Forget greasy burgers, a growing enthusiasm for good local food in the US is getting the nation salivating, says Simon Schama.
Ask people in the UK what they think of American food and all too often their faces settle into the amused expression Mahatma Gandhi is said to have assumed when asked what he thought of Western civilisation. "It would," he replied, "be a very good idea." The same, many think, would be true of American food.
For most people in Europe, I suspect, it seems not so much food at all as fuel. The burgers and fries shovelled down while the car is idling at the drive-thru, or gobbled by marooned air travellers waiting for the "delayed" sign to flip so they can finally make their connection to Detroit.
Along the concourse plod the heavy herds in search of their own aviation fuel until at last they park their trolleys by the ketchup-stained corral, over which hangs a micro-climate of vaporised frying fat. Yum.
Americans love a blueberry pie
It could be worse. You might in a moment of desperation try the salad, or more tragically, the seasonal fruit. For an instant, these offerings - the greenery and the frighteningly livid cherry tomatoes, the day-glo cubes of pineapple - offer a tantalising resemblance to something you might actually want to put in your mouth. So you do. Big mistake.
What happens is more or less what happens after you've opened wide to the dentist and he's given you a shot of novocaine. You can't feel a thing. You're vaguely aware of something rolling around between tongue and gullet, but for the life of you you can't imagine what it is?
Could that papery thing glued to your tongue have once been a plant form? But the slimy pink cube purporting to be melon defeats you. You gulp and swallow only because it has to go somewhere and after all, you're in public.
At these human feeding troughs speed is what counts. In the 19th Century travellers to the US gazed in horror on river boats and in city taverns, at the spectacle of Americans sawing away at slabs of bloody beef. What particularly struck these foreigners was that all this brutal chewing precluded the activity which for them made a meal a social occasion - the act of speech.
Most American eating seemed swift and silent, as befitted a bodily function. Except in the grandest society it was enacted for business rather than pleasure. "Are you still working on that?" a polite waiter will inquire to this day if you rest briefly from your labours. "Good job", a proud parent will congratulate little Kelly when she cleans her plate.
Pleasure could be had from the table, but it was what you merited when all that arduous work was accomplished. Pleasure was, above all things, pie. Not steak and kidney, but fruit. And not just the proverbially patriotic apple, but the particular fruit of your own back country. Wild blueberry, tiny and intense in northern New England, picked when the pale bloom lies on the purple skin like a coating of light frost, luscious dripping peaches in the deep south.
Saddle-sore dry goods peddlers, snake-oil quacks fresh off the stagecoach, itinerant ranters with dirty collars and pummelled prayer books, rustlers and wranglers, the highfalutin and the lowdown could all be brought to a state of grace with a forkful of pie.
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Better yet, the whole thing would be brought to table and a stab through the puffed up pastry, made, if my wife - a Nevada hunter's daughter - is right, with bear fat, would liberate a clove-scented sugary steam that would draw you in.
A mouthful would take you to America's lost childhood. Your mama's at the hot stove, wiping her hands on a floury apron, while the Whippoorwills warble on a backyard hickory. The pie emerges, fills the kitchen with benevolence and all is right with your corner of the world.
But this is not a lament for the lost innocence of American eating. There's a place in downtown New York that dishes up a pretty fine sour cream apple pie. More important, though, I am here to announce that great American food is back, if indeed it ever went away.
Just don't go looking for it in places where they think fit to fob you off with a Caesar's salad that is merely a sorry bowl of lettuce in which lurk cardboard croutons, while the things that are supposed to be rendered unto Caesar's salad - raw egg yolk, lashings of anchovies and a heavy grating of fresh parmesan - have gone missing.
Go look for the real McCoy in places where the locals tell you cooks guard their mysteries with their life. In an African-American section of Houston, Texas, some years ago I joined a line of expectant diners waiting for what was said to be the best barbecue chicken in the south. The place was nothing more than a roadside shack, presided over by the duchess of barbecue who did indeed keep her secrets close to her mighty chest.
You took the bird away in paper trays along with "dirty rice", red beans and collard greens slippery with oil. But the bird seemed to be disintegrating in its own juices, challenging you to get stuck in before it gave up on you as someone who knew no better than to let it go cold.
