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February 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Photo by Jonathan Stephanoff
I went overseas for the first time when I was a pimply-faced teenager who had never been farther from home than Disney World, but it took American food to appreciate it.
Until I was a freshman in high school, I had never been shoved out of my comfort zone. Sure, I had just gone through middle school, but that was uncomfortable for everybody. Otherwise, I had lived a cushy existence in Missouri, and the only thing I knew about other cultures was what Hollywood told me.
When my church was sending a team to Romania to work at a vacation Bible school, I went for it. It was tricky in convincing my mom, but I knew I had to go. Not only would I be helping kids, but also I’d finally be going out into the world and challenging myself rather than sitting on my comfy couch playing Nintendo or doing homework. After several months of saving money and several hours of restless flying, I stood on foreign soil for the first time.
I spent 10 days there. I stood in Timisoara’s Victory Square, where the revolution that overthrew the Communist regime began, and I gazed at buildings that still donned bullet holes like badges. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs patrolled the streets. I waded in the Black Sea when we visited an old Roman port. I made new friends, learned words in a language I had never heard, rubbed shoulders with gypsies, drove through endless oceans of sunflowers and adventurously rode what was undoubtedly the most dangerous elevator I’ve ever seen. In just over a week, I did things I could never do at home, and it was unforgettable.
But I didn’t realize that then. My grumbling stomach was too distracting.
Most of the cuisine was a gauntlet I struggled to endure. Our daily breakfast of hard salami on toast was more like a light lunch. I could hardly stomach sarmale, a concoction of minced meat wrapped in boiled cabbage leaves atop a bed of mush rice, and I forced down myriad gristly grey sausages that all had different names but the same gummy taste and texture.
Some of it was actually OK. I had the tastiest stuffed peppers I have ever eaten, and their wiener schnitzel was good enough to be eaten without the garnishes and sides that other nations use to spruce it up. Still, these occasional savory treats couldn’t vanquish my yearning for an all-American cheeseburger that left me up at night like an addict jonesing for his next fix. Every time I ate, all I could think about was the feel of a sesame-seed bun between my fingers, itself locking in a juicy burger with all the fixings.
Fortunately for my stomach, it was soon time to leave. My group of about 30 Americans tearfully embraced and said goodbye to our new friends before we boarded our bus to the airport in Bucharest. A connecting flight put us in London with several hours to kill at Heathrow Airport. My friends and I hungrily split from the group to find dinner and came across a chain restaurant called Garfunkel’s. On its windows were etched various foods it served. Like the Terminator, my eye instantly locked onto one in particular: “Cheeseburgers.”
The thought of finally sinking my incisors into a fat juicy burger was a dream fulfilled. We sat, and I tore open the menu, skimming for their sandwiches. I almost died: I could get mine with cheese and bacon.
I ordered it exactly how I loved it, and my mind began to lust after what it would taste like. I smelled the bacon and heard its distinctive crackle on the grill as my patty sizzled next to it. I could see the chef flip my patty and press a thick slice of fresh cheddar on top, which proceeded to melt perfectly. I fantasized about how it would taste to chew on that fresh, medium-well ground chuck. Pink, but not too pink. Bold, flavorful and meshing perfectly with the gooey melted cheese and the crisp saltiness of the bacon.
Then the waiter brought our food, and my fantasy crashed down around me.
The bun was toasted and buttered. The lettuce and onions were fresh, the cheese was melted to perfection, and my burger was pink, but not too pink. But as it turns out, England’s definition of “bacon” is looser than ours and includes what Canadians have. There on my burger was a thick slice of cured ham.
Sometimes, no matter how much you want it, bacon just isn’t bacon.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t crushed. This got me thinking, though. I had no preconceived notions about Romania, so nothing surprised me there as I wasn’t expecting anything to be any certain way. I also felt like it was all somehow separate, there and then, and once I went home I’d leave it all behind.
But I viewed London as a transition back to what I knew because I knew plenty about England. I had read Harry Potter, seen all of the James Bond films and listened to the Beatles and Bowie. Our culture sprang from theirs; they drove on the other side of the road and called cookies “biscuits,” but otherwise they were just like Americans. Then, like I was having my nose rubbed in it, the bacon on that burger turned those notions upside down.
It all clicked. Something as simple as a burger made me realize that there was a lot I didn’t know much about, and it wasn’t just Romania. Places I’d never seen. People I’d never met. Things I’d take with me and would make me see things I thought I knew in a completely different light.
It took something as American as a cheeseburger to make me appreciate the differences between cultures, and it was the best burger I’d ever eaten.