Category Archives: Food and Drink

You win some, you lose some

I’ve always hated the word ‘expat’, abbreviated or otherwise. It’s not the word itself, I guess, but more the notion that I ever ‘belonged’ to one part of the world in the first place. And more to the point, when I think of ‘expats’, I bring to mind the likes of Frank, Doris, Ethel and Brian, who live in Spain on the Costa del Sol, and eat pie, chips and gravy in 90 degree heat. I’m sure that some people can think of nothing better than putting their car keys in a bowl and hoping that Florence, (the positively spritely 68 year old from Harrogate), pulls out the keys to their imported Volvo – but I’m not one of them.

Nonetheless, an expat I am. Although we don’t have a car, just to be on the safe side. The thing about being a British expat in America is that your life becomes a weird meld of cultures and experiences that you create for yourself over a period of time. You abandon the sacred principle of watching early Saturday evening TV, but you gain the concept that eating hot dogs from a street vendor is acceptable. You lose the horror of watching representatives of an openly racist political party get voted into positions of power, but you are forced to replace it with medical providers who would charge you for breathing within ten yards of their establishment if they could get away with it.

The point is, you accept some alternatives into your heart (baseball is a more than acceptable summer replacement for cricket) and you reject others (the day I regard corn dogs as OK is the day I pack up and go home). As a result, your life becomes a constant succession of choices as you slowly create your new normality, horse trading with yourself to ensure that you assimilate without losing your sense of where you come from.

For instance, The Special One this week had reason to comment that I am “becoming more American than an American.” No, I was not seized by an urge to invade a foreign territory, nor did I feel the need to cut somebody off mid-conversation and start a whole new topic of my own. But I did realise that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” has become one of my favourite records.

There is an arcane law in the United States that requires “Don’t Stop Believin'” to be played at least once an hour on every radio station in the country. Yet somehow, despite a music knowledge that I would regard as pretty comprehensive, I’m not sure that I had ever even heard it before moving to the United States. Now I can’t get that small town girl taking the midnight train anywhere (or the city boy born and raised in South Detroit, for that matter) out of my head, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

To compensate for this, I have been forced to declare that pretzels are a product of the Evil Empire. If Americans were truly honest with themselves, they would sheepishly admit that the big doughy knot of salt studded nonsense is quite literally ‘not all that’, and that they would actually be better off just pouring a sachet of sea salt and a tablespoon of vinegary mustard down their neck instead.

And don’t get me started on ‘mini pretzels’ or ‘pretzel sticks’. When you’ve got a perfectly sensible potato chip staring you in the face, why would you even think to pick a pack of mini pretzels off a shelf? At best they taste burnt, and at worst they have the ability to absorb all the liquid in your body within 13 minutes. Those little silica gel packets that you get in bags and boxes to suck up moisture? There’s actually no such thing as silica – it’s just ground up mini pretzels masquerading as ‘science’. I would rather eat salt studded toe nail clippings, to be honest.

Ah, the yin and yang of life as an expat. It’s not easy being this opinionated, you know.

A story about swine that doesn’t mention flu

The problem with cuts of meat in America is that they’re so damn large, you have to invite around thirteen people around in order to get through everything. And with The Special One’s family all being caught up with other things this weekend, that left just the four of us to consume an entire pork shoulder. Which is particularly difficult when one of you is a vegetarian.

Of course, I say that I was cooking a pork shoulder, but here in the States, I am forced to say that I had got my hands on some Boston butt. Just to be clear for the purposes of those in the UK, I had not been indulging in appropriate posterior fondling with Barbara Walters, contrary to what you might read in the National Enquirer this week. Instead I was cooking with a cut of meat that usually gets used for barbecue in the US – slow cooked with plenty of smoke, to give you the tenderest bit of pork that you can imagine.

As it was, I don’t possess a smoker, so I had to settle for roasting the meat at a low temperature for seven hours. And it was pretty damn good even if I do say so myself. I even made my own barbecue sauce. Sadly I used enough vinegar to flood a small village in Wales, and my attempts to present the sauce as ‘tangy’ were greeted with sneers. And pursed lips and squinted eyes, if I’m honest.

