A few years ago I would, like many of us, have laughed at the naievete of such a question, and said: ”well, europeans, of course!” But now, having lived in the low countries for several years, both holland and belgium, and also having lived earlier in england and spain, and spent time in italy and germany, I am getting a pretty good sense of how people in various western european regions eat.
And I can state with confidence that until the early 1990s, europeans ate better than americans, or at least, many europeans did. American food was fairly monolithic: hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, spaghetti, and a bit of chinese food and some mexican thrown in to boot.
But then, the urban food revolution came to north america (both the u.s., and canada, that is), and by the mid-1990s, there was no cuisine that you couldn’t get ahold of in any urban centre or college town. Thai was cool for a while but quickly became old hat. Ethiopian, Kazakh, Indonesian, Yemeni, you name it, you could find a restaurant selling it. And then, people started wanting to do this at home.
First came the garlic and spice revolution. By the early 90s, people were using whole buds of garlic (i.e., 12 cloves) in their meals. Through the mid 80s, all the recipies in your mom’s cookbook had the following spices:
-pinch of salt
-pinch of pre-ground pepper, 3 years old.
-1 bay leaf or 1/4 tsp dried oregano, 5 years old minimum.
Remember those days? Vegetables were boiled until they fell apart under their own weight, catchup and mustard went with 50% of what you were served, and butter was the only accompaniment for vegetables. But through the 80s, mexican food slowly took hold; spiciness became cool; Taco Bell went a long way towards making mexican totally normative in american cuisine. After that came nachos at the pub, and some pubs raced to see how spicy they could make them. Then came the chicken wing craze. At the same time, alternative culture began to embrace vegetarianism, and so indian and asian food came in, which often had so many spices that you completely forgot that you weren’t having meat. Creative uses of tofu made it tastier and crispier than most people’s roast chicken, and Thai cuisine’s use of peanut butter and coconut milk was to die for.
This combined with the 70s health food craze to create dishes that had a lot of vegetables, and the fresher the better. By the mid 90s, raw foodism came into the scene, and lots of little bistros opened up in which you could get really creative sandwiches piled high with roasted peppers, eggplant, interesting cheeses, sprouts, cool garlickey dressings. By the 2000s, Panera spread over much of the US, and for less than 5 bucks, you could get a gourmet sandwich that was quite good for you as well. Gourmet bread became widely available.
Cookbooks came out in droves, which supported this new cuisine. Co-ops opened which sold all sorts of exotic ingredients that could be found in these cookbooks, dozens of kinds of grain from quinoa to spelt, both whole and ground into flour. Any cheeze you could imagine was available in these specialty stores. Also by the early 2000s, the organic movement swept these ‘hippie stores’, and many people began to insist upon the green and healthful benefits of organic food. This combined with the new exotic food movement, and became such a market force that mainstream grocery stores, quite reluctantly at first (since organic food is seen as being a ‘liberal’ and ‘environmentalist’ fetish, and therefore highly suspect by good republicans who wish to destroy the planet as fast as possible), began to operate their own organic sections, to compete with the independent organic-food-and exotic ingredient stores.
Then chains like wegmans began selling gourmet bread, organic food, and exotic ingredients as a central part of their marketing strategies. Not only this, but the liberal urbane clientele began to demand that their grocery stores did not look like factories, those horrible sterile places with dirty white tile floors, dirty white tile ceilings, and flourescent lights. Stores began to open up sections that were tastefully done with low halogen lighting, natural wood floors and shelving, and often featuring interesting natural lighting options. Consumers demanded better environments, and when alternative stores with nice environments started doing well, mainstream chains noticed, and changed their policies.
Thus, I would argue that the hip and urban 25% of americans eats very well, another 25% is affected by this movement for the better, and the other 50% is probably just as happy to eat frozen fish fingers and catchup as ever.
Because the signs of this continuing older tradition are everywhere in the US, i.e., macdonalds, and most grocery stores, most europeans can go to the US and think that things there are just as bad as ever. But that is to miss the whole urban subculture which now, I would argue, eats better than almost everyone in europe.
The dutch, as i have said in other posts, still eat like it’s the 1960s, and the belgians have some nice restaurants, but in many ways don’t fare much better – outside of their favoured traditional cuisine. What is missing here is the 90s exotic food movement, and the nouvelle grocery stores. Stores are still in the 60s and 70s, still lit by flourescent lights, and offer very little choice. This is largely because there is such a strong monopoly in these sectors, that alternative stores and restaurants can’t open up, and so tastes don’t change. While France has some very good cuisine, it is still all just french. Same with italian, though italian food is so incredibly good, so often, that one can forgive them. No one beats the italians. England, due to proximity with canadian and american culture, has opened up to embrace many non-traditional types of food, and so is better. Germany also is a bit better than the low countries or much of france. Barcelona is very very good at experimenting, and has great restaurants, as does the basque region, but much of spain is still staunchly traditional and it is difficult to get good ingredients.
In short, as I have noted elsewhere, the more closed, more monopolistic nature of shopping and restaurants and book sales on the continent, means that innovation comes here much more slowly. Also there is a stronger tendency to cling to ‘national’ cuisines as a part of national identity. While this is cute in some ways, it also means that eating here when you are used to the world, is rather boring quickly. Perhaps north americans can be faulted for ‘consumerizing’ exotic foods, just like everything else. But I think that in this case freedom to choose, and to experiment, and really to be exuberant, spicy, and fun, is much more interesting than simple loyalty to ‘national’ cuisine (although this is perfectly fun and should be encouraged – but one can have one’s national cake and eat others too!).
And I must also add, that since the introduction of the Euro, continental european restaurants have become far far more expensive. It used to be a few francs to eat at many nice French places, and dutch places were dirt cheap. Now, it costs you minimum 20 Euros to eat out per person, and that’s not even with wine. To have a decent meal, you need to drop 30 euros per person. And minimum wage here is like 8 Euros per hour. How anyone can afford this, I dunno. Many people just order take out, which is a bit cheaper. But there is no such thing in the low countries as getting a pizza even for less than 12 euros/person. It’s highway robbery and disgraceful. In germany you can get pizzas, good ones, much better than belgian or dutch ones, for only 7-8 euros, because they have less restrictive restauranting laws. So that’s a start; but still, Europe has a long way to catch up to the american eating culture which has really revolutionized eating and food culture and environmentalism and multiculturalism in the u.s. and canada, for anyone who cares to participate, and who has an once of curiosity in their bones, just in the past 20 or 25 years. And let’s mention design also: most places in europe have stores which are far behind as far as looking cool and interesting… there is something, then, to laissez faire regulation…. to a degree! (I am all for keeping green spaces, and for reigning in many labour abuses, and environmental abuses, etc – but my point is, there has to be middle ground that can shake things up here a little bit, no?).