McPerspective

By Keith Dixon

Essay

The saddest aspect of the many sad aspects of xenophobia is that it’s essentially a plagiarized hatred—a copycat hatred borrowed from someone else, from something one has read or heard—and therefore a failure of the imagination. Xenophobia, after all, simplifies rather than complicates, by reducing individuals to types.

I haven’t suffered much from it—the reason being that I’m terrified of air travel and don’t often get far enough from home to be regarded as a suspicious foreigner. The relative isolation does, however, leave me less capable of persevering in those moments when I do experience garden-variety foreigner-hatred—still, I’m embarrassed to admit how easily I folded some years ago, one afternoon in Copenhagen.

I was traveling alone that day and hadn’t a word of Danish to get around, but I made my best effort, shopping along Stroget all morning with my phrasebook at the ready, stepping into a casual bistro around noon for lunch with an effusively polite Taler du engelsk?

The waiter made it crystal clear that he did speak English. He did this by stating, in bored English, “I’ll deal with you later.” Then he seated the Danish party who’d come into the restaurant behind me.

Not the most auspicious beginning. Maybe it’s a Danish thing—seat individual diners last. Or something. I might as well stick.

I waited. For a very long time. So long, in fact, that I began to read the menu. Which was in Danish. Oksekød, I’ll bet that’s good. And I’m sure the vildt kød, whatever it is, is dynamite here.

It wasn’t until the waiter strode past me and out through the front door, where he proceeded to smoke a cigarette while watching me levelly through the window, that I realized what was happening. He wasn’t just telling me to wait. He was telling me to get lost.

And then the xenophobia began doing its xenophobia thing: to help myself cope with having been marginalized, I began marginalizing him.

The food probably sucks, anyway. And it’s just knee-jerk snobbery—you’re a “stupid American” in his eyes. He’ll probably do an impression of you for his friends later tonight, employing a southern accent and moseying around the apartment with his index fingers raised like six-guns, saying Tail-er doo engulsk? Tail-er doo engulsk?

The waiter’s position on the matter was, in many ways, the understandable one—after all, he’d taken the time to learn my language, while I hadn’t taken the time to learn his. Yet my only true crime was in having decided that his home was so fascinating a place that I had to visit it.

Now, the motivational speakers among us suggest that in such moments what you must do is this: you must climb back on the horse that threw you, you must master the moment before it masters you, etc. & etc. Move to the next restaurant down the street and try again.

That’s exactly what I didn’t do. Because I was feeling pissed off. Because I was feeling alienated and scared and marginalized and hungry. You don’t want me to eat your food? Fine, I won’t eat your food. So what did I do? I did the worst possible thing, something even worse than skipping a meal in a European capital. Reader: I went to McDonald’s.

What kills me is that it was a long walk, getting there—and one thing Danes like to do is eat outdoors, in the fresh air, at round tables graced with tiny espresso cups and tall glasses of wheat-colored beer. Which means that during that long walk to eat corporate American food, I passed table after table of Danes eating wonderful Smørrebrød—I knew it was wonderful because I’d eaten plenty of it myself on that trip, simple fried fish laid over a slice of heavy, dark rye bread, served with nothing but a wedge of lemon to squeeze over the top and some butter to brighten the bread, the fish so fresh you knew it had been swimming somewhere off the coast yesterday. I could have had that. Instead I pushed through the glass doors of the golden arches, there to confront the decidedly less inviting scent of boiling grease.

Appropriately enough, while I have vivid memories of the other wonderful meals I ate on that vacation—a hangar steak I carved up at midday beside the sparkling black water of the Nyhavn canals; a venison chop I devoured in a barn that stood in the shade of a castle—I have no memory whatsoever of what I ate that afternoon at McDonald’s.

What I am left with, instead, is not the memory of a meal, but an impression of a junk-type of meal—the burger, the fries. I could have had a plate of Smørrebrød while sitting outside with an excellent beer in a handsome square. Instead I ate corporate swill from a plastic tray. It’s my own fault. This is what failures of the imagination are, both at the table and elsewhere: crimes committed against experience.

Smørrebrød

1 egg

¼cup flour

¼ cup cornmeal

¼ cup panko or other bread crumbs

½ pound sole fillets

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 slices dark rye bread

2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

2 wedges of lemon

1. Preheat the broiler. Place the egg on a plate and stir with a fork. On another large plate, combine the flour, cornmeal and panko. Dredge the sole in the egg, then the flour mixture until well coated. Set aside. Lightly toast the bread slices under the broiler, then divide onto two plates.

2. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When the oil shimmers, gently slide in the breaded fillets and fry, without moving, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip and brown for 3 more minutes.

3. Spread 1 tablespoon butter on each slice of toasted bread, then top the bread with a piece of breaded fish. Serve immediately, with a wedge of lemon alongside.

Yield: 2 servings.

