“Gut” Eats

After a wonderful experience eating everything she could while traveling, Alice Stanley tries to eat more like a healthy German.

Photo by Zanthia

When I went to Germany this June, I ate a lot of food. And it was all excellent. Literally, every single bite was delicious, presented beautifully, and felt, for lack of a better word, good in my body. It’s not unusual to have better dining experiences when traveling. Part of going on vacation is eating well. Especially in foreign countries, most people seek out special, fine dining, but we actually didn’t. My travelmates ate one decadent meal at the Hotel Ritter in Heidelberg. And, yes, the ravioli was phenomenal, and the salad was crisp, and the butternut bisque was the perfect balance of textured and creamy, but honestly, the meal didn’t far exceed anything I had eaten within the week. We ate at a local pub, off street vendors, a greasy pizza joint, our hotel’s buffet, and even at a McDonald’s. And, I repeat, all of it was excellent.

I can’t pinpoint what exactly in every morsel I ate made it so divine, but I can point out a few basic things I noticed about all the food I had in Germany. I noticed that nothing was in excess. Salads were spritzed, never drenched, in dressing. If cheese, salt, or sugar was an ingredient, it was a garnish. All servings were stomach-sized. I also noticed that food was lighter. The “greasy” pizza I mentioned had a flaky buttery crust, but it was a paper thin crust, so I didn’t roll away from the table with a heavy belly. Finally, I noticed the sincerity of the produce. The best example: I saw zero bright red, fat, luscious-looking strawberries in Germany. I did, however, have an abundance of tiny, wither-y pale pink strawberries at breakfast each morning that now hold the record for best berries I have ever eaten.

It occurs to me that what I found incredible about German food was that it seemed content being average. Or, perhaps in a more “German” mindset — food was “right,” prepared the way it is “supposed to be.” When comparing American food to German cuisine, I see clear cases of “too much of a good thing.” If an American restaurant serves a tasty salad dressing, they want to give their patrons the opportunity to drink a lake of it. Buttery crust tastes good, so we want slabs of it on our pizzas and pies, don’t we? Fruit people eat should look just as perfect as if it were wax.

I mock, but I’m not above any of this. I love horrible-for-you deep dish pizza and ridiculous amounts of sugar in my coffee. I’m attracted to pretty, bright fruit. But, after just a week of inadvertently treating my body and tongue to food the way it’s supposed to be, I started second-guessing my cravings. I thought back to the morning I had left for Germany. I had gotten a Dunkin’ Donuts bagel with way too much cream cheese smeared on it. I remember being consciously excited (“Way more than I would ever need!”). I was actually happy to eat a disproportionate amount of non-nutritional food. How long have I been conditioned this way?

Two things I absolutely must bring up about eating in Germany: the hotel buffet and McDonald’s. I love breakfast buffets with all my clogged heart. This buffet at our hotel, NM Hotels in Heidelberg, was the best of all time. Marinated mushrooms for lightly fried eggs, homemade jam in tiny jars, fresh-baked croissants, an assortment of sad-looking but rather juicy fruits — the list goes on. Every individual element of the buffet was delicious. Of course it was. Why should an establishment make “eh” food? No one would eat it! Logically, that is.

I considered all the breakfast buffets I had been to in my life. Like I said, I always look forward to breakfast buffets, but how do I feel after? Usually full, but satisfied? Sadly, I can think of very few things I have eaten at buffets over my whole life that were legitimately delicious. In my head, I still like the idea of not having to pick between cereal, waffles, muffins, yogurt, or eggs and just eating some of it all, but is it worth it if none of the components match up to even one bite of truly great food?

McDonald’s was meant to be a pit-stop on a road trip, but upon entering, my companions and I were overwhelmed with the desire to try items from the McCafe. We couldn’t believe the crumbly apple muffins, tiramisu, and thick chocolate cake that perched in a display case. Move over, cardboard Hamburglar-shaped cookies of my youth! Honest to God, the cake was in my top five chocolate cakes of all time. I moaned back in the car, “I will never have that cake agaiiiin!” I cursed McDonald’s American menu. “Why won’t they serve me good chocolate caaaake?”

“Because no one would buy it,” my sister said. “It’s too expensive.”

It had been just over five dollars — a bit steep compared to buck apple pies. I’ve eaten my share of McPies in my life — not because they’re good — but because they’re there and they’re cheap. And I wondered how often I make food choices based on there and cheap. I decided that things were gonna change for me once I was stateside again.

Rules I Tried to Follow:

  1. A lot of mediocre food isn’t interchangeable with one great meal.
  2. If I am dissatisfied with the options on a menu, I don’t have to order “the best I can do.” I can just leave.
  3. If I’m about to eat something I would never have found in Germany, ask if I want to eat it or if I want to want to eat it. (A good example: I don’t actually like sugary cereals, but they remind me of childhood. I never want to eat Golden Grahams. I just want to want to eat it.)
  4. Just spring for the better quality.

Now, two months after my trip, I am doing a decent job of consuming better quality food — but just decent. Although the pull was more psychological than physical, I was still drawn to the siren song of a crappy hotel continental breakfast while traveling a few weeks ago. But, instead of trying all the crappy food, I stuck to a crappy muffin and a crappy bagel. I’ve found that leaving or simply not ordering when the menu sucks is harder than I thought, but I no longer hesitate to make fussy special orders.

Rule number 4 is mostly throwing me through a loop. I’m a poor graduate student. While I was in Germany, I thought, “Don’t ever eat a piece of chain pizza again. You’re worth the few dollars difference to eat at Whole Foods.” But now when I look at my bank account, I wonder, “Am I? Am I really worth the few dollars difference between Country Crock and organic honey butter?”

It’s very American to do things that are bad for us — i.e. being hung-over, neglecting workouts, watching Jersey Shore, eating at Chili’s. It’s funny to hear someone talk about how they hate themselves for loving that damn Bruno Mars song. It’s weird if we purge ourselves of that American quirk. But, ultimately, it is all bad for us, especially the subpar food intake.

I realized that I persuade myself to eat poorly in two ways. First, I have tricked myself into thinking I will like it. After Germany, I’ve decided to stop being so self-manipulative and give up the fact that I don’t actually want to eat Oatmeal Crème Pies ever again. And if that’s all that’s “there” I just have to refrain or seek a better option. In our society it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to make or find alternative food. I don’t have an excuse. Second, eating poorly is less expensive. This venue of reasoning is also generally illogical. If I decide I must buy pizza, then, yeah, it’s going to be hard on my wallet to buy the fancier, better kind. But couldn’t I just do like a third grader and make whole wheat English muffin pizzas for less than the cost of Papa John’s? I’m obviously not swinging at a 100% good food average yet, but I’m getting better, and my memories of Germany keep me going strong.

Photo by Zanthia

Alice Stanley is an MFA candidate in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. Follow her tweets or send her an email. She also has a website.