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United States of America (USA) - Food and Drink

The system of sales tax in the US can be confusing to newcomers, because it is a state tax rather than federal tax which is added to the cost of products purchased at the point of sale. With the exception of petrol, the price you see is not the price you will normally pay; the amount of tax levied will depend on where the purchase is being made and the item being paid for. So whilst some states will make basic foodstuffs free of tax in the the supermarket, the medicines or alcohol you have picked up will have an additional cost added at the till. The alcohol consumed in one restaurant will be taxed at the end of a meal at a higher rate than the same drink consumed at a meal eaten in a different state, or the restaurant meal itself is taxed at a higher rate than at the state next door.

Eateries across the US will serve food, snacks and drinks in larger portions than Europeans are used to. The food will often be sweeter and contain high levels of fat. Eating on the go with the widespread presence of drive-thru lanes for fast food outlets encourages snacking of high calorie food. As a result more than one third of US adults are obese, and a further third are overweight. 1 in 6 children are thought to be obese.

Conversely, many people have embraced active lifestyles of exercise before work and careful consumption of calorie controlled foods. This has led to a movement of health-conscious food chains, delis and restaurants which often reject modern farming and production processes in favour of organic and additive free foods sold at a premium price. Consumers in the US spend more than $12 billion having approximately 16 million cosmetic procedures performed each year; diet is an important part of life for the body conscious American.

Most eating habits in the US will be familiar to European expats, although there are small differences. Polite use of the fork in the UK requires the tines to be face down; in the US this is an illogical use of a utensil designed to shovel food. The widespread presence of wine at European meals meant Disney’s ban on alcohol in their parks, which had been no problem in the US, reduced customer visits to Disneyland Paris; Disney changed the rules in 1993 to accommodate cultural expectation and allow the serving of wine and beer in the restaurants.

Breakfast in the US is usually taken between 7am and 10.30am, although at the weekend many families enjoy a later brunch. Omelettes, pancakes, cereal and toast will be the normal food eaten at home. When eating at a cafe or hotel, a choice will be offered which is bewildering to many Europeans visiting the US for the first time, as a whole array of bread, egg and topping options are offered.

At the weekends, brunch will be regularly offered in cafes between 10am and 3pm, especially in urban areas. The offerings will be a wider choice and combination of lunch and breakfast items. Cocktails such as a bloody Mary will often be available.

Lunch is usually a more modest meal than the evening dinner, usually taken between midday and 2pm, although cafes and restaurants will generally offer longer serving hours. Soup, sandwiches and salads are popular choices.

Dinner will be the most substantial meal of the day for many families. Weekday dinner is eaten much earlier than in Europe, starting at 5pm or 6pm. By 9pm many restaurants will be empty, especially in more rural areas, although at the weekend many people choose to eat a little later. There have been reports suggesting families at home are eating slightly later as parents work longer hours, and there are regional differences in normal eating times, though most families have finished dinner by 8.30pm.

The variety of food on offer reflects the history of the US as a country to a diverse range of immigrants, who have adapted their diet to their new home.

Burgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, onion rings, steaks and fries are popular. Biscuit and gravy is a normal accompaniment to many meals. Seafood is popular, especially close to coastal areas, and offers a diner everything from crawfish, barbequed crabs, cajun spiced platters, fried catfish, to mussels. Homemade soups and salads - many containing flavoursome and exotic ingredients - are widely available for a light lunch or healthy alternative.

Pizza is widely available, in astonishingly large sizes, and is not limited to Italian restaurants. In larger cities you may find restaurants and cafes offering wholewheat, gluten free and vegetarian pizzas, which may be next door to cafes serving organic and macrobiotic foods.

In Texas and other states in the Midwest, barbeque and grilled food has developed into a food tradition in the long hot, dry summers. Brisket, smoked sausage, corny dogs on a stick, fried Peanut Butter and Jelly (PB&J) sandwiches, fried wings and waffles are some of the iconic, if rather unhealthy, meals and snacks frequently consumed.

Across the US Mexican food is a popular favourite. Tacos, burritos and enchiladas are readily available in most towns. Margaritas started as an accompaniment to Mexican food and has become a popular drink in its own right.

Cuban food, with its distinctive meats forming the centre of sandwiches and main meals, is widely available in areas where there are high levels of Cuban residents, such as Miami on the eastern coast of Florida.