The cooking extravaganza hadn’t begun well, after I showed The Special One the naked butt. Again, I’m still talking about the pork, folks, so please try to stay with me. Like all good bits of pork, the skin still showed a few pieces of hair, as I believe that getting out the Gillette Mach 3 was probably the last thing on the pig’s mind when he woke up and read “Monday – fieldtrip to abbatoir, Tuesday – no plans” in his schedule for that week. But while the occasional chicken feather seems OK to her, The Special One apparently draws the line at stubble in her meat products.

The fact is that Americans like meat, and many of them can deal with fat, but the vast majority of them would scatter to the four winds if asked to eat any of the more challenging parts of your average animal. The Special One still rails in horror at the idea of black pudding (or blood pudding as she still insists on calling it, just to ensure that she can never give in to its magical ways), and I’m guessing that haggis is off the menu after we saw a programme detailing its manufacture. I’ve seen the occasional mention of tripe in the US, but am yet to meet anyone who has tried it, while liver and kidney is much less prevalent over here than in the UK.

But what drives me most beserk is the unwillingness to eat pig skin. To me, crackling pork skin – heavily salted, and crisped up to bubbly perfection – is probably the best reason to eat pork in the first place. Back in my bachelor days, I was known to roast the occasional joint of pork just because I knew that I would be able to have crackling. And don’t even get me started on my love for pork scratchings, or the look of horror when I told The Special One that the tiny foil packets contained just salty pig skin and fat.

Pork skin is conspicuous by its absence in America. Most bacon comes rindless, and pork chops are trimmed to within an inch of their (former) lives. ‘Suckling pig’ in a restaurant I recently ate at had all of the porky goodness, but none of the porcine epidermis. I went home happy, but marginally disappointed about the opportunity that had been denied to me.

As it was, yesterday’s slow roasting meant that the skin wasn’t suitable for eating anyway, and besides, the sight of three people vomiting at the table as I ate might have been too much for me. The search for crackling continues.

Time to meat your maker

After a five month period in which my wedding tackle has been stored somewhere near my pancreas to avoid the bitter cold, somebody finally got around to paying New York’s heating bill, and glorious warmth returned with a vengeance this weekend.

In the UK, the changes of the seasons are generally imperceptible, with spring sleepily emerging from the depths of winter, before lazily giving way to the occasional haziness of summer, Sure, there will be the odd hotspot or cold spell, but on the whole there’s a very steady linear approach to the way that climate moves on during the course of the year. In New York, it all seems a little different. While there will still be occasional rainy spells in summer, or unseasonably hot days in spring, there is much more of a sense of a switch being flicked when seasons begin and end.

One of the benefits of this is that there is a substantially longer period in which you can play the culinary equivalent of Russian roulette by throwing random pieces of meat onto hot metal. Whether you call it barbecuing, grilling, or (as in Britain) salmonella distribution, you can’t beat the smell of charring pieces of flesh and bone in your garden or back yard.

It’s the law here in New York that you have to start grilling alfresco within 24 hours of the sun emerging, unless you want to fall foul of the 1884 Charred Meats Act. Getting thrown out of the country by immigration officials for falling foul (fowl?) of the rules insisting that you throw a spatchcocked chicken on the grill would be a terrible way to go, and as a result, this weekend we indulged in two such events.

Frankly, if you ever needed reassurance that the experiences of life are universal, you could do worse than look at these two occasions.

Fiddling with hot coals on a roof
In the UK, the grilling of meat outdoors takes place pretty much exclusively over charcoal. Sure, some fancy dandys have gas powered grills, but for the majority of Brits, a barbecue (as we call it) means gathering around a pile of black briquettes that you bought at the local petrolgas station, telling each other that you see a flame. Usually with rain pouring down above you, as you attempt to set up a temporary canopy to prevent your pork chops from getting soaked through.

What is absolutely compulsory though is that at least four men gather round to tell each other that their friend’s method of creating fire is never going to work. Men may well form eternal friendships over sport, but all bets are off when it comes to making fire. This weekend, our first barbecue began with me taking over the stacking of coals, and screwing up bits of paper, after rejecting our host’s method of getting the flame going. Don’t get me wrong, his method of spraying lighter fluid from a safe distance of fifteen yards made me pine for the UK, but in the end it’s not going to help me get a ribeye steak when I need it.

