Part the first:
There is a lot of prejudice and stigma surrounding ideas of American cuisine, with no small association with obesity dominating impressions. Certainly a nation whose contributions to innovative cuisine include spray-on cheese, deep-fried butter, and the fine art of adding extra meat to just about anything (usually other forms of meat) would suggest that any reputation is deservedly earned. However, despite issues – and there certainly are some – there is a lot more than worthy of trying on the great American menu. There is, however, one thing it is essential to establish before we proceed: I am a lifelong vegetarian. As such, it not only ruled out experiencing a lot of what America unashamedly does best along with every restaurant ever visited on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives but also threatened to limit my culinary experiences to being laughed out of the country. Yet do not fear, this is not going to explore The Top 5 Greatest Garden Salads to be Found on the West Coast or Why Eating Healthy Is Just the Most Tiptop Thing, instead this is about all I found to love during six weeks of feasting which, with my profound devotion to all things deep-fried, began with high hopes and a nervous aorta.
There is a divide within the food culture with extreme ends: the wholly unhealthy, synthetic, over-processed goodness the media generally dwells upon and the non-GMO, ‘gourmet’, gluten-free aspect that tends to wrap itself in reassuring, though vague, words. (Don’t get me wrong, I was delighted to find gluten-free water, not least because I’d have been utterly alarmed had it been anything less.) There is not as much middle ground between the two as is generally found in Britain, and this is the ugly side of a culture where basics such as milk and bread are highly sweetened as standard making poor diet choices difficult to escape, and supplements – usually in juice form – are represented as the answer to all your health concerns with a hefty price tag to let you know just how effective it must be. Yet however you feel about how Americans feed themselves in their own homes, there is no question that, as a service, food is taken very seriously indeed.
This first instalment of ‘wow this article really got out of hand, let’s divide it up so people can actually get through it’ will start broad, exploring some of the big players of American cuisine, discussing some of its finer features in the two postings to follow.
So let’s begin with something crucial: pizza is a big deal. A really BIG DEAL. Every city has a plethora of family owned pizzerias that go back generations, all claiming their own unique method or recipe with variations far wider and more subtle than New York or Chicago style. In New Haven there is an entire species known as apizza (not a mistype, I promise) that distinguishes itself through its thin yet chewy crust and at the restaurant believed to have originated it –Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana – is often topped with cheese and clams which, I must say, sounds grim. The tomato pie version, however – essentially a classic margarita where the tomato sauce is added last over the other toppings – with extra cheese (always) is the greasy slab of deliciousness you have always dreamed of. Almost unwieldy in its hot gooey majesty, the chewiness of the crust adds both perfect texture and an element of challenge as molten cheese insists on sliding down your fingers (napkins are provided in bulk, and forks are not really considered an option).
If you need your pizza fix, and yet for whatever unaccountable reason feel that a pizza the size of your torso is excessive, there is an even greater number of ‘by the slice’ places that, as the name suggests, reheat a slice of your choice for your immediate gorging pleasure. Options are invariably extensive with the additional possibility of customising (I always added olives to everything) and with fierce competition between businesses further resulting in less conventional and utterly delicious toppings such as eggplant (aubergine) parmigiana – seriously, it’s a revelation. The phenomenon of the white slice also requires some discussion, rarely existing in the form of a full white pizza this home-grown New York slice now found throughout the East Coast defies pizza’s long established affinity with tomatoes and instead utilises a creamy white sauce topped with fresh ricotta and sometimes mozzarella to utterly redefine your understanding of joy. You might feel that you’d miss the acidic tang of tomato, but a white slice has creamy and flavoursome advantages that makes it an essential after a day, or indeed night, of New York adventures. It became my slice of choice. Quality is usually high, with a good-looking slice a remarkably reliable way of gauging a good tasting one as both freshness and quality are in front of you to be established; real variation comes through in the quality of the reheat. The speed of service depends on pizzas being precooked, with individual slices popped back into the pizza oven to order .This is sometimes that part of the process that gets rushed. However, there is something unutterably sad about a tepid slice that had so much promise, so whatever you do don’t settle for anything less than a piping hot slice. Ever.
