to search in vain. In the delicatessen department (the cold shelves with imported groceries), we admit, it's possible to find unaged Brie or Camembert, Italian Salami (produced in Canada), Mortadella, or Swiss Gruyère and Emmentaler sold at shocking prices. Still, those products have been produced especially for the American market and are not nearly anything like the original. Here, too, most products are pre-cut and vacuum-packed for the sake of hygiene, which doesn't agree with most cheeses.

But the biggest shock comes in the dairy department. Real butter ekes out a wretched existence in one corner of the cold shelf. It is upstaged by umpteen variations of margarine and pseudo-butter, all of which claim to taste like the original but of course are a lot healthier, according to the advertising. Cheese is sold in huge square blocks. The spectrum of color varies from yellow to dark orange. Taste comes from pepper corns, caraway seeds or pepper flakes, but the cheese still closely resembles rubber. Yogurt is available in many different flavors, but all of it is "lowfat", "fatfree", "nonfat", "2% fat" or "light", and it all tastes the same - like nothing. In Europe the trend towards "light" products is also well-known, but here in the US it's like an epidemic! That's why we're really a little bit surprised why there are still so many obese Americans...

Practically everybody is battling a cholesterol problem, sometimes probably only because of propaganda spread by the media. Now everybody omits real fat, using only substitutes, and thinking that this will allow them to eat more. Potato chips are available fatfree now, turkey is very popular, ice cream is fatfree, cookies are healthy, etc. No one seems to think about the sugar - small wonder that at least half of all Americans are overweight.

The check-out has more surprises in store for you. Here, the customer is always right. That's why he does not have to pack his groceries himself, let alone bring his own bags or baskets. There are plastic bags in plentiful supply, you can be lavish with them, they are free of charge. That's why eggs are preferably packed separately into one plastic bag. Meat is wrapped twice, to be on the safe side. Toilet paper is packed separately. If you buy groceries and a tube of toothpaste, the toothpaste is packed in its own bag. Every single wine bottle is first wrapped in a paper bag, then in two plastic bags. The paper bag prevents other people from seeing that you bought alcohol. In some states the law stipulates the use of paper bags. No argument about the insanity of wrapping everything or concern over the environment is of any use at this point. With the 24/7-mentality (open 24 hours and 7 days a week) you also have to be careful that you don't need to buy alcohol by mistake on a Sunday before noon. This is forbidden by law. During hours when it is legal you might still come across a cashier who is very particular about your age and you have to show him your ID to prove that you're really a person who has seen at least 21 summers. If anyone amongst you now is wondering if there are less alcoholics over here, we can safely assure you that this strategy has remained unsuccessful.

Restaurants are another highlight in America. Surf & Turf, that is Steak & Lobster, is the ultimate luxury. Mexican food is Americanized. Chinese food all swims in the same sauce. "Swiss" means with melted cheese. Hamburgers are omnipresent in every imaginable variation. Fast food chains like McDonalds, Burger King (also known as Murder King), Pizza Hut, Arby's, Subway Sandwiches, Schlotzky's Deli (sounds very appetizing...), Boston Buffet, and many more offer cheap unhealthy food which leaves you hungry and with an unhappy stomach. At the lunch buffet at Pizza Hut you pile up the pizza slices until your "leaning tower of pizza" threatens to collapse. The drive-through at McDonalds is busy until well after midnight. They serve you a thick white salad sauce at the Boston Buffet which they claim is "original Italian". And the relics of American cuisine decorate tables everywhere: Ketchup and garish yellow mustard - what a delightful prospect!

You order an iced tea as a beverage and it normally consists of more ice than tea. The same goes for Cola and its relatives. A really great invention here (we want to say something positive as well!) is the free refill: You pay for one beverage and you can have your glass refilled as often as you want (unknown in Europe!). This also includes coffee, but coffee still reminds us of the movie "Bagdad Cafe" in which Marianne Sägebrecht is horrified by the "brown water".

Speaking of positive aspects we want to add that smokers are all but excluded from society in the USA. Almost all restaurants are smoke-free, and if there is a smoking section, it is very well ventilated so that the non-smokers are not at all bothered. You get used to this smoke-free life very quickly and then you're appalled when you arrive in Europe where every meal and every coffee in a restaurant is spoiled by the ever-present smoke. A night in town invariably means that you will have to throw both yourself and your clothes in the washing machine to get rid of the smell of stale cigarette smoke. In the US, the non-smokers don't have to go away if they're bothered by the smoke. It's the smokers who leave, voluntarily, so that they don't bother the non-smokers (they also don't want to risk getting sued by a militant non-smoker for vast sums)!

If you can't quite polish off the huge portion on your dinner plate, you can take it home in a styrofoam container. Unlike in Europe, the doggie-bag is a very normal thing and nobody looks at you askance or thinks that you must be one of the needy. The next day you place the container in your microwave and presto, your meal is ready.

If you don't have time for a meal at a restaurant, you just drive up to a window where you can choose from any number of delicious options listed on the wall. You don't lose any time sitting around in a comfortable restaurant, you can deal with your meal while driving through town.

In general, you don't have to move very much in the US if you know the tricks. At the post office you can drive in a special lane past mail boxes which are comfortably positioned at window level. This system works at the bank as well. There are even drive-thru telephones which are equipped with a little overhang to protect you from the rain, the phones also exactly installed at the level of your car window - innocent European pedestrians wonder why they have to cripple themselves to make a phone call. Cemeteries are also laid out very practically so that you can drive with your car to the row where your beloved deceased is buried. You can even buy alcohol in a "Drive-through Liquor". However, this institution is rather controversial because, as is well known, you should not drink and drive!

We're absolutely convinced that the people here are so fat because they eat too much too unhealthy, and don't get any exercise to boot. Nonetheless there are still people who actually believe that the government mixes some additives into the food to make them fat. These are usually people who love to devour a bag of chips as a light snack and prefer spending their day in a comfortable chair.

November 2001

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen