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culture reflected in butchery, baking, dining, etc.

In answering another thread about steak in France, I went into the internet rabbithole of links and discussions and one item that jumped out for me was this one about how French and American styles of cutting up beef are a reflection of our different cultures:

American butchers focus on efficiency and value, the French on consistency and distinction. (see link for more details.)

What an interesting leaping-off point for comparing different societies!

Could we do something similar for baking styles, and dining habits?
I bet we can, and have done so many times here in the RS discussions.

I think I've mentioned before that I once made a short detour in Denver to eat at what the online tripadvisor-y sites were calling the best French bistro in the Rockies, and found that the food and drink was indeed quite authentically Parisian, but the pace, atmosphere (like noise level), and portion size were clearly Denverian. It was like going to a bistro with the volume and brightness turned up and the playback speed at 2X. I notice similar happenings in San Diego as well.

What stands out for you in your travels to mark food differences as reflecting cultural differences?

Italians have many differences. Dinner starts around 7 pm or whenever the place is ready to open. Italians don't rush a meal and don't see the least bit concerned with turning tables. In fact, one seating seems acceptable to them. Coffee is price-locked by the government at €1 per cup for standing at the counter. Italians have the best cantalopes. I would eat cantaloupe all the time here in USA if they tasted the same. So many differences!
Guatemala has a rich food heritage as well. I just don't want to make my response too long. I could write essays on this topic.
Food is culture!

Posted by
8889 posts

Yes, it is very clear that French meat cuts are not the same as British cuts and neither are the same as German cuts.
As for US cuts, I think even though you say they are based on British cuts, they are significant differences.
This is why translating menus is never going to work 100%. You either know what a Schnitzel is, or you don't, you cannot translate it. The same applies to buying meat in a butchers or supermarket, you cannot translate, you have to learn the new cuts, and that extends to non-meat items. I now know what Röschti, Spätzli, Nusslisalat and lots more is, but it needs an explanation for a foreign visitor.
Bacon is a case in point. You cannot get bacon outside the UK. What they call bacon in the US is not bacon, it is fat back/streaky pork belly with more fat than meat. In France they have "Lardons", which is cube fat back bacon (50% fat) used as a garnish on salads, and served like that it is lovely. In Germany they have "Speck", which a dictionary calls "bacon", but it is either cubed (the same as Lardons), or thin cut fatty bacon, so thin that you cannot cook it without it going crunchy. What is curious is that it comes from the same Danish producers that sell bacon to the UK, but annoyingly cut totally differently. The lean bit of what the British call bacon ends up as part of a Schnitzel.
Another recent post discussed "Steak Frites" in France, but in reality a French "Steak" is not the same as a steak in the US or UK.
The conclusion to this rant (and I haven't even touched on dining styles yet - why do US Americans hold their fork in the right hand?) is that you cannot explain food or translate it, you have to go with the local food, not demand something you are used to, but pick something random off the menu and DISCOVER.

Posted by
6868 posts
  • Fresh baked bread (and lots of small bakeries everywhere); liberal use of butter
  • Portion sizes (and often presentation of food); quality over quantity
  • More fresh food because it doesn't need to be trucked very long distances; focus on local, in-season foods
  • Less processed and frozen food (and focus on non-GMO); shopping is done more often to get the freshest products
  • Aperitifs, wine, and other alcohol to accompany meals (drinking age is lower for your adults)
  • Desserts are luxurious yet less sweet (not all, but a lot - not talking about cannoli)
  • Coffee at end of meals (including strong espresso)
  • The way utensils are held/used
  • Leisurely meals; mealtime seen as way of bringing people together and very social in nature
  • Different tipping culture - waiters as "professionals", not reliant on tips
  • Lunch not eaten at your desk; not rushing through lunch
  • Fish eaten whole; much greater appreciation for things less popular in the States, like anchovies and sardines
  • Lots of mom and pop/non-chain restaurants of different sizes and configurations
  • Meals have different focus in various countries (sometimes lunch is the biggest meal, breakfast is very understated, and dinner could come very late)
  • In spite of all the differences, globalization is inescapable - hamburgers are all the rage in various styles (even in countries that used to poo-poo anything "American"), as is sushi, kabobs, etc. I never thought I would see the day when a vegan hamburger joint is # 1 on TripAdvisor in Warsaw, Poland where I grew up.
Posted by
4978 posts

Agnes, your post reminded me of when, many years ago, I lived in Poznań, and stopped at a hole in the wall to get what they called a hamburger. It was a ground meat patty on a bułeczka, topped off with a sizzling slice of kiełbasa. Nothing like a hamburger, but absolutely delicious.

Not to mention the pizza from the pizza place down on the rynek: absolutely wonderful. Liver pizza with peas, and our favorite: bacon with green beans. A thick slab of bacon, roasted on the cheesy pan-sized pizza, with green beans next to the sizzling bacon. Yummm.

Posted by
6868 posts

Jane, that gave me a laugh. Some ethnic interpretations of foods just shouldn't be tried (e.g. Polish-Mexican food or pizza with tomato paste out of the tube)...but the vegan burgers look real!

Posted by
2349 posts

Butchering varies across our country as well. Sirloin tri tip is popular on the west coast, but only starting to become big in the Midwest. And cuts that were once common are no longer, like beef shank. Some cuts that used to be cheap, like oxtail and skirt steak, have increased in demand and price. It only takes a few shows with Bobby Flay or Emeril to pique interest in a (formerly) cheap cut. And chicken wings will probably never be cheap again.

We were in a few Polish markets in Chicago, and their pork was cut differently than what we usually see here. They cut for their clientele.

It wasn't until I was in London several years ago that I saw fresh pork leg. Almost all of that here is smoked and made into ham.