With a huge and constant flux of immigrants, major cities contain a means to just about every type of cuisine imaginable, making the authentic and the unusual available to those willing to adventure. America offered what was undoubtedly, and not surprisingly, the best Mexican food I’ve ever had with an array of morsels fresher and tastier than any I’ve had the pleasure to come across before. A lifelong obsession with nachos found its mecca in blue corn chips swimming – crucially not drowning – in melted cheese with fresh, highly spiced salsa, perfectly chilled sour cream delicately swirled through with coriander, and the most gloriously limey serving of guacamole I have ever had the pleasure to gorge on. The best new discovery by far was a meaty cactus fungus – which I can’t name, though certainly not the one that gets you high – smothered in oozy hot cheese. Admittedly, pretty much anything smothered in hot oozy cheese is attractive which makes it all the more perplexing as to why it’s not more widely available around the world. This said, I actually didn’t eat all that much Mexican food, and there’s a very good reason for this: as a cuisine it has become so generic and standardised as a cheap convenience that the readily available options are almost invariably overly dumbed down versions of their originals. I had more than one disappointing burrito, often suffering from being distinctly bland with none of the salty zing one would hope for. Though perhaps it is unfair for me to comment primarily as I was not allowed to try Taco Bell (for ‘my own good’) but also as vegetarian options tend to reduce down to grilled vegetables in place of the meat, offering a somewhat watery alternative to a flavour cornerstone. Yet even acknowledging this, can there really be an excuse for getting such flavour profiles so wrong? The pride in and pioneering approach to pizza hasn’t translated, with the freshness and vitality that makes Mexican cuisine so very delicious seeming to be undermined and suffering by the Americanising process, suggesting the genre is a victim of its own popularity. However, here it is important to highlight that the North East is undeniably far from Mexico which has resulted in fewer and smaller immigrant populations and there is actually far less authentic Mexican food here than in other parts of the country. It is also impossible to respect any establishment that charges extra for guacamole – they consider it an extra not an essential and are consequently fools. Don’t get me wrong, there is tons of amazing Mexican food and its prevalence is a fantastic thing (hullo, breakfast burrito), but the best stuff is the most authentic, with American-Mexican cuisine (at least in the North East) failing to as successfully forge its own identity in the same way as American-Italian cooking.
In contrast, Chinese cuisine appears to have made no compromises. Now, despite a reputation for eating just about any sort of animal imaginable, a predominantly Buddhist influence has meant that mock meat (usually wheat gluten based – sorry hipsters) has been a greatly refined creation and an enduring cultural presence. As such, vegetarian Chinese restaurants offering meatless versions of duck, shrimp, chicken, fish, and even trimmings such as kidney are an excellent indicator of truly authentic Asian cooking. Seriously, you can’t even get fries with anything. I don’t have words for how glorious it feels to sip on complimentary green tea after diving into a vast, sticky bowl of usual off-limits dishes such as General Tsao’s Chicken or adventurous discoveries such as braised kidney with lemongrass. My (frequent) visits to such restaurants were also the ones that ended in a recovery session and a steady waddle home, as eating alone in restaurants where the menu is designed for sharing results in what can only be described as an ambitious portion size (yet one that still requires starters and sides, because curiosity and delicious food do not always respect physical capacities). Even if you’re a committed carnivore, such places are worth a visit as they are silent seals of something genuine, delicious, and worthy of discovery. Ok, so it is possible to find excellent Chinese food in just about every country in the world, but with a distinct China Town in every single city visited on this trip, there’s no denying its impact on the culinary landscape.
I hope this has peeled away at least a few of your preconceptions about food in America. Admittedly, a somewhat unconventional angle but being vegetarian took me away from obvious cliché’s and established chains and instead drew me through a different route of discovery. The next instalment is where it gets both super healthy and super greasy (sadly not in the same dish), delving into more home-grown American cuisine from burgers and bar food to snacks and home cooking. It’ll probably get pretty emotional as I recount the moment the love of my life first sashayed onto my palate…