Thoughts From the Amerika Section of a German Grocery Store

Travel Stories: Amid the Cheese Zip and the Marshmallow Fluff, Terry Ward remembers what it means to be American

10.11.10 | 11:01 AM ET

By Terry Ward

My friend Hannah, a Pennsylvanian transplanted to Hamburg, Germany, posted this caption with a photo on her Facebook wall:

“People, this is what makes a country great.”

The great country she referred to was America. And the photo inspiring Hannah’s sentiment was this bag of candy corn-flavored Hershey’s Kisses she’d spotted during a trip back to the States:

I knew exactly what Hannah meant. Unusual eats like the aforementioned are part of our American ingenuity.

Still, what counts as American food has always confused me. And, American mutt that I am, it’s a question that becomes all the more perplexing when I’m faced with it abroad.

Typically, when asked to create an American meal for friends in other countries, I revert to an abbreviated version of Thanksgiving dinner. Or, more often, something Mexican, like chips and salsa and burritos (all the while assuring them it’s a very American meal, while secretly craving cream-cheese-spiked and tempura-fried sushi—the “American” food I miss most when away from home for prolonged periods).

What’s “American” to us can be so personal. I’m the first to defend the inherent greatness of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the most uppity French epicurean. But I was struck with mixed emotions recently—most disarmingly, a feeling of cultural rootlessness—while perusing the section labeled Amerika in the international food aisle of Real, a mega grocery store in Hamburg. 

The Amerika section was right next to the Turkish and Russian sections, with their arrays of pickled vegetables, vodkas, Moldavian wine and tinned fish, canned olives and bags of bulgur and couscous.

And as much as I struggle with the concept myself, what this grocery story in Germany had deemed typical American foods had me feeling combative.

A yellow can presented as an integral food of my nation was labeled rather ominously, Sprühfett mit Rapsöl. It was PAM, the cooking spray that many a harried American meal maker is prone to wield like a can of insect repellent against pesky non-nonstick pans.

I scanned the other shelves. I found barbecue sauce, squeeze cheese (jalapeño and nacho-flavored), an array of Hershey’s products, and marshmallows in various incarnations, including Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate Marshmallow Lovers, with the box trumpeting a sentiment as all-American as it gets: “As much calcium as an 8 oz. glass of milk!”

Jars of Marshmallow Fluff lined the bottom shelf, with cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup above and a spread of condiments that included Hellmann’s Mayonnaise and Newman’s Own Caesar Dressing.

Betty Crocker’s boxed mixes of blueberry muffins, brownies and Chocolate Chocolate Chip Muffin Mix went for a hefty 4.99 euros apiece. And a box of “Parade” powdered macaroni and cheese masqueraded as a Kraft original.

There in the most patriotic packaging of all—I practically expected it to start billowing in the breeze for all its stars and stripes—was something called Cheese Zip, sporting a banner on its can claiming “Old Fashioned Foods.”

It’s Easy Cheese, I wanted to yell out to the whole of the international food aisle, not Cheese Zip, feeling conflicted that I cared. Das ist verboten! If you’re going to include the stuff and say it represents my country, at least make sure it’s the real deal.

My sister has gotten Easy Cheese and not some impostor in her stocking every Christmas since we were kids. We sprayed it directly into our mouths or atop Triscuits and Saltines (also notably absent from the Amerika section).

But how were the Germans supposed to know the intricacies of American food culture, when most often it’s viewed as something readily replaceable? A calorie-laden novelty, pre-packaged and pushed at them (and at the rest of the world, for that matter) in the form of one convenience product or fast food chain after another. 

Then I reminded myself that this wasn’t America, it was Amerika.

Surely the German aisle in my own imaginary American grocery store would have appeared equally cliché, all pretzels and bread rolls and bratwursts. You can’t know a culture without knowing its food, something that requires time and immersion. And it occurred to me that for all the people in the world who only know the U.S. through its brands and reality shows and brash marketing schemes, America’s true identity had to be one of the most elusive of all.

The German grocery store’s interpretation of typical American food wasn’t quite right, but that didn’t mean I was able to define it any better myself, not to mention condense it into a few shelves in a dry-foods section.

Perhaps it takes coming to places like Amerika to remember that part of being American means belonging to everywhere and nowhere. 

I might never have eaten the stuff back home, but I grabbed a jar of Strawberry Fluff and made for the check-out line, somehow feeling better already.


Terry Ward

Terry Ward is a Florida-based writer and a long-time contributor to World Hum.


16 Comments for Thoughts From the Amerika Section of a German Grocery Store

Phil 10.11.10 | 7:21 PM ET

Nice work, Terry.

