Since returning to Sydney these past few months, I can’t help but notice just how much more we’ve become influenced by American food trends. It’s easy to pick out what’s been replicated from the other side of the Pacific: bagels with lox and cream cheese, milkshakes with paper straws, pulled pork everything. Hipster Mexican. But it’s not quite the same, and a cafe I visited in San Francisco last year made me appreciate how we’re barely scratching the surface of North America.
Back in February 2013 I attended a TED conference in Palm Springs and stopped in San Francisco on the way to visit some good friends. On one of those days, while my friends were working, I had time to wander downtown before my lunch rendezvous with Jason Gibbs, a San Francisco-based researcher I’d connected with when I produced a radio documentary on rock music in Vietnam. As I walked along Market Street, I passed a spot on 6th where a few months previously I’d seen a huge queue of people outside Dottie’s True Blue Cafe.
Travelling in America feels very surreal at times and sitting by myself at a counter in a diner-style place was like being in a scene from a movie. It was a great vantage point to watch the kitchen staff at work, and I noticed that the majority of staff looked like they’d originated from south of the border. Anthony Bourdain has asserted that without the labour of Mexican staff, the restaurant industry would collapse overnight in America, and his comment crossed my mind as I sat there drinking black coffee. This isn’t something that relates to the Australian context exactly, though many of the positions in our service industries are also occupied by recent migrants who are willing to work hard in unglamorous jobs.
Dottie’s True Blue was staffed by Latinos, but it had an ultra American menu: “1920s Prohibition Blueberry Whiskey Crumb Cake”, “Pumpkin Toffee Sweet Potato Pie”, “Peanut Butter Chip Banana Muffin”. The menu was truly something else. I eventually decided on something plain for breakfast that I wouldn’t easily get back home — toasted cornbread and jalapeño jam.
Just a few months prior we had travelled to Central America for the first time and that whole encounter had blown my mind. Whenever I think about Mexico in particular, I’m still filled with wonder. It was easily the most fascinating country I’ve travelled to in recent years because whole civilisations unfolded before me which I barely even knew existed. It was humbling to get a glimpse of such greatnes.
When I took a bite of the toasted cornbread with a thin layer of jam, I realised that so much of what I think of as American food has its roots elsewhere. This is obvious for a New World country but it was something I knew in abstract rather than through experience. Eating cornbread brought me back to a particular morning a few months earlier when I ate tamales on the street from a cart. That taste of corn and that bit of chilli — that’s what Mexico tasted like. And that’s what America tasted like to me in Dottie’s.
We often have this idea that cultures are discrete entities and we even go so far as to build our national identities around it. But it’s a myth, and certainly in places like Australia. People like to cling onto what seems like solid ideas about culture and history, conveniently forgetting how cultures constantly evolve, in spite of efforts to discourage change. No culture is ever ‘pure’ and food is a great indicator of that process. The deeper you dig into the origins of dishes, the more you can unpack the histories of a place. There’s a great story I heard recently about artisanal toast in California, a food trend that turned out to be far more than meets the eye. It makes me think there are probably some interesting underlying reasons why Australia is taking so much from America at the moment.
That simple breakfast of cornbread made me appreciate how lucky I am to be able to connect all these different ideas together for myself. There’s a lot of rhetoric in the United States about Mexico, which emphasises issues like illegal immigration and drug cartels along the border. But there’s so much shared history between the two countries. The great privilege of travel is getting to get a first-hand taste. If only more Americans made the effort to get to know their neighbour, beyond the resort areas, maybe there would be a different discourse.