Category Archives: Food and Drink

E-coli all ye faithful

I’d like to think that I’m not all that particular about my food. I’m pretty adventurous in my eating habits, and will happily (if sometimes squeamishly) tuck into strange parts of strange animals if they’re proferred in my general direction. Blood, guts and entrails are all happily welcomed on the Brit Out Of Water menu, even if I do draw the line at tripe. Put simply, I’m not a picky eater – invite me to your house and I’ll eat whatever is put infront of me.

As it happens, the few things that I don’t particularly like to eat are central to the American way of life. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t generally eat eggs. This means that on the average breakfast menu in a diner, the only item that I can sometimes bring myself to eat is the menu itself. It’s fine if you put steak sauce all over it, to be honest, although I’ve had to give up laminated menus because of high blood pressure.

I don’t eat beetroot. I don’t desperately enjoy (although will still eat) bitter greens like broccoli rabe. And while not unique to the United States, I’d rather put pureed head lice on my burger than ketchup. Apart from that though, I’m the most laid back eater you’ll ever find.

Where my culinary openness ends though is with an American tradition that shakes me to my core, and causes me to shudder at the mere thought. It’s only in season for a short period each year thankfully, but during that time you can find yourself in food hell at least once a week. Turning it down isn’t an option, unless you want to adopt an air of anti-festivity that would make Bernard Madoff look like the people’s champion by comparison.

There’s no place for potluck dinners in this day and age, if you ask me.

For the uninitiated, the potluck dinner sees all attendees bring a dish of their choosing to the event, for everybody to share and enjoy. It’s an impressive display of community which generally happens around the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday seasons, although the seriously unhinged have been known to try it at other points during the year. And to be fair, the principle is good, allowing the party host to engage in festive frivolities without the stress and strain of making food for dozens of people.

But the problem isn’t in the principle, it’s in the execution.

For a start, unless the potluck is organised to within an inch of its life, it can lead to some unholy combinations. I mean, pumpkin curry has its place, but it’s not on the same plate as roast chicken. Of course, there’s always somebody who brings their old family recipe for stuffing, made largely from dust and toenail clippings. And who needs eighteen different types of pumpkin pie, given that even one plate of the noxious substance would be enough to keep me dry retching for at least a week?

More to the point though, it’s the lack of clarity on the food hygiene standards of eighty three different people that sets me on edge. Let’s face it, these events are only called ‘potluck’ as it’s anyone’s guess whether you’ll get away without a serious dose of food poisoning. I mean, I know that I cook in clean pans and don’t use carrots that have been dropped on the floor to be licked by the cats, but that’s not to say that everybody is so fastidious. As I stare into the gloop of a lukewarm turkey gravy cooked by Andy Onymous, I’m not thinking “mmm, look at that glorious deep and flavourful stock” but “I wonder if he had a cold when he cooked this?”

I spend most of my time at potluck parties standing around the thing that I’ve cooked, or that’s been catered by the host. I know caterers are more than capable of their own crimes against domestic health, but at least I haven’t sat watching them pick their nose on eight separate occasions in the three days leading up to the event.

Still, the potlucks are all over for another year, and it’s home cooking all the way from here on in. I hope The In-Laws are looking forward to black pudding, that’s all I can say.

There’s no place like home

For somebody who isn’t remotely patriotic, has no celebratory mugs bearing images of the Queen or Prince Edward, and wouldn’t be able to tell you which way up a Union Jack flag is meant to be even if you paid him, I have to say that ‘being British’ is something I enjoy and am proud of. OK, so I’m not willing to defend our violent colonial past, our role in the Iraq conflict or our responsibility for the meteoric rise of the Cheeky Girls, but on the whole I have to agree with Grand Lake Ink and her assertion that “I think I won the lottery of life being born British.”

Britain has many faults, regardless of who has political power at any given moment. And any country which has more votes cast for a pop talent show than for a general election should always consider a long hard look in the mirror. But it’s also an incredibly beautiful place, with (as one American friend once put it) “Roman shit and old stuff everywhere”. And there’s at least an attempt at a duty of care towards its people, which you can’t say about many countries.

