Dreaming of a Velveeta Merry Christmas

By Brett Allan King
San Francisco Examiner, December 24, 2000

A greeting from Grandma is fine, but when sleigh
bells get to jingling, the American abroad may pine
for Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima more than anyone else
in the immediate family.

Spanish Rioja wine, Swiss chocolate and Italian
sfogliatelle may lure young palates across the
Atlantic, but when home tugs at the heartstrings,
inexplicable biological urges incite expatriate
Americans to crave peanut butter and jelly.

“Americans visiting the U S. are always going
with empty suitcases to bring stuff back,” observes
Dana Knowles, co-owner of Taste of America, a Madrid
specialty store dealing in the American kitchen.

Where madrileños saw a sparse array of Chinese,
North African and Latin American specialty stores
— not to mention a host of restaurants offering
imitation “American” cuisine — Knowles and partner
Alicia Vañó saw a gaping hole. They found a hungry
market among immigrants and tourists from the U. S.
— not to mention Spaniards with an affinity for things
truly American.

So what do Americans abroad miss most?
San Francisco sourdought? New England clam chowder?
Crawdads and file gumbo? If Taste of America is any
indication, the foods that define us as a nation are
Stove Top Stuffing, Coors beer, Kraft Macaroni &
Cheese Dinner, barbecue sauce, Pop—Tarts — and
that trailer court staple, Velveeta.

Whatever holiday they attach to their solstice, many
Americans inevitably see their culinary wanderlust
tempered with nostalgia for suburban kitchens and the
cooking at RJR Nabisco. As Sure as Trix are for kids,
even grown-ups must face up to their addiction to
deliciously all-American ingredients like high fructose
com syrup, potassium sorbate, xantham gum, calcium
propionate and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.

“Americans are elated to walk in and see so many
familiar products,” says Vañó as she puts the
final touches on a pyramid of Quaker Oats barrels.

Would—be emigrant chefs are used to preparing a “typical
American” dish for their friends abroad, but often with
apologetic explanations like “these are chocolate chip cookies;
normally they’d have chocolate chips in them.”

“No matter how good our jamón de jabugo might be,
Americans need other things,” says Vañó.“They say,
‘I’d gotten used to living without it, but it’s better to
live with it.’“

Hence, Crisco, pie pans, and cupcake fixings. Hence
measuring cups. No matter how integrated, Yanks who
measured their childhood in cups are not keen on whooping
it up with 28.4 Centiliters of yuletide cheer.

Some of the most popular items? Oreo cookies. Hersheys
Kisses. Brownies. In response to numerous requests, A.1.
sauce and cranberry juice soon joined the marshmallows,
graham crackers and frozen bagels on
Spanish shelves.

About a decade ago Knowles, an Arkansas native, moved
to Spain and married a Spaniard. She knew as too well the
frustration of canvassing foreign supermarkets in search
of impossible items like cranberry sauce for that
Christmas turkey.

When Vañó (a Spanish economist with years with various
retailersand several trips to the U.S.under her belt)
came up with the idea for an American ethnic food store,
Knowles jumped at it.

Sometimes it’s not just Americans who crave Stateside
staples. Many Europeans who have visited or lived in the
U S. sometimes become nostalgic for such lackluster fare as
macaroni & cheese.

“Peanut butter is what I most miss,” says Oswaldo Calvente,
the roof of whose mouth hasn’t been the same since a
two-month American road trip in 1993.

“Tenemos crunchy y creamy,” yells Vañó in Spanglish.

“I don’t know this brand,” he says, picking up a jar of Jif,
“I know Skippy.”

He also misses that cheese in a jar. “Cheez Whiz?”
His eyes light up.

“Yeah, that’s it!”

Purists would argue that this does nothing for the European
stereotype that the North American diet consists entirely
of greasy hamburgers and Coca-Cola. Continental commentaries
on American cuisine would inspire some to rethink their
opposition to chemical weapons.

“I thought the same thing (until going to the US), but
came back saying ‘you’re all wrong,’” says Vañó emphatically.
Her husband went to the US. thinking he’d be condemned to a
repast of Big Macs and crappy pizza but returned to Spain
with his stocking stuffed by the variety in the U.S.

Is this a testing ground for more American products? You
can bet your Hickory Farms cheese sampler.

“We’ve thought it all out and we’ve got big plans,” says Vañó.

“Think franchise.”

Another Spaniard is attracted by the red, white and blue sign
and walks down into the ethnic food store. Little, does he know
he’s been set up for a blind date with Betty Crocker.

Copyright by Brett Allan King and/or publication in which story first appeared
Do not reprint without permission

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