America, MEAT, Reverse Culture Shock, Tofu

SOS: Save Our Soy

02.04.11 | 16 Comments

One of the hardest aspects of re-acclimating to life in America has been getting reacquainted with the carnivorous tendencies of my mother culture. I’m not a vegetarian; I never could be. I love burgers and ribs and chicken and all that fleshy, juicy complete protein. But it seems to me that our culture is a bit too gung-ho with flesh, and it’s fairly limiting in the kinds of protein readily available: beef, chicken, pork, repeat.

ellis-friedman-plate-of-wander-nanas-brisketBrisket. Tasty and meaty.

Pork is like the cheese of China: it’s added to everything, even vegetable dishes. In fact, it is notoriously difficult to be a vegetarian in China. But the vast array of protein choices—beef, chicken, pork, fish, crab, dog, eggs, beans, donkey, eel, and the infinite permutations of tofu—leave me feeling restricted by my choices in America and thinking, Beef AGAIN?

ellis-friedman-plate-of-wander-ground-porkSo. Much. Meat

I feel especially listless when confronted with the utter lack of tofu in this country. Grocery stores that sell tofu feature no more than 2 square feet of actual tofu—the rest of the soy product shelf is made up of nutritionally vacant Hungry Girl Shiritaki diet noodles and soy cheeses and meats that taste like metal socks.

Where is all the tofu?

Living in China, I learned that meat doesn’t need to be—nay, is better when not—the centerpiece and majority of the food on the table. There is plenty of opportunity left to consume enough meat protein while filling up on other necessary things like carbohydrates and fiber. (Meanwhile we add fiber to things that do not naturally contain fiber, like cheese and yogurt. The person who can add extra fiber to ice cream will be a rich person indeed.)

ellis-friedman-plate-of-wander-peanutNuts! Alternative source of protein!

I have no illusions that this will suddenly make everyone switch from pot roast and steak to mapo tofu and tofu stir fry. If it did, the USDA would probably bludgeon me with a giant, bloody cow hock for decreasing their profits. To be sure, I firmly believe that no one should tell anyone what or how to eat. Yet I mourn the sad state of soy-based affairs: one 14-ounce pack costs $3 US—in China, it is a third of the price. I realize I’m not in China anymore, but it is frustrating that America refuses to sell fresh fruits, vegetables, and soy for an affordable price instead of virtually forcing those of us on a budget into meals of meat slabs of questionable content with French fries as our vegetable. (For a more detailed analysis of this, read Mark Bittman’s A Food Manifesto for the Future)

ellis-friedman-plate-of-wander-vietnamese-spicy-cabbageMake vegetables taste good: Spicy Vietnamese Cabbage

I’m not trying to turn this into an Amy Chua-style Battle Hymn of the Tiger Diner, and I am refraining from noting the huge disparity in waistlines of each country (though China may soon narrow the gap and widen their waists; there is certainly no shortage of processed crap and foods of suspicious quality). It seems though that America is simultaneously diet- and health-obsessed yet completely unwilling to give up meat, potatoes, and soda in exchange for tofu, vegetables, and water.

ellis-friedman-plate-of-wander-chinese-beans-porkDo it the China way: use a little meat to flavor a lot of vegetables.

While in China, I went through what I later discovered was a Splenda-induced period of horrific acne. Before I discovered the culprit, I fielded many health tips, including “Drink hot water first thing in the morning” and, by far the most common, “It must be something you’re eating. Eat more fruits and vegetables.” Had I dealt with the situation in America, no doubt the solution would have involved medicine and maybe even a second round on Accutane, which peeled and split my lips and skin during high school in a last-ditch effort to conquer those silly hormones.

So what at first seemed like tofu withdrawal is in fact a reverse culture shock-induced disagreement with the fundamental diet of my country of origin. I’ve lamented to Gerald more than once about the overall dismal state of food (though I will say, I’ve had great pizza) in America.

Instead of the occasional cravings for cheese I had while in China, I am now haunted by desire for the velvety stewed eggplant and crisp rich vegetables of Asia.

ellis-friedman-plate-of-wander-vietnamese-vegetarian-eggplantVelvety vegetarian Vietnamese eggplant.

ellis-friedman-plate-of-wander-nanjing-veggiesVeggie stir-fry in Nanjing.

Ultimately, I am the master of what goes in my mouth, but what goes in my mouth is ultimately shaped by the culture in which I reside.

What experiences have you had with cultural cuisines? For Americans, what’s your take? For non-Americans, what’s your take?

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