The World at Large

Moving to the US

Friday, October 06, 2006



I don't eat confectionery all that often, but I still indulge occasionally. Having a virus is a good reason to seek out some comfort food, so I had an excuse to get some the other day. While confectionery in Australia is usually "chocolate" or "lollies" (depending on type), it all gets called "candy" here, though chocolate is usually called "chocolate" like I'm used to.

The startling thing I've found about candy here is that over half of it is based on peanut butter. Butterfingers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Peanut butter M&Ms are all based on peanut butter. It's not just a few things, it's a pervasive theme.

Now I know the chocolate makes these things sweet, but I have to tell you that I don't enjoy eating a sweet chocolate and finding a pasty-and-slightly-salty interior. However, given the prevalence of this sort of chocolate, I have to assume it's a popular combination. At least I can still get Kit Kats, though you have to be careful not to get the peanut butter version of the Kitkat Chunky!

Most of this peanut butter fetish seems to be pushed by Hershey's. Almost all of the candy you'll find in the local corner store will be made by this one company, which probably explains why I feel swamped by peanut butter. It's probably a good thing, as it has discouraged me from eating chocolate in general.

Dairy Food

For some strange reason, dairy food as a whole seems to have some of the greatest differences here. I'll start with the one closest to my heart...

Ice Cream

As anyone who knows me can attest, I love ice cream. This accounts for my dedication to triathlons, as I'd quickly grow out of all my clothing without such strenuous exercise. I blame my father for demonstrating to me that it is OK to take a couple of spoonfuls directly from the freezer in the middle of the afternoon, much to my mother's horror. (It's not all Dad's fault. He doesn't eat it very often.)

There have always been lots of ice-cream shops in Australia, though many boutique places have sprung up in recent years. Aside from Baskin Robbins (often in the same establishment as Dunkin Donuts), I haven't seen too many places selling the stuff here. This may be because it gets so cold over Winter as to make such a business unviable, though the heat in Summer must certainly generate trade. Two exceptions I can think of are an Australian Ice Cream place near Millennium Park (I should check this out), and a place around the corner from where I live.

In Australia, the majority of ice creams seem to be based around fruit. There are mango ripples, boysenberry swirls, strawberry, peach, banana, lychee, and apricot creations. There are always the rich flavours of chocolates, caramels, and rum-and-raisin ice-creams as well, but the fruit ones seem to be in the majority (if only slightly). Strangely, the ice creams here are all about the rich flavours, while the lighter fruit flavours are practically unheard of.

There are always 3 or four varieties of chocolate, something in caramel, things with cookie-dough mixed in, pieces of cake, crumbled cookies, and the ubiquitous peanut butter. I've searched hard for something based in fruit, but usually the only options are strawberry or cherry. Maybe I need to develop my tastes, but I've always preferred lighter flavours. Besides, I can get a low fat ice-cream (or frozen yogurt) with cherries in it, but who ever hear of low fat "chocolate with peanut butter swirl"?


We recently attended a "garden party" where everyone was asked to contribute to the "pot luck". This is the American expression for what Australians refer to as "bring a plate". (I once knew an Irish girl whose mother was caught out by this, and brought a clean plate along to a barbecue. I don't think she ever lived down the embarrassment). Anne decided that the thing to do here was to bring a pavlova. I thought it was a great idea, as I'd get to eat some too. :-)

To make the filling I went down to the local supermarket to buy some cream for whipping. This was an exercise in frustration, and I quickly became convinced that the only cream you can buy in America is in a whipped cream spray can. You get these in Australia too, but there are normally only half a dozen cans of one brand at the end of the shelf near the 20 separate brands of cream, thickened cream, light-thickened cream, and double cream found in every dairy section. What I found here was a vast array of whipped cream spray cans, each advertising a different consistency or flavouring. It was only after an extensive search that I discovered pouring cream. They actually had 2 brands, with about 4 cartons of the small size, and 2 of the large size. Both were unmodified cream, meaning that there was no low-fat option. I haven't bought full-fat cream in years, but it wasn't an option. This seems very strange in the land of fat-free, low-carb, sugar-free, no-trans-fat everything.

Ever heard of "trans fat"? Neither had I, but apparently it's bad. Maybe it's "saturated fats", or possibly it's "bad cholesterol". Whatever it is, almost every snack food here proclaims that they have no trans-fat, or are low in it. I should find out, but I keep forgetting.