Of course, being away from your homeland only heightens those feelings of affection. It’s not out of any lack of love for New York either – if any city can put you in a Christmas mood, it’s this one. But emigration kits come equipped with rose-tinted spectacles. If I was in the UK right now, I’d be moaning about the weather and bleating about the failures of the economic system. Instead, I sit on the subway dreaming wistfully of low-lying moisture laden clouds and fog, and an interest rate that’s at least above zero (for the moment, admittedly).

The strangest thing about not being in Britain is that it makes you pine for things you never bothered much with when you were there in the first place.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a biscuit as much as the next man. And the man next to me right now is called Mr McVitie. But back home I’d probably go six months without eating one, and certainly wouldn’t buy them in a supermarketgrocery store. Now I have vivid dreams involving custard creams and bourbon biscuits, and I’d kill for a Garibaldi.

Similarly, the Christmas spirit has me longing to go to a pantomime. I haven’t been to a pantomime since about 1987, when Angie from Eastenders played a thigh-slapping Aladdin alongside Derek Griffiths from Play School and Play Away at the Pavillion Theatre in Bournemouth. But right now, I’d be more than happy with a slapstick cry of “he’s behind you” and the last five minutes of fame for a Big Brother star from three years ago.

Earlier this week, the pangs reached a new low when I found myself in the kitchen making Cornish pasties from scratch. Without a recipe. I have never made Cornish pasties in my life. Love them though I do, they’re a convenience food that you pick up when you’re hungry. Making them yourself is much less convenient, let me tell you. Back home, there would be more chance of me eating pencil sharpeners than there would be of making my own Cornish pasties, but here it just seems like a perfectly natural thing to do.

Anyway, enough of this. I’m going to see Oasis tonight, and I’ve got no idea where I’ve put the tickets.

What does a man have to do to get a beer around here?

Ordering alcohol is never easy for me when I’m in the southern United States. I’m asked for ID on a regular basis, despite the fact that I turned 21 many moons ago, and showing any barman or waiter my British passport generally produces a look of bafflement and wonder. I guess it might be Tennessee’s way of attempting to stop me from drinking in the first place, given that the state still has a number of dry counties. Or no-go zones, as I prefer to call them.

But sometimes all it takes to get a drink is abject humiliation.

On a flight from Washington DC to Knoxville on Wednesday evening, the flight attendant and her trolley made their way down the aisle of the tiny plane offering free fizzy popsoda, or alcoholic drinks for $6. No tiny bags of free snacks, sadly – one man who asked for some pretzels received a slightly embarrassed reply of “Sorry, United got rid of them a while ago.”

A couple of people had opted for a late night beer by the time the trolley got to me, and after five hours of hanging around airports, I decided to get the Thanksgiving party started in a similar way (safe in the knowledge that my passport was in my back pocket, in case any age-related concerns were brought up). Putting aside my annoyance at paying six dollars for something available for less than a dollar in a supermarket, I waited for my turn.

Attendant: “Can I get you a drink from the trolley?”

Brit Out Of Water: “That would be great. Can I have a beer, please?”

Attendant: “Pardon?”

Brit Out Of Water: “A beer please.”

Attendant: “Sorry?”

Brit Out Of Water (face reddening as people start to listen in): “A beer.”

Attendant: “What is it you would like sir?”

Brit Out Of Water (desperation setting in as fellow passengers start to laugh): “A beer. You know, a beer. A beer.”

Attendant: “Erm, I’m sorry sir, I don’t think we have…”

[Brit Out Of Water bends down, opens the bottom drawer of the trolley and gesticulates wildly at the cans within]

Attendant: “Oh, a beer! Why didn’t you say…”

Now, I admit that the British tend to pronounce the word that denotes “an alcoholic drink containing water, grain, hops and yeast” as ‘bee-err’ and Americans pronounce it more like ‘byurrrrgh’. But nonetheless, most flyers know that their drinks options are limited to a very few options, and so it wasn’t as if I was going to be asking for a glass of Château Pétrus (1929 preferably, although I hear that the 1961 is drinking very well at the moment). But that British accent just keeps getting in the way of day-to-day life, it would seem.

