Recently I took a person from Switzerland to Mickey’s Tavern on the east side of Madison (WI), because he had read about it in the New York Times. We could have gone to about thirty other places for the food and the feeling he wanted to experience at Mickey’s. The experience he sought was the eating of a succulent hamburger that was actually delivered to his table by a live human being. He had believed that McDonalds makes “American hamburgers,” and it was time that he learned the truth. I could also have taken him to the Blue Moon Bar and Grill in Madison. Those are, after all, the words to look for when you want to get a great burger: Tavern, Bar, Grill, Bar and Grill. If those words are not there, you might appreciate what you are eating, but it isn’t a great burger.
When I lived in France, I tried to make hamburgers at home, but the ground beef I could buy did not taste fabulous like the ground beef I can buy in Madison. It is not clear why this was. It could be the race of cattle. Maybe the Charolais and the Salers, cattle from the Auvergne region where I was living, just do not taste like Black Angus and Herefords. Maybe different parts of the steer are ground in the first place. Whatever the reason, I was never able to cook a great hamburger in France, so I could not demonstrate to anyone what one tastes like. All I could say is, “It isn’t what they serve at Hamburger Quick.” Beurck (or in English, “Blech”)
The problem reverses itself as concerns baguettes. You can’t get a great French baguette in Madison. You can buy lots of great bread, wonderful German ryes, and some OK baguettes. But no great baguettes. I have heard that the problem is that bakers cannot buy veritable baguette flour. Why not? How hard would it be to import flour for baguettes?
These seemingly trivial challenges -- getting the right ingredients -- appear to me to foster big, smirking, culinary clichés.
This is entirely enhanced by the fact that countries make up foods, mostly mediocre ones, and then attribute them to some other national origin. Think of “German Chocolate Cake.” I love German Kuchens. But “German Chocolate Cake” is an American invention, and it falls short of its name. In the U.S. we also have something called “French” salad dressing, which does not exist in France, even under another name, and is considered by the French to be icky and very often is. In France there is a sauce called sauce américaine, which was developed in France and as far as I can tell was never imported to the U.S. The sauce américaine that you buy ready-made in a jar does not taste good on anything, except the occasional hunk of beef fondue (which is, again, not Black Angus or Hereford, and not so tasty). I stay far away from sauce américaine, except in Michelin starred restaurants, but even then, who comes to a starred restaurant to eat meat or fish with a sauce américaine? It is a psychological, if not culinary, downer.
Is this done on purpose? What about the justification, “The people from Country X would not like (or buy) the real thing from Country Y”? The culinary dumbing down story is patently false. Americans like good baguettes and the French can appreciate a real hamburger. No one actually needs “German Chocolate Cake” at all.
So here I am in Madison, WI. Mystified. But not at all starved for great food or drink.