Oh, and to Chris- are you dissing our bacon? See if you get invited to brunch. And nothing is as good as bacon with tomatoes. lettuce, on toast.

Posted by
293 posts

What stands out for me in 7 years of living in Germany and Belgium is that (speaking generally of course ) Americans seemed to crave informality, while many Europeans seemed to me to strive for adherence to more formal traditions and table manners.

Specific examples would be these: most European children use knife and fork from a very early age, and fingers rarely touch food on a plate, in contrast to American kids (and adults too) who often eat sandwiches, burgers, french fries, with their hands. And I have been informed (to my face, and at my own table at home) by several and sundry Europeans, "I'm sorry, I don't think I can eat this Mexican dish you call a taco with my hands, I just don't think I can do it..." Another: when staying at a hotel in France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, we are allowed to choose a breakfast table on the first morning of our stay, but from that moment on, it is "our" breakfast table, and we shall not depart from that breakfast table.

Ha ha, yes, the "Bacon" story! Preach, Karen! Oh, and while I'm talking about knife and fork, our method of eating has a name: It is called, "The American Zig-Zag Method" and I read about it in an etiquette book, probably an old Emily Post or something. The Euro way is so much better / faster / more efficient. Europeans also find it strange and weird that we should keep our left hand in our lap after we transfer the fork from our left hand to our right. And European custom asks us to place our wrists lightly against the table rim; my father would gently poke at my forearm to get it off the table whenever I did that.

Posted by
971 posts

Chris, if the whole world except the British agree that bacon is the streaky, fatty cut, wouldn't that be the 'real' bacon, based on a majority rule? Even though we export a huge amount of it here in Denmark, the variety we get in Danish supermarkets is very limited, all the best stuff gets exported.
This is not just the case with bacon, Denmark has been a major food exporter for centuries and most of the good stuff gets exported and we are left with the rest. Another case in point is seafood. Denmark is one of the biggest fishing nations in the EU, but Danes themselves only eat the four or five species they know and they hardly ever buy the whole fish. An example is nephrops (or Scampi), where only about one percent of the nephrops caught in Denmark gets eaten here, the rest is exported to southern Europe, where it is considered a delicacy.

Posted by
4978 posts

Karen, if you want uncured pork leg here, ask for "fresh ham." It shows up in our supermarkets fairly regularly.

Agnes, in the same time period (mid-70s? maybe early 80s) we tried a "Chinese" restaurant in Warsaw. Uh, no.

One thing I've noticed that you can seldom, if ever find here, is anything blood based. (Not that I'm complaining, mind you.) But having had duck's blood soup and a buckwheat/pig's blood concoction in Poland, and black pudding in England, I have noticed the lack of such fare here in the States.

Posted by
8889 posts

Morten, is what is the correct meaning of words in English decided by the majority, or by "English" meaning "from England" and if it isn't the way it is said in England, it is not "English"? I will continue to prefer my "Bacon" English-style - lean. :-)
Your comment about many foods getting exported applies to the fishing industry around the British coast. Very little seafood is consumed in the UK, but the fishing industry catches a large amount, which is mostly exported to France and Spain. Whether these exports will continue after the UK leaves the EU is one of the very many open questions.

Posted by
1884 posts

Very interesting observations, everyone, and I agree with several, like tri-tip being common in California compared to the rest of the USA; the opposite applies to brisket.

Have you noticed any instances where the taste markers don't match up, because the yardsticks being used are measuring different things?

I'm thinking of expensive vs. cheap cuts of meat as markers of economic class not necessarily mapping out in the same way as markers of connoisseurship.

For instance, Lyon is known for cookery that makes fancy use of what many people consider off-cuts,
so it just now occurs to me that some people who are following a formula in their head that puts offal way at the bottom, fit only for people who can't afford decent food, are going to have a very different reaction to a good bouchon than people who don't associate organ meats with poverty.

This just now occurs to me because of a story I heard at the Thanksgiving table a few days ago: two ladies of-a-certain-age who had been thick as thieves for years but had never been to Turkey Day together grew colder afterwards, and this went on for some time. A mutual friend inquired discreetly about the source of the cooldown and learned that one of them was scandalously insulted by being served the sweet-potato casserole with melted marshmallows on top at the dinner.
"How dare they serve something with marshmallows at a formal/important dinner?!"
It was an unforgivable faux pas.

I was told this story because I had said that I know it's really Thanksgiving when I get a big spoonful of sweet-potato casserole with marshmallows on my plate. Been that way for me for 30+ years. I got [ ] to give me her recipe years ago and I treasure the slip of paper in my recipe file, but I've never been able to match her version of this dish.

One diner's meat is another diner's poison, non?

Posted by
5697 posts

Years ago, we mentioned "New York cut" to relatives visiting from New York City -- ended up having to take them to a supermarket meat section where we learned that they call it "shell steak."

Posted by
1884 posts

And recall that flank steak used to be called London broil by American butchers trying to make it seem classy.

Posted by
4978 posts

Many years ago, we were visiting my father-in-law, who lived in Laredo TX, on the Mexican border. He introduced us to a local favorite we had never heard of: fajitas. It was wonderful, and my sis-in-law (his daughter) and I insisted on learning how to fix it. He said the trick was using skirt steak - not only is it delicious, he said, it's one of the cheapest cuts of beef you can get. Well. Fast forward about 40 years, and skirt steak is one of the more expensive cuts. And people use any old cut of meat (or chicken!) to make something resembling those wonderful fajitas.

By the way, when we were on the Villages of South England tour this last year, we visited a pasty bakery. The proprietor said the only meat she used in her pasties was --- skirt steak!