My first cultural food shock came in the form of fish sauce. Cambodian cuisine and I were already on shaky grounds (based on the dubious absence of cheese) when I passed a fish sauce factory. My olfactory senses singed for hours; one simple, clear and well-reasoned thought resonated: There is no possible way that anyone in their right mind would eat the stuff.
It didn’t take long for me to adapt to the cuisine and its beloved fish sauce (which tastes infinitely better than it smells). By the end of the trip, I’d almost forgotten about dairy products. Almost.
While it’s acceptable to (temporarily) question other cuisines, my own American-bred eating habits have never come under fire. Until my recent trip to England, when my choice of ordering bacon, of all things, proved to be somewhat of a cultural snafu.
It’s not like I was in Israel or something. I was in Patisserie Valerie in Leeds. They had bacon on the menu. It turns out that it wasn’t the ordering of a side of bacon that gave my server pause. It was that I ordered it to accompany a scone. Sweet and savory. “Are you sure?” she asked in amazement. In my years of eating (and ordering way too much), I’ve never actually caused the waitstaff to openly question my choices. Both the server and I were equally confused. “Yes, I want the bacon and the scone.” She shrugged and processed my weirdo order.
A few days later, in a pub in London, I brought up the situation to my friend Sam, who spent a year living in Ohio. He sided with the server in finding my savory-meets-sweet breakfast choice incredulous and started ranting against the combination with more passion than my short-lived distaste of fish sauce could ever engender. Realizing that I’d struck true food journalism gold, I recorded our conversation.
Jill: What’s so wrong about a scone and a side of bacon? It’s just savory and sweet. Like chicken and waffles.
Sam: How on earth — what childhood trauma prompted you to think that scones and bacon could possibly be a winning combination? I just cannot fathom. It’s not that I can’t imagine eating it, it’s just seems terrible. Nothing about it seems like it would be nice. I cannot possibly imagine eating that. It’s exact same as thinking, “Oh! Chocolate scorpion” or “Deep Fried Bumblebee.” That’s the same reaction that I get. That’s how much I look forward to bacon and a scone. Or chicken and waffles. I just don’t get it.
Literally, I’m baffled. I cannot understand what maple syrup is doing in that equation. I can’t. I’m not a stupid person. I have three degrees. I cannot understand what maple syrup is doing there.
Jill: Sometimes it’s powdered sugar.
Sam: That’s even worse. Powdered sugar and chicken? Why would you mix that? It’s like… Honey and wood.
Ben: Haven’t you ever had a honey glazed chicken wing?
Sam: (Slowly) Yeah… I take your point. That’s a sticky sweet thing. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the route I need to take into it. Honey.
Jill: Do you or do you not put ketchup on your chips?
Jill: Have you ever read a ketchup bottle?
Sam: It’s not that you have elements of sweet… Yorkshire pudding is pretty similar to a pancake, right? But the end result is different. It’s not the fact that sugar goes into your breakfast, as much as having a marshmallow and steak.
Jill: You just brought up a good point. Yorkshire pudding next to roasted meat on a plate is absolutely no different than chicken and waffles.
Sam: Waffles aren’t a good example. I know waffles from potato waffles. I don’t know what another type of waffle would be. I know they exist, but I’ve not really had them.
Ben: Did you say potato waffles? What is that? That sounds great. Is that like a latke?
Sam: They’re really good. It’s like a crisp crust waffle made with potato. Very crispy. I guess they’re considered student food. I can’t think of a single restaurant where you could get potato waffles. We have them at home. They’re really good. They’re like chips, in the form of a waffle.
Jill: Speaking of chips, let’s talk about real chips. Prawn crisps. What the fuck?
Sam: How can you have a cinnamon breakfast cereal and then be talking to me about seafood flavored snacks?
Ben: It’s a meat.
Sam: It’s delicious.
Ben: It might be delicious, but it is weird.
Sam: You don’t have meat flavored crisps in the states?
Jill: We have barbecue, but it tastes like the sauce, not the meat.
Sam: We have international allies on this front. China: prawn crackers. You don’t have those in the U.S.?
Ben: No. But I bet the Chinese would really like chicken and waffles, though. They love KFC.
Sam: Sweet and sour. They do have sweet and sour.
Ben: Yeah they do.
Jill: And hoisin sauce! It’s sweet!
Sam: I do like that.
Chinese food is about as far as we got in a truce, and I think that it’s clear that my culinary diplomacy skills could use some work. I’m super-grateful that while I went there with the prawn crisps, he didn’t question the midwest’s obsession with cream cheese or any other oddity that I’d have trouble explaining. While I’m pretty sure I’ll never get Sam to eat a scone and a side of bacon, I did promise to buy him chicken and waffles the next time he’s stateside. All it will take is one bite. Or three. I mean, at least it’s not fish sauce.