It took me an hour to get to the Beef Barn on the local bus. Some of the stops on the way included: The Twin Rivers Casino, as well as not one, but two strip malls. I watched fellow Americans lazily shuffle on and off of the bus as I sat in my seat, growing increasingly less patient with every stop. Once I had disembarked the bus, I confidently strode into that beautiful, all-American haven of meat and sugar at 1:30 in the afternoon. Inside, it was everything I dreamed it would be: wood-paneled walls, vintage signs, kitschy sayings, and country relics everywhere. The walls, however, weren’t the only busy aspect of the restaurant; in the midst of the lunch rush, the Beef Barn was vibrant.
Before I even sat down, I knew that every part of this restaurant—the ambiance, the food, the people—embodied everything that is implied when one uses the phrase “all-American.” The Beef Barn is a paragon of the quickness, abundance, and cheapness that this country so dearly believes in: you get a lot of food, for little money, that comes served in such a way that you can decide to take it to-go and just toss everything into a white paper bag and be on your merry way. Additionally, the Beef Barn has been owned by the same family, the Branchauds, since the 1970s, and was then expanded into two locations—it is a true manifestation of the American dream. Its rural nostalgia and midwestern style (and pricing) make customers feel at home by emulating that classic country hospitality. But, following my trip to the Beef Barn, I’m not certain that I like using the loaded term “American food” to describe it; not only due to the term’s similar negative effects to the color-blind ideology as well as its reductive and universalist nature, but due to its ignorance of the growing diversity in this country as well.
However, such serious topics hardly shone through in the beginning of my dining experience as I walked past the many happy families sitting throughout the barn. As I would come to learn from listening to the waitresses discuss various sections, the “chicken coop” (decorated to look like an actual chicken coop) and the “silo” were the most popular areas among the families, but I chose to sit where it seemed everyone who came to the Beef Barn alone sat: at the small, diner-style bar that sidled the kitchen, which sat proudly in the very center of the restaurant. The kitchen appeared to me to be, in more ways than one, the very heart of the Beef Barn. There rested a swarm of at least five different waitresses bustling about to put in orders and serve peoples’ food as quickly as humanly possible, as well as one young guy dedicated to making salads and shakes, and two men manning the huge charcoal grill—all of them appeared to be Caucasian.
The menu is simple, but there are many options: various types of sandwiches, sides and salads, beverages—including shakes—and, of course, desserts; the sides and salads menu is obviously the shortest of the four sections. I decided to go with a couple of classics: the steak sandwich with swiss cheese and mushrooms—which happened to be the second most expensive item on the menu, at a whopping $4.50; a side of fries—ordered “well done,” just as they were ordered by the two regulars between whom I was sandwiched at the bar—and a coke to wash it all down.
My steak sandwich was placed before me in exactly four minutes. Atop the thin, brown steak and white bun was a layer of gooey, creamy Swiss cheese, and atop that lay the biggest pile of spongy (canned) mushrooms I had ever seen. It was served on a paper plate, which perfectly matched the weak white plastic fork and knife set that I used to tear into the large sandwich.
As a born and bred Texan, very much of the bible belt region, I’m fairly confident in my ability to objectively judge the quality of a steak. This steak was fatty and juicy, thin but not flimsy, and grilled for the perfect amount of time on the grill, giving it that classic charcoal flavor without overcooking or toughening the meat. Below the steak was the pillowy, buttery, roll that had been toasted atop the charcoal grill beside the steak. It closely resembled a hot dog bun and was the perfect sponge for all of the excess juice that dribbled down from the steak. The flavors of the mushrooms and cheese simply enhanced the experience further.
Just minutes later, my fries were brought out to me in a paper carton. Ordering them “well done” was definitely the right decision. They were stiff, golden, and crispy on the outside and soft and starchy on the inside. They were also freshly, and perfectly, salted, just out of the fryer.
I only ate half of each so that I could get dessert as well—at which point the elderly woman beside me (who also probed me about why I wasn’t in school whilst slowly chewing her way through a cheeseburger and chasing that with a strawberry shake) asked me why I hadn’t finished my food—had I not liked it? I responded that that wasn’t the case at all—I was simply saving room for dessert, at which point she nodded and the waitress returned to wrap up my leftovers and take my dessert order.
I decided to forego a shake and instead order a slice of pie. However, they had a few pies, so I asked the waitress which she recommended. She chuckled, likely at my ceremoniousness, which felt out of place even for me, and said “Well, apple’s still warm.” So apple it was.
