Let me level with you a moment: I’m not your stereotypical American eater. 😉
I can’t remember the last time I had a hot dog, hamburger, buffalo wings or anything at all covered in ranch dressing.
Oh, and I have not eaten McDonald’s since I was 10 years old. —pause for gasps—
Teaching in Czech Republic for 4 years made it very clear to me that the “typical” view of the USA is that we eat hamburgers all day, every day. (And sure, some people do. It takes all kinds to run our country.) I had a lot of discussions of students about stereotypes, and this was mentioned every time!
But this is an extremely limited view of the cuisine on offer in the USA, which is much more diverse than many believe. (I’ve written about that here: What is American food, anyway?!)
Naturally, living abroad you start to miss a lot of the things not available from back home. I’ve been very lucky that, on the whole, I can find good-enough substitutes or something I like even better. Still, no one can blame me for missing a good ol’ ants on a log every once in a while…
So before we get into it, it’s worth mentioning that this list will only include the foods that my nutritionist mom let me eat while I was growing up…and probably a few that will surprise you!
🍴 A note on diners.
Ahh, classic American diners. How I miss you so. Being a New York Jew, my family loves this genre of restaurant, whether or not it has black and white linoleum floors, red pleather booths or roller-skating waitresses. There’s at least one in every town, they all have the same menu (pretty much), and they are extremely expensive, but nonetheless are a quintessential American experience. What would we do if we couldn’t pay $.99c and get dozens of refills of terrible filter coffee?
It’s hard to explain how important diners are to the American psyche, which is why I’ve seen attempted replications abroad. They’re inextricably connected with the U.S. 1950s, are the setting for a lot of my childhood memories, and serve. breakfast. all. day. They are without a doubt the #1 thing I miss about living in the U.S., and one of the first places I go when I come back to visit.
Without further ado…
I’m sorry, but crepes aren’t cutting it. Neither are jam-covered lívance in Czech Republic. They’re good, but they’re not pancakes. Most of the time, they’re not pretending to be. But when someone translates palačinky into English as pancakes, I’m just like…nope.
If they were the same, they wouldn’t have booths at the Czech Christmas markets selling “American pancakes” with a choice of sweet or salty toppings. 😂
Guys, real pancakes are too full of fluffy goodness to roll into a burrito. That’s just science.
Of course, if you don’t grow up with IHOP propaganda left and right, you won’t recognize a good pancake until it smacks you in the face. But this is the #1 breakfast comfort food and you have to get it right. Large and fluffy or bust. Silver dollars in a stack will do too. Covered – nay, smothered – in butter and/or maple syrup. I will accept waffles with ice cream too.
But I will accept no less.
🥜 Peanut butter.
In my biased view, if you don’t like peanut butter, you legally can’t be American. And I’m not talking Smuckers, although this is the standard bar for most people.
I’m talking a real litmus test: 95% peanuts and up, no added oil or sugar. It’s the dark chocolate of peanut butter. (By the way, YES, put peanut butter on dark chocolate and eat it. On a separate note, go try Reese’s Pieces right now or make your own at home.)
It’s delicious, it’s nutritious, and it goes good on everything. Yes, everything. Not just PBJ, another quintessential American meal.
My “peanut butter conversion” rate while I lived in the Czech Republic was approximately 75% of all Czech non-believers I approached. And that’s pretty good for creamy Tesco brand PB.
I’ve found some good substitutes, but there’s just nothing like U.S.-made peanut butter for midnight snacks, ahem, every night.
🥡 Chinese food.
Many countries have a specific type of ethnic food that has been popularized by immigrants to their country as the world globalizes. For example, Indian food in the U.K., Vietnamese restaurants in Czech Republic, and “kebab” – a simplified version of Turkish food – in many other countries I’ve visited, including Denmark, that would be similar to “halal” in NYC.
In many ways, “American food” is a big conglomeration of all of the cuisines brought by immigrants, and then morphed into something quite different, like Tex-Mex or Asian fusion. But Americanized Chinese food today represents something unique and authentic in its own right, known to all taste buds and loved in many homes. For me, synonymous with comfort and familiarity.
And it’s so iconic it’s part of the EMOJI canon.^
By contrast, many Chinese food restaurants in Europe may be owned by other East Asian nationalities, fused with their native cuisines, and then tailored to the tastes of that country, so even though I might go there to try, it’s really quite different than what I grew up with. That’s why this love is replaced by an obsession with the Vietnamese soup, pho (while I’m abroad), which is widely available in Czech Republic.
Sidenote: Americans also love Mexican food, which is also completely irreplaceable elsewhere. European Mexican food is just not Mexican food, since everything is a burrito and there’s no in between. To be fair, there’s also nothing like Taco Bell – even if it’s not really Mexican food. It’s complicated 😛
🍪 A good fudgy brownie or chocolate chip cookie.