Crossing the lobby of the fancy hotel where I was staying, well-dressed crowds parted like the Red Sea to let me and my packet of pungency through, as it leaked juicily on to the corporate marble floor. Half of the guests recoiled in horror, half retreated in drooling respect. But I was in no mood to hand out samples to the covetous. I just wanted to be alone in my room with the barbecued fowl and its mystery sauce.
Farmers' markets are flourishing in the US
There have always been two great pots from which American nourishment, cultural as well as gastronomic, has stirred - ethnic immigration and the idyll of the family farm. Where those life forces of the republic flourish and resist homogenisation, so will its good food. Their nemesis has been the factory farms of antibiotic-stuffed poultry that are no more than water-pumped breasts mounted on claws.
But against the odds, ethnic eating and small family farms have not only survived, they are doing better than for many a year - a longed for antidote to the shrink-wrapped cheese of the supermarkets. New waves of immigrants - Vietnamese or Uzbek - have found markets in the big cities for their cooking.
Local farmers' markets are flourishing, bringing the produce of the season directly to customers. Right now in the Hudson Valley you can buy wild garlic shoots, fiddlehead ferns and spring morel mushrooms. Richard Harrison, who grew up in Sussex and farms in upstate New York, brings his own meat - rabbit and pork, lamb and chickens that taste like chickens should - to market, every week from spring until November.
Eleven-year-old Reese, growing up blonde and bony like his dad, and his older sister Grace sell the produce. Next to the Harrisons of Cowberry Crossing, you can buy the best cheese in the western hemisphere - soft or hard, sharp or barnyard ripe and a heel of dense, black, garlic-studded rye bread to eat with it.
This is the American food that has miraculously escaped the tyranny of agribusiness. And sometimes, in backwoods corners of the country, you encounter cooking that is the refutation of despair. I was reminded of just such a meal by the harrowing tragedy of the 29 coalminers killed on 5 April, in a methane explosion in West Virginia.
There is more to US food than the burger
Some years back, filming in towns where the wreckage of the coal industry had torn the heart out of old communities, where abandoned derelict houses were collapsing into the roadway, our crew pulled up at a modest cafe expecting nothing more than a turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich. What we got was an excited welcome from the owner who every day waited for someone to come through her door wanting something more than turkey and Swiss.
She came from a Greek family, so what she set out for us was slow baked lamb, honeyed baklava and kataifi. She told us of her struggles against the banks, against slurry floods which twice had destroyed her place and her house, against the plagues of emphysema and joblessness stalking her world. But she wouldn't give up. Not when she could still make the lamb and the kataifi and see people like us spoon it up with grateful pleasure.
"I am so glad," she said. "I am so glad," through tears that suddenly came spilling on to the pastries. And so were we.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I've had some of the best meals of my life in the US. Between the huge productivity of its farms, plentiful natural resources (like seafood) and mix of every ethnic culture on the globe you can get amazing meals. As with everything else you get what you pay for. For $2 of course you get grease. For $20 you get heaven on a plate!
What a bizarre mix of stereotypes and hyperbole. Write this piece from the other perspective (that is to say, side of the ocean) and you'd have a remarkably similar piece with the same mildly offensive and ignorant comments about warm beer, kidney pie and lots of blood in your sausages. Still, I'm glad that Mexican cuisine is finally making a proper appearance in Europe.
Stephen W, Caerphilly
In the San Francisco Bay area where I live their is such a wealth of farmers markets it is astonishing. This fresh produce is why we also enjoy more great restaurants than you can keep up with. The biggest difference between our food culture and the European cuisine I've experienced in my travels is diversity. In Italy for instance you experience all of the wonderful variations each region has to offer of traditional Italian foods. Here in the Bay Area all of the various ethnic groups create stunning variety. I'm so used to the variety now that when I travel I miss access to great Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, Thai, French etc. Of course this isn't typical of all America. But regions of the country that were once culinary wastelands are changing for the better.
Erik Schmitt, Berkeley California U.S.A.