On the way back yesterday, a different attendant approached with the trolley on our delayed flight back to New York.

Attendant: “Would you like a drink sir?”

Brit Out Of Water: “I’ll have a Heineken, please.”

The real price of food in America

It’s the time of year when American turkeys are looking nervously over their shoulder every time that the farmer comes anywhere near them. If their heads are not already hundreds of miles away from their shoulders, that is. With Thanksgiving less than ten days away, old family recipes are being dug out of dusty drawers across the country as people prepare to make stuffing or cranberry sauce for their gathering of relatives.

The weird thing is that for a fair number of people, Thanksgiving dinner is one of the few that they actually bother to cook, or indeed where the family gathers together around one table. Mainland Europe still tries to cling on to the principle of the family dinner, but in the UK and (especially) the US, the concept of sitting down as one at a given moment is sadly disappearing quicker than ice cream at a five year old’s birthday party.

In the United States at least, that’s hardly surprising. At the end of my road in Brooklyn are a butchers and a diner. On the diner’s window, there’s currently a big sign advertising their Thanksgiving Dinner for 10-12 people, listing all the trimmings including stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce, gravy and so on, at an all-in price of $169.99. The butcher has a similar sign on their window for their Thanksgiving deal, featuring a turkey big enough for 10-12 people and all the various sides that you could hope for. Hell, they’ll even cook the turkey for you so that you won’t have to spend three days soaking the roasting pan afterwards.

And the price for this do-it-(vaguely)-yourself feast? $199.99. That’s thirty dollars more expensive than cooking for yourself at home, even though the restuarant will be providingyou with all the cutlery, crockery and waiter service – and doing the washing up afterwards.

It’s not true outside the big cities, but in New York and other metropolitan centrescenters, there are plenty of people who don’t cook their own food because it’s cheaper to order it in. Sure, they may be eating meat made primarily of corn, and consuming their own bodyweight in monosodium glutamate, but who cares when you can get a giant helping of General Tso’s Chicken for six dollars, eh? Ordering in food is a treat for me and The Special One – for many people in New York, it’s become a way of life.

Can anybody tell that I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma at the moment?

Now, time to dig out my world-famous gravy recipe in preparation for next week. Oh, and spare a thought for those (pasture raised) British turkeys who are currently sitting around in their barns laughing smugly at the fate of their American counterparts, and haven’t yet realised that December is just around the corner…

A tale of two pasties

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and never more so than in the kitchen. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve gone to cook a well-loved recipe like fish pie, only to realise that I have forgotten to buy some of the vital ingredients. Like fish, for instance. The Special One is well used to me ferreting through the fridge and freezer looking for alternative foodstuffs, and to her credit, she doesn’t bat an eyelid at my culinary creativity even when it involves the unlikeliest of combinations. In retrospect, she should probably have put her foot down when it came to ducks feet with mango, but you live and learn.

When miners in Cornwall needed an easy to handle hot food to keep them going during the long and strenuous days of extracting tin from below ground, creativity and invention gave rise to the pasty. For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to come into contact with a pasty, it’s essentially a pocket of pastry containing diced steak, onion, swederutabaga and potato. Served hot, it’s like a flat pie with a thick crimped edge which allowed miners to hold it easily without contaminating their food with their dirty hands.

Of course, when the Cornish invented the pasty, they had little idea that it would become one of the great British convenience foods of modern times, with particular appeal as an alcohol-soaking hangover food. Such is the popularity of the pasty among non-mining everyday Brits that a number of chains have emerged peddling all kinds of strictly untraditional pasties such as chicken balti, cheese and bacon, and steak and stilton. Ducks feet and mango is not yet available, but it’s only a matter of time.