*Takes deep breath*
Alright y’all. When “American” is inevitably written on the label of your exotic snack as a marketing tactic, that’s already a red flag that it will never come close.
Brownies are supposed to be fudgy, not floury. Chocolate chip cookies are supposed to be soft and melty, not hard and dry. There’s a very difficult balance.
And the stakes are high, especially for the one type of cookie that is synonymous with cookie itself. The reason the word cookie has been adopted into other languages like Danish and Czech.
It’s not like I’ve ever been able to replicate this in my baking, no, so why are you asking me anyway? I’m just here to judge.
🍨 Good ice cream.
Czechs only have a very specific window from May to October for ice cream eating, and then it’s pretty much no longer allowed except during a secret binge in your home. This wasn’t hard to stick to for me, since a cone there tends to be very light and artificial, even if it is a refreshing treat.
So this is another one that’s hard to put my finger on. Most ice cream I’ve had outside the States – and let’s be fair, gelato is in a completely different category – is just not as creamy as the birthplace of Ben & Jerry’s (which is what I buy when I have the craving).
I don’t know if it’s because of different milk fat content, or whether there’s more water, or whether there’s less sugar. But something has been disturbed in the universe of ice cream that makes me walk right by the freezer during most supermarket trips, saying, “Nah, won’t be worth it.”
And that’s a crying shame. Because I also wouldn’t be from the U.S. if I didn’t eat my ice cream in all seasons.
🥤 Ginger ale.
I remember the day I found out there was no actual ginger, only natural flavoring, in the tons of ginger ale I used to consume as a kid. I had a lot of stomachaches, and now I realize it was probably just a placebo (or the carbonation, since Schweppes, Canada Dry, and Seagram’s is basically soda), but it made me feel SO much better. LIES!
Ginger or not, this is a classic taste of my childhood. In Europe, we’d never pretend it had health; it’s really just soda. So there’s no real equivalent, at least not one that is called ginger with no ginger in it, and still tastes as good 😉
Nope, not that hairy root! It’s so funny to see the cognitive dissonance that occurs when I talk to people about celery, and then show them these green stalks that range from sour to tasteless. Does. Not. Compute.
So celery stalks are available, but they’re typically found only in very small quantities, buried where no one sees (and/or they’re puny). I think I single-handedly gave my supermarkets a reason to keep stocking it.
On the other hand, I never tasted celery root (which is bomb, by the way) until coming to Czech Republic, and to be fair, most people didn’t taste “celery” until they met me and I basically forced it on them. With peanut butter.
Have you ever heard of ants on a log? Go try this classic American kids’ snack now, if you dare.
Another hard thing to find is kale – which tends to mean something completely different, or a range of possible green veggies, around Europe – but I don’t miss that one too much 😉
🥘 Cranberry sauce.
My first Thanksgiving in Czech Republic was full of chaos as I realized that the only cranberries available were the ones that come dried and sugared in a small plastic bag.
Somehow, I found a can of cranberry gloop that I mixed with the ingredients of my mom’s special family recipe (which incidentally and uniquely contains CELERY!) to make the gloriousness that is cranberry sauce – perfect in combination with chicken, turkey, potatoes, pumpkin pie, and more.
You always work with what you have.
🥣 Matzah ball soup.
First, a word on chicken broth. This is widely found in cans and containers around the U.S., already perfectly salted, since ain’t nobody got time to make it themselves. I am a personal devotee of chicken soup, both as a Jew and a child with lots of stomach issues, and it was the main thing I turned to for comfort when I was feeling under the weather – and I still do.
I still remember my shock when, ransacking the supermarket shelves in Czech Republic for chicken broth, I just. couldn’t. find it. Something so strange and seemingly simple. But I was in shock.
And you know why? Because there, people go to their butcher’s and buy chicken bones and make it themselves. Not all heroes wear capes, after all.
Alas, I am now used to this. Now that we live in Denmark and don’t have weekend family lunches, we make chicken broth every Saturday and use it as a base for a variety of soups.
One of these is matzah ball soup. Matzah, matzoh, it’s all the same. This is a Passover-period soup eaten in Jewish families, but common in all traditional diners (another reason why I love them). Matzah refers to the hardened crackers that the ancient Hebrews carried on their backs through the desert, since they left Egypt so quickly the bread did not have time to rise.
Little-known fact about me, I could open an art gallery just with pictures of matzah ball soup I have on my phone. Take a look:
It’s not that complicated, really. You take chicken broth, add carrots and celery, and follow the instructions for packaged matzah balls (they are VERY hard to make from scratch). Want to level up? Be sure to put parsley in the matzo mix. Real pros will also add egg noodles as a finishing touch.
And voila. But my mom still makes it better than yours.
🤤 What foods do you miss most from your country of origin?