The Broad is Back!

April 28, 2007

Glorious Food, American-Style

Filed under: Old Broads — by maggiec @ 4:18 pm

Originally published Jan 2003

Now, I love Jaime Oliver, the Naked Chef. Think he’s as cute as a bug’s ear. I watch his show whenever I can, which isn’t often, but I think he does a lot to make cooking interesting to young people like my son. And he’s just so refreshing to watch – he gets so enthusiastic, and I love that in a person. The other day, I saw him doing a segment of his show from New York City. A double happiness! Jaime and New York! Bliss!

But then he said some thing along the lines of “Americans always bastardize any good food”. He was joking, really, with his American friend, but all I could think was “Excuse me?” I have two words for you Jaime.

“Curry chips.”

But Jaime Oliver isn’t the only one I’ve heard say this.

Even Dennis Leary, an American comedian I think is great for his no-BS take on the world, had a riff on why of course the French hate us. They gave us the croissant. What did we do? Made a Croissanwich! Well, maybe he’s got a point there, but still, I get tired of the prejudice.

So many people tell me that American cuisine is nothing more than watered down versions of good food from other countries.

“Look at your beer,” they cry.

“Look at your bread!” they add.

Hm, yeah, give me a Sam Adams and a bagel any day. Or a Newman’s Pale Ale and a chewy multi-grain.

Okay, okay, I admit that there are times when American food can be really bad – tasteless, cardboard, unhealthy, and all the rest. And when American food is bad, it can be spectacularly bad. But we’re not the only ones guilty!

You ever have a pizza in Sweden? It’s served with cabbage salad. And they make it with pineapples, bananas and curry sauce if you’d like. That’s the Tutti-Frutti at my local place. Even the relatively normal vegetarian is not something that would be recognized as pizza in Italy. Sure it looks the same, but I still can’t figure out what it tastes like.

How about Chinese food in Geneva? I don’t know how they do it, but they manage to make it taste French. Something about how they make the sauces on the heavier side or something. Many’s the conversation I’ve had with Chinese students, bemoaning the woeful state of Chinese cuisine in Geneva, a place that usually does pretty decent ethnic foods, being the home of the UN and all.

I think my husband’s favorite food oddity was pizza in Taiwan. The options were Pizza Hut or Dominoes, not my idea of pizza to begin with, but if there’s no other game in town….I’d gotten used to the pizza, and thought nothing of it, but when my then-fiancé came to visit and I opened the box to my vegetarian pie, I swear his face blanched.

“It has peas on it,” he said.

“Yeah? So? It’s vegetarian,” I answered.

“But look at it! It’s got peas.”

Now I should explain that my husband absolutely hates peas, but I guess they are rather strange on a pizza, especially when the other vegetables on the vegetarian pizza were onion, corn and carrots. I had just stopped noticing.

Now really, a Swede shouldn’t talk about any other country’s pizza, but he had been living in Geneva, three hours from Italy, so he’d gotten spoiled. And no, American pizza is nothing like anything I’ve ever had in Italy, especially that “pan pizza” junk, which by the way, is called “American pizza” over here. Sigh. But right now I’m ready to give an eye tooth for a good pizza, either Genevan, Italian or American, as in made in New York, New Jersey and certain parts of Philly. (I am a pizza snob, I admit it. Oh I’ll eat it all over the world, but I complain about it, too!)

So, really, when “ethnic” foods are imported, they are often adapted to meet local tastes. Even our local McDonald’s in Taiwan sold corn soup and fried chicken legs because they are big sellers in Taiwan. When we moved to Geneva and tried the McD’s fries there, they were a decided yellow color. And it wasn’t for any nefarious reason. The common potato I saw at the stores was much yellower than our common Idahoes, and that’s what McDonald’s used. And a lot of the super-sized, extra cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce stuff that sells in America doesn’t fly in Europe’s MickeyDs. It’s just too much for local tastes.

So where does that leave America and our “bastardizations”? We don’t really have a “native” cuisine other than Native American foods. But that’s not true, either. There are a lot of foods that are commonly American, and I’ve mentioned them before, things like turkey and cranberries. Hey, World, they’re ours! Remember that, Jaime, next Christmas when you have your “traditional” dinner!

