I remember hearing that during World War II spies gave themselves away by such simple actions as maneuvering utensils during meals. Fascinating stuff in a spy movie that white-washes the blood of war—who wants to be put to death for using one’s knife the “wrong” way—but also a lesson in how culture and upbringing stay with us and emerge, no matter how hard we try to assimilate or act like camouflage in our new-found environment.
As a child I got to visit America several times before we finally moved here. I recall using a knife to cut meat into pieces not bite by bite but preparing it for that prolonged period the mouth would do away with beef slapped onto a plate. And there I was cutting one piece, putting it into my mouth, and certainly not putting the knife atop my plate at 12 o’clock.
For years, even when I had my U.S. citizenship, I ate peas by shoving them on top of the outside of my fork, fork curved like a convex bridge across a brook. The cultural divide remained at the dinner table. I found eating peas this way to be natural and the only way. Fellow American diners probably felt as if they were at a dinner theatre while eating with me. But then I had to watch them cut meat into little pieces for themselves as if they were preparing a meal for a child.
Oh, and the things they eat! I am sure it was more true a few decades ago than today, but as a Swede I did not know why Americans had such a craving for “Mexican” food, which they liked hot and spicy, even using the adverbs interchangeably with the compound noun. But having come from the land of boiled potatoes and fiskbullar in white sauce, “Ay, caramba!” or “Ay Chihuahua!” didn't pass my lips, though “fy fan,” coughing and downing endless amounts of water with the meal in a useless fire-extinguishing attempt became part of my M.O. in America.
Of course "Oh, and the things they eat!" was equally easy for Americans to apply to Swedes. Every person I met who found out I was Swedish—no matter their education level or other outward look—had heard of and asked if I had eaten “Lutefisk.” How I hated they way they pronounced it, the “t” transformed into a thud of “d” and an “e” added to boot; how I craved to hear “Lutfisk!” and even though I carried a Swedish passport, no, I had not consumed lutfisk and was not a lifetime fan.
To this day I remain a stranger in a strange land, I suppose, by making open-faced sandwiches, even atop the flat side of the bagel. I am sure there are Swedes now who sandwich their cheese between two slices of bread, but if that is the case, I hope I never see it.
But there is one double-fisted, beautiful food that to me is uniquely American and which I immediately embraced. The burger. The bigger the better, the burger is a food so wonderful to me not only because of its ravishing taste seduction but probably also because as an immigrant I associated eating the burger with being American.
And back when I first set foot on these shores I was distinctly Swedish in my coffee consumption. It set me apart from Americans, who at the time drank something they called coffee that was light-brown colored water. I remember a particularly horrid taste experience at what was an elegant carwash (a novelty to watch through huge glass windows Cadillacs being soaped, slathered, lathered and bubbled as if they were movie stars of the Golden Era). The coffee was absolutely spit-able, if I may coin such a word. But gradually my taste for strong, dark coffee took hold on America, and now my consumption of it on a daily basis (Sumatra please!) does not make me uniquely Swedish anymore.
Coffee, then, is one food-and-drink related item, something gustatory that has actually succeeded in inhabiting the landscape of the American melting pot. With this observation recorded, it is time to get a cup of coffee, but I think I will have some Marabou milk chocolate with mine.