Lazy like Sunday evening
It’s much better, of course, when you’re master of your own domain. And on Sunday afternoon, I decided to clean last year’s debris off the grill, and readied some pastured pork chops for their cremation. Cleaning six months of grime off stainless steel isn’t as easy as it sounds though, and I battled with a heavy steel brush and enough chemicals to sink a small nation if applied to their water supply, in order to get the bars in a fit state to carry bits of Miss Piggy’s less-alive family.

After around an hour of cleaning, I’d just got the grill to the point where it might be used for cooking, and we got a call reminding us that we were supposed to be at dinner an hour away, And that we were already fifteen minutes late. It was like getting the sausages out for a British barbecue, only for the heavens to open and for everybody be forced inside for a lukewarm glass of Pimms.

So, two barbecues, and precious little meat to speak of. Still, at least it means I will have managed to get as far as May without a mosquito bite.

It’s butterflied leg of lamb next weekend though, so let the itching begin.

A spoonful of sugar

Some of the traditions that America has are completely different than those in the UK. Like stopping an important sports game two thirds of the way through for the singing of the national anthem. Or, indeed, knowing all the words to the national anthem in the first place. Some things are exactly the same; ‘a willingness to invade countries without succumbing to a burden of proof’ springs immediately to mind. But then – and I say this with due deference to my adopted homeland, and from a true position of love – some things America does exactly like Britain, only a bit worse.

There’s bacon, obviously – a meat product in the UK, but a saturated fat transportation device in the United States. Then there’s the rail system, which for all its British faults, at least calls at practically all towns that contain more than two men and a dog. And of course there’s the language which England invented, and which some Americans continue to devalue on an almost daily basis.

Not to say that America doesn’t do plenty of things better than Britain. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a burger anywhere else on earth again, having tasted the kind of heaven-in-a-bun that even the most average restaurant churns out. American festivals and celebrations make Britain’s look like something that was put together with money found down the back of the sofa. I still shudder with fear whenever I think about the fact that London has to put on an opening ceremony for the Olympics in 2012. And of course, the United States does bank collapses like no other country on earth; everywhere’s given it a go, but America truly has it down to a fine art.

Most of the time, you come to live with the differences between one place and the other. But at other times, it’s almost more than you can bear.

Still smarting from the lack of a four day weekend, I decided to buy some hot cross buns to cheer myself up. After all, what could be better than a spicy hot toasted bun packed full of raisins, slathered with butter that oozes into every inch of its doughy goodness? My mouth is watering at the mere thought of it.

Sadly, thinking about it is all I can do. Because America has gone and arsed up one of the best things about Easter*. For a start, the bun has the consistency of a heavy pannetone, rather than the kind of weighty denseness necessary to guarantee that it sticks to the roof of your mouth. Rather than boasting a reassuring flatness, the American hot cross bun seems to be approximately four inches high, contains candied lemon peel rather than raisins, and has all the moisture of an overworn flip-flop. And to be honest, I’d probably rather eat the flip-flop.

Most importantly though, where the cross on top of the bun (the very thing that gives the baked good its theoretical religious significance) is made of pastry in the UK, it’s made of icing in the US. Thick sticky and sickly white icing that removes the enamel from your teeth, and which leaves you gasping for water. As if you’d eaten a flip-flop, to be honest. With icing on top.

The fact is that if Americans get a chance to add sugar to something, they’ll take it. Whether it’s cereal or hair product, they’ll find some way to get the stuff in there somehow. By 2019, the average 35 year old American body will be made of 63% sugar. Please note that any remarks about licking each other like lollipops will be expunged from the comments.

* The others are Creme Eggs, and ‘moaning about Brits having a four day weekend’.

A full and frank apology to the USA

I would like to issue a full and unreserved apology to the United States of America. In a previous post, I had revealed that an American foodstuff (albeit Italian-American) had made a personal attack on me, and left me with a cold sore-like legacy.

