Now we’re getting to the heart of the beast. Even with a heavily influential immigrant culture, the US has still succeeded in creating a very distinct identity for its cuisine and this instalment of my shameless attempt to make you hungry will be celebrating these more home-grown delicacies. As noted before, there appears to be a default approach to food along the lines of ‘is it free-range or should we deep-fry it?’ and we’ll be exploring more quintessentially American fare, both home-grown and at home, along this divide.
Veganism. Yes, I was scared too, but thanks to a shrouding of hipster chic it is gathering serious momentum throughout North America and presents the apotheosis of healthy eating. Without having quite hit the mainstream, it has nonetheless forged its own genre of committed restaurants and cafes which, apparently aware that there are a lot of foodstuffs they need to make up for, offer the best chance of finding non-meat versions of local specialities. Fortunately, as a devoted believer in cheese they often go hand in hand with vegetarian menus, so vegan Philadelphia cheesesteak – also known as the cheesy, oniony, meaty delight your life needs to fuel a long day in a cold city (and with surprisingly oozy and convincing cheese) – became possible in Philadelphia, as well as finding vegetarian super cheesy pizza topped with ALL OF THE MEATS in Brooklyn. Yet the Hipster image also means that such places are inherently bound up with other principles, not least the gluten-free phenomenon. As such, there is an offshoot of this growing culture that manifests itself in ferociously healthy, often expensive, and ever so chic eateries. Personally, I adore this kind of food; hot rice, grilled tofu, chickpeas, and fresh avocado with raw tomato served in a big bowl with lashings of salty miso sauce. It’s delicious and filling and caters to my endless love of saucy rice. Yet the premium added on to what is essentially cheap and easy food reinforces a dangerous notion of simple, healthy eating as expensive. Looking at the ingredients, this stuff should be cheap even factoring in the necessary mark-up to keep a restaurant profitable yet it never is, making what should be a staple an indulgence.
So let’s talk about something that is mainstream, a big deal, and almost the perfect cultural opposite of the surge in veganism: burgers. Available everywhere and often the focus of pride and imagination, there is no denying that America is truly home of the burger. McDonalds barely even registers on the radar as there are just so many options, with many places specialising in and offering nothing else on the menu. By definition, a meat patty within a bread bun often accompanied with cheese, lettuce, and tomato, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about burgers (at least not excessively so) yet anywhere worth its salt will present fare firmly on the deep-fried end of the spectrum. In Boston, one restaurant offered thirty different variations of burger (using the same patty and bun base), and there’s no denying that there is something eternally pleasing about being presented with a burger on deep-fried balls of macaroni cheese topped with mozzarella sticks and onion rings with barbeque sauce. It’s as many calories as you’d need in a week and no less glorious. Even if you go with something rather less contrived, most places offer a myriad of options in terms of sauces, seasonings, and extras such as various cheeses that can be added. You need be concerned about only two things: the quality of the meat, and how good the fries are. All else is only an improvement on those two foundations. Certainly, if you’re already near the top of a heart transplant waiting list then this is really the genre to explore.
Yet burgers are an excellent point at which to reveal why veganism ad vegetarianism are gaining so much ground as a distinct movement and that is because, despite virtually every restaurant having at least a vegetarian option, that option is usually disappointing. Rather than a juicy, succulent patty, meat free burgers are often sad and dry little things of mysteriously united chunks of miscellaneous vegetables. Why yes, they do taste as good as they sound, and the flavour rarely harmonises with the toppings that are optimistically placed with it. Similarly, curries and sandwiches often listed with filling options along the line of pork, beef, chicken, salmon, etc., will then list the vegetarian option as ‘vegetables’. This is not a flavour, and remarkably unenlightening as to what will actually be contained. Vegetables have a surprisingly wide array of flavours and can optimise a number of cooking methods, and anywhere not concerned with creating something delicious with thought-through flavour combinations is always a red flag. I guess my point is that mainstream America still doesn’t really understand food not centred on meat, with non-meat options still considered a secondary gesture or confusing concession that needs to be made.
Ok no more ranting, I promise. Rather, let’s move on to what was best about those burgers – all the deep-fried accoutrements – and celebrate them as they should be and in their finest form: as pub food. Seriously delicious, crispy beer companions are the mecca of all your feasting desires and it was with a pint of Blue Moon in my hand that I met the culinary love of my life: fried pickles. These crunchy, vinegary, and oh so moreish little chunks of all things wonderful were often the deciding factor in choosing a pub to nest up in and come in many forms (spears or slices? thick or thin? Tangy tomato or creamy dill dip?), with none of them anything less than sublime. Often found in Irish pubs under the guise of being ‘British’ (they’re definitely not, I’ve been looking for them everywhere since I got home), they are diplomatically companionable with any beer you care to imagine. Our love is deep and it is real. If, for whatever reason, you’re not a pickle fan (even if they’re deep-fried, really?!) rest assured there are numerous other delicacies that have been submerged in scolding hot fat. Fried cheese is a perennial favourite, that if you need any kind of persuasion about I can only pity you. What is worth discovering is the magically wonder of avocado fries. You heard right, and no I’m not discussing potato fries with some sort of avocado-based accompaniment but fries made of breaded and fried slices of avocado. Yes. If they’re not in your face, they should at least be in your life soon. Although not as common (and technically Polish) pierogies are also a fantastically greasy way of keeping your beer company. They’re little dumplings filled with a creamy, cheesy, oniony, species of mashed potato which are pan-fried and served with cooked onion and a healthy dollop of sour cream. If even this is too exotic for you, then rest assured the classics are also done reassuringly well such as macaroni cheese, with the gourmet touch of adding truffle being surprisingly common, consistently so flavoursome and creamy it must contain something illegal. Worthy of special mention is McSorely’s Old Ale House in New York City, not just for their cheap and yummy self-brewed beer, but also their food. Go there for the cheese plate, resplendent in its simplicity, as $4 will get you a plate full of cheese in slices, half an onion (raw), and an entire packet of saltines, still in the wrapper, loving placed on top. There is truly pub food for everyone in this great nation.
Between these there is of course a world of snacking wonders – not least the revelation of dill pickle flavoured crisps, and the utter majesty sold in 7-eleven ® known as the Doritos ® loaded (hot cheese encased in a crispy crust of crushed Tangy Cheese flavoured Doritos). Additionally, there is no denying the variety and quality available in major supermarkets, so feeding oneself to a wholesome standard is far easier with catering facilities to call your own. Yet such options are all suggestive of something that could be found or made at home, and it is worth noting that when my dear American chums were so kind as to feed me for a few days, the food was remarkably familiar: pasta bakes, quiche, aubergine (eggplant) parmigiana, burgers, etc. This is to say, that all the excesses of cuisine are to be found when eating out and this is the crux of what is so great and so terrible about American food culture: there is outright commitment to what is going to taste great. It’s just that tasting great is normally equated with all things fatty and greasy (curse you, evolution!). The next instalment will be doing nothing to reverse this trend as we take a final, longing look at all things sweet.