Hi, I’ll have the double cheeseburger, hold the cheese, hold the pickles, hold the ketchup, no bun.
“Have it your way” was Dr. Gary Curhan’s favorite part about Burger King as a child; he got dirty looks at McDonalds when he asked for just a plain patty, but Burger King let him choose anything he wanted. What is American food? Well, that is up to you. Growing up, my father struggled to find food that he enjoyed. Restaurants were hesitant to alter dishes and the school cafeteria was limited, while he was content having a simple sandwich or a plain burger. Now, he beams at the luxury of a build-your-own salad bar, combining exactly what he wants, considering taste and health, without question. “As a picky child, I controlled what I ate and was hesitant to expand my palate. From my research, I have learned more about healthy choices and how to navigate through our food system. If I am at a large salad bar, I even tend to try new foods because I have the option to pick and choose what is appealing.” Though Americans have always adored choices, the increasing abundance of the American food system has facilitated the ability to enjoy American food as a truly customizable cuisine.
Dr. Curhan, a leading researcher, wonderful father, and food lover (but definitely not cook) has studied nutritional epidemiology and modifiable risk factors for over twenty years. He is a Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. He constantly interacts with changing food trends and nutritional guidelines that shape his own behavioral patterns, as well as those of peers and family. A man with simple taste, he eats the same sandwich for lunch and tells the same jokes–but they both hit the spot every time.
“American food is part of the culture,” Curhan believes, including how hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza are three main ways that American culture itself is typically defined. For him, American food is more about the way we learned to see food, and not necessarily the food itself. He struggled as a child due to his family’s choices with the food culture. “My dad would have steak five times per week, and so I would too–the way the family eats is a big part of how we craft a diet.” After medical school, Curhan immersed himself in nutritional research that exposed the unhealthy patterns that continue to plague our dietary health. It became increasingly difficult for Curhan to go home and eat with his family as his eating choices changed from what he grew up knowing. “When my children would go visit my parents and would eat unhealthy foods like Dove ice cream bars and PopTarts for breakfast, it creates familial conflict.”
However, this came as part of the American food culture, as dietary guidelines included butter as a food group when Curhan’s parents were growing up (1). For many families, USDA guidelines were the basis of all nutritional knowledge, and other food preferences simply revolved around taste. My father constantly grappled with how to properly shape the view of food in our home, balancing advertising, guidelines, and the expanding food system. While he was incredibly knowledgeable about the dangers of sugary cereals and oversized snack bags, he was also conscious to let us enjoy indulgent foods on occasion–we called them sometimes foods.
The abundance in the American food culture is also quantified by long standing foundations of American food, such as chain restaurants like Applebee’s. Tracie McMillan’s experience in the Applebee’s kitchen shows that much of American food is rooted in what has always been. McMillan had to learn exactly how to compose an Applebee’s dish to ensure that the customer had the same experience at every location (2). This means that altering ingredients and modifying dishes was not part of the system, not to mention the horrifyingly unhealthy composition of the dishes. As a family establishment, Applebee’s remains as evidence of what American food “used” to be, and permeates its way into the current food culture.
“There has been so much change to the American food culture, as almost every meal involves a choice from a wide, varied selection of options.” The current American food culture has expanded to embrace the cuisines of many countries, thus diversifying menus, and our stomachs are also expanding to fit the ever growing selection of food products. Dr. Curhan worries that the abundance needs to be reduced so appeal can be something other than jumbo sizing our drinks and snack bags, but praises how new selections include customizable healthy options. Fast healthy food is a new trend that shows how “American food has really expanded to embrace much healthier choices, which has been a very positive change,” but is costly and limited. New fast-healthy chains are expanding, Curhan shares excitedly, especially because of the individualized options that showcase popular food trends. In Washington D.C., there is a restaurant called &pizza that is ten dollars for a pizza that is completely make-it-your-own. “It’s one of our favorites because I can choose the crust, cheese, sauce, and pack on the toppings for a reasonable price! Plus, you know mom, she needs no cheese because of her lactose intolerance.”
The option of choices in many restaurants has made the shift toward customizable food very positive, because intolerances, allergies, and preferences can be properly addressed. However, people still make unhealthy choices like adding extra bacon or excluding vegetables. Curhan believes that giving people more choices allows for them to select healthier options if they so choose, but most importantly facilitates modification based on personal preference to accommodate allergies, dietary restrictions, and general taste preferences. “We are getting creative with different types of options that are still ‘American’ but can still be delicious! If we went to Israel or France, they wouldn’t necessarily serve food the way &pizza would—it’s pizza, but we design what is going on it.”
The new age of American food also prompts Curhan to try cuisines he otherwise would not have tried, because he can choose exactly what seems appealing from an array of options. “I wouldn’t order a dish fully not knowing what it is, but modification now allows me to explore. Plus, salad bars with many little dishes lets me journey through multiple cuisines! I did not think I would like Indian food until I tried a curry salad at work, and it opened up a whole new realm of flavors I had previously been too cautious to taste.”
Dr. Curhan emphasizes the importance of healthy options in his own life, and how this focus has shaped the way he eats and defines American food. Growing up, my siblings and I were taught to enjoy what we ate and make our own choices, with certain health considerations in mind. However, being health conscious has social implications for my father and for me. “Much of my research is on diet and disease. When dining with colleagues or other adults, they are either paying close attention to what I am eating, or think that I am analyzing what they choose to eat. Honestly, it just makes me uncomfortable!” Teaching his family to try to be healthy consumers had its social implications, as well. The research group he worked with 20 years ago identified that trans fats– or partially hydrogenated oils–are terribly harmful to your body and should be completely avoided at all costs. At this time, most snack products included the fat for taste and extended shelf life. “We did our best to help our children read the label to look for the ingredient, but it can be confusing after getting a call from a teacher saying that they worry our daughter is too obsessive over the ingredients in cookies at snack time.”
Designing a diet in an abundant system filled with choices, both “good” and “bad”, is difficult to navigate when many options become overwhelming. The American food culture can be creative and individualized, but has its consequences when trying to remain healthy and avoid the endless options that loom in advertisements and across shelves. “Honestly,” Curhan recounts, “I still eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch every day, like I have done since I was in elementary school. But the opportunity to identify what I enjoy by crafting my own path through American food has absolutely changed the way I view each meal. Bring on the curry!”
- “A History of Food Guides Told Through Photos–and Butter,” Popular, Random Wonderfulness, Emily Contois, published January 1, 2015, https://emilycontois.com/2015/01/01/a-history-of-food-guides-told-through-photos-and-butter/
- Tracie McMillan, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table (New York: Scribner, 2012), 185-232.
Image Credit: Talia Curhan