ROBERT ST. JOHN: Wrapping up our European journey

By Robert St. John

This will be the final column in the Eating Europe wrap-up series. Before I departed in August, much of Europe was a mystery to me. I wasn’t a victim of the-grass-is-greener syndrome; I just had a healthy curiosity. As I look back over the time we spent throughout the continent, I catch myself turning it into a Europe vs. United States thing.
After spending six months in 17 countries, I feel as if I have a reasonable understanding of the cultural and culinary attributes of the Europeans. And after 50 years on this continent, I have an excellent grasp of the situation here, too.
To my knowledge, there are no open cultural or culinary competitions between Europe and us. But in my head, there was a constant battle being fought as we made our way through the land.
I don’t drink coffee, but my wife is addicted. She gives the nod to Europe on this one, specifically Italy. Granted, neither Italy or the U.S. grow coffee beans, but it’s the coffee culture over there that puts them over the top.
Italians are serious about coffee. Their passion for life spills over into their passion for espresso. It’s everywhere. They take it so seriously that a journalist friend in Milan told me the government installed a price cap on a shot of espresso and no business can charge more than one euro for a shot.
I never saw a drive-through coffee stand in Italy. Nice. In the morning they stand up and take a shot of espresso, eat a small pastry and then move along on their way. There are espresso machines in convenience stores and the most humble bar.
Historical sites
This is an area where Europe has it all over us, but it’s an uneven playing field. Their history begins 2,000 years ago, even farther back than that in many areas. We’ve got what, a couple of hundred years? Plus we’re just not very good at preserving our history. Mark that one in the European column.
Sports cars and luxury cars
Again, give the nod to Europe. But that’s an area of which I have no interest, so they can have it.
I no longer drink, but I’m around it enough at our restaurants, and we have a 900-label award-winning wine list at both Purple Parrot Café and Crescent City Grill. Our sommelier, and a devout Francophile, Dusty Frierson, says, “There’s a lineage in Europe that is hard for the U.S. to compete against. However, the wine industry in America has grown at a rate in the last 30 years that shows potential for us to become the epicenter of the wine world.” It’s close, but that would be a lean towards Europe. Give us 10 to 20 more years and we’ll be on top.
Whereas we were warned about the rudeness of many Europeans, that never materialized. We found that if one is polite and makes an attempt to communicate, most of the people are warm and welcoming.
We made lifelong friends in Milan and in Tuscany, and they are among the nicest, most intelligent and passionate people I have ever met.
Yet, here in the U.S. – especially in the South, more specifically in Mississippi, the Hospitality State, we win hands down. End of discussion. Chalk a big one up on our side of the ledger. The American people are what keeps us at the top of the heap.
Just a few decades ago, if one wanted to operate a fine-dining restaurant in America, he had to hire a French chef to man the stoves. That’s not the case anymore. Today, I feel as if America’s fine dining restaurants – on the whole – are better than those of Europe. We are leading the world.
They’ve got us on the local thing, but it’s starting to catch on here, too. Some of the best fruits and vegetables I have ever eaten were in Tuscany, but we are catching up fast. We need more local markets selling locally grown foodstuffs.
Nevertheless, I would give the nod to the U.S. We are diverse. We have three oceans from which to draw massive amounts of sea foods unique to each of those bodies of water. Our heartland grows enough grain to supply the world. Between Florida citrus and California produce we have got those areas covered. I never ate a piece of beef over there as good as an average cut of beef over here. Winner: U.S.
Sure, there’s an Autobahn over there, but this is still a lopsided category win for us. We can complain about the conditions of our highways and city streets, but compared to Greece and many other countries, we are driving on streets lined with gold.
No question, the U.S. wins hands down. People here, on average, are more industrious. The Germans are productive and the Swiss are efficient, but the American work ethic is something that one doesn’t appreciate until you see the other side of the fence.
On all levels, service is more friendly and efficient in the U.S.
This shouldn’t even be up for discussion. Most music we heard over there was American music. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European composers produced world-class and monumental works that will last for centuries to come. But the 20th century was ours, though one would have to give a nod to the British Invasion of the 1960s (but most of that was inspired by American rock and roll and blues).
I was told by a Spanish friend that Spain had to pass a law designating a substantial portion of music played on their radio stations be mandated Spanish music, because their airwaves were being dominated by U.S. popular music. Big win: U.S.
closer to ‘one world’
I hope this doesn’t read as a negative column. It’s not meant to sway anyone in one direction or the other. I actually feel a little funny even writing about the subject. I love Europe. I will return many times during my lifetime. In these days of Internet connectability, our differences are becoming fewer every day as we slowly morph into that “One world” Bob Marley dreamed about.
Though there is a reason my son and I kissed the ground after stepping off the plane in Atlanta. And I’m grateful we were routed through Atlanta and not Chicago, Boston or New York. America is exceptional, but the American South is the best. I am so grateful we made the journey. It was a life-changing experience for the four of us, but there is truly no place like home.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.

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