The Special One and The Young Ones are particular fans of the pasty, and take any opportunity to get their hands on one when we go to the UK. Sadly, while you can apparently get a pasty-esque creation in some parts of the States (and you can buy the British version in a few very select shops), the United States is yet to embrace the pasty fully to its hearts.

Clearly I would dearly love to set up my own pasty kingdom, to convert my adopted nation to the way of the baked pastry delight. Unfortunately, I’ve got a feeling that there may be a small amount of rebranding to be done beforehand. Given that in this country the word ‘pasty’ apparently describes the adhesive device used to cover a stripper’s nipples, I’m not sure that the folk who wouldn’t mind a pasty in their mouth are the kind of people I want to call customers.

We even have electricity

I know that it feels like America has been living in the dark ages for a while, and that Tuesday evening saw the re-emergence of this country as a respected player on the world stage. But it wasn’t until I went home to the UK this weekend that I realised just how far some people believe the United States has slipped behind.

Having questioned me at length about different British and American names for certain vegetables, Little Sis furrowed her brow and asked:

“Do you have apples and pears in America?”

This country’s return from the brink can’t happen soon enough, clearly.

All is not what it seems

As you’ll see from the counter over on the right, I’ve now been a Brit Out Of Water for 400 days. During that time, I’ve penned a little under 250 posts. Which means, inevitably, that there have been just over 150 days when I haven’t posted at all. Now, on most of those days I was probably, you know, having a life. But on some of the others, if I was being truly honest, I probably just couldn’t think of something to blog about.

The problem is, of course, that the more you’re away from your home, the more you get used to your adopted city. Fortunately, New York is still strange enough to keep me in stories for at least another 400 days, but I do have to pay even closer attention these days just to make sure that I don’t miss any of the ridiculousness of it all.

Caring as dearly as I do about you, my loyal reader, I now find myself walking around the city with my eyes darting everywhere just in case I can see the start of a potential blog posting kicking off in my vicinity. Sometimes I’ve changed my route to work, having witnessed something unusual going on in the distance. Sure, it generally turns out to be a New Yorker walking more than six blocks without using a form of motorised transport, but at least I’m trying.

Tonight while heading home from work, I was standing on the N train back into the murky depths of Brooklyn, standing all the way from Union Square. While I clung on to a metal pole for grim death as the train attempted to throw me around like a pathetic rag doll, an elfin young lady sat down serenely on the chair next to me.

Serene, that is, but for the fact that she spent the next few stops consuming a chocolate brownie with the eagerness and grim determination of someone who hadn’t seen food for, say, three weeks.

It took her so long to eat the aforementioned brownie simply because it appeared to have fallen apart in the paper wrapper in which it was encased. Duly, Miss Elfin dipped her fingers into the bag with metronomic regularity, scooping up crumbs and plunging them into her ever chomping mouth. After about ten minutes, she extracted the paper wrapper from the bag in which it was contained, turned into a makeshift chute, and shovelled the last remaining crumbs down her gullet. And with that complete, she did the same with the outer paper bag, just in case there were a few molecules that she’d missed.

Throughout the whole thing, I could feel myself getting progressively – and inexplicably – more irate about the whole thing. Maybe it was the fact that she was an astonishingly noisy eater, or maybe it was because it was taking her forever to eat something that would have lasted perhaps 3.72 seconds in my custody. But as my anger rose, I was at least calmed by the fact that I would be able to pen a blog about eating on the tube, turning this anonymous character into an example of all that is bad about self-involved commuters.

Next thing I know, the man sat a few seats down from her quietly reading his John Grisham novel falls asleep (to be fair, his books can be a bit samey) and his bookmark drops to the floor. Miss Elfin, her chocolate brownie now firmly a thing of the past, quickly steps up, bends down, picks up the fallen bookmark, and quietly places it back into the book without even waking the man from his slumbers.

Hardly the actions of a superhero, but a happy ending nonetheless, and a good example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its flour-and-chocolate based confection eating cover. But I was gutted. After all, there was my bitter posting ripped from my grasp. Much more of this good citizenry, and I won’t have a blog to speak of.

