By Robert A. Vella
If we are what we eat, as the old adage proclaims, then what does the American diet say about its culture? Before delving into this, let’s state for the record that the U.S. is a large nation with many diverse regions and subcultures. What people eat in rural Georgia, for example, can be quite different from an affluent city such as San Francisco. However, there is a larger American culture which transcends these differences and its cuisine is unmistakably unique compared with the rest of the world.
Consider the burger, or its original moniker – the hamburger. The idea of a ground beef patty sandwiched in a bun is so ubiquitous that virtually all types of food establishments serve them. The manager of my local Chinese restaurant revealed once that he sold nearly as many burgers as he did specialty items. You can get burgers or burger-inspired facsimiles in just about every country on Earth. America’s fast-food chains made sure of that decades ago.
Initially, hamburgers were not much more than a simple beef-and-bread construct – a convenient and easy to eat lunchtime meal. They have evolved quite dramatically, however, since those turn-of-the-last-century days of American folklore. Today, the burger has become high artistry in the most renowned kitchens of the culinary industry; and, it also has become a fanatically popular vehicle for some of the worst examples of gastronomic bastardization ever conceived.
Have you ever consumed something like this (if you’re an American, you probably have – many, many times):
Introducing the double-bacon, triple-patty, triple-cheese (processed American cheese, of course) grease burger with a butter-grilled sesame seed bun (mass-produced and loaded with sugar), slathered with mayonnaise and ketchup (more fat and sugar), served with greasy fries and a sugary soft drink. Calories: more than the average person requires in an entire day. Health benefits: great for enlarging waistlines and buttocks. Sodium content: nearly as much as a salt-lick. Taste: grotesque. What you’re getting: saturated and trans fats, salt, animal protein, processed sugar and starch. What you really need: whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit, plant and animal proteins, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils, much less salt.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love burgers. I like fries. I even enjoy a soft drink on rare occasion. But, the way in which these items have been brought to excess and combined into a meal is nothing short of gluttonous in my opinion. No one should, nor needs to, eat like this. That far too many Americans do is testament to a culture which has lost touch with reality. When bigger is always better, when overindulgence is a source of pride, when unnecessary waste is inconsiderable, and when self-respect is subordinated to ego-gratification, there can be little doubt about the collective mental state of a people.
America is not declining, culturally and otherwise, because of its gluttony. Rather, it is this obsessive-compulsivity which is symptomatic of what’s ailing the nation. Fortunately, through the diligence of healthcare workers, educators, and nutritionists in government and the private sector, Americans’ eating habits are improving somewhat particularly for children (thanks to Michelle Obama and other political figures). Indicatively, sales for the fast-food giant McDonald’s have been declining in recent years. Although these informative efforts are certainly helping, the problem remains fundamentally cultural. Americans have a lot of soul-searching to do on a great many subjects.
Back to burgers. If you find yourself susceptible to eating the kind of unhealthy meals described above, here’s some suggestions:
- Replace the mass-produced hamburger buns with whole grain breads.
- Grind your own beef from whole cuts so you can control the amount of fat and eliminate the high-water content of the store-bought product which ruins the char necessary for a great burger.
- Do not add butter, mayonnaise, or any other fat. Most properly ground beef is sufficiently fatty.
- Use mustards and homemade barbeque sauces instead of ketchup to reduce sugar and improve tastiness.
- Replace the fries with fresh vegetables or fruit. A lightly-dressed heirloom tomato, cucumber, and basil salad is a great substitution.
- Avoid soft drinks. Drink water. If you want bubbles, try a sparkling water with fresh lemon.
“No fries,” you say? Sure, you can have fries. Just don’t eat them with burgers. That’s way too many calories. One time in Paris, a little cafe served me baked herbed chicken with superb French fries and a crisp garden salad. Along with a glass of great white wine, I was in heaven!
Check this out. A Daily Kos author compared a typical school lunch in the U.S. with those in other countries. Which would you prefer? My choice was Italy, but I’m a little biased. See: How do these children’s school lunches from around the world compare to the United States?
DISCLAIMER: I, the author, am not a qualified medical professional, dietician, or expert in the field of human nutrition. The suggestions offered in this article should only be considered under the supervision of your doctor and/or healthcare provider.