Two tourists visiting the United States are sitting in a restaurant. The “small bruschetta” on the appetizer menu looks good, so one of them orders it. Imagine their surprise when an entire baguette shows up, cut into big hunks of bread and smothered in melted mozzarella and chopped tomatoes. A meal in itself!
Is this how people in America eat? Well, they’re certainly a generous people. And they can be over the top. So maybe they just like things to be bigger and better when they dine out. Let’s take a look at American culinary tradition and see…
What’s on the menu?
To understand America a little better, just look at some of their menus. For example, you don’t just order oysters, you ask for the finest tasting oysters available from the cold Atlantic waters. The salmon is not some simple filet, but a generous, hand-cut filet broiled perfectly with butter and lemon. The ice cream isn’t topped with just chocolate sauce, but with a sinful cascade of hot fudge. Yum!
Americans don’t skimp on quantity either. Mere sandwiches are not enough, they have to be two-handed sandwiches. Desserts are large enough to share! Your slice of apple pie contains roughly half an orchard. (No kidding, this is quoted from a menu at a Boston restaurant.) Bigger is always better!
Legendary American hospitality is no doubt what motivates this generosity, which lets no corner of your stomach go unfilled. So your beef liver is served smothered in onions, your prime rib is the biggest in town, and your nachos are piled high with spicy chili sauce. A chain in the Midwest boasts that it serves burritos as big as your head!
Americans are not shy about touting their dishes. If they’re tasty and the ingredients are fresh, they feel the urge to say so—the most tender of steaks, grilled to perfection; yummy blue cheese dressing; a riot of fresh veggies; glorified (sic) chicken wings…
The French influence
France, the ultimate authority on fine dining, has also had an impact on the U.S. For example, food traceability and eating local have become much more important. Labels now indicate pure Vermont maple syrup, Wisconsin farmhouse cheese, baked Idaho potatoes, and genuine Florida orange juice.
Like the French, Americans drink wine, and increasingly so with all the great wines coming out of California and other states. However, some of the descriptors are, to put it mildly, surprising: brawny, broad-shouldered, killer Cab, chewy, decadent. The American magazine Wine Spectator had the following quote from wine critic Robert Parker: St. Francis is better because it’s making monster, pedal to the metal, full-throttle Zinfandels.
When it comes to vocabulary, Americans borrow freely from the French language: sauté, purée, hors d’œuvre (often pronounced in the plural, hors d‘œuvres), filet mignon, etc. If the dishes are inspired by French cuisine, French terminology abounds: vinaigrette, brunoise, crème fraîche, mille-feuille, court-bouillon, tuile, and so on. This is handy in certain cases as it’s a good way of hiding what the ingredient really is. Savoring escargots is one thing, chomping down on snails is quite another! Or how about the steakhouse that describes a cut of beef as a petite sirloin to avoid saying that it’s small!
Interestingly, for complete meals, we often see the expression prix fixe, in French, although in France today we say formule or menu and in Quebec, table d’hôte.
There are also a few differences with respect to restaurant service, especially for the French (in Quebec, American-style service is often de rigueur). First of all, dinner starts earlier, around 6 or 7 p.m. Some restaurants even offer Early Bird Specials starting at 5 p.m. or earlier. Your server may also address you in quite a familiar tone: How are you folks tonight? My name is Peter and I’ll be your server tonight. Everything is so casual!
When the meal arrives, you’ll probably hear the server say Enjoy! And if there’s still food on your plate when they come to clear the table, they may ask you, Still working on that? Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re inquiring about your job.
If you are “still working on it,” possibly because the portions are so big, the server will probably offer you a doggy bag so you—not your dog—can finish your meal at home.
Language on menus in the U.S. is like the American people—generous, exuberant, and bigger than life. Next time you visit, keep a lookout for how the American character affects the spoken and written language of Americans.