Shortly after, I was presented with a moderately portioned slice of gooey apple pie, with the filling oozing out from under the crust and onto the paper plate below. I took a bite. While it wasn’t as warm as I had hoped, it was still golden, flaky, buttery, and sweet. The apples were beautifully soft from being soaked in the sugary, viscous mixture for so long—melt-in-your-mouth soft. It was a lovely, if lukewarm, slice of apple pie.
Coming from Texas, where sexism and minor prejudice are just a part of daily life, I was so at home there in the hands of the kind, quick waitresses at the Beef Barn that I almost didn’t recognize the problems behind the waitstaff being almost entirely made up of women and the cooks both being men; nor did I initially notice that I was the only woman who was visibly of color in the entire restaurant (and, yes, I checked multiple times). While “American food” has delicious flavors, its inadvertent and deeply entrenched sexism and eurocentrism left a bad taste in my mouth.
Admittedly, the issues with gender roles and sexism were obvious, but they didn’t surprise me, because not only are they so prevalent in the food industry that it’s almost customary to see mostly women as waitresses and only men cooking; in addition to that, the rural areas of the Southern and Midwestern parts of this country—the very areas that the Beef Barn intends to epitomize—tend to uphold those same sexist ideals and gender roles.
The main problem I encountered in thinking about the experience afterward was that I, and more importantly Yelp, had so easily labeled the Beef Barn as “American food,” because I myself am an American, and I saw no part of myself or my culture in that food, regardless of how delicious it was. Perhaps the issue is that I am an American, yes, but more specifically I’m an American of Latino heritage. I suppose I’m not necessarily the Beef Barn’s target consumer, either: I’m the only twenty-year-old Hispanic woman I know who was excited at the prospect of eating at such a place. Regardless, the word “American,” when used alone, seems to imply Caucasian-ness, whiteness, which excludes and ignores the many American minorities of this country who have faced systemic oppression and prejudice by the hand of these white people of European heritage.
The use of this loaded term, “American,” to describe such a specific subset of all of the food produced by the large, diverse body of American people has similar negative effects to those of the color blindness ideology, as described by Julie Guthman (2008). Color blindness is an ideology around the idea that racial identifiers should be ignored in order for people to be treated more equally, but such an ideology is reductive. It not only disregards the privilege of whiteness, but also erases the “violence that the social construct of race has wrought in the form of racism.”1 Guthman (2008) also discusses universalism, which is “the assumption that values held primarily by whites are normal and widely shared.”2 Using the word “American” to describe the Beef Barn, which is representative of a very white culture within the diverse American society, is an example of universalism, and, similarly to color blindness, erases the problems of racism and privilege within the larger, more complex society.
Perhaps the Beef Barn represents an American culture of the past, that is today only a small part of the much more complex American culture. It seems that America today is much less “American,” or white, than it used to be. In 1965, for example, the American population was overwhelmingly white—85 percent—but, as recently as 2016, the white population had shrunk to around 60 percent—and is projected to continue shrinking.3 The Pew Research Center states that “Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and the U.S. is projected to be even more diverse in the coming decades.”4 Thus, the term “American,” which continues to imply whiteness, is clearly outdated in regards to describing the American people as a whole.
I actually enjoyed eating at the Beef Barn. The food was fantastic, the people were kind. It was, overall, a nice meal. It is a cute restaurant that serves good, cheap food and perfectly encapsulates this rural, white, classically “American” culture in our society, but America is more diverse than it used to be. We need to consider that when we describe places like the Beef Barn, which represent a very specific, white, rural, facet of American culture. Even though it is only one part of modern American culture, the Beef Barn still qualifies as “American” cuisine; but perhaps it is time to recognize that in today’s more diverse society, “American food” is more than just steak, fries, and apple pie.
Photo credit: Illustrated by Miranda Villanueva
1,2Guthman, Julie. ““If They Only Knew”: Color Blindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions.” The Professional Geographer60, no. 3 (2008): 387-97. doi:10.1080/00330120802013679.
3Horowitz, Evan. “When will minorities be the majority? – The Boston Globe.” The Boston Globe. February 26, 2016. Accessed February 26, 2018. https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2016/02/26/when-will-minorities-majority/9v5m1Jj8hdGcXvpXtbQT5I/amp.html.
4D’Vera Cohn, “10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world,” Pew Research Center, 2016, accessed February 26, 2018, https://www.google.com/amp/www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/%3famp=1.