And there are other foods, as well. We have great seafood, prepared in “traditional” ways on two rather long coasts (and Alaska and Hawaii, too, but everyone always forgets them.) And then there are things like sweet potatoes prepared all sorts of ways, or succotash, a mix of corn and lima beans.

That brings me to corn. That’s a New World, thing, too, and there’s nothing like fresh sweet corn just off the stalk, boiled or roasted and served with butter and salt. Wait, I have to clean the drool off the keyboard before I continue! And I have yet to get anything like it anywhere other than in America. Sure, you can get sweet corn, even on the cob, but it tastes far too starchy. The longer from the picking, the less sweet it is. Here in Sweden our sweet corn on the cob comes from Africa. You can imagine how long it took to get here!

And then there’s all the things we do with corn: corn bread, corn pudding, hush puppies, corn dogs (okay, they aren’t so good, either, but their fans are legion). Hush puppies, for those of you not familiar with American food, are a Southern dish of fried balls of corn meal mush. Hm, that doesn’t sound too good, but believe me, it is. And corn dogs are hot dogs on a stick, dipped in corn bread batter, and fried. These were a traditional fair-ground food, but since I’ve left America they are being sold in supermarkets as well.

The South has a very distinct style of cooking, with its hominy grits for breakfast, biscuits and red-eye gravy, (which is made with coffee), hoppin’ john (a rice and bean dish made with black-eyed peas and often some ham and herbs), greens cooked with bacon and served with pot liquor, pecan pies, hush puppies and so much more.

New England has great stuff, too, originally brought over from England, perhaps, but in the 400 years it’s been American, it’s been perfected – Boston Baked beans, steamed brown bread, boiled dinner. My mouth is watering just thinking of it.

Other regional cooking in America includes the Southwest, which is heavily influenced by Mexican cooking and its reliance on corn, beans, chilies and tomatoes.

And Texan beef. As much as I don’t want to eat meat, there are times when an American sirloin steak just calls my name. Luckily, I’m usually not in America when that happens! But baby, we have good beef. And pork. You wanna die happy, try some barbeque. Each region has it’s own specialty, but it’s never bad. Full of fat and cholesterol, maybe, but honey, what a way to go!

Ah, just thinking of it all is making my stomach growl.

Last weekend we had some neighbors in to dinner. When I cook for Swedes, I like to make something American because I know that when I eat at friends, I like to have things from their home countries. So I wracked my brains, already knowing that I wouldn’t be finding a turkey. I ended up making Cajun.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a Cajun is a Louisianian descended from French-speaking immigrants from Acadia in Canada. According to The Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture, “like the Cajuns themselves, their cuisine derives from a diversity of ethnic influences, including Acadian, French, Spanish, German, Anglo-American, Afro-Caribbean, and American Indian” (http://www.cajunculture.com/Other/foodways.htm). And for me, that pretty sums up good American food. Taking the good things from all over and melding it into something unique and wonderful.

If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you’ve probably sampled Cajun cooking.

Now as you know, I’ve traveled a lot, and my husband has traveled even more. And we’ve pretty much decided that the best food we’ve ever had, anywhere, was in New Orleans. He almost wept at a tiramisu he had there because it was better than anything he’d ever had in Italy. And we’re talking about a man who is a tiramisu fanatic. Yes, I know it’s Italian, but there is a large Italian influence in New Orleans. And take that Italian love of food and marry it to the Cajun love of food, and I tell you, that’s a marriage made in heaven.

The main dish I prepared was pan-fried spiced chicken with dirty rice, and I think they liked it. People had thirds. But they were amazed as they’d never heard of Cajun food before. The cookbook I was using, bought on vacation in New Orleans, my favorite kind of souvenir, was passed around, and I had to be Ms School Teacher at one point and give a scanty recital on the Cajuns. Thank goodness I read a lot.

By the time we got to the bread pudding with Amaretto sauce, they were finally convinced that American cooking is more than hamburgers. The things I do for my country! Geesh!

So the next time you see Jaime Oliver, tell him what I have to say! If you’re an American, be proud! And think about our great food heritage before you fall back on the junk food that rightly gives us a bad rep.

And if you’re not, please come and visit. Be willing to try new things, and I think our food will surprise you. Sure, you’ll gain some weight, but isn’t that what vacations are for?

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