Sunday, 8 January 2012

Eating British vs Eating American (or an ode to American food)

We Brits definitely have an opinion on American food and what we think American food is - the stereotypical burgers, doughnuts, cupcakes and generally unhealthy, fried food.  And yes, the Americans certainly have an opinion of British food - roasts, pies, fish and chips, 'terrible' sandwiches and generally badly-cooked stodge.  For those of you who don't know me, I had an American boyfriend for two and a half years, who lived there and who I would visit every couple of months in school holidays.  The relationship took me to North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Missouri, Colorado, California, Chicago and Texas - and in that time, I ate some stunningly good food and including maybe only one or two burgers, some mini doughnuts once on Pier 39 in San Francisco and well, yeah, a lot of cupcakes (my absolute favourites being Jilly's in St Louis, MO and Kara's in Palo Alto, CA).  My point is that Americans do a huge amount of great food that is not on this list.  They may be snobby about our sandwiches (two pieces of sliced white with a slice of cheese and ham in the middle will not cut it with your average American), but then they sort of have a reason to be - and I fought this for the entirety of my relationship - American sandwiches are unparalleled, which I was reminded of a couple of weeks ago when I had a desperate craving for a French Dip.  No, not some sort of water activity in a beret, but the most delicious sort of sandwich you'll ever eat - slow cooked slices of beef in onion soup, red wine and beef broth, put in a French roll and served sometimes with a bit of provolone cheese and a bowl of the beef juices for you to dip the sandwich into. Divine. I'm still craving one and I might even have to go to the lengths of buying a slow cooker just to satisfy the need I have for one.

Sandwiches aside, some of the best food I've ever eaten (a great little Food Network show, by the way) was in restaurants in the US.  From the superb garlic fries at the Federal in Durham, NC, to the deep fried oysters at Le Bistro in Roanoke, VA (which sadly seems no longer to be open), to the best ice cream in the world at Pop's Ice Cream and Soda Bar and the most inventive and delicious smoothies at Elderberry's both also in Roanoke, to the most exquisite (and probably expensive) five star food at the Georgian Room at Sea Island, GA, to the cheesiest, deepest and fullest pizzas at Paxti's in Palo Alto, CA, to the most authentic (apparently) burritos in the whole of San Francisco at El Metate in the Mission, to the most deliciously smooth, swirly frozen yoghurt with fruit and chocolate at Pinkberry, and the juiciest, most succulent steak with perfect potato mash and asparagus at Navio at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, CA.  There were so many other stunning meals I ate that I can't write them all down because I'd be here too long and you, dear reader, would fall asleep.

So eating out is one thing, but eating in is also another experience that I miss and in fact my heart skips a beat when I think about the cooking I used to do in the US.  Partly because I had a lot of time on my hands, but partly also because the variety of food you can buy is so amazing, I actually loved trying out new recipes and different types of vegetables that if you asked for in Sainsbury's you'd get a very blank look as the response (I imagine asking for a spaghetti squash would probably end you up in the pasta or juices aisle over here).  I spent a lot of time watching Food Network.  Ina, Paula, Giada, Tyler, Bobby, Guy and the Neeleys became my friends who would keep me company during the day whilst my ex other half was working long hours at the hospital.  This was the time I discovered Bakerella's Red Velvet Cake Balls which became a staple, now sadly missed due to the UK's lack of chocolate bark, and heirloom tomatoes which make a caprese salad infinitely more interesting with a depth of flavours and colours unattainable with your standard plum tomato over here.

An heirloom caprese I knocked up for lunch one day.

The reason I thought about writing this post was that I felt a great nostalgia for US supermarkets when I was in Waitrose this morning picking out my vegetables for tonight's roast.  The shopping experience over there is so much more carefully thought out and there is much greater importance placed on how things look - yes, they're tempting you to buy them, of course I am not so naive to not realise that this beauty has a point, but if it makes the experience more pleasant then yes, I will buy those tantalisingly shiny apples which are piled up to the ceiling.  The best supermarket I ever shopped in (which should really be another Food Network show) was the Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley, CA.  Wow.  Just... wow.  I need a moment to savour the memory of it.  Whilst visiting a friend studying there we took a trip to buy lunch.  I was blown away by the rows and rows and rows of fresh, organic, delicious, interesting, unusual fruit and vegetables on offer.

Yams, yams EVERYWHERE!

Heirloom tomatoes. Aisles of them. Rainbows of them.

Peaches, plums and apricots - this made me want to try one of each.

Rows and rows of shiny, colourful fruit.

And to compare with the UK:

Waitrose's entire salad offering, wrapped in unnecessary plastic.

The potato offering.  Only one yam in sight.

Now, bananas - bananas we do well.  Except, they're of two types: Fair Trade and Organic.

It's not even as if the Berkeley Bowl is unusual in its presentation of its goods - pretty much every store I shopped in had its fruit and veg as beautifully laid out.  I don't want this to seem like I am anti-British - I love being in the UK and wouldn't change that for the world right now.  And we do cheese so well over here - I couldn't take the lack of decent cheese in the US: plastic is just not cheese as far as I'm concerned.  But, the Americans do fresh food and restaurant food ('gourmet' as they often call it) very well and I really think we Brits could take a plum out of their tree.


  1. I'd like one of those French Dips please. Let me know when you get your slow cooker. Also, is a yam a variety of sweet potato or the other way around? Or am I an ignorant Brit? (Who, for the record, enjoys a simple sarnie.) xxx

    Ps. Good writing. And I wouldn't lie to you.

  2. You're making me want a French Dip. But you don't need a slow cooker (although that is what I use) - a Dutch Oven works too. Um, I'm not sure if they're called that outside of the US.

    1. Oh! I think I have a Dutch Oven - that's what a Le Creuset casserole dish is I think? The lovely boyfriend has actually bought a slow cooker it turns out, so I now have two options and the French Dip gets ever closer! Thanks for reading!