Earlier this year we were with a group of missionaries who were asked to name the worst food in their host country. One lady, who had spent time in Belgium told us about a raw hamburger dish that I remember her calling something like “American beef.” No, not American beef, but American something. . . . Then I saw this article from Public Radio International. Filet américain. That’s what it’s called. Of all the dishes named by the missionaries, this is the one that most kicked in my gag reflex—just to hear about it. Some people eat it with a raw egg on top. That’s just going too far. The author of the article voices his own fear of this Belgian favorite, but not for health reasons. Rather, he’s afraid he’ll actually like it. And then, one thing would lead to another . . . .
Try it once, and soon you’re asking for it regularly at lunch, along with half a liter of red wine. And then you’re having coffee after, along with a digestif. Your afternoon productivity, what’s left of it, starts to slump. Like a good Belgian, you simply shrug your shoulders. . . . Six months go by, and you’re slipping out after you’ve finished a plate for a few quick drags on an unfiltered Lucky Strike. You try to go grow a handlebar mustache. . . .
And then you apply for Belgian citizenship because you know you’ll never get your filet américain fix back in the US.
Maybe it’s not an unwarranted fear, that you’ll become addicted to something that disgusts you. One of the foulest foods in Asia is the durian. Most people can’t even stand the smell. But, they say, try it once, you hate it. Taste it the second time, it’s tolerable. Try it again, and it’s your favorite.
I have a theory. One day our great great great grandparents were going through a famine, and they were forced to eat something that no one had ever needed to eat before. Out of necessity they got used to it. And then when times got better, they still kept it as part of their diet. Maybe it didn’t taste good, but it felt right. It became part of them, part of their story. And then it became part of everyone’s story, kept alive, if by no one else then by the person who could always get attention with “No, I really do think it’s good. Watch me eat some.”
Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest US, I learned to like a few things that might make my city friends squeamish: cow tongue and heart, calf brains (well, I never really enjoyed that one), and Rocky Mountain oysters (fried calf testicles). But I don’t have to go back to old-time examples of Americana to find foods that could gag my international friends. Take for instance a new item soon to be introduced on Burger King’s menu. I’d love to see what my non-American friends would think about their recently announced sundae: vanilla ice cream topped with fudge, caramel, and that all-américain favorite topping, bacon.