If it’s not obvious, I’m a Europe lover. I often talk ill of the USA, whether it’s the political system or the ubiquity of awful fast food. With my parents coming into Brussels — gasp, tomorrow — and my two worlds soon colliding, I have been thinking about home a bit more than usual. I’ll admit it: there are a few things that the states definitely does do better, in the food realm no less.
Please note this list is not exhaustive, and it does not consider specialty shops.
1. Peanut Butter
This may surprise you, but peanut butter is extremely uncommon in Europe. One of my old hosts in France gets a friend to bring her peanut butter from England because it’s a near-impossible find in the country. And when you can find peanut butter, you can bet it’s nowhere near as wonderful as our creamy or crunchy artificial American stuff. The European versions I’ve tasted have felt chemically off, chalky on the tongue, or organic without actually being organic. You know what I mean.
2. Mexican food
A friend from Germany told me a funny anecdote the other day: on every free tour of a big city that he’s been on — the tours that attract college-aged backpackers — an American always asks the tour guide at the end where there’s a good Mexican joint in the area. Americans love Mexican food, for good reason. And the lack of Mexican food in Europe is more pronounced than any other cuisine, especially to this California native, whose small hometown has at least five spots on the main drag. Europeans don’t know good guac, fatty carnitas, or smoky mole. It’s sad. They don’t even know shitty tacos from Taco Bell.
It doesn’t really make sense as to why Europeans can’t make a decent hamburger. They have all the right ingredients, and often times, better ingredients, but the result is always lacking. Usually the supermarket bun is pathetic, which doesn’t make sense when fantastic bread is churned out of nearby bakeries every day. The patty itself is too thin and never fatty enough, likely due to the widespread fear of American obesity. As if that was bad enough, the meat is almost always grossly overcooked, with zero hope for licking juice off your elbows. There’s also zero hope in this regard because Europeans insist on eating burgers neatly with a knife and fork. Even more bizarre: you can find prepackaged, fully assembled hamburgers in supermarkets. Even more bizarre: hamburger in a can.
4. Deli sandwiches
I do appreciate the sandwich scene here — you can find a sandwicherie anywhere, offering baguettes sliced open with a slice of cheese or ham or cheese and ham. It’s cheap and healthy fast food. But I also miss obscene sandwiches. I’m talking meaty monsters, where it takes a careful plan of attack to take each bite. I’m talking tall and layered, with sometimes even two types of meat. Yeah, the gourmet sandwiches at restaurants with fancy pickles, herbed mayo, balsamic-glazed onions and steak are fantastic explosions of flavor, but even just the basic thick layer of pastrami on rye sort is missed.
I absolutely adore European cafe culture, and how just about every city has a wealth of bustling cafes and terraces full of people-watchers. But the coffee itself? Frequently mediocre. There is excellent coffee to be found in Europe, of course, like in Berlin or Copenhagen, where the new wave culture is going strong. But there is a general consensus amongst expats in Brussels, and even in France, that the coffee is a grand disappointment. There is probably no hope for high-end cafes though when the love for quality brew hasn’t made it into homes. Check out the coffee aisle in the supermarket and be shocked at your options for instant coffee, and the lack of options for anything else. Most households simply boil water and stir in some Nescafe, with freshly ground beans and French presses nowhere in sight.