22 June 2008

A little overindulgence

I ran across this post today on the excellent Crooked Timber blog regarding restaurant portion sizes in the U.S., and how Europeans visiting us are surprised by the sheer amount of food we serve up over here.

“For Europeans, one of the really disconcerting things about visiting the United States is the size of the meals. Ok, there’s the phenomenon that the restaurant staff will let you take home what you don’t or can’t eat (and that’s an idea that many Europeans feel uncomfortable with), but there’s still the fact of the sheer volume of stuff that gets put on your plate. It seems it wasn’t always this way. Via someone in my del.icio.us network, I came across this article on how portion sizes have changed in the US over the past twenty years. And not only are American meals bulkier, they’ve also increased two or three times in calorific value. That can’t be good.”

I’m certainly not arguing the fact. I haven’t been to a fast-food hamburger joint for a couple of years, at least, but I know that places like Carl’s Jr. and Wendy’s positively wallow in the giganticism of their burgers. And when I eat out at more refined restaurants, I’m never disappointed by the amount of food that’s put down in front of me.

But because the years have deposited far more poundage on my delicate frame than I ought to be carrying around, and I’m working to get rid of it, I rarely finish a meal when we eat out these days. Well, unless it’s a grilled chicken Caesar salad. I ruv those.

But the post at Crooked Timber made me pause. Because when I arrived in Germany in the olden days (1986, if you must know) one of the things that struck me was the very large portion sizes served up at the restaurants we visited. Portion sizes weren’t something I’d ever noticed at home in the U.S., so I remember this rather clearly. Back home, I’d certainly never felt deprived when sitting down to a restaurant meal, but those German meals were something else again.

Imagine this one: In front of you is a wide plate. In the middle is a sizzling hot ground beef loaf the size of a slightly flattened softball, spiced and savory, and on top of it, a huge sunny-side-up egg. Surrounding the meat is a monster portion of potatoes, lard-fried crispy outside and soft inside (and salted liberally), and, as an afterthought, a small serving of reheated canned peas. You put your fork into the meat and out leaks creamy, melted goat cheese. You don’t have to eat the peas.

This was a very popular and inexpensive lunch served up at a little café-style restaurant just outside the U.S. Army post at which I was employed. Not having weight issues at the time, and of course still young enough to know myself to be immortal, I found it absolutely sublime. Such a meal is, we all know now, pretty much death on a plate.

So you can imagine my bemusement when I read that Europeans visiting us are astounded by the portion sizes served up at U.S. restaurants. But does the word “Europeans” include the Germans? If so, then there really has been a flip-flop in eating habits on both sides of the Big Water over the last 20 years or so. I obviously missed it.

Since returning from Germany in 1992, I’ve rarely fried anything but eggs, and those usually with a thin, tasteless layer of low-fat cooking spray coating the frypan. Oh, I’ll admit to occasionally frying with butter, but not much, and certainly not in the last five years or so. If I sautĂ© vegetables or meat, it’s always with olive or canola oil, and no further fat is added to my meals if I can help it. In spite of that, I’ve managed to pack the pounds on, most likely because my level of exercise went way down when we came back to the States. Over in Germany, I walked everywhere. We had a dog that required walking several times a day, but beyond that, using a car was often more trouble than heading out on foot. I took the city busses, too, which meant walking at least to and from the stops. Once at my destination, I walked block after city block, here and there and everywhere. We took the train for most of our longer trips, which also meant a great deal of time spent with feet on the ground, covering cobblestoned miles as we explored the old places and mysterious corners of Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and Austria.

Living in Northern Germany turned me into a fish eater, too. I’d always liked fish but hadn’t eaten much of it, since my Dad the fisherman didn’t like fish and Mom didn’t prepare it very often as I was growing up. When she did cook up what he caught, it always had tiny, thin, sharp bones all through it, and my sister and I were exhorted to be careful not to swallow and choke to death on them. It didn’t make fish eating a comfortable experience.

Still, I liked the taste of fish. After getting out on my own, about the only fish I ate was in the form of frozen fish sticks, because I didn’t know how to cook the actual item. OK, I was afraid to cook it, afraid I’d ruin it. And there were those wicked bones, waiting hook themselves into my throat and kill me.

But in Germany, living in a city on the edge of the North Sea, I was introduced to FISH. I worked in the U.S. Army Public Affairs office on the Army post in Bremerhaven as a writer/editor, and once a month or so one of my German colleagues and I would sneak out for a slightly longer lunch than usual. Longer because getting the lunch usually required a long wait on line. We’d drive the 15 minutes or so to the Fischeraihafen, or fishing harbor, weaving our way along the paved docks between huge, oceangoing cargo ships, giant cranes dangling steel containers and finally, we’d arrive where the tall-masted fishing boats congregated. And there were the warehouses in which nearly all of Germany’s fresh fish was processed.

In one of the these big steel Quonset-hut-like warehouses, we’d walk between long paint-peeling tables of crushed ice into which was tucked that morning’s bounteous catch – heavy sea bass, giant flat flounders and long black eels, mackerels and tunas and many other fishes I never knew the names of. And in our noses, the glorious, warm aroma of frying. Understand that in Bremerhaven, the weather was most often bitterly cold, wet and windy, so this homey scent alone was like the lilting call of a siren.

There was always a small crowd there at the lunch hour – rough-looking foreign sailors, wiry longshoremen and men in neat European business suits, hausfraus and giggling teenagers, sea captains and secretaries. Because there, at the very back of the warehouse was a small kitchen made up of cauldron-like deep fat fryers, mounds of potatoes and the iced, fresh filets of several different varieties of fish. And with our mouths watering we’d order … wait for it … fish and chips.

I don’t know what they made their batter from, but to this day I have never tasted deep fried battered fish filets as good as those were. I’m sure part of the deliciousness was because of the sheer freshness of the fish. Over the years I tried nearly all the different kinds of fish they offered, and ended up loving the flounder most of all. You paid your Deutschmarks and the stout, scowling woman behind the counter handed you a paper boat filled with crunchy fish filets cooked just that moment, and deep fried, thick-sliced potatoes so hot they were still sizzling. I always had to wait for a while for the food to cool a little before I could bite into it, but oh, my. If there’s a heaven, I just know the main meal of the day will always be fish and chips from Bremerhaven’s Fischeraihafen.

This is turning into a gastronomical trip down memory lane, but my point here again is that the portions, both of the fish and the chips, were extremely generous, far more than you’d get even today at your local Long John Silver’s here in the States. And no one has fried anything with lard here since the 70s.

I don’t eat that way anymore. These days, in my constant battle against tubbiness, I eat mounds of fresh vegetables, salads and portions of grilled fish or chicken breasts “the size of a pack of cards.” Nothing is ever, God forbid, breaded or battered. I eat brown rice and whole grain pasta and bread, and very, very rarely indulge in sweets of any kind. And when I go out to eat, I generally order that grilled chicken Caesar or the tilapia fillet with broccoli. There’s always plenty, but it astounds me to think that my European counterparts would consider it overindulgent. I guess since I don’t get to indulge like I used to anymore, I wouldn’t really know.

But it sure is fun to remember.

Note: The photo is of a fish and chip shop in Bremerhaven's Fischeraihafen that looks very familiar, but wayyyyy upgraded since I last visited so many years ago.

1 comment:

Bubs said...

You've made me incredibly hungry now.

You're right about the portion size, btw. All our friends from Ireland comment on it when they visit.