Monday, May 24, 2010

The Taste of America

I was recently asked by someone how it was that the USA could have believed that bringing Western-style democracy to Afghanistan could ever be a simple or straightforward process, given its complex tribal makeup and fractious history. What struck me then is that for an understanding of US thought processes one must look to the diet.

According to data produced by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) obesity levels have been steadily rising to the point that between a quarter and a third of Americans are now clinically obese. This probably accounts for increasing levels of type 2 diabetes and heart disease in the country and represents a substantial problem. A recent news story illustrated the difficulties, describing how the US military were anticipating being unable to recruit enough people who were considered of a reasonable weight for combat. Whilst America's burger and fries provide an easy target for critics, the love of fried greasy food does contribute a lot towards this increasing weight problem.

Given this, you would imagine that some accommodation would be made in American restaurants for the larger size and weight of their patrons. Yet based on my experience it would seem that most fast-food restaurants, i.e. those most likely to have fixed seating, are designed with anorexics in mind and certainly not the average size American. I am fairly slender and I only just fit behind some of the tables I have encountered. My first thought was this was pure capitalism, seeking to cram in the maximum number of customers so as to generate the largest possible profit. However it didn't explain why Americans, normally so vocal about anything that inconveniences them, would be willing to suffer the torture of being crushed against a table.

Eventually I stumbled on a possible solution. which both accounts for their attitude towards regime change as much as for their being willing to accept too-small restaurant seating. Americans have a natural ability to not see, or to ignore, anything which is not convenient. Size is a matter of considerable embarrassment for Americans. Therefore in order not to cause customers to feel uncomfortable emotionally, restaurant-owners make them physically uncomfortable. Customers simply do not notice how tightly tables are digging against them because if that were the case it would suggest they were overweight, and since no one else is bothered by the table size, this would be a source of great personal embarrassment and shame. Thus when it comes to restaurant seating there is an act of collective amnesia or hypnosis. No one is overweight and no one need be embarrassed - reality has been suitably adjusted.

Where such a substantial adjustment to objective reality can be achieved, the problems of Afghanistan must seem inconsequential. Geographic, religious, tribal and historical issues should be able to be overcome in the same way, simply by ignoring them. Of course, this is not the case and application of this method has led America to many international difficulties, but it is easy to see why the US should think it is an acceptable approach.

Now again we can look to the food for a clue for how America will behave when this methodology fails - brute force. Almost nothing in America tastes of what it would naturally. Americans like variety and expect their needs to be met instantly, whether those are political or nutritional. An American would never think -- Ooo I will have banana today, strawberry tomorrow, nuts on Wednesday, chocolate on Thursday and toffee on Friday. No he will pummel the poor banana into submission, drowning it between strawberry and chocolate and toffee sauces with a final pounding of pecans. Nothing remains of the original flavor of the banana and it has been successfully forced into subservience.

Generally Americans do not like single flavors. A trip to the supermarket will confirm this. The yogurt is banana and strawberry rather than just strawberry, and the juice is orange, pineapple and apple. Now don't get me wrong, combinations of flavors can be extremely tasty and are far from unknown in my country of birth. However never have I encountered them with the frequency that I find here.

Again, Americans desire diversity but expect conformity. The success of McDonalds is the ultimate reflection of this. Through rigid quality control and exact selection of ingredients McDonalds produce a wide menu all of which is essentially tasteless. The flavor comes largely from the sauces and toppings which are then added. It is little wonder that Americans feel a similar technique can be applied to country-building. Pour in enough troops, just as you pour over sauces, and eventually they believe you will get the result you desire.

One other key characteristic of American food is the high presence of sugar, or nowadays high fructose corn syrup. It is said that Americans have a naturally sweet-tooth but it is unclear whether this is simply the result of successive generations being constantly exposed to high levels of sweetness in food. It was one of the aspects of American food I found most surprising when tasting it for the first time, just how much "sugar" was in everything, apples are coated with sugar to give them shine and improve taste, french fries get their golden yellow color from a sugar coating and as for icing over here.. its lethal.. the sugar high it gives me causes me to bounce for hours. Americans like things sweet.. not just their food but their wars too.

Palatability is crucial, whether it is of a meal or a conflict. It must be acceptable to the American tastebuds. This is one reason America spends so much on military research, the ideal American war is one in which no Americans are endangered. The increasing use of military drones is a good example of the direction warfare is heading. No modern president wants to face the level of protest which accompanied the Vietnam War. As long as American casualties are minimized an international conflict is unlikely to face significant protest. That is not to say there will not be voices of dissent still within the country, there will, however as long as large numbers of Americans are not dying it is unlikely to be vocal enough a movement to become mainstream.

Sugar and candy are invariably linked to childhood in the US and I think there is a certain youthful naivety in American attitudes to the rest of the world. Many people I have spoken to in other countries have an image of America as a bully. However I have found the American people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, even if politically somewhat narrow-focussed. Americans, and I think by extension, the United States itself, want to be loved but are afraid they won't be. Perhaps it is a consequence of how the US came into being, but there is a trepidation of dealing with other countries. The US is cautious about being too open and generous because of a fear it will be hurt. It doesn't ask if it is Hot or Not? because it fears the answer. It dreads being the Facebook user with no friends and the Twitterer with no followers. The sugar addiction is a result of this insecurity.

To those who argue in response that there is more to American food than candy and burgers I would agree. However burgers are a symbol of America and this is an image which is officially-cultivated. It is no coincidence that President George W Bush would frequently serve burgers to visiting foreign dignitaries or that one of the first unscheduled public appearances of President Obama and Vice President Biden should be at a burger bar.

Whilst many countries and people have major concerns about genetic modification of food, as practiced and promoted by American company Monsanto, not only are such modified products legal within the US but have been for some time. Generally I am not hearing the same level of alarm within the US that I did outside. Perhaps this is because Americans are so used to modifying flavors of food, by deluging it in sauces and toppings, that further modification, especially one that reduces the price, seems a small step. However applying the same doctrine to international affairs, whilst understandable can prove extremely dangerous. People are not as readily controlled or ignored as ingredients in a meal, and when attempts are made to subdue them they are likely to fight back. Even when victory is achieved there are likely to be long term resentments and hence consequences.

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