One of the first culture shocks I suffered after coming from South Africa, was the monster of American food markets. Mind you, I spent ten years in South Africa, so my palette was not too demanding, and since I did not visit any fancy restaurants in the past year, I still have very primitive taste when it comes to food. Soon after my first frustrating visit to a New York supermarket, or food retailer, I found out that Americans do not make simple straightforward foods.
The first thing I wanted to buy was cereal. For years in South Africa, my breakfast consisted of Weetbix, topped with the fruit of the season and milk. Such a simple thing is extremely hard to find here. Instead there are the Corn Flakes, the Crispies and various other types with more than necessary sugar content. Things get much worse when we are talking children cereals, because they are mainly chunks, or nodules in violently brilliant color that cannot possibly be natural. I have resigned myself to giving Robert occasionally some candy in those awful colors because there are no other kinds, but I am not about to give him breakfast disguised as candy. I have enough trouble as it is with his sweet tooth. The candy of course is a completely different story, in South Africa we had Smarties with natural food coloring, here they insist on electric greens and blues for their m&ms. Everything else has the same hideous colors, so I take refuge in the imported brands. The local -much advertised- brand of chocolate is beyond awful, I would take Beacons (our local and by no way best brand in South Africa) any day instead. Even Robert, who is hardly discerning when it comes to candy, does not like that local brand.
The next horrific discovery for me was the bread. Why do they bake every type of bread with really noticeable amounts of sugar? For the first time in my life I found myself carefully reading the ingredients of bread, which is supposed to be the simplest recipe humans ever made. It is not that simple here. There is bread with High Fructose Corn Syrup (more about this in a minute), and bread without it, but they all taste sweet. After four months of reading bread packages, I was complaining to a colleague that this terrible place (I could not stand New York in the beginning) did not even have plain simple bread. He told me to look for bread alone, which turned out to be the name of the brand. I finally can eat bread without tasting sugar.
The issue with High Fructose Corn Syrup is another strange phenomenon of America. This type of “sugar” is used for almost all beverages, and like anything else in America, the effects of its heavy usage, good or bad, will be upon us in a generation or two. Regardless of whether this is a natural or a synthetic sugar, there is a problem with the American diet and its dependence on sugar. I rarely use sugar for anything other than baking, but I still feel that my consumption of it has increased.
One of the things I miss most about South Africa is the abundance of local fruit and vegetables. I also miss the local South African meat; the excellent beef, ostrich, fish and chicken I used to enjoy. Perhaps things have deteriorated in the year I was away, especially in terms of prices, but the quality is still the same, I think. The fruit I had back in April was wonderful. I ate my fill of mango, pawpaw and avocado and many others. I cannot do the same here. Who knows what types of industrial pesticides are used on the produce here. In South Africa I never bothered with organic. Here, for the privilege of eating organic food and produce, I easily pay double the regular prices for groceries, but I cannot bring myself to eat anything else. The thought of handling mass-produced meet makes me cringe.
Of course there is no escaping normal non-organic food when I eat out or buy my lunch from one of the mobile vendors so common to Midtown Manhattan. And sometimes it is simply too expensive to buy organic, so I go one step down, to kosher for example. I sometimes even wonder whether this whole organic food is not just a ploy to make us paranoid consumers fork out more money. I questioned this today as I was choosing some peaches from the “organic” basket. Nothing but some stickers distinguished its peaches from the regular peaches across the aisle at half the price.