The Birth of American Fusion Food

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Today, Julie and I decided to have lunch at a new “gourmet hamburger” joint on College Avenue in Palo Alto called “The Counter.” When we entered The Counter a chipper and well-groomed girl welcomed us, showed us to our seat, and asked “Have you been to the counter before?” When we said no, she proceeded to explain to us how we could order burgers from a prefixed menu or create custom burgers by filling out small pieces of paper attached to our clip-board menus. When our waitress–well-tanned, blond, and very Californian in manner–came to take our drink orders she asked us the same question–“Have you been to The Counter before?” Something about this question seemed kind of strange. In fact, the whole concept of a gourmet hamburger struck me as somewhat perverse.

As I stared at the sky blue paint on the walls and tall-backed tan couches spread through the restaurant, I had a minor revelation: We were in a fusion restaurant, a fusion burger joint. What is the meaning of fusion? Well, it seems to me that the essential thing about fusion food is that it acts as a kind of cultural bridge between exotic, ethnic, other-than-normal food and the hungry but wannabe-cosmopolitan denizens of the kingdom of California. What a fusion burger joint does then is that it makes what is ostensibly one’s “native” food–culturally unmarked–and marks it for the first time as cultural. Only in an age where taste has become globalized is it even thinkable to treat things like hamburgers as if they were novelty items, objects whose use needs to be explained to first-time customers and whose customizability serves as something like a competitive advantage over all those other hamburger joints. I mean, c’mon, do you really need to ask me if I’ve been here before? “We” all know how to eat hamburgers, right? This isn’t P.F. Chang’s or something–where, presumably, we need an explanation for how to eat those culturally “exotic” lettuce wraps.