One of the last places where I expected to find outcroppings of American culture was the remote little Danish island of Aero, but there it was: a restaurant with a salad bar, blue-cheese dressing, teriyaki steaks, and baked potatoes with sour cream.
Maybe there's no avoiding it any more. Or maybe I just have an instinct for such things. Not long before, in a Swiss Alpine village, I'd stumbled onto a restaurant that the owner proudly told me was a copy of one he had admired in Vail, Colo. This was no less startling than to learn, on the South Pacific island of Bora Bora, that the quaint ceiling fans I saw being installed had just arrived in a shipment from Memphis, Tenn.
Now as I parked my rented bike outside the Restaurant Mumm on a mild mid-September day, I stepped through another cultural veil and into Steakhouse USA. When I remarked to the woman in charge on the familiarity of the trappings, she laughed and said, ''I learned it all in California. I was a private cook for one of the big produce growers in the Salinas Valley in the '60s. They call it the Lettuce Bowl, you know.
''We do an Americaner Steak--we call it that because it's our biggest steak--but the specialty is the teriyaki,'' Grethe Mumm Christensen went on. 'I marinate a skirt steak in teriyaki sauce with ginger and a little garlic. We serve a baked potato with sour cream and chives--not an Idaho unfortunately but the best I can get here. I used to have sourdough bread, but then the local baker took a long vacation.''
I picked the most indigenous item on the menu, a grilled sole, and helped myself to the salad bar, overflowing with lettuce, bean sprouts, kidney beans, cucumbers, and corn. Mrs. Christensen, who also proudly showed me her new US-made oven, a Bakers Pride, had come home to Aero and opened the restaurant in 1976. ''This used to be a grocery store,'' she said. ''I remember the big barrels of herring, and I got my first banana here when I was seven. My father bought it for me.''
It was clear to me after less than a day on Aero why one would want to return to this lovely tight little island, from California or anywhere. The village of Aeroskobing, the most substantial of three ports on the island, is a museum piece of narrow lanes and half-timbered, tile-roofed houses. Each is painted a whimsical color--ochre, red, salmon, white, blue, and each has hollyhocks or some other flower climbing up the front wall.
Most of the house windows are of bottle glass, and behind each is an artful display--potted flowers, collections of porcelain. This custom was explained for me by Rasmus Kromann, curator of the Peter Jacobsen's Bottle Ship Museum on a quiet back lane. I found Mr. Kromann sweeping up before a midday break. He said that ''Bottle Peter,'' as Peter Jacobsen was called around Aeroskobing, built over 1,700 ships in bottles in his lifetime (1873-1960). Many of them are displayed in a series of rooms off a rear courtyard.
Each is a different tiny boat, each in a different kind of bottle. One model is set in a soft-drink bottle, another in a milk bottle. Some have palmy shores as background, others church spires and buildings. You can buy work sketches and build your own boat-in-a-bottle--either a yacht or a more difficult 3-masted bark.
As for the precious little Aeroskobing window displays, Mr. Kromann said the pieces of porcelain--Staffordshire, Wedgwood--one sees behind the bottle-glass panes were brought back to the island by generations of seagoing men. The museum has a collection of these mostly English objects--china dogs, china people--as well as antique painted chests, kettles, and paddles once used for beating the dust from clothing. Mr. Kromann said fewer and fewer Aero windows are being made of bottle glass, expensive now and hard to come by .
Most of my Aero peregrinations were by rented bike, an old black one-speed model I got from Mr. H.A. Hansen at the Esso Station. The transaction was easy. He picked the bike from a pile in the garage and I handed him 20 kroner for half a day's service. No contract, no security.
The island can be pedaled from Soby on one end to Marstal on the other, but I confined my movement to the hills and fields around Aeroskobing, beginning to yellow under the burnished September sun. You can stop and refresh yourself at a number of outdoor cafes, atumble with roses and hollyhocks.
One such is the terrace outside the Aerohus Hotel where I stayed. It is run by Birthe Bang Christensen, sister-in-law of the teriyaki-steak specialist. Part of the handsome building--black timbers against rust-orange walls--goes back to 1773, and there are pear and plum trees in the garden. ''We make cooked plums with cream,'' she said and also described a very Danish-sounding strawberry concoction. No strawberry shortcake here.