by Chunyan Song
Although many Americans have to be on restricted diets due to religious or health reasons, many others voluntarily avoid certain foods because material wealth and food abundance grant them the opportunity to pick and choose. When I first came to the U.S, I was struck by how limited Americans’ food choices were. As a popular saying goes, Chinese eat everything that flies except the airplane and everything with four legs except the table. Vegetables in China and many parts of the world include all kinds of plants, garden greens, herbs, water lily bulbs, and sea weed. And then of course there are also the six-legged critters which are not even considered edible in America—insects are to be avoided!
One of my favorite dishes from my childhood is scrambled eggs with shepherd’s purse, a dark leafy green vegetable with a potent anti-inflammatory effect. In China, shepherd’s purse grows both in the wild and in vegetable gardens. Most Americans probably have never heard of such a thing and will definitely consider it as another inedible weed. In the middle of March or early April, when shepherd’s purse springs out the field everywhere, village kids will be sent out with a basket and a scoop to gather the plant just like American kids go egg-hunting on Easter. They share stories and crack jokes along the way. After they come home with their baskets full, the harvest will soon appear at the dinner table for the entire family to enjoy. For many people, the aroma of shepherd’s purse scrambled eggs marks the official start of the spring season.
The mainstream food culture of the United States rules out a large range of potentially nutritious food as inedible. Only a very limited number of animals, such as cows, pigs and sheep are considered edible. And when those cows, pigs and sheep are slaughtered, they change name and are called beef, pork and lamb, a conspiracy to disguise the fact that they were live animals before.
Another one of my childhood favorite dishes is fried silkworms. The word “worm” will definitely gross Americans out. Actually, silkworms are much cleaner than most of the other animals we eat. Their bodies never touch the ground, and they only feed on mulberry leaves. When it is fried, it is really rather a very delicious food. Coated with a generous layer of oil, salt, and pepper, the silkworms are crispy outside while tender inside. They taste like nothing else, but only one hundred times better than everything else. I used to eat them one by one, chewing slowly while savoring the crunching sound and buttery taste. Even writing about it makes my mouth start to water profusely. Chinese also like to eat frogs. Koreans eat dogs. French eat horses. Of these foods, at least two of them are well loved pets in America. However, rich in nutrients and protein, they are actually very tasty, only if you dare to try.
In America, so many of the animal body parts, such as the heads, necks, and feet, are deemed valueless and are thrown away. But what turns the stomachs of Americans is often eaten with relish elsewhere. For example, nothing is scarier and more disgusting to Americans than eating chicken feet. Nowadays, thanks to a high demand from China and global trade, the U.S. exports about 300,000 metric tons of chicken feet to China every year. Eating chicken feet does not make the Chinese disgusting or more barbaric than Americans. It is ethnocentric to judge other people using the American standard. And in fact, much of the rest of the world has never had the luxury to be fussy about what they eat. When faced with overpopulation and limited resources, they ate what nature provided. No food was ever wasted. Being wasteful was shameful.
Oddly though while so much nutritious food is regarded as inedible in America, Americans incorporate dangerous amount of substances with no nutritional value into their diets. How Americans love their sugar! They even call their wives and kids “sweeties” and “honey.” Even after seventeen years of living here, I, who haven’t developed a sweet tooth like Americans, and still find it uncomfortable to use these two food words on anyone, even my own family. After I learned to read the labels, sugar all of a sudden turned up in everything and everywhere. It is in the bread, the soup, the drink, and the dessert. Candies, cookies, and cakes, loaded with sugar and food coloring, are served during all the holidays, at birthday parties, at meetings, gatherings, and even at the dentist office and physician’s office where I think they should have known the best. It is estimated that on average an American adult consumes 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugar a year. Since I barely eat any refined sugar nowadays, someone out there must be consuming my share of 150 pounds too. For decades, the sugar industry conducted pseudo-scientific research projects that led the Americans to blame their poor health on the fat. It was only in 2016 that this sugar conspiracy was made public knowledge.