Editor's Note: This column appeared previously in the Hope Star-Journal newspaper.



I love food -- just about any food. In fact, the weirder the better.

Name a country -- Japan, China, Italy, Afghanistan, Tibet, Cuba, France, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Argentina, Whateverland -- and I have probably both eaten and enjoyed their cuisine.

While living in West Africa in my early 20s, I once shared a huge communal bowl of "jollof rice" with about ten other men. The rice was seasoned generously with monkey parts and cayenne pepper. (The dish was quite tasty, even though I could have done without the sight of a human-looking monkey hand sticking up out of the mixture. And, I'll admit the ample supply of 100-proof rice wine we washed it down with may have been a factor in my enjoyment.)

During the times when I have been able to sample these foreign foods "on location" in the actual countries of origin, the natives often asked me to compare their food to the food of my own country.

"What is American cuisine like?" they want to know.

My dinner companions always seem to know I come from the richest country in the world and they figure the unlimited availability of a wide variety of ingredients must make "American cuisine" as rich, varied, innovative and exotic as a Mongolian sunset.

American cuisine, I explain to them, is as much about the presentation as it is the ingredients. Because we are rich, we have been able to develop a system of food preparation confined to small, colorfully decorated buildings that dot the countryside.

Our traditional food is prepared in these buildings day and night and is placed under heat lamps in the serving areas in order to be kept somewhat warm for distribution at a moment's notice. We believe the key to enjoying our food is speed, convenience, and as little personal involvement as possible.

We then receive the meals directly into our automobiles through small, sliding-glass windows built into the sides of these distribution buildings. The serving dishes are small Styrofoam boxes with tiny latches to seal in the nutritional goodness, accompanied by small cardboard and plastic accessories inside a paper sack.

The beauty, I explain, is that once the food is consumed, the dishes can all be thrown away -- saving clean up time. An occasional trip through a full-service car wash to remove the spills and food residue from the interior of the car is all that is needed.

By this time, my hosts' eyes are usually wide with wonder and the inevitable second question is asked: "What is the actual food like?"

I tell them their question is somewhat ridiculous. American cuisine is not about content, it is about the convenience and the speed. In any case, when a family sits down to a hearty meal, everyone has to eat fast because the mini-van will be making stops to drop kids off here and there or to get the adults to the Wednesday evening prayer meeting, the movies, or home to watch "The Biggest Loser" on television.

Quantity of food, however, is important, I admit. That's why the cornucopia of plenty in the Styrofoam containers inside the paper sacks was manufactured in feed-lot farms or reconstituted, injected with preserving chemicals and artificial flavors, and formed into food shapes.

There are a lot of Americans to feed, but since they all have been trained to eat the same food, the process has been ingeniously created so the supply meets the demand.

But what does it TASTE like, they still want to know, usually having missed the entire paradigm shift -- many foreigners being unable to think "out of the box" or put the ignorance of their long-ingrained cultural conditioning aside for even a moment of real reflection.

Well, it tastes like the finest sugar and salt -- with a slight essence of grease. This flavor is counter-balanced with a tangy bit of ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and/or dill pickles, depending on individual taste. (Americans are big on individualism, I point out.)

What about the vegetables, they want to know.

Ever try to eat a salad in a moving van, I respond. Plus, do you not understand that raw vegetables are perishable? How could you keep such a miraculous distribution system making a profit with such waste?

Yet, I try not to be too hard on them. I also love their food and do not hold their ignorance and lack of progress against them.

And, who knows? We Americans have big hearts and have always reached out to help the needy around the world.

Maybe some day they will understand and will have a distribution building with a heat lamp and little Styrofoam containers right there in the West African bush country, just across the street from the bowl of rice with that monkey hand sticking out.