Tag Archives: food

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.

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.

Mixing isn’t matching

After successive posts about religion, politics and sex, I figured it was probably time to return to the usual rubbish. I don’t want you to think I’ve got all highbrow on you, after all.

When it comes to food, I’ve never been one for strange concoctions. I don’t put tomato ketchup on macaroni cheese, or eat curried chicken with pasta. I loathe putting sweet and savoury things together, and don’t even think about including fruit in anything that’s not a puddingdessert.

Given such an attitude, Britain was probably the perfect place to be brought up. After all, this is the land of the cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off that we’re talking about here. The food in the UK – as even The Special One will reluctantly attest – is far better than the typical stereotype, but Britain is still generally a place in which tradition plays a huge part in great food. That’s not to say that menus don’t have innovative dishes, but on the whole you shouldn’t expect to see squid in chocolate sauce.

In America, however, eating exactly what your heart desires is central to the country’s way of life. Unless you’re eating in a particularly high-end restaurant, the menu is merely a guide to what you can eat there. Substitutions are largely tolerated, and waiters barely bat an eyelid for even the weirdest suggestion. Fads are practically encouraged, while fly-by-night diets are happily catered for at the lowliest diner. Sure, some places take a Marco Pierre White-esque approach if restaurant guests ask for French fries, but apart from that, if a place has got an ingredient, they’ll probably cook it for you.

Sometimes though, eating establishments need to take a stand for all that is good and right in the world.

Chomping lunch in a relatively upscale diner today, the woman a couple of seats away from me ate her breakfast with merry abandon. As I’ve said before, I hate eggs, but even to me her eggs, bacon and toast looked pretty damn good. Even her willingness to put jamjelly on her toast (a crime punishable by life imprisonment in some countries) didn’t put me off.

The fact that she had a great big dollop of mash on the same plate as her eggs and bacon, though, was utterly inexplicable. She’d have been run out of town or burnt at the stake in the UK.

You can mess with our hearts or our minds, but don’t ever mess with our breakfasts, OK?

Chopbusters

In a bid to put a long working week behind us, The Special One and I have a regular Friday night date. We even take it in turns to pick a dinner venue, which is a little difficult for me on occasion given that my knowledge of New York restaurants extends from hot dogs at Papaya King, to “that place that we thought gave me food poisoning from the chicken, but then we realised it was probably the three bottles of Sancerre that I washed it down with”.

Last week’s venue of choice was Dennis Foy in Tribeca, a restaurant that I can (now) heartily recommend. Especially if you plump for the gnocchi with mushrooms and sage – I’m not a particular gnocchi fan (it always seems like a waste of a good spud to me), but these were almost enough to swear me off chips and gravy for life.

Of course, it wouldn’t be New York without a little bit of drama, and sure enough, half way through the main course, the head waiter flounced out of the restaurant with a flourish, quickly followed by another (clearly anxious) member of staff. You couldn’t help but hear the raised voices, no matter how deeply you buried yourself in your parsnip puree. Thankfully after a thorough talking-to, the flouncee returned with his smarm and uncanny over-familiarity firmly intact.

Content after a good meal, The Special One and I got up to leave. Well, she got up to leave, and I scurried off to the bathroom. I have to call it a bathroom these days, despite the fact that there’s no bath and not even a toothbrush in sight. Apparently I break Newton’s First Law of Politeness In Marriage when I refer to the ‘facilities’ as a toilet. Next she’ll be telling me that I should be calling the cat’s litter box a feline waste disposal unit.

By the time I returned to her side, she was talking to a man dressed in a white jacket. Presuming it was neither Simon Le Bon from the video for ‘Rio’ or indeed the local butcher, I rapidly (and correctly) surmised that it was Dennis Foy himself, checking on the happiness of his customers at the end of the evening. As well as helping himself to something refreshing from the bar, obviously.

Foy quickly settled into a standard pattern of behaviour for ‘Americans that are introduced to a Brit that they don’t know, by an American that they also don’t know’. It’s a small subset of the human race, I appreciate, but large enough that a pattern of behaviour can be established. And sure enough, within 2.35 seconds, Foy was doing what can only be described as ‘taking the piss out of the Englishman’.

To be fair to him, he was very funny and extremely charming. Although if I’ve heard once that my fellow countrymen would be singing ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ at the FA Cup Final if it wasn’t for America, I’ve heard it a thousand times. What made it all worthwhile though was Foy’s laughing insistence that he was just ‘busting my chops’.

I love the phrase ‘busting my chops’, largely because it’s as American as an economic recession. If a Brit ever uttered the phrase, he’d be carted off to the loony bin, but for an American it somehow seems strangely quaint. Better than popping a proverbial cap in my metaphorical ass, at least.

