Why do Americans have a vastly different idea about how much food is enough? Here is me searching for the answer.
Medium, Large, Humongous
Despite having lived in the US and having visited a couple of times since then and theoretically at least being aware of this discrepancy, I again fell into the trap during my last stay: I went to a pizzeria and, being quite hungry, ordered a “large” pizza.
What arrived was far more than what I had expected, as the pizza came with the diameter of a spare tire. Despite my best efforts at not letting perfectly good food go to waste, I couldn’t manage it. Three slices before the goal I had to give up.
Had I ordered the same “large” size here in Germany, what I’d have received would have been 1 to 2 inches smaller and perfectly within my size expectations.
And it goes far beyond pizza. The typical German household’s fridge could easily hide inside its American counterpart. The stove you see in most US kitchens is 30 inches wide, where in Europe the most commonly used width is 24 inches – put the average European pot on an American stove, and it looks a bit lost. A “small” soft drink bought in a European fast food restaurant has 8 1/2 fl. oz., where in the US ordering this size gets you almost double the amount (16 fl. oz.). At McDonald’s US, the clueless European would even be surprised how much he gets when he orders a “child size” Coke: 12 fl. oz.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
The results of these different perceptions go on to reflect themselves in clothing sizes, where I can share another personal anecdote.
Taking advantage of low US prices for American brands, I bought a couple of t-shirts during my last stay, expressly asking the clerk at one store for the “S” sizes I couldn’t find. “You Europeans,” he remarked with a smile, “always buy all the small sizes.” Right he was, because an US “S” is a European “M” and a European’s “L” is the American’s “M.”
You could probably make a good buck opening an online market place where Americans and Europeans get to swap clothes they bought overseas without trying them on.
Why The Difference?
I wager that all this is connected to the number of calories consumed, but that doesn’t answer where these different perceptions come from. We mostly share the same cultural heritage, so what happened in the last 200 years that set us so far apart when it comes to the size of our food? For many Americans it is even less than those two centuries, as the last big waves of immigration were only about a 100 years ago. There aren’t more than four or five generations separating us.
One theory I have is about the structure of farmland in the United States and Europe. Where in Europe centuries of bequeathing farmland among sons split once large fields into ever smaller parcels, the colonization of the American continent gave life to gigantic farms with fields and pastures big enough to accommodate a Bavarian township and the land belonging to everyone around it. Working fields this large is way more effective, produces bigger harvests, which also sustains more livestock. And US farmers of course also honed their methods to produce even more output.
The downside is that sooner than later they may have run into overproduction. To combat it the choice may have been a price war, “educating” the US public to eat more or both.
You Tell Me
There you have it: my outside perspective of American eating habits and my theory about the why to go along with it. I’d be much interested to hear your point of view on this. My explanation is one, but not necessarily the right one.