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Saturday, Sept. 30, 2006


Look what they've done to my food, Ma

It is a marriage made in hell's kitchen.

Meet the groom -- Mr. American Cuisine. Don't snicker at his name. For he is sensitive and quick to remind you that his linage includes the likes of clam chowder and lobster, roast turkey and apple pie, baked beans and hominy grits, plus jambalaya and other zesty Creole delights. He is not amused when people categorize him as a Happy Meal mix of cheeseburgers, hot dogs and french fries. Yet instead of a tux, he is dressed in the garb of a pizza delivery boy.

Meet the bride -- Ms. Japanese Innovation. She wears a sparkling gown of gizmos, gadgets and good ideas. She's got an old Walkman clipped to her waist, a Tamagotchi dangling from her neck, a digital camera in one hand and a Game Boy in the other, and might even have an endoscope up her end -- except typically that's not where those contraptions go. She also has yen signs flashing in both her eyes.

The fruit of this union can only be one thing: junk food with a Japanese wrinkle. Did I say "wrinkle"? Oops. Sorry, I meant "wraparound scar."

Listen, I am not enamored with junk food. It's just that, as an American, I take special pride in my country's contributions to world cuisine. And when it comes to providing chemically souped pseudo-nourishment, we Americans are undoubtedly the best thing since sliced bread -- processed, of course. Is America the greatest food land on Earth? Well, if your standards are Twinkies, Corn Curls and Cap'n Crunch, the question need not even be asked. As for obesity, clogged arteries, cavities, diabetes and hyperactivity -- America's belched response can only be this: Bring 'em on!

And -- OK -- I admit it. There are times when my body -- or maybe it is my American soul -- just craves junk food. It seems that something in my youth has altered my DNA and twisted it into tiny spirals of jelly beans. I have moments when I not only step through the Golden Arches, I storm through, shrieking with glee. There are clerks who can testify to this. They have seen my throbbing veins and felt my hot breath pouring upon their faces as I clutch their throats and rasp, "Please, please, supersize me!"

Yet on the whole, I think junk food is garbage.

Off the whole, I wish Japan would leave American junk food where it belongs -- in American hands. Japanese versions are sort of like kitchen-fare Godzillas, unholy creations from the imaginative depths of a perverted gastronomic sea.

Besides, Japanese have their own junk food. We don't see American meddling with that, do we? We do not find Cup Nachos or lasagna-don or revolving bars where each approaching platter holds another bulging quarter-pounder dripping with cheese. No, we live by the finer motto of "When in Rome, eat what the Romans eat. And if you're gonna copy it, don't mess it up."

Have Japanese innovators "messed up" good ol' American junk food? I give you one word: shrimpburger.

Or how about potato croquet burger? Or breaded pork cutlet with shredded cabbage burger? Or rice burger? Or even that old standby, the teriyaki burger? Hey! Whose cuisine is this?

Granted, most Japanese fast food shops have the usual ripoff menus of any such shop anywhere. Also granted, some Japanized mishmashes are fairly good, with yumminess ratings ranging anywhere from "Acquired taste" to "No, no, I don't need a bag, thank you, just shove it in my mouth as is."

But that's beside the point. The point is that the quality of American junk is being subverted. And from within our very own food offerings.

And it gets even worse when it comes to pizza.

Pizza! The very food of the gods! Mother Nature, Santa Claus and pizza -- there are some things people just don't dare mess with. Yet besides the usual pepperoni and cheese types of selections, what kinds of toppings do we find upon Japanese pizzas?

We find eggplant, that's what. And then mayonnaise. Followed by potato pizza, corn pizza and, of course, broccoli pizza. (Could this be what made the older President Bush upchuck on the prime minister?)

And it goes on. Egg pizza. Curry pizza. Asparagus pizza. Parsley pizza. Bean sprout pizza. And pizza with french fries on top.

Lest we forget the various seafood entries . . . Shrimp pizza. Tuna pizza. Crab pizza. Seaweed pizza. And my personal all-time to-be-avoided-absolutely-no-matter-what nonfavorite: squid pizza. (Please excuse me while I spit.)

Something about this registers as almost evil. Or at the very least un-American. With those two terms -- "evil" and "un-American" -- seemingly synonymous under the current White House.

Isn't the idea of Japanese innovation to make products better? I mean, shouldn't we at least end up with thicker, richer cholesterol, juicier layers of fat and ionosphere-high levels of sodium? Why, some Japanese twistings can make American junk food appear almost healthy. And doesn't "healthy" defeat the entire purpose of junk food?

For junk food can't just taste good. It has to be bad for you. Plus, if at all possible, it should have the messy potential to slide down and ruin your very best shirt. That's the American way.

Naturally, the real Japanese angle here is money. The food has been deboned of its American core to make it more marketable for the Japanese diet.

For Japanese have their own take on that time-honored saw, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach." They say, "The way to a man's wallet is through his stomach," and restaurateurs know people here don't want American food that tastes like American food. They want American food that tastes like Japanese food. In food-loving Japan, what people pay for most are the flavors closet to home.

So what a marriage, huh. Yet, as they say, opposites do attract. Or in this case collide. And what wild and fiendish combination will come out next?

I gain weight just thinking about it.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com

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