The United States of Soup

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I find the pursuit of cultural and ethnic authenticity to be an unnecessary and quixotic pursuit in America. In fact, it's downright un-American. The United States is a soup all of its own. What you get in America are adaptations and reworkings. What you get is Las Vegas, with its scaled models of the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids. What you get is Hollywood telling us that people are basically the same everywhere, yearning for superheroes to protect them from arch-villains while things explode. What you get in America is Chinese food that works with American palates.

I never had a hankering for that "authentic" Chinese food experience because whenever I think of food in China, I can't help but imagine things I do not consider food. Same goes for many other national cuisines. Often they are the result of the peculiar products and ways of life which just aren't the same here. I worked on a film in the beautiful Czech Republic where one day we got "tripe" as an offering from our caterer. It turned out tripe is made of the stomach lining of cows, pigs and who knows what else. Suffice it to say, the American crew revolted. Does this mean that tripe is not a good soup and cannot be enjoyed? I am sure there are tripe aficionados out there, and certainly I will add with fashionable self-deprecation that I am the Yankee ignoramus here. In a way, it's wrong of me to deny my stomach such an experience. There's something perversely poetic about a stomach in a stomach. If only poetry was a strong enough culinary argument.

But I travel a lot, and I certainly remember times when I'd walk into a McDonald's in a foreign city, order a Big Mac, and start to feel right at home upon the first bite.-- Paul Ratner

So what does America taste like? Sure, the basic diet of America seems to consist of shovelfuls of sugar, processed foods and watered-down beer. But I travel a lot, and I certainly remember times when I'd walk into a McDonald's in a foreign city, order a Big Mac, and start to feel right at home upon the first bite. That may sound sad and unhealthy in retrospect, but not when you're taking that bite. The ubiquitous nature of the fast food giant makes its taste easy to channel. On the other hand, I am an immigrant to America and do admit that occasionally I'd drive down to the Russian store and pick up a few salamis that taste a thousand times better than anything I can find in most American grocery stores. They also have a thousand times more fat and sodium content but when I chase such thoughts away and focus just on the taste, the memories of fly-swatting fat-armed obscenity-slinging babushkas leering at me from behind dirty counters of my youth in Russia come flooding in.

Of course not all tastes swell in our American soup. I do often wish to gripe about our cultural myopia that generally stems from educational deficiencies. Conversely, the amount of misunderstanding and misinformation that people around the world harbor about America is just astounding. Billions of people don't want to believe that somehow a real place exists that manages to combine the myriad immigrant influences at its core into a coherent, sustainable and generally pleasing American identity. It's the most post-modern post-nation nation out there, ye Euro snobs. It's pure alchemy as an amazing transmutation of cultures produces a people who just want to live well and not fight with anyone except for bullies. Some unique traits are inevitably sacrificed in such a soup, but for the most part, America is still a country where individuals from very diverse backgrounds work, play and eat together in harmony. As such, it's time to propose a national Republican/Democrat cook-off where bitter rhetoric will give way to sweet sauce. The secret ingredient of the winner might very well come from a Chinese family recipe.

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