Flemings in America: Emilie Tuijnder McKinnon on southern food culture
In the final instalment of our series on Flemish people living and working in the United States, we talk to Emilie Tuijnder McKinnon, who reflects on the food culture of Charleston, South Carolina
Requiem for a good bread
Last month, she began a doctoral degree in medical imaging at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, following up on her Master’s in biomedical engineering at the University of Leuven.
While she’s passionate about her studies and dreams of becoming a research physician, when she talks about the differences between her life in the US and Flanders, the conversation continually circles back to food.
Having moved here in early 2014 from Antwerp province to live with her American husband, Tuijnder McKinnon has had time to develop an appreciation for the food culture in her new home, as well as experience cravings for home-grown Flemish dishes.
Food accounts, she says, for one of the biggest differences between the two places. “I miss having good bread with a wide selection of lunchmeats and spreads to put on it,” she says. “I have attempted to make bread myself, but it has not always been a great success. You can buy some decent bread here, but then my husband will start complaining that I spent $6 on a tiny loaf of bread… And then sometimes I let myself go and go buy expensive cheese.”
Tuijnder McKinnon met her husband-to-be through mutual friends while travelling in Texas in the summer of 2012. They travelled back and forth between Flanders and the US until her definitive move.
Since moving abroad, Tuijnder McKinnon has come to better appreciate her Flemish culinary heritage – something she admits she hadn’t in the past. Among the specialities she has learned to cook from scratch are mayonnaise and fries, stoofvlees (beef stew), mussels, steak tartare and speculoos.
I miss eating out being the main event of the evening and not finding yourself on the sidewalk again after 30 minutes
But she’s also enjoying the local food scene, finding it hard to pick a favourite dish or product. “I have actually discovered so many great things,” she says. “Fried chicken, good barbecue, slow-cooked pork, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, good Mexican food … but not only unhealthy stuff. Americans are the best at making salads as well!”
As for the stereotypes that dog Americans and US food culture, she has found more of them to be false than true. “Not everybody is obese; and there is good American beer,” she says.
Something Tuijnder McKinnon does find jarring however is Americans’ haste when it comes to dinner. “They don’t really take time to eat or spend time together as a family at the table,” she says, adding that this applies to everything from restaurant dining to backyard barbecues. “Even though Charleston has a great food scene, I do miss Flanders’ foodie culture – spending a lot of time at a restaurant without feeling rushed. Eating out being the main event of the evening and not finding yourself on the sidewalk again after 30 minutes.”
Timing has been an issue with friendly get-togethers, too. “My husband always tells me that hanging out with friends isn’t a formal business, but I feel that it is hard to plan things,” she explains. “If I ask people to come over at 18.00, people come between 18.00 and 19.00 and, as a good Belgian, I want to have appetisers ready. Or when I am invited to a barbecue at 16.00, I will always be there first and be awkwardly alone for like half an hour.”
“Gorgeous place to live”
That being said, she describes Americans as being among the nicest people she has ever met – very open-minded and non-judgmental. Her only qualm is that they’re just a little too casual. She gives the example of paper plates being used in buffet-style dinners at friends’ homes. “You just grab food when you’re hungry, and you don’t sit down and eat together,” she says.
Tuijnder McKinnon absolutely loves warm and sunny Charleston, she says. “It is a gorgeous place to live and, for me, the step from Belgium to the US was made a little smaller with living downtown and biking to work. That’s not possible in every American city. Also, the weather is a big bonus!”
Whether she and her husband stay after she’s completed her PhD (in five years) is still up in the air. She came for love and might stay for both of their careers. “I do a lot of neuro-imaging research, and I would like to become a neurologist so I can add some clinical knowledge to my research. Maybe one day I can make an advancement in the field. I guess this implies that I will most likely stay in the US.”
Her husband is a physician as well, and she points out that it’s not that easy to switch your credentials to another country. “But who knows? I did not foresee myself living here either,” she says. “I think Belgium is an amazing country, and I only realised that after leaving.”
Photo: Emilie Tuijnder McKinnon and her husband sample some local cuisine