By relating such a story, I was suggesting that foods from America – and only foods from America – were highly volatile, dangerous and unpredictable, and should be trusted as much as, say, a former high-level Lehman Brothers executive with a shifty smile.

I now fully accept that my intimation was wrong, and that food products from any part of the world can cause pain and a herpes simplex-type look. That such a realisation can be caused by that great bastion of Britishness – the humble roast potato – is a cause of intense personal anguish to me.

I appreciate that there are some people who would try to maintain that I am using maverick comestibles as a scapegoat for a persistent cold sore problem. This is both unfair and actionable, and I will not hesitate to pursue those rumourmongerers to the full extent of the law.

Note that while the physical manifestations of these unprovoked attacks will fade in time, the emotion scars will live with me for a lifetime.

My family and I would appreciate your privacy and understanding during these difficult times.

Would you like cheese with that?

America is the land of the inappropriate combination, maintaining an unparalleled ability to put together two things which really can’t work in partnership, and insist that they can. Take peanut butter and jelly, for instance – no, I mean it, somebody just take it away and never let me see it again. Not since Nick Leeson and Barings Bank have two more unsuited partners been brought into close proximity.

Then there’s the weird couples that the United States throws up from time to time – Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon (don’t worry Britain, America doesn’t really know who he is either), Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, and of course Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty. I know that they weren’t strictly speaking a couple, but let’s face it there was always a frisson there despite her protestations. I know, she could do SO much better…

The strange thing is that America turns its collective nose up at some time-honoured classic combinations. Like ‘building a toilet’ and ‘using enough construction materials to make sure that people can have a dump in private’. Or ‘the letter H’ and the ‘collective name for the likes of coriandercilantro, parsley, rosemary and sage’.

But if there’s one combination that annoys me more than anything, it’s the US penchant for putting cheese on top of chilli.

I love chilli with all my heart. She Who Was Born To Worry used to make a classic chilli when I was a kid, although she still hasn’t forgiven me for telling my sister that it was actually chilli and not “savoury mince”. I’ve spent the years since leaving home trying to perfect my own chilli recipe. Being in the US, I’ve learned more about the legendary spicy stew than I ever thought I could, and my own recipe is beginning to develop as I taste more and more variations. Put simply, I’m open to change, and if that means experimenting with more smokiness, or a few chunks of chorizo, then so be it.

However, when it comes to putting cheese on top of my chilli, I draw my experimental line. Eat chilli at a friend’s house, and you’ll no doubt be offered little bowls of grated cheese and grated onion to sprinkle on top. Order a portion of chilli from a takeout place (as I did last week) and you may be unfortunate enough to find melted orange gloop all over the top of your joyous mix of ground meat and spices.

Of course, sprinkling cheese on stuff is practically America’s number one sport. From servings of vegetables to bowls of soup, there’s nothing that an American citizen regards as off-limits when it comes to grated cheese. If you see somebody scattering shredded mozzarella over, say, a building site or an elected official, you’ll know why.

Coming to terms with shame

I’ve been in hiding for a week or so, as you’ll have noticed by the lack of posts on here. It’s not because I’ve lost any of my desire to give you witty, charming and considered tracts on life in New York (one day I hope to deliver on that dream), or because I just don’t get the love or validation that I so desperately need having been a New Yorker for all of 19 months. No reader, it’s not you – it’s me.

Embarrassment, you see, causes me to shrink into the background – to bury my head and not re-emerge until I believe that the coast is clear. Any vague sense of shame essentially leads me to retreat to my metaphorical nuclear bunker, never to return unless I think I can nip down to the shops without having my arm mutate into a three foot proboscis. Or without people pointing and laughing, more to the point.

Such enforced exiles only happen from time to time, it has to be said. Like when I was a thirteen year old and walked into the ladies changing rooms at a department store, much to the open amusement of a gaggle of schoolgirls standing outside it (less amused, it has to be said, was the woman inside wearing only a bra and a frown). Or the time when my baffled friends looked on as I told the Queen that I had two years left at school, despite having only about a week to go. And especially the time when I got so drunk at a Christmas party that I knocked the DJ’s decks off a table, causing the glitterati of London’s media world to turn around and stare. You can only imagine their looks when I did it for the second time a few minutes later.

