Last night I took my girlfriend and her friend (who are both Taiwanese) to Flossie's for their first taste of American soul food.
The other night I was talking to a friend who works in a spa with women who love Flossie's They grew up with soul food and think of it as "real" food and everything else as being weird, in the way that everyone's childhood food becomes their benchmark for everything else. My friend says that on lunchbreaks with her coworkers that she even has difficultly getting them to go out to eat Chinese food.
So I found the reverse perspective from two Taiwanese women extremely interesting.
First when we walked in, there were about eight regular-to-overweight people and two HUGE ones, a girl and especially this young, very pale white guy with red hair, easily 350 pounds. (I kept thinking how he could have been me had things gone horribly wrong.) In fact, after eating his meal this guy even ordered another one to go. My Taiwanese guests 0bserved, staring in confusion and amazement.
While in line (at Flossie's you order cafeteria style from a steam table in the front), my girlfriend and her friend talked in Chinese about the menu, trying to decode it. (For those who have not been there, for $10 you pick one entree-- many different varieties of chicken, fried catfish and shrimp ($14). You then get three side dishes, one dessert and one beverage. Not a bad value for all that food.)
I tried to explain as much of the menu as I could is a soft tone, without causing unintended amusement to the other restaurant patrons which would find this scenario embarrassingly hilarious.
Eventually my friends picked an entree and told me to order a selection of sides. So I got the fried chicken (of course), and they ordered the smothered chicken and creole chicken and sausage over rice. We also tried almost every side dish on the list, mac & cheese, okra-corn-tomatoes, turnip greens, red beans, black eyed peas and rice, yams, steamed cabbage, green beans. And for dessert, they were out of everything except bread pudding, banana pudding and jello. So... two bread puddings and one banana, thank you. Two unsweetened iced teas (or as the sign said, "unsweeten ice tea", as if it were a command) and an orange kool-aid. (Is kool-aid soul food?) The only other beverage available was "sweeten ice tea".
This is where the cross-cultural sociological experiment began. With the mostly healthy, stir fry vegetable culture of Chinese cuisine as their starting point, they tasted. "It's so salty." They tasted the yams. "Are these supposed to taste so sweet?" "Is this food really authentic from south-eastern US?" I told them yes-- that this was supposedly one of the best interpretations of "soul food" in Los Angeles. "You can't taste the natural flavor of the vegetables," they said. In fact, I had to agree that after hearing so many good things about Flossie's that I was rather disappointed by everything except the red beans (which were really robust and flavorful) and the banana pudding which was tolerably sweet, as most of the other sweet items (like the yams) tasted supersaturated with sugar. The bread pudding was alright, but again too sweet, and was served with a cup of weak yellow watery liquid that tasted like a concentrated country time lemonade sauce. The cornbread had a nice, light texture but was surprisingly bland, with not even a hint of sweetness (ironically) Another extremely obese person walks in the door and my friend swoon. "Are most people in south-eastern US as fat as the people here?" I told her that we could talk further about this in the car. So they went back to talking in Chinese, looked around at the other patrons, and laughed. I understood their perspective, but was a little embarrassed nonetheless.
They did not say much more about the food, I think for fear of offending me, who chose the restaurant for them. But after having this cross-cultural culinary experience, it became startlingly clear to my why there is such a divide between the weight of Americans and of those in countries elsewhere in the world.