An entrenched stereotype Americans have about English culture is that the food is terrible. A classic joke is that all the chefs in hell are English. Note that this view is out of step with the usual American attitude towards British culture. Generally speaking, Americans have a high regard for British culture, but when it comes to cuisine, we’ve traditionally felt superior.
I can remember being shocked and dismayed to discover that Brits held similarly dismissive attitudes towards American cuisine (though, looking back, I now find it hard to imagine I was ever so innocent). I can also pinpoint the moment I started to feel defensive about this issue. I was reading a copy of the Bookseller (a publisher’s trade magazine), which carried a review of Jamie’s America, then the latest cook book by UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. I can no longer remember the exact words of the review, but it was something like ‘Jamie Oliver does the impossible and actually makes American food seem appetizing.’ Ouch! Ever since then, I’ve been a little sensitive to the issue of how American cuisine is perceived in the UK.
Although American cuisine is held in low esteem in Britain, I’ve noticed that most Brits are usually very positive about their experiences dining in American restaurants. True, they will typically complain that the portion sizes are inhuman, but they will nevertheless usually say that the food is very good. And yet the idea that American cuisine is inferior persists. On the odd occasion when US cuisine is described favorably, inevitably the phrases ‘bold’ and ‘strong and simple’ will appear. One suspects such commentators are conforming to a preordained narrative.
The problem, of course, is that the British concept of American food tends to be very narrow, most of it based on imported American fast food chains, like McDonalds and KFC. Let first me make the obvious point that many Brits love hamburgers and fried chicken (as do I, for the record). And though I can’t deny that hamburgers and fried chicken are popular in the US, and even emblematic, American cuisine has much more to offer.
American cuisine has been enriched by generations of immigrants, who have taken native dishes and reinvented then. For example, Italo-American cuisine has its own canon of classic dishes, which may not be authentically Italian, but are authentically American, and delicious in their own right. Creole cuisine, which primarily derives from a fusion of French and African cuisine, has produced delicacies such as jambalaya and seafood gumbo. The US boasts fantastic restaurants representing different nationalities. Many Brits may not consider these restaurants ‘American’, even though they are. Perhaps this partially explains the tendency for Brits to praise restaurants in America, but not American cuisine itself.
In order to broaden the discussion further, let me tell you about a few of my favorite foods from my native eastern seaboard. Naturally, the canon of US cuisine is wide (yes, it is), and this is just a small and highly personal sample. This blog entry will also partially answer a question I am frequently asked: which foods from home do I miss?
First of all: clams. According to my fish cookbook ‘Americans are passionate about clams’ — well this American certainly is. A classic dish is Clams Casino, large clams cooked with bacon, peppers, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Clam Chowder is another uniquely American dish. Essentially a stew made with bacon, clams, potatoes and vegetables, it comes in two basic varieties: Manhattan clam chowder, a tomato-based soup; and New England clam chowder, a cream based soup.
As a Delawarean, I’d be remiss not to mention our local delicacy: blue crabs. Yes, there is crab is England, but it’ seldom served, and, in my view, can’t match the succulence of the east coast blue. In Mid-Atlantic states, like Delaware, blue crabs are traditionally steamed with a spice mixture called Old Bay (paprika and celery salt, mainly). It takes a lot of time and effort to pick meat out of a crab, and consequently, friends and family will gather for hours to pick crabs as they talk and joke with one another. These crab parties, held every summer across mid-Atlantic states, are a genuine slice of local culture and among my most treasured memories from childhood.
Some things I miss are little more basic: fresh juicy peaches and ripe tomatoes. In the UK, the cool climate means that many fruit and vegetables are imported. There are of course exceptions, but the UK can’t match the abundance of fresh produce available on roadside fruit stands across America.
And finally let me throw in an honorable mention for my personal favorite snack (though I realize my passion for this simple snack puts me in a minority): popcorn — a food I was so obsessed with as a child that I wrote a mythic origin story for it. It’s much nicer made at home than as served in British cinemas.
Now, I started this essay commenting on how British food is poorly thought of in the US. This too needs to be redressed. Stay tuned in for Part II: in Defense of British Cuisine!