I couldn't agree more that a great deal of American food is, well, horrible. However, I find myself laughing at this article because I serendipitously have blueberries in my refrigerator waiting upon me to make a pie crust this evening. I learned some cooking basics from my mother, take inspiration from the restaurant industry, and forge ahead in my desire to grow and produce my own meals when I can. Luckily, I live in one of those tiny Southern towns where, if I don't feel like cooking, I can do as I did yesterday: devour locally smoked barbecue and follow with fresh cranked ice cream. Yes!
Sioux Cook, Marion, North Carolina, USA
It's worth pointing out that, while Europeans may think of American food this way, actual american food has almost nothing in common with the stereotype. It's no more valid than the idea that every British restaurant serves tasteless boiled beef or Fish and Chips.
Sam, Santa Cruz, California, USA
Britain is in a fine position to complain about cuisine! I'll take US food (which is not just burgers and fries) any day over the "food" I had on my last visit to Britain in 1986. Tasteless and bland. Food on the continent is far superior
Dose of reality, Columbus, Ohio USA
Valid comments but they are world wide. I have had the fortune to travel the world. I have eaten food that looked and tasted as plastic as the real plastic food in the window while visiting Japan. While one of the best meals I had in Japan was served off the back of a truck that had pulled up on the sidewalk. The proprietor got tired of paying inflated rent and decided to move his restaurant to a truck. While visiting England in the 70s, cousins told me to steer clear of Wimpey's. It would be worse than walking into a McDonalds. But a few years ago, while touring the highlands, we had some magnificent meals. It would appear that food in the UK has made progress over the last 30 years. The thing to remember is the good and bad food where ever you go. The trick is to find the good and avoid the slop.
Jay, Sugar Land Texas
Lovely story, Simon. Yes, much commonly available salad-bar and fast-food fare is repulsive, but there are REALLY great things to be had almost anywhere if you know where to look.
Sarah Q. Malone, State College, PA U.S.A.
I'd be willing to hear culinary criticism from an Italian, or actually pretty much anyone from the Continent, but a Brit? Please. The only people with worse taste are the Dutch, and even that's a close race; raw herring and onions vs. blood pudding. I'm not saying that the average American meal is haute cuisine, but until your country manages to come up with something other than meat boiled to the point that it has no flavour, keep your patronising thoughts to yourself.
Nathan, Seattle, US
No other country has ever been as misrepresented and misunderstood as America has been when it comes to gastronomy.
No denying that it can be blamed for the McDonalds', BK's, KFC's and all other fast food conglomorates ever created. It's a dirty job but someone has to be blamed for it.
But as an American growing up in America, I only ever ate at McDonald's once every six months, if that. And growing up in ethnic San Jose California, why would I? If I fancied a Cuban sandwich, a Vietnamese pho, a Mexican Chillaquiles, or dim sum for breakfast, I could get any of these within a 5 mile radius of home, and that was even back in the 1990's. Why would I settle for supermarket produce when the Chinese market, or Mexican mercado is around the corner? The Americans I know crave authentic and know authentic, and you can't fool them with bastardised versions of any kind of food. So contrary to what the rest of the world says, I pay homage to the American gastronomy that is Creole, Cajun, Pan-Pacific, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Asian. I say cheers to Starbucks, Subway, and Baja Fresh. I salute Quillisascut Cheese in Washington State and the Batali's Salumi Artisan Cured Meats and the much anticipate short season of the Copper River Salmon and yes the scrumptious, undeniably American Apple Pie!
Rho Levy, Solihull West Midlands
Let the continentals and the rest of the world assume that the US is burgers and pizza. We'll keep our salads, stews, chowders, BBQ and soul food to ourselves.
Greg M, Denver, CO
So sorry, you have truly missed out on so much in this country. I have had the honor and pleasure of living all over, not just in the U.S. but in the world, and I can tell you about food. If you have never had sweet corn that was not picked until the water was at full boil on the stove, then plunged in for just the briefest time. Oh what you have missed. Or here in the high desert, fresh just roasted green chile, warmed in a little butter and draped over a steak. Just cooked sopapillas drenched in honey. The U.S. has so much more to offer than just a burger. The same as England has so much more to offer than greasy fried fish and chips, (that we all know are really french fries). Just my thought on the matter, but my rule of thumb is to avoid nationwide chains. If I can get it at home, then why eat it on a trip. Look for the little out of the way local place. There is where the magic happens.
Alan, Albuquerque New Mexico USA