Come on New York, pull your act together. Enough of this ‘being nice’ – you’ve got a reputation to keep up, you know.

Absolute filth

Just before I went to university, and was living at home with She Who Was Born To Worry and Little Sis, I managed to get a job as a barman working in a new pub in a renovated warehouse in Chester. To be fair, I wasn’t strictly honest when it came to the interview process. I may accidentally have suggested that I was pretty confident that I had completely messed upflunked my exams, and was going to need to take a year off. After all, no one was likely to take someone on with no experience of bar work, train them up, and watch them leave three months later.

Of course, my cover was well and truly blown a few months later when a picture of me and some classmates celebrating our exam success was printed in the local newspaper. But by then I’d found out plenty enough about the bar trade to get a job in any pub if ever I was to fall on hard times.

I’d like to say that all the lessons I learned were positive, but that would be a lie. Let’s just say that the management of the bar weren’t exactly scrupulous when it came to matters of consumer hygiene. Especially if it meant saving a bit of cash. If the wrong drink was ever poured, nobody was allowed to throw it away. Instead, it just waited on the side until somebody really did want that drink, and then it would surreptitiously be brought up from underneath the counter and proudly placed on the bar. And I always tried to steer clear of the kitchen if humanly possible. I went in a couple of times, and suffice to say that I never ate there even once afterwards.

The practice that horrified me most involved the barrels of beer that lay in the cellar beneath the pub. Every night, the landlord would collect up the slops that had collected underneath the beer pumps, take them downstairs, and empty them into the barrel of his choice. The fact that the collected drippings contained beers of all kinds, and probably every liquid from orange juice to gin, was neither here nor there to him. Let’s just say that the pub’s food wasn’t the only thing I didn’t consume.

Of course, it’s not just management that are guilty of unhygienic acts in bars and restaurants. From the chef who provides some of his – erm – ‘special sauce’ in the dish of a customer who has spent back his food one too many times, to the waiter who accidentally-on-purpose spills some water in the difficult diner’s lap, staff aren’t exactly innocent bystanders in the lack of cleanliness game.

That said, is it really necessary to make every American restaurant display a sign in their toiletrestroom proudly proclaiming that ‘all employees must wash their hands before returning to work’? I mean, if I’m in a restaurant, enjoying a foam of this or a ceviche of that, the last thing I need to think about is a collection of people who would be walking around with filthy toilet-soiled fingers if it wasn’t for a little notice on the wall. And to be honest, if you’re the kind of person who needs a sign to remind you to wash your hands, you’re probably not the kind of person who’s going to take notice of a sign urging you to wash your hands.

Maybe this is the first step in a series of restaurant and bar signs that do nothing more than state the obvious? Next time you’re in a swanky Michelin-starred eaterie, watch out for notices reading ‘employees must not scratch their arses when walking past a customer’s table’ or ‘please remember not to help yourself to a customer’s wine’.

As for a certain bar in Chester, the management have moved on and the name of the place has changed. But I still wouldn’t drink the beer, just in case…

The true cost of avoiding homesickness

The Special One is more British than she cares to let on. Sure, she might externally appear to be an ‘h’ dropping, zucchini munching, country invading, milkshake swilling gas guzzler, but cut just under the surface and she bleeds HP Sauce.

Now, part of that is that My Esteemed Mother-in-Law’s mother was English, and resolutely maintained her British citizenship through years of living in the deep south. But really The Special One’s Britishness comes from her love of condiments. Whether it’s Branston Pickle, Maldon Sea Salt or mint sauce, she can’t get enough of the things that the British add to their food in a desperate attempt to make it taste of something edible.

Slowly though, I’m introducing her to more and more British products. PG Tips – as mentioned recently – was an easy one, and Ribena wasn’t exactly tough. I expected mushy peas to be more of a struggle than they actually proved to be, while Cornish pasties were the unexpected hit of the winter of 2006. Black pudding is still a bridge too far though, and the less said about tripe the better. Cold cow’s stomach in vinegar doesn’t appear to do the trick for The Special One, for some reason.

