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East Views West

 

Young teenage girls are supposed to fill their diaries with dreams of love, visions of the valiant prince who would sweep them away from their wicked, curfew-imposing, tightwad, strict, uncool, unhip parents. My diary, however, was filled with emotions of a kid obsessed with food. Particularly the cuisine of the Western Hemisphere. At the tender age of fourteen, I could cook a mean Indian-style leg of lamb, explain to you how to buy the best hamur (a local fish), smell goat cheese from a mile away, and spell out nine ways to make couscous. But alas, I had never tasted risotto, did not know what rosemary smelled like, and yearned for a taste of asparagus. I knew about Mid-Eastern, Indian, and Asian foods, but longed to experience the mysterious West.

My teenage diary, which I found last week, reflects how I learned about Western cuisine from watching sitcoms. When I was growing up in Bahrain (we're actually Indian, but my father worked for one of the oil companies), there was no Internet and no Amazon.com. The bookstores were tiny and carried local books. My father, who traveled a lot, came home with amazing stories of how the West ate. At home and outside, we ate Asian- or Mid-Eastern-inspired food. The only two exceptions were a pizza joint that managed to open and survive and Dairy Queen and Hardees franchises that opened in the late 1980s.

It began when the Mid-Eastern television channels finally started showing limited American TV programming for the American armed forces stationed locally. I got my first taste, at age 10, of American TV: "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers." Although I was old for the content, it was the food-related material that would interest me. Quoting from my diary, "Grover made something called a Peanut Butter Sandwich—ask Dad to buy peanut butter."

What was this unique butter that all the kids loved so? Was it sweet or salty, thick or thin? What did they spread with it? So then off we went, Dad and I, to the one small American grocery store to buy this divine peanut butter. One look the price tag told me, it was not going to be. When did I finally taste a peanut butter sandwich? Twenty years later, when my 1-year-old asked for a peanut butter sandwich. I had all but forgotten about it. I did taste it. It was an acquired taste.

As I grew older, the TV channels began to get permission to broadcast more American and British shows. The entries in my diary began to grow like wildfire: "Arnold drinks plain cold milk out of the refrigerator with each meal—'Different Strokes'." That struck me as odd. No Indian mother would let her kids drink cold milk, we had to heat it and add so much stuff to it that it no longer tasted like milk. "Today Dr. Huxtable made Callaloo . . . what is that? Ask Dad where Jamaica is . . . and what they eat." I loved the Huxtables and grew up watching them, learning from their eating habits. I was at every Thanksgiving they ever had. "The Facts of Life" crew introduced me to brownies and rye bread. What was a brownie? I had never even heard of it. My dad had. When he went on a trip to Europe, he brought me back some brownies and some Lindt chocolate—to me that is still the best chocolate in the world. Why? Because it was the first Western chocolate I had ever tasted and it held in each bite a promise of a cool world. Of course "Fawlty Towers" and "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em" (British sitcoms) had me yearning for fish-and-chips and quail.

Then came "Dallas" and "Dynasty." I watched each episode, furiously taking notes on the characters' food habits. They often appeared only to drink, and to eat what appeared to be fish eggs. Of course, I never saw Joan Collins on screen, just heard her voice—Mid-Eastern media rules were very stern. She often wore, I believe, revealing clothes, so each time she came on screen, they would blank her out. I tasted my first Big Mac at age 21. I had been in the US for 24 hours. That was the only thing I wanted to do. It was no small feat for me: a little girl who grew up dreaming of the West, had finally made it. McDonald's is such an icon overseas, my small bite was no small accomplishment.

It has been many years since I wrote that diary and I have come a long way. I know what truffles are, what terrine is, what foie gras is, and what prosciutto tastes like. I even know what EVOO means, I know how to cook a mean meatloaf, and I can make risotto like the best of them. Now if only I could learn to order a Subway sandwich, I would be all set.

(I wrote this piece in 2005 for eGullet.com) 

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7 Comments

  1. I just love this post! Isn’t it amazing how varied the world’s food cultures are? I grew up in the southern U.S. with all its wonderful cuisine having never had a taste of other cultures until I was an adult. As a matter of fact, I had my first taste of curry just two weeks ago. I liked it! I now frequently cook recipes whose roots are in Italian or Mexican or even Dutch tradition. Isn’t that wonderful!?!

  2. I love this post – it’s shocking how much culture is conveyed through television, far more than people ever really think about.

    And nobody orders well at Subway – it’s just a restaurant of shame.

  3. Monica…i have to say this is by far one of the most interesting post i have read…it had me glued on…your style of writing is warm n’ rich….i’m an indian n’ we are in Bahrain now and i can relate to so many of the things you have mentioned here. But times have changed n’now when we are moving back to India…i feel like sitting down n’ making a list of things i’m just not going to find back home….:(…but i’m going back enriched somehow….:)

  4. Thanks, Monica. What a great post. Makes me appreciate how much access I had, as a well-traveled child, to the foods of Europe and the US and many of its immigrants. Yet paradoxically, there was no indication in the media of a world beyond what I knew. All the TV shows seemed to take place right around the corner, with the all the foods I knew.

  5. Hi, you must be in your 40’s. Those were the tv shows of my youth. Haha. The Facts of Life, Dallas, Dynasty, shucks, The Man From Atlantis with Patrick Duffy before he became Bobby Ewing. Well, nothing beats the Hardy Boys and Shaun Cassidy my friend. I got my food interests from reading Nancy Drew. Apple Pie, cakes and Split Pea Soup with Ham from Hannah the housekeeper. Now you got me rambling about the good old days.

  6. What a great reflective post – strangely enough I didn’t think that much about the food I saw on telly (our Australian cuisine being a fusion of many cuisines but mainly british)- even some of the American stuff seems stranger to me now than when I was young but I did learn about what was in a waldorf salad from watching fawlty towers!

  7. Your article give me a lot helpful message, no doubt a valuable blog. Best wishes to you.

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