By the way, the pavlova was a big success. Much to Anne's surprise one woman looked over and exclaimed, "Who brought the pavlova?" Apparently this lady lived in Melbourne for a few years. I think she was the first to have a slice.


After finding some pickled onions in the World Market at the end of the block (a wonderful place where we can also get Vegemite, Bundaberg Ginger Beer, and Australian wafer crispbreads), I decided I'd like to have them with some sharp cheddar cheese (a great combination I was introduced to many years ago). To match pickled onions the cheese has to be very sharp, and quite crumbly. This proved to be elusive, but in the meantime I gained an appreciation of American cheeses.

The states best known for their cheese are Wisconsin, and to a lesser extent, Vermont. They are quite proud of the quality and variety of their cheeses. You can find almost any variety of cheese from these states, but they all share certain peculiarities. In the case of cheddar I discovered that all of them taste very creamy.

I spent several weeks shopping around at various supermarkets and even specialty cheese vendors. I never found any cheddars that were particularly sharp, and none that were crumbly. It was very frustrating. I'm sure I gained weight trying all the varieties.

A couple of weeks ago Anne took me to a local gourmet store that specializes in olives, cheese, bread and wine. Now this was my kind of store! I spoke to one of the people managing the cheese, and he explained that Americans perceive the acidity of cheese as it's "sharpness". He then gave me several examples to trial so I could see what he meant. So now I can tell a "sharp" American cheddar from a "smooth" one, but I have to tell you... they both taste creamy.

We'll be in Australia for my birthday this year. The present I want this time around will be a cheddar sharp enough to give me ulcers! (And a jar of picked onions to go with it).

Coffee and Milk

I recently convinced a friend from Australia, named Robert, to come over to help us with a contract at my work. He's staying in a hotel at the moment, so he is on his own trying to work out the differences between Australia and the USA on a plethora of issues. These have led to interesting conversations as I try to recall those things that confused me when I first came here.

Our first discussion on this topic was ordering coffee. Due to the Italian influence in Melbourne and Sydney, espresso coffee became the norm in Australia through the 80's and early 90's. Probably the most commonly ordered coffee is a cappuccino without the foam on top - known as a "flat white". There is no equivalent to this coffee in any other country I am aware of. I suppose it's a like a latte with more coffee and less milk.

So how do you order one here? One way is to get an extra shot of espresso in a small latte. However, I've tried this at Starbucks, and it isn't that nice (remember, "small" at Starbucks is called "tall"). Fortunately, I've become friends with a barista at Lavazza, and after showing him the Lavazza "recipe sheet" from Australia (I did a short coffee course with Lavazza in Brisbane) he has recommended a double macchiato, with extra milk. This works well, as it costs $1.93, compared to $3.52 I was paying for a latte (ouch).

My other major option is a double "cortado" at our local Intelligentsia. I wasn't sure what this was, but the recent "Barista of the month" said that this is his favourite coffee because, "it’s the perfect ratio of coffee and milk". So last week I tried it out, and was pleasantly surprised to find something very much like a "flat white". The only thing that caught me off guard was that the cup seemed tiny... until I realised that it was exactly the same size as a normal coffee in Australia. I'm obviously getting used to these enormous sizes in everything.

That reminds me: one of the things I warned Robert about was to always order the smallest portion of food when getting lunch, no matter how hungry he may be. I stick to this rule, and continue to get more food than I need. I try to take my lunch with me, but on those occasions when I don't, I need to remind myself to stop eating before I get to the end, else I'll have eaten too much. It's a tough habit to break when you grew up having to eat everything on your plate. ("You can't leave that food! There are children starving in Africa!")

But back to the coffee. The other thing to think about is the milk. I once had a cholesterol reading that was on the upper end of "OK". My doctor said it was fine, but that it would still be a good idea to reduce it a little. He said that the simplest way to do that was to use reduced fat milk. So from that point on I went with the "reduced fat" option.

In Brisbane this type of milk has the principle brand name of "Trim". There are other brands, but most people know what you're talking about it you ask for it. This is such a common option for coffee now, that people usually refer to it as a "skinny" coffee. Unfortunately, no such common brand name, nor abbreviation exist here.

Early on I heard about "Half and half" in your coffee, and I ordered that a few times. But then I learnt that this means "half milk and half cream", which is more fat, not less. There is always "skim", but I find that to be lacking in flavour. Then I discovered that the correct term is "2%". I suppose that it's more descriptive, but with more syllables it is less convenient.