One thing that she’s particularly partial to is English sausage. Quieten down at the back, and stop sniggering. Proper meaty British bangers are a world apart from the fat laden patties that she occasionally had with gravy and ‘biscuits’ (or ‘tasteless sugar free scones’, as I generally call them) in her youth. And having been a vegan for some considerable time, there’s now nothing she likes more than minced pig sinew in a crispy shell.

Close to my office is Myers of Keswick, a British ‘corner shop’ serving the rather large expat community (and Anglophiles) in New York City. I can’t actually let The Special One go there anymore. Partly because she insists on pronouncing it “Myers of Kezwick,” but mostly because she would come back with a lifetime’s supply of Mr Kipling’s Bakewell Tarts if given half a chance.

So today I ventured there alone to stock up with essential items. ‘Essential’ if your idea of essential is Curly Wurly’s and three pounds of Cumberland sausages, obviously. And a bumper box of PG Tips, some HP and Branston, a chicken and mushroom pie and a bag of Twiglets. What more could a man ask for? Apart from maybe a spicy curry Pot Noodle and a bag of pork scratchings.

I reckon if I’d bought that shopping in the UK, it’d probably have cost me about 15 quid or so, depending on the quality of the sausages. Head 3458 miles west, and the price suddenly escalates to 64 dollars. Clearly the dollar is worth next-to-nothing, but that’s one hell of a price to pay for some creature comforts. As a great philosopher once wrote, “Man cannot live on Branston alone.” But after that shopping trip, we’ll probably have to give it a go.

No tea please, I’m British

You know, getting up at 7.30am on a Saturday is no fun. Especially when you’re only doing it to watch an ultimately fruitless match. And even more particularly when you know that your good friends are cooped up at a nice London pub with a nice cold beer to keep them company through the pain. All I had to comfort me in my misery was a steaming hot mug of tea.

Don’t get me wrong though, I love a good cup of char or Rosie Lee. Ever since I first sipped tentatively at a cup of murky brown liquid belonging to She Who Was Born To Worry or Brit Out Of Water Sr, I’ve been hooked on tea and its uniquely restorative powers. When I failed my driving test first time round, it was with a cup of tea that I was comforted. At university, Dr Gentle, Mrs Millmore, Towcester’s Finest and I put the world to rights over enough tea to flood the East Anglian plains. And when The Special One’s a little stressed (and who wouldn’t be, being married to me?), it’s a mug of tea that brings her back down to earth.

The problem with moving to America is that the tea is – and let’s be frank here – a bit rubbish. Actually, a lot rubbish. Standard teabags bought in US supermarkets have all the power of, say, Jennifer Aniston performing one of Ibsen’s darkest plays. In Norwegian.

Recent chemical analysis suggests that the tea content within each bag could theoretically have been derived simply from once being in the same room as some tea leaves. As a result, it takes at least three Lipton (or equivalent) bags to get a brew that tastes anywhere near the kind of thing you’d get in your average greasy spoon back in the UK.

Indeed, your average diners here in New York are categorically among the worst makers of tea in the world. Ask for a cup of tea with your eggs Benedict, and you’ll likely get a cup of vaguely warm water, with a tea bag and a piece of lemon alongside it. Oh, and if there’s not a little pot of six day old cream already on the table, you’ll have to beg for the milk. You’d have as much luck making a good cup of char by bringing along a dustpan and brush to the diner with you, sweeping up the debris under your table, depositing it into the lukewarm water and giving it a quick stir.

The relief is that if you know where to go (or if you can use Amazon) you can get hold of some decent tea bags like PG Tips or Yorkshire Tea, even in a tea desert like America. The resultant brew doesn’t quite taste like it does at home, but even I have to draw the line at importing British water just for the odd cup of tea.

Thankfully, the sun is past the yardarm, and I don’t have to worry about this any further today. Now, where did I put those cans of Boddingtons?