Although they do not have colonies proper, there can be no doubt that America is an empire. Food is part of that, and our palates in Australia reflect the soft power reaches of the Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Kansas City tastemakers.  One need only look at the lure of In-N-Out Burger, whose pop-ups here have drawn adoring crowds in a spectacle of salivating desire.

But America is a colony too, has a colonial history before it exported its Coca Cola, its Big Mac, its Kentucky Fried Chicken. When it comes to food, France has been the biggest influence on American cooking. You might point out the melting pot in the south-west with the former lands of Mexico now mingling with America. But I am talking about empire and the palate as it is constituted in big cities, especially on the East Coast. Both America and France seem to be a rejection of Britain, and even those New England Boston Brahmins have clam chowder and not only boiled vegetables and bone broth. If the French have exerted an inestimable influence on America from Alexis du Toqueville to Marquis de Lafayette to the Louisiana Purchase to the Statue of Liberty to French fries, it lives on now in dishes, restaurants and bourgeois holidays to Paris in August.

What brought France and America together was not only a rejection of the British, but a shared revolutionary heritage. However, their revolutions are something distinct, with France perceiving itself to have a tradition to uphold; an empirical reality that means good taste is to be found in the palate of every citizen while America regards itself as exceptional and wholly new. However unenlightened the average Frenchman gets, he will always know how to dress a salad. The same cannot be said in America, notwithstanding that, at the top end, they are able to do it with the very best. Rather than excelling at delicate croissants, it is the processed donut that becomes the apotheosis of common taste in the US.

What all revolutions share however is a desire for the new, a reset button that marks a year zero and allows the people to re-boot. This is there in Paris to which one only needs to cite Adeline Grattard’s restaurant yamT’cha that fuses French and Cantonese into something wholly original. In the American case, this has meant the proliferation of new dishes and the re-working of flavours into distinct combinations. This comes about is in fusion food such as the celebrated Korean-Mexican.

And yet, French and American is the dominant fusion, at least when it comes to the meeting of cultures (rather than chefs and New World ingredients). It is there most explicitly in the dishes from New Orleans, but you can find it in other places and not only as Creole. If French has influenced American cuisine, what does something similar look like in Australia given that our reference point and our era is somewhat different? To think about this is not to highlight individual flavours that differ between Americans and us – how they like cinnamon gum, how we like vegemite, how they have squash, corn, pumpkin and we have kangaroo, emu, crocodile, how they like their pies sweet and we like them savoury. I do not think you can get to the essence of a thing by pointing out the particularities. What matters is the root of the cuisine, and while both places have Indigenous heritage that continues to matter, for the national palate we need to parse the difference between Puritans and Convicts.

Where one is righteous, the other is irreverent; where one is moral, the other is questionable; where one seeks religious freedom, the other seeks material liberation; where one is driven, the other seems relaxed. But by looking at these ideal types, these caricatures, the question of national character won’t be solved. What matters is how we have inflected American cuisine and made it our own, how we have innovated just like they did with French Dip.

So, consider the burger. David Chang is simply wrong about Australians having the worst hamburgers in the world. He makes this claim on very little evidence. To prove his point he cites of the use of tinned beetroot, canned pineapple, grated carrot. These might be typical ingredients, even vernacular, but they are not the only options you get here, not since brioche arrived in a big way. Australian burgers are not stuck in the 1950s at a roadside servo somewhere between Darwin and Dubbo. Today’s Australian burger is superior to America’s precisely because we get all options – you cannot even find that beetroot in America. This means we have more choice, something that Americans pride themselves on, to which you will need to know what kind of salad dressing you like before you order because they will give you a list as long as you like.

Between choice and tolerance, you get a fair idea of what counts as liberalism in America. These are values I imagine Chang subscribes to given he is a New Yorker and the other side of politics means voting for Donald Trump. Plus, Australians are now doing American style burgers as good as anyone on the coasts of the United States, maybe not as good as people in the heartland. But choice and mimesis is a start, and I have no doubt that our colonial desire to overturn the master can propel us beyond the horizon established so far.

