TRADITIONAL — William R. Nylen’s mother-in-law, Teresa Cupertino, makes a batch of fried dough at her home in Sao Miguel do Anta, Minas Gerais, Brazil, where professor Nylen’s wife, Nize Nylen, grew up. William Nylen said he has given up cooking for his wife’s family.


Traveling about the world, as I’ve had the privilege to do throughout my adult life, I have realized that we, in the United States of America, have no real food “traditions.” And this is very good for us.

Think about it. For every major meal, most South Americans have beans and rice, Mexicans also have tortillas, Argentines have bread, Colombians and Venezuelans have arepas — the list goes on.

Italians have pasta. The French have bread and cheese. The Japanese and Chinese have rice. The British have … never mind what the British have.

In these countries, a meal without these traditional foods is simply not a meal.

What do U.S. of Americans have like that?


OK, most of us drink coffee in the morning. And some of us drink it all damn day long. So it’s close.

But is coffee really a “food”? Seriously, now.

By the way, just as an aside, really: If Coca-Cola is now making coffee-infused Coke, what is that? Is that a food? I’ll tell you what it is: amaaaaaaaazing!

But I digress.

I’ve tried to cook for my in-laws in Brazil. I don’t bother anymore. Whatever I cook, no matter how awesome it is or how amazing it looks, however long it may take for me to prepare it, if it doesn’t include beans, rice and yellow corn mush (polenta), they won’t eat it. They’ll wait until I retire from the kitchen in abject and utter defeat. Then someone will quietly cook some “real food.”

See what I mean when I say that not having food traditions is very good for us here in the U.S. of A.?

We’ll eat anything! Well, maybe not that latest fad of eating bugs and insects and spiders. No, we’re not insane! We have our limits.

Actually, come to think of it, it may be that “our limits” are our food traditions. We’ll do a lot of experimenting, lots of looking to tweak the recipes and the boundaries, lots of mixing and matching. But not with animal reproductive organs. Or bugs. Or bats.

Within these limits, though, there’s heaven to be found in the creative mixing and mingling of ingredients, some heretofore never combined on the same plate before!

California cuisine, Tex-Mex and — closer to home — fried pickles, fried Twinkies, chocolate-covered bacon. Bacon-covered anything!

Even flavored coffee (but, seriously, yuck).

And for being quite nationalistic about our “exceptional” exceptionalism in other parts of our lives (well, some of us, sometimes), in our foodie lives, we’ve adopted Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Greek, Indian, Cuban. In fact, we’ve appropriated and rebranded these foods as our own, while, at the same time, recognizing their cultural origins outside of the U.S.A.

How incredibly and literally multicultural of us!

Not being straitjacketed by tradition, we have been free to experiment, to mix and match, and to push our boundaries. Freedom from tradition allows our creativity to bust out and go to town. And we all get to benefit!

Within limits: No bugs, please.

Now, pass that 15-leaf and 12-bean salad over here. Yes, that one with the passion-fruit vinaigrette and the cocoa nibs. It goes great with these barbecued oxtails in lemon-mango sauce.

And don’t worry about the in-laws. Let them eat rice, beans and corn mush.

— Nylen is professor of political science and director of the International Studies Program at Stetson University. He has degrees from Columbia University, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the University of California at Berkeley. Nylen has lived in DeLand since 1992.


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