Now New York has inflicted an embarrassment on me that has had me wanting to disappear under my duvet (or whatever it is that Americans call that thing that you put on top of your bed to keep you warm at night), and only emerge when the house is completely empty. And it’s all the fault of a slice of pizza.

A week last Friday, I decided that some pizza would be the perfect start to the weekend. Ah, the joyous combination of crispy dough, flavoursome tomato sauce and a layer of grilled-to-perfection cheese – excluding the unexpected arrival of Heidi Klum looking for a place to stay, what better way can there be to celebrate the start of two days off?

Sadly my enthusiasm became a little too much for me, and I set about the task with all the indecent haste of an AIG executive banking his bonus. Realising that it was under attack, the pizza instituted emergency procedures and dispatched an area of tomato sauce and cheese (that had clearly been heated through nuclear fission) on a seek-and-destroy mission to the corner of my mouth. Shocked and stunned by the unexpected arrival of a globule of molten lava on my lip, I could barely move – and by the time I had, my mouth suddenly featured a rather fetching crater.

For the last week, I’ve been walking around with what looks like a ridiculously virile cold sore on my bottom lip. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I always think that it’s difficult to foster an air of respect when you look like you’ve got an outbreak of herpes on your face. I try to explain that it’s actually a third degree burn that was inflicted by a maverick Italian snack product, but nobody’s having it.

Thankfully the pain and the scarring is slowly receding, but the emotional scars will last a lifetime. I’ll go out in public again one day, but for the moment it’s back to hiding underneath the bedcovers. I’ve got enough food to last me another week. I think I’m going to need every bit of it before the shame finally fades.

The big breakfast. Or lunch.

I’ve never really got the point of brunch, to be honest. For a start, I’m no fan of breakfast, despite the impassioned pleas of around three quarters of the people I’ve ever met who insist that it’s the most important meal of the day and I might die at the age of 54 if I don’t start eating it immediately. The idea of getting up and stuffing my face full of processed grain products or ill-disguised cake with syrup doesn’t fill me with joy, and it’s generally about 10am before I remember that I should probably at least have a cup of tea or coffee.

Long-term readers will rightly point out that I love a bacon buttysandwich, but given that I would eat bacon every hour of the day if given half a chance (and a spare heart), I think we can simply regard it as the exception that proves the rule.

The corollary to my dislike of breakfast though is that by the middle of the day I’m starving, and duly lunch is probably my favourite meal of the day. Whether it’s sandwiches at my desk, or a lazy weekend meal with friends, I love taking stock of the day so far over some good food. Especially if it involves bacon, obviously.

To me therefore, brunch is a meal that looks like breakfast, contains far too many eggs for its own good, and robs me of the opportunity to have lunch. It is literally the worst of both worlds. Admittedly the bloody mary or the bucks fizzmimosa can occasionally take my mind off my internal anguish, but it’s still a meal I could do without.

The exception is ‘the hotel brunch’ – a weird and extravagantly (some would say obnoxiously) lavish buffet-based meal on a Sunday that can draw people from miles around if it gains a good reputation. The one essential rule about the hotel brunch is that it is legally required to include every single foodstuff ever grown or invented. A guest finding any category of food missing is entitled to eat free of charge in the hotel for the next year, and can take home as many tiny bottles of hotel shampoo and body wash as they can fit into their oversized pockets.

At a Los Angeles brunch yesterday, I could take my choice from the usual breakfast choices of (made to order) eggs and omelettes, breakfast meats, eight different cheeses, sushi, dumplings, roast lamb, roast beef, ham, fruits, chocolate desserts pizza, chicken nuggetstenders, sliced vegetables, pork buns, waffles, ham and cheese sandwiches, peach crumblecrisp, stir fried chicken with cashew nuts, numerous breads, and many other things that I couldn’t quite see because of the dozens of people surrounding the tables as chefs prepped, sliced, cooked and served.

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never eaten eel sushi and stilton on the same plate, and certainly not at 11 in the morning, but somehow it seemed to work. I was so mesmerised that I walked out without my coat and only remembered about it this morning as I was en route to the airport.