The problem as I see it with burgers here is not specific ingredients despite the fact that Australia needs a better pickle game. It is that Australians tend to make junk food taste bourgeois. This does not mean it tastes worse, but there is a problem of gentrification. It never gets as dirty as in America – think chilli on a hot dog, cheese whizz in a can, the average all you can eat buffet in Las Vegas. Those things do not exist in Australia, which means you cannot reach the same pit of self-loathing and despair in quite the same way. That might be a good thing, but it also means we miss out on happy hour buffalo wings.

Gentrification, and with it, cultural appropriation, are major concerns for the middle class diner in America and Australia. That is where the concerns of empire find their internal motor. What happens to all the grit, the appeal, the ‘culture’ when aspirational hipsters take over working class, minority dominated enclaves? What happens to the food?

In my youth, I participated in that wave. I lived in West Philadelphia, being part of the frontier that moved into a black community from the centre that was the University of Pennsylvania. I could justify it by the rent I was paying, but in reflection, it seems possible to find cheap places to live that do not encourage encroachment (think of this as retrofitting the middle class with the bohemian). However, in West Philadelphia the lines were easily seen in the bar culture, of which there were three kinds– young, white, hipster; working class, middle aged African Americans; and Ethiopian and Eritrean men. I think I was too young to really make sense of what was going on, and I felt Australian, which gave me license to go and order Fosters in any establishment. Plus, I had been surrounded by dark skin since I was a child and it did not feel that different. In retrospect, that seems naïve, earnestly innocent and I have come to know my place a little better.

What often goes unsaid in conversations around gentrification (and appropriation), is how they reinforce the structural position of marginalised people and the power-privilege relationships we are used to. Minorities are routinely expected perform their dislike as though they were representatives for the group in question rather than as individuals who happen to be broadly similar. It can be a heavy burden for your only ethnic mate to speak on every matter about our borders. What that means is person X is simply ‘the Indian community member’ who will be framed as outraged at neighbourhood changes from the restaurants to the bars to the property prices. It then becomes an expectation that I will defend Indians from attacks, or police the boundaries of my culture in such a way that a special few can feel permitted to enter given my standing in the community and my authority in the wider world. But, it is about having the knowledge, empathy and imagination to respect what is good taste and to know that every problem can be answered with creativity.

Diners want to feel comfortable and be accepted in a world that is diverse. For me, cultures and cuisine benefit from being open rather than closed, from simply having a conversation, and we know as much because they thrive when people engage and interact. Restaurants close if you do not go to them. To my mind, it is a good thing if you want to come over for a chicken curry and then try to make it at home afterwards. It is innocent enough to want to understand different people and places, but we must respect rules of engagement and contribute to a future where everyone is truly welcomed. The future that we are making in Australia is one I am optimistic about, precisely because I think we can make burgers that are delicious, because we can make fried chicken without performing a kind of ‘blackface palate’, because we can transform Puritanical revolutionaries into activist communities that like the taste of wattleseed, desert lime and wallaby.

I see that here more in donut culture than I do in burgers, fried chicken or Southern barbeque. Donuts have a greater license for creativity, maybe because we are getting used to them as a new paradigm of innovation. At the crest of this wave is a range of flavours that are made for Australian taste in such a way that they speak back to the empire of Modern Americana. Donuts suit our collective lifestyle, and not only because they are not fast food in the same way burgers are, but because the bakery is an institution that matters in the history of Australia.

Donuts that I have seen recently include – jasmine, green tea, matcha; mocha, Tim Tam, s’more; hazelnut, walnut, maple; pumpkin, pineapple, crème brulee; blueberry, blackberry, mulberry, raspberry, strawberry, lingonberry, passionfruit, vanilla; trifle, honeycake, jaffa; white choc, peppermint, birthday, sprinkles, orange, lemon, mandarin, cinnamon. I have also seen lemon myrtle, russellberry and Gerladton wax, all of which are Indigenous flavours to this place. I could go on, but you get the idea. Quite simply, the entire world is here, in our donuts.

What should not be forgotten is that donuts are not only American, and, if anything, their empire only returns us to the world at large rather than isolating us further. Think here of churros, criollo, bomboloni, let alone the salty egg fried dumplings you get at yum cha. The burger might have our attention for now, but it is the donut where we might begin to re-discover something about ourselves and our place in the world that is a welcome return to what is possible.

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