Is Easy Cheese the same as what we call Cheez Whiz up in the Northeast? I never heard of Easy Cheese.

Guess there’s food culture differences inside the States, too.

P Dugan 10.11.10 | 9:29 PM ET

The easiest way for me to define American food is not the food itself, but a little euphemism on the side of every package, which betrays the true character of the thing you are about to eat: It’s not food, it’s “product”.

Hotels paris 10.11.10 | 10:20 PM ET

Thanks for sharing this so great informative article. I was really wondering and i get here and get amazed by the article.

Terry Ward 10.12.10 | 4:29 AM ET

Phil - Cheez Whiz is something different, you slather it on or dip into it. Easy Cheese comes in a can much like a whipped cream container, and is sprayed onto things (or right into your mouth). Surely you have Easy Cheese in CT?

Christopher Vourlias 10.12.10 | 8:40 AM ET

Terry,

Happy to see you can add cheese-product connoisseur to your resume. Maybe, for a separate feature, you can take some stuffy French epicurean and subject him to all our wondrous cheez products.

As we say in America, “Bon appetit!”

Robin Graham 10.12.10 | 10:03 AM ET

Must admit I’m with P Dugan above on this one - at least as far as supermarket shelves are concerned; not my cup of tea at all. Fleurescent, potentially radioactive sugar and salt attacks in packets. But in America itself I have eaten very well on fresh food in restaurants…

pam 10.12.10 | 12:43 PM ET

As a former expat, I get it. I totally get it. Plus, while I was living in Austria the thing I craved most? Thai food, which you could not get where we lived.

Our supermarket had a few “Amerikan” odds and ends, including something called American Toast. Wonder Bread, that’s what it was, and I always wondered, what, exactly, was so American about it.

TambourineMan 10.12.10 | 7:14 PM ET

I could swear what’s now officially called Easy Cheese (the glorious cheese in a can), Kraft once labeled as Cheez Whiz. But maybe not. Maybe that’s just what everyone called it. Even the old man in the Blues Brothers: “Did ya get me my Cheese Whiz, boy?”

ed wetschler 10.13.10 | 8:50 AM ET

I loved this story, but you didn’t convince me that the German grocery story owner got it wrong. On the contrary, America is indeed the land of processed convenience foods.

My brothers-in-law were surprised that, when I was grilling red onions at a family barbecue, I didn’t want to smother them in sweet barbecue sauce. And they were downright horrified the next day when, upon returning from a farm stand, I offered them apples. “APPLES?” they said with expressions you’d use if I’d just offered you a plateful of uncooked rice. For American food to be American food, a company has to DO something to it so it’s, y’know, real food.

Layne 10.13.10 | 11:47 AM ET

Maybe it’s being a native Californian, but I’m just as horrified at the El Paso refried beans and Chi Chi’s salsa and the inedible tortilla chips in the ‘Mexican’ food sections in grocery stores in Berlin and beyond. It’s usually the same bland brands in every country and it’s scary that anyone might draw conclusions based on tasting them…
In any case, you hit it when you wrote that “You canít know a culture without knowing its food, something that requires time and immersion.” Enjoyed this article.

Camels & Chocolate 10.13.10 | 1:00 PM ET

I’ve been DYING to try those candy corn kisses. Too bad I just put myself on a self-imposed fruits and veggies diet to make up for a lack of this year while traveling!

A Tuscan Foodie in America 10.13.10 | 5:09 PM ET

Being a non American living in the States - and loving American food - I have been giving a lot of thought about what really is American cuisine. And I think my conclusion is that what makes US food great is that you are not bound by any tradition, so that you are free to mix and match. The results are mixed, obviously, and things can go very wrong. But they can also go VERY well. And this is why I love American food.

http://www.tuscanfoodie.com

Chuck Kirchner 10.15.10 | 2:02 AM ET

They sell Hellman’s and not Best Foods Mayo.  How east coast of them!

Brianna 11.04.10 | 7:24 PM ET

Cheez Whiz and Easy Cheese are in fact, the same type of product. Easy cheese comes in a spray can like “whipped cream” and Cheez whiz comes in a jar or squeeze bottle.

Great article though. We’ll be living in Germany temporarily and I found this when searching for insight on what “American” food staples we wouldn’t find there. Irony!

Oji 11.11.10 | 9:05 AM ET

Hmmm… I’m feeling a bit queasy. Surely you have real food in America as well as these food-substitute products?

Brianna 11.11.10 | 10:34 AM ET

Oji, don’t worry…we have real food here! These strange products were mainly created as weird convenience items post WW2. As a result, a lot of people have nostalgia for them…not to mention teenagers in any country will eat anything!

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