The upshot of all this is that I now know how to order coffee. In Brisbane it would be:
 Skinny flat white, please.
Here at Lavazza in Chicago it is:
 Double macchiato, with extra milk, 2%, please.
at Starbucks:
 Double tall latte, 2%, please.
and at Intelligentsia:
 Double 2% Cortado.

Got it? I think I left Robert's head spinning.

Healthy Eating

As a final word, I need to mention a health drink I bought last week. I was feeling kind of "flat" (I had a virus coming on, but I didn't know it), and I thought that something green might be good for me. So I decided to get a "Wheat grass" drink. I'm not sure why, as the last I'd heard there was no discernible benefit to these things over standard fruit juice, but I figured it couldn't hurt.

Out of curiosity I read the list of "essential nutrients" used to comprise this "wonder" beverage. The standard wheat grass was there, along with the juice of several fruits (the flavours of which were completely obscured by the overpowering wheat grass). But there were a couple of surprises at the end of the list. In exactly the same way that yoghurt includes bacterial cultures, supposedly for our health, this concoction had various micro organisms all designed to help keep us in fine fettle. None of these meant anything to me, except the last one: Blue-green algae.

Perhaps this isn't well known in America, but in Australia, regular droughts and the past overuse of water for irrigation (water can't be overused any more as there is none to use) led to blooms of blue-green algae in inland water sources. It is usually harmless in small doses, but in large amounts it is highly toxic. For a while in the 90's blue-green algae was regularly mentioned in the news, and always in the context of a lethal bloom somewhere.

I note that Wikipedia refers to the suggestion that blue-green algae could form a useful part of the diet, but this is immediately followed by a statement referring to neurotoxins, hepatotoxins, cytotoxins, and endotoxins, and that the algae are "dangerous to animals and humans". Drinking this stuff in a "health drink" brings to mind the Japanese penchant for eating Fugu.

On the plus side, it just tasted like grass.



I was once told that when my children first entered daycare that I would catch more viruses than at any other time in my life. It turns out that advice was wrong.

Last year Luc was at daycare for 3 days a week. During that time he did indeed bring home many different viruses, several of which Anne and I caught. However, it doesn't compare to this year.

Many of the viruses children get will not affect adults. This is because we caught them ourselves as a child, and we now have an immunity. Even when a virus evolves a little, there is sufficient immunity that we rarely get more than a sniffle and a headache.

These viruses have difficulty moving from one continent to another. This does not mean that they can't migrate (they do), but the incidence is reduced. Young children rarely make intercontinental trips (having taken two children from Australia to America I know why - and Nic and Luc were both very well behaved). On those occasions when they do make the trip, the odds of having one of these viruses at that time is reasonably low. The virus also has difficulty being spread by adults who make the trip, since most of them have had it at some point in their lives. Since viruses mutate rapidly, the low incidence of migration means that some of the most common childhood viruses can differ significantly between continents.

This is particularly apparent with the latest virus to hit our household. This one is called "Hand, foot and mouth disease" (despite the name, it is completely unrelated to the "Foot and mouth disease" suffered by livestock). This is one of those diseases you're only supposed to get once, and practically everyone gets it as a child. In fact, this was one of the many bugs that Luc caught last year. So theoretically the only person in the family who could catch it is Nic. Unfortunately, this theory is wrong.

Despite having a full blown case of the Australian version of hand, foot and mouth last year, Luc was the first to come down with it here. In Australia he got a few of the characteristic spots on his hands, a bit of a temperature, and a runny nose. He shared these symptoms with most of the kids in his daycare group. Anne and I were completely unaffected. This time around, Luc has spots on his feet, his rear end, and inside his mouth. The ones in his mouth have ulcerated, meaning that most foods hurt for him to eat. Nasty.

A nurse did tell us that we shouldn't have to worry about catching this virus, but that it is certainly possible if we'd never had it before. Well it looks like having it in Australia doesn't count. Rather than being immune, Anne and I have both been affected, though I think it hit Anne harder (the spots are certainly more evident). Fortunately the children's doctor told us that the current strain of the bug does not lead to a high fever, so we have all been spared that.

Of course, it should go without saying that Nic caught the virus too. He was probably the last to come down with it. The timing was pretty bad for him, as he is right in the middle of teething on a couple of molars. The poor little guy seems pretty miserable. We're lucky he's so happy and cries so rarely!