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KEITH DIXON is the author of two novels, Ghostfires and The Art of Losing. In May 2011, Crown will publish his memoir-cookbook Cooking for Gracie, based on food-writing first published in The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica, and his daughters Grace and Margot, and spends much of his free time wishing he had more free time.

You can learn more about Keith's books, and read excerpts of his writing, at readkeithdixon.com.

18 responses to “McPerspective”

  1. dwoz says:

    Go easy on that waiter…

    Likely, the very small postcard hidden in his pocket that he’d just received from yet another publisher, was far too thin and small to carry any message longer than “Tak, men vi er ikke interesseret.” It would be joining it’s many far-too-thin brethren in his writing desk drawer at home later that day.

    Naturally, that anger would be taken out on a young, obviously successful, obviously published traveler obviously looking for experiences to write about.

    That had to hurt like salt burnished into a cut.

  2. Jude says:

    So that’s why there’s always so many Americans populating the McDonalds in far-flung countries.

    Reminds me of a time when I was in Paris. We were staying at a camping ground, and when making our booking, I decided to try my minimal knowledge of the French language out on the guy behind the counter. He looked like he was having real trouble understanding me, so I just kept talking, saying things slowly and consulting my phrase book. Just at the point where I thought it was a lost cause, he gave me a beautiful smile and in his very best English language replied to me. Wasn’t sure to be cross or grateful!

    Love the recipe – will try it out.

    • Keith says:

      hope you enjoy the recipe, jude — in my experience, people in foreign cities truly appreciate it when americans try their best to speak the language — that’s probably the reason the guy behind the counter gave you a smile!

  3. Joe Daly says:

    Great piece! Sorry you had such a challenging experience there- I’ve had pretty good luck in Denmark, having worked in Copenhagen and spent a lot of time visiting there. I’d love to know what bistro this happened in, as I’m sure I’ve passed it many times. Most have been pretty friendly, but yeah, you’ll get presumptuous d-bags like that guy who took his bad day and low self esteem out on a well intentioned, polite tourist.

    I can’t go to Copenhagen without a meal at La Sirena, in Nyhavn. I know, I know- Italian food in Denmark. Still, it’s always hot, fresh, flavorful, and the guys who work there are terribly good natured.

    Good on you for speaking Danish to them. They complain when you don’t and they dismiss you when you do. Rock on!

    • Keith says:

      joe, i had one of the best meals of my life in nyhavn — sunny day right on the water, the hangar steak i talk about in the piece. interestingly, a) i understand that eating beef is a new thing in denmark, that they prefer to use cattle for milk instead and b) the steak had a sort of vinegar-dill sauce? the dill was what really threw me — yet it worked. sort of like a scandinavian chimmichurri sauce.

      • Joe Daly says:

        There’s such a great energy in Nyhavn. I’ve stayed at Hotel D’Angleterre a few times, and they have a restaurant in the lobby that is off the charts. When I was there last summer it had changed names, but I remember it as Wiin. Anyway, though I’m now vegetarian (hence the love of Italian food), I was working there about ten years ago and had dinner at Wiin. I got the peppersteak, which saw the chef wheel a cart to our table and prepare the meal in front of me. One of the top two meals I’ve ever eaten. My girlfriend got the gravad lax, and the waiter stood behind her with the fresh salmon, dusted with a bit of dill, on a long table behind her, and whenever she’d finish the salmon on her plate, he’d slice a bit more on and serve it back to her. It was a fantastic dining experience.

        I wish I could find a veggie use for your recipe. Keep ’em coming!

  4. Zara Potts says:

    There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark alright…

    I so would have wanted to smack that waiter while he had his cigarette.

    Nice piece, Keith. I enjoyed it.

  5. Joe Hoefler says:

    I just moved to Copenhagen from the states a month ago. Luckily I have not run into any douche bags like you did. I love eating the many different types of smørrebrød. You can put anything on rye! I’m in week 4 of Dansk lessons and getting better every day but learning to speak Danish is definitely not an easy task!

  6. nancy Dixon says:

    I worked at a restaurant in my younger days and I would have been fired for treating a customer like that waiter treated you. Mr. Bailey, my boss and restaurant owner, taught me that the “customer is always right” so be nice to him or her.

  7. Marni Grossman says:

    Keith- I loved this piece.

    I do have a confession to make. During the semester I spent abroad in Israel, I ate at McDonald’s on a semi-regular basis. Not because I was afraid to go to Israeli restaurants. I ate more than my fair share of falafel. Rather, I was so excited to be able to eat meat at McDonald’s (all the meat in Israel is kosher) that I just couldn’t get enough of their crispy chicken sandwich. I felt guilty every time, but there you are.

    • Keith says:

      marni, we all need to confess our sins now and then — besides, a girl can’t live on falafel alone. thanks for having a read!

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    The important question is, did you walk past the restaurant window, eating the burger with every sign of enjoyment?

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