“The great curse of American food culture
is that we have no food culture.”  —Chef Dan Barber

In 1984, when I arrived in these United States, pastel neon,
in the dream pastiche desert of Olympics-fisted Los Angeles,
I wanted my first meal to be a hamburger, drenched in tomato—
not banana—ketchup, squeezed between white sesame seed
buns, not pan de sal, Filipino morning roll eaten sweetly
any time of the day. That had to wait. On arrival in a town
called Bell I was served rice under pork-chicken adobo,
and the rest of my first week a feast as if I’d never left:
pancit garnished with shredded veggies for longevity;
oxtails, pork hocks, calves feet bisque in peanut butter
sauce; pig stewed in shrimp paste; bitter melon, chayote,
achiote. The women lived practically in the kitchen, how
things had not yet changed, my grandmother chopping,
stir-frying, frying, boiling, steaming, mashing, melodious
sounds that carry the bewildering loneliness of a foreign
home momentarily out of doors. Since the table was not
big enough, we ate together scattered throughout the
two-bedroom-one-bath house shared by three families.
On mats on the floor, we children loved sleeping side-
by-side, hotdogs rotating on a carnival seller’s grill. But I
was growing impatient, the fast food that would transform
me into an American I hadn’t ingested, a kind of superhero
pill. Until my first day of school in my 7th grade cafeteria
where I was served a round patty of compressed meat,
boiled, charred, yawning open-faced next to curly potatoes
glowing a cartoon meteorite orange. I could not contain
my joy, I tore and poured on packets of ketchup, discarded
the wilted iceberg like fabric softener, clamped the hamburger
between my shaky hands and chomped momentously into
my first taste of America. Salty, starchy, chewy beginning
to a lifetime consumption, powdered with sugar, melted
as margarine, deep fried, blue-dyed, iced over, Jell-oed,
marshmallowed, popcorned, bite-sized, on-the-run.