Chinese and Japanese, or ‘Asian’ food, is popular especially in city locations such as New York or San Francisco. Noodles, sushi, shiitake mushroom dumplings with blue cheese sauce or wild boar, Thai curry or takeout boxes will vary in availability across the country. Newcomers from both Europe and Eastern countries will often order food that they consider familiar but find that they taste very different. The fortune cookies, slowly becoming a feature of Chinese restaurants in the UK, have long formed the end of an chinese meal in the US.

Indian food does not currently have the presence it does on every UK high street, but it is slowly growing in popularity. Areas outside big cities will offer a limited choice of Indian restaurants. A surprising addition is the dessert menu.

Banana splits are a popular dessert, as are cheesecakes, apple pie, carrot cake and brownies. Jelly is called Jell-O.

The US has an impressive offering of ice cream in many locations, both in terms of the size of the portion and for the range of varieties on offer. There will often be a list of toppings available. Supermarket freezers will also provide a wide choice of brands and flavours of ice cream to suit every pocket.

Chips (the same item the UK calls crisps) are a popular snack, along with tortilla chips and a range of nuts. Cookies and cupcakes are a succulent sweet treat. Donuts can be obtained from park vendors, donut shops, coffee shops and supermarkets in most areas.

The age at which alcohol can be served will vary between states and will often be illegal for anyone under the age of 21, with alcohol awareness courses ordered for those found guilty of breaking the state laws. Generally, however, alcohol forms part of daily life in society and will be widely available for sale. The US has been instrumental in creating and developing alcohol support and rehabilitation groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) which assists rehabilitating alcoholics through their well respected 12 step program. Given the national reliance on private cars as a form of transport in all but big cities, it is useful to check the drink-driving limits if the state you are travelling in.

Domestic beer can vary from the nationally popular Bud, Coors or Miller brands which are available in every bar and supermarket, to the microbreweries of small desert towns which will serve large plates of food as you sample the craft beer created (often with chilli, berries or other interesting twists) on that very site.

Wine is produced in the US but it is not drunk as widely as beer. It can be surprisingly expensive compared to the price of US wine paid in the UK, especially as some states have high added taxes for alcohol purchases.

Milkshakes are widely available, in a variety of flavours. Cookies and Cream, Mallow Creams, Blackberry Shakes, Key Lime Pie Shake and Chocolate Chip Shakes are some of the interesting flavours you may come across. A soda float is a thirst quenching alternative to milkshakes, but plain sodas are the most frequently purchased drink across the US and can be purchased at almost every location with a till or ‘register’.

Coffee is a popular drink for adults and available in most homes, workplaces, leisure spaces and cafes. Europeans will traditionally enjoy a cup of coffee after a meal, but as this is not a normal practice in the US the waiting staff will often present the bill straight after the food has been cleared away.

Consumption of caffeine by children is disapproved of, supported by a number of medical studies. However, caffeine is an ingredient in a range of energy drinks, some sodas, caffeinated water and caffeinated gum.

Ice tea is popular but will often be very different to the Liptons’ Iced Tea familiar to Europeans, especially if it is served in a jug rather than a bottle. Hot teas are usually served as fruit teas; if you wish to have tea as traditionally served in the Uk you will have to be specific about the type of tea - suggesting Ceylon or Assam - and asking for milk.

The USA Food and Drug administration and The Consumer Product Safety Commission assesses the safety of all items imported, produced or sold for human consumption. The list of products which are banned from import or sale includes:

• Kinder Eggs; the plastic toy in the centre is deemed a choking hazard
• Italian meats; except those slaughtered and produced in the US
• Haggis; the specific addition of essential ingredient sheep’s lungs is illegal
• Absinthe; an alcoholic drink only legally available if the amount of wormwood is insignificant
• Pig’s Blood Cake; a Taiwanese delicacy made of rice and pig’s blood, served on a stick
• Sassafras Oil; traditionally used to flavour root beer, this substance caused cancer in lab rats
• Fugu; the Japanese puffer fish, most of which is poisonous to humans
• Pommac; the champagne flavoured soft drink which contains the sweetener Sodium Cyclamate
• Four Loko; the mix of alcohol and caffeine led to the ban, although many other brands with similar caffeine additions are available

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