You can tell a lot about a country by their street food.
And what our street food says about us in the U.S. (the new-style vehicular gastronomy notwithstanding) is none too flattering. Yes, our melting pot brings in smatterings of excellence from town to town, but as a nation, we have no American equivalent to the Vietnamese báhn mì. No Cuban pressed mixto. No Mexican taco.
Sure, the occasional dirty water street dog can be delicious, if you pick your spots, and you can find a to-go slice ranging from meh to excellent in nearly every small town in America. But outside of pizza, or a full-frontal greasy-spoon breakfast, and, yes, junk food — we're lacking.
Italy, as a country, understands and respects food. France too. Spain. Southeast Asia. Most of the world, in fact. Think about it: average Italian trattoria, above average food; average Spanish bar, above average food; average Mexican taqueria, above average food. You get the picture.
I just returned from a week in Israel. It is a country of world-class street food. Hummus, falafel, shawarma, kabobs. They have fresh produce year-round, Kosher/Halal butchering, but more than anything, the country, as a whole, just gets it. Every cook in every dinky restaurant knows how to perfectly grill chicken, fish, meat.
Several years ago, when my Israeli cousin was doing his military service there, I met him at his army base to take him out to lunch. The base was located in the middle of nowhere, and so we ate a few miles away at what could only be described as a gas station. And still lunch was not just good, but very good.
Even just last week, on the way out of town, I had a falafel pita for breakfast from a nothing merchant at Ben Gurion airport. It was made then and there, made to order, and was delicious. Fresh veg, tahina, hummus. Try that in the U.S. And for less than $6.
Unfortunately, we are a nation that respects neither our food, where it comes from, who eats it, nor how we eat it. And that is not only our loss, but — due to the global export success of our embarrassingly-crappy fast-food giants — the world's.