Outside Looking In: American food style doesn’t live up to expectations

Sofia Rada, Columnist

If you’re one of those brave Americans who have ventured out of this country and into the rest of this incredible world, you probably recall having eaten food that was vastly different from what you are used to. You ordered pizza and instead got something that resembled flatbread. You found that every entree seemed to involve rice. You found that Rice Krispie treats, microwave mania and Campbell’s soup aren’t worldwide phenomena. That experience that you had for however long you traveled or studied abroad — we’re living it daily. We will keep living it daily, most likely, for the next four years.

I could write a book about food culture in this country or just on college campuses for that matter. (Let’s be honest, if it weren’t for practical and health reasons I would most likely dedicate my entire life to food. I’d end up writing 99 books and dying of heart disease before the 100th could be published.) Food is a part of everyone’s daily lives. It’s essential to our well-being. But it also serves social, emotional and cultural purposes — which is why for most international students, not unlike most American students I’m sure, the transition to different eating patterns and options is a big part of entering college.

First impressions?  The most striking differences coming into Northwestern from our home countries were the meal times and food staples. Whereas a lot of us were used to being able to eat dinner until maybe even 9 p.m., here we’re left unsatisfied as dining halls close before 8 p.m. Although a lot of us are used to the ubiquity of rice or some form of noodles, here the diet staples seem to be …  hamburgers, pizza and grilled cheese.

I say “a lot of us” and not “all of us” because I do know Europeans do eat really early dinners and potatoes replace rice as the staple in many Northern European countries. However, considering that the large majority of international students come from Asia and others are Latin American, those are two key differences most of us have to adjust to. We also have to curb the disappointment we face when we’re craving fruit and are forced to pick from the not-so-holy trinity of apples, bananas and oranges when really we’re craving lychees, mangoes and the millions of other fruit that, just by the way, also exist on this planet. Would it really hurt to switch up the salad bar a little? Include cuisines other than faux-Mexican in the non-typical-American options?

These are just the dining hall struggles (and not all of them at that). We’re also dealing with dining out dilemmas. In Asia when you go to a restaurant, it’s common practice to order for the group and share. This allows you to enjoy a variety of different foods in one sitting (chicken tikka masala, red lamb curry, pad thai … I’d go on, but I’m already salivating). Here, we have to pick a meal just for ourselves and if we don’t like our choice, we just have to deal with it. Sadly, this happens all too often because, especially when we order our comfort food, it usually doesn’t taste right. Finally, there’s the problem of the bill. “Let me see, you ordered water and I had juice so that’s $3.25 for me plus the $7.86 for the burger” … We miss the old days back home when we’d just divide the total and move on with our lives.

Slowly, but surely, I’m adjusting. My friends are as well.  They can expect to pass me the salt as I murmur something about how food here really lacks flavor (MSG, anyone?). Although my jeans (and probably my pancreas) don’t seem to appreciate the American diet, I sure love that the dining halls serve cookies and ice cream every day. I truly appreciate that cheese is now once again part of my everyday life. However, I still look forward to once again eating some good dumplings, tangerines and fried rice. A real taco wouldn’t be half bad either.

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