It’s no exaggeration to say that a few thousand people could have eaten from all the food on display, which was being constantly replenished. As it was, there were probably around 400 people in attendance, and hopefully they found some good homeless shelter for the rest of it. I’m not sure whether ‘potstickers with sweet chili sauce’ is necessarily the food of choice for the down-and-out, but then again I’m not sure that the Beverly Hills authorities don’t chase the homeless out of the area with pitchforks each morning, so maybe it’s not an issue…

My name’s A Brit Out Of Water, and I’m a cheese addict

Having been plugged into my iPod each morning on the way to work this week, I’ve realised just how many guilty pleasures I have when it comes to music. Everybody has their own guilty pleasure – that song that you know you really shouldn’t like, but somehow you can’t just help yourself. Admitting to it loses you all credibility, but – let’s be honest – having been a member of the T’Pau fan club as a youngster, I never really had much of that in the first place.

From Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” to “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, my collection is packed to the gills with the kind of songs I would have taken out of my CD stacks and hidden if any serious music fan had come to visit. Now they sit safely within the shadowy lair of my hard drive, safely out of harm’s way but still accessible to me on the long and winding road into the office.

Of course, the problem with this is like any addict who is successfully able to hide his dependency from friends and family, consumption of said addiction goes up because you think you can get away with it. So while The Special One thinks that I’m constantly listening to the latest hot young things from Brooklyn or Sheffield on my headphones, I’m actually singing along internally to “Mr Blue SKy” by ELO, or “Wind of Change” by The Scorpions.

My stealthy cheese habit extends to the dairy version too. While I love cheese in all its artisanal forms, nasty American cheese (or even the stuff they laughingly call cheddar here) definitely has its time and place. But only when nobody is looking. A good hot everything bagel with melted cheese and ham for breakfast is no substitute for a bacon butty, but it cures most known ills. And pepper jack (a heritage-less cheese if ever there was one) definitely has its place in my heart.

However, the worst sin of all – the Barbra Streisand of the cheese world, if you will – is the clandestine love affair I have with Wispride cheese balls. They look like something that you’d see on a Sky One programme entitled “America’s Worst Inventions,” but for some reason I just can’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re not available in the UK (and so still have novelty value), or perhaps it’s because they’re a subconscious reaction against my adoration of lovingly crafted and aged cheeses of the world, but whatever the case, these things are like crack in dairy form. Give me some Jacob’s cream crackersTriscuits, an extra sharp cheddar cheese ball and maybe an episode of The Wire or 24, and I’m happier than a pig wallowing around in his own excrement. The only way I could be happier would be to put some love songs by Chicago on the stereo at the same time.

Actually, I really shouldn’t have put that thought in my head. I guess I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. Just don’t tell the neighbours, eh?

The British invasion

Some things are just inescapably British – ideas or products that you would just never think to see anywhere else in the world. Try to describe an Eccles cake to an American, for instance, and you’d probably see a wrinkling of features and a look of disgust reserved for farmyard smells and cat vomit. Dandelion and burdock is clearly one of the tastiest fizzy popssodas around, but that doesn’t mean it would make sense to a German. And while the likely identity of the the Christmas number one is debated in pubs and TV shows across the land, nobody else in the world cares what tops their chart on December 25th.

If there’s one country that’s peculiarly averse to all things British, it’s France. Government rations the amount of English language music that can be played on French radio, while there’s a constant war waged against the creeping Anglicisation of the language. Put simply, the French are a proud nation and would be perfectly happy to have nothing to do with the British if they could possibly avoid it.

Which makes the presence of this packet in a local supermarchegrocery store all the more surprising:

Fisherman's Friend

I can’t remember the last time I saw these things in the UK, let alone in a French supermarket. Menthol pastilles with more kick than an angry donkey, Fisherman’s Friend are British enough that you practically expect a rousing chorus of Land of Hope & Glory every time you open a packet. And now they’re in France. Next they’ll be eating Branston Pickle with their croque monsieurs, and salad cream with their fromage et jambon baguettes.

I was so shocked, I had to buy three packets. The Special One and The Young Ones won’t know what’s hit ’em, I can tell you.