As it was, I wasn’t even vaguely aware that I had chops, let alone that a chef of some distinction would consider busting them. But after five minutes of banter, my chops were well and truly busted, and I beat a hasty retreat muttering something about him using less orange-flavoured olive oil on his fish in future.

Next Friday we’re going to Taco Bell, I can tell you.

When the chips hit the fan

It’s always strange to find out how other people view your nation. For example, every single day, somebody talks to me in a faux British accent that suggests they’ve come straight off the set of Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. To the majority of Americans, the British are posh and haughty. Even the fourteen year old from the council estate who was knocked up by her drug dealer and now pushes around baby Britney in a pushchairstroller all day talks like the Queen as far as most residents of this fair land are concerned.

Why people feel duty bound to talk to me like I’m a Cockney is beyond me. I don’t go round talking to people in their particular accent or dialect, however tempting it might be sometimes. I tried it in a WalMart in Tennessee, and it almost led to the cashier refusing to sell me a cheese ball – a harsh punishment if ever there was one.

The slightly unsure attitude to Britain is particularly apparent in the world of entertainment, where the baddies are almost exclusively played by Arabs or the British (just watch 24 if you want confirmation).

And who cares about our history or beautiful countryside when you can obsess incessantly about Princess Diana? I still get asked about the ‘People’s Princess’ to this day, as if somehow we were close and my insight could prove useful to laying her ghost to rest. At that point in the conversation, it seems difficult to confess that Mr MacBottom and I didn’t even cancel a barbecue on the day of her death as, well, we’d already bought the meat and it wouldn’t keep for another day.

Of course, when it comes to food, everybody thinks Britain is a third world country. That is, until they go there and realise that some of the best cooking in the world now takes place in the UK.

Such high culinary arts caused a problem for the “Bizarre Foods” series on the Travel Channel. The basic concept of the show is that Andrew Zimmern (of whom it was famously once said “Who?”) travels the world eating strange and disgusting food. And when it comes down to it, the UK just doesn’t produce enough gruesome food.

Admittedly sheep intestines don’t look great when raw, but in haggis they seem pretty appetising. Eels aren’t my bag, it has to be said, but do they really require a dedicated segment in a bizarre foods show? And pigeon, cockles and hare just don’t seem to compare to deep fried rat if you ask me.

The show reached a new low on the bizarreness scale when the show turned its attention to Christmas pudding. I mean, dried fruit, nuts, peel, eggs, flour and sugar may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s hardly monkey brains is it?

Strangely there was no sign of black pudding, although given that even The Special One has tried that now, maybe it has begun to lose its bizarre charms? Thankfully, she’s a full convert to the Great British Banger, and didn’t even bat an eyelid when I ordered sausage, chips and beans for Sunday lunch in Bay Ridge.

Now that’s love.

A perfect setting

Some things just go together perfectly. Where would Elton John be without Bernie Taupin, for instance? A hot sunny day is nowhere near as perfect without a cold beer, condensation running down the outside of the glass. And what would Sunday morning be without a good old-fashioned lie-in?

Once upon a time, I would have added the knife and fork to that list of indisputable partnerships, but in the United States it seems that nothing is sacred.

When I was brought up, I was told that when you’re eating, you hold your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand. Then you use your knife to cut things, skewer them with your fork and plunge said stainless steel device and its captured foodstuff into the merry recesses of your mouth. With ‘unprongable’ stuff such as peas, we’d use our knife to scoop them up onto the fork. Eating anything other than a burger or hotdog simply wasn’t possible without both a knife and fork.

America disagrees though. My experience of eating at restaurants through to family dinners with The Special One, The Eldest and The Youngest is that the fork is king, and the knife is merely something you use to plunge into the back of your most bitter enemy. To be fair, my family haven’t yet taken to doing that, but it’s only a matter of time if I continue to sit watching football on TV on sunny Saturday afternoons.

The fork is a multi-use device in this country. You use it to scoop food into your mouth, spear big chunks of meat or vegetables, and to cut larger pieces into more manageable sizes using the outer prong (or tine, as I believe they’re called). For all I know, people may use it as a toothpick, a screwdriver and a solution to world poverty, such is the American commitment to this champion of the cutlery world.

Sure, you might pick up a knife if you’re eating something that simply can’t be cut by a fork (a thick steak, for instance) but otherwise there’s only a need for one utensil at the dining table. Discounting fingers, that is.

Like a marriage guidance counsellor of the eating utensil world, I’m maintaining my one man crusade to keep the knife and fork together. Call me an old-fashioned Englishman if you like, but isn’t it just better to cut things with a device specifically designed for that purpose? Restaurants don’t charge for cutlery usage by number, so why not use the full range of facilities? Or is it just that lifting two implements seems too much like hard work?

It’s only a matter of time before I get thrown out of a diner for trying to teach a complete stranger how to eat properly, I can tell you.