Friday, 4 June 2010

Cravings, Pt. 1

One of our friends recently visited the US and offered to bring us back some American contraband. I took the opportunity to put in an order for Twizzlers, which I seem to crave more often now that I live in a country where they are not sold in stores:

(Classic, strawberry-flavored Twizzler straws)

Twizzlers have been my favorite candy since childhood, despite the fact that they actually have very little taste, and quickly upset my stomach. But I love them the way you love your family: No matter what flaws they may have, they always have a place in your heart. It was good to be reunited with this long-craved object of my desire, and as I was ardently demolishing every last strawberry-flavored “twist,” I couldn’t help but think about some of the many foods I find myself doing without now that I live in the UK.

Most of the things that I find myself wishing for fall firmly within the “junk food” category. I think that this is because I love cooking and most of my meals are therefore homemade; with the exception of a few things (more details to follow), I can find all the same ingredients here in Falmouth that I could back in the US. The main difference with my menu stems not from ingredient problems, but from compromises I’ve made with my husband. Normally, I would eat whole-wheat, low-carb, main-dish-salad, health-food type stuff, but, like so many men, my husband is much happier when there is a heap of pasta/rice/potatoes on the plate. My solution: Buy every Jamie Oliver cookbook in sight, since Jamie balances heartiness and healthfulness…and, occasionally, torture my husband with full-on health food, just because it’s good for him.

In any case, here is my list of culinary complaints about the food situation in Britain, along with a few of my husband’s peeves, for good measure:

Breakfast. Something that my husband and I both miss from our Stateside days is bagels. Real bagels. In the UK, the thing called “bagel” is very doughy and soft all over. In other words, it has a similar consistency to a miniature loaf of heavy bread. Anyone who has been in America, and especially anyone who has had a New York/“Jewish” bagel, knows that there should be a firm, even shiny, outer covering on the bagel, with a light, buoyant inner bit. Whether you toast them or not, they should be chewy. A real bagel cannot be compared to bread. In fact, it cannot be compared to anything; it is simply a bagel.

In only one case am I willing to make an exception to this rule. Where I recently lived in Williamsburg, VA, there is a shop called Manhattan Bagel. They sell a “power bagel,” which is a dense, granola-bar shaped multigrain bagel filled with dried fruits and nuts. I had many power bagels early in the morning after, or between, field work duties. They were, in fact, quite empowering, energetically speaking, and kept me running during many a long and strenuous hour in the hot Virginia sun. They were particularly delicious with Manhattan Bagel’s honey-almond cream cheese.

Another of my favorite breakfast standbys is the English muffin, although I admit that my favorite use for the English muffin is during lunch, in what is perhaps my all-time favorite sandwich, the tuna-melt. In any case, ironically, the English muffin is not sold in England. I am not quite sure how that happened, although I have a guess: The most similar substitute here in the UK is the crumpet, which comes complete with English-muffin-like nooks and crannies. My guess is that the crumpet underwent some evolution when it reached the New World many centuries ago, ultimately achieving the current (and, in my humble opinion, superior) form of the English muffin. When my craving for these gets too strong, I tolerate the presence of crumpets in my kitchen and my stomach. However, they just don’t achieve the same level of crispy toastedness that their American counterparts do:

(Crumpet: no.)

(Thomas English muffin: yes.)

The only other thing I miss at breakfast is something I missed even when I was in the US, because it can only be procured from one place: home. My father makes the most perfect scrambled eggs—not so done that they are stiff, but not so undercooked that they are jiggly. The heyday of my father’s scrambled eggs was before my parents had morphed into the foodies they are today. In those less-culinarily sophisticated times, our refrigerator contained that oh-so-American ingredient, Velveeta. Let me state for the record that I am appalled that Velveeta dares call itself “cheese.” It is one of the most unnatural and pedestrian ingredients I can think of. Regardless, that stuff can melt like nobody’s business, and melted Velveeta brings scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and tuna melts to life. Mmm. Or, at least, it did bring these things to life back in the day when we had it around the house. Now we are more sophisticated and health-conscious, and we buy real, artisanal, imported cheeses, which of course are quite tasty and serve their purpose. Thus, even though they don’t achieve quite the same extent of melt or make me feel quite as luxuriously naughty, they are quite tasty atop my father’s weekend-morning scrambled eggs.

Lunch. Since I’m waxing eloquent about Velveeta, I might as well admit that I love “fake cheese,” as I call it, in general. I only indulge occasionally—it definitely is gross, and I can only handle so much—but when I do have it, I love it. My favorite way to enjoy this appalling ingredient is on nachos, such as those you might get in the movie theater, or—my personal favorite—at Taco Bell:

(They don't look quite as delicious against the electric purple background. I also prefer the format where I can dip my chips into a little plastic tub of fake cheese. Mmm.)

When I am flying to and from the US, I occasionally get routed through the Detroit airport, where, at the far end of the terminal, there is a tiny little Taco Bell. No matter how groggy or motion-sick I am after my flight, I haul myself and my luggage all the way down there so that I can enjoy some Taco Bell nachos. When I’m coming from the UK, this allows me to finally satisfy my craving, and when I’m leaving the US, this permits one last lick of man-made “dairy” product before going to the land where real cheese is made. While reading Stephen Fry In America, I had to laugh at his frequent disgust over the quality of American cheese. I wholeheartedly agree that the British selection is far better. All the same, it’s nice to have the New World version every now and then.

Nachos are usually the only thing I have from Taco Bell, because I’ve never been a big fan of Mexican food (I dislike all those onions and peppers), though Tex-Mex is pervasive across the US. All the same, there is one restaurant in Williamsburg that makes the most fantastic salsa, and I sometimes find myself longing for it. Taco Mexicali was opened about halfway through my graduate career, and is owned and operated by Mexican immigrants. Thus, the food is not only excellent, but also authentic (also ridiculously cheap—another bonus). Their salsa is homemade fresh several times a day and always tastes as though it contains vine-ripened, sun-kissed ingredients, even in the middle of winter. Another excellent Mexican restaurant in town is Tequila Rose, which was the hangout of choice during my first couple years in town. I always ordered the same dish when I went there, and I mourn its loss from my life: Mexican pizza, consisting of a mixture of chicken, beef, and cheese, fried between two crispy tortillas and topped with salsa and guacamole.

One of the most well-known food shops in Williamsburg is The Cheese Shop, and most visitors to our department were treated to a Cheese Shop lunch, followed by a Nawab dinner (more on that later). A brief walk from campus, the Cheese Shop is a deli, a wine shop, a restaurant, and a mini grocer’s all in one, conveniently located in charming Colonial Williamsburg. All their sandwiches are tasty, but my all-time favorite is the prosciutto, provolone, and pepper panini. As I mentioned before, I hate peppers, but I wanted to give the full name because the alliteration is as delicious as the sandwich itself, which I always just ate with the meat, cheese, and bread. Although those ingredients are tasty unto themselves, the thing that really pulls the dish together is the “house sauce,” a secret recipe containing ingredients such as horseradish, mustard, mayonnaise (I think), and perhaps a hint of Worcestershire sauce. The house sauce is so good that, before I left town, I was tempted to offer to pay for a copy of the recipe so that I wouldn’t have to go without.

Actually, speaking of mayonnaise reminds me of a vital ingredient, used in my much-beloved tuna-melts, that I cannot get here in the UK: Miracle Whip. This is another truly American ingredient, ranked right up there with Velveeta in terms of healthiness and classiness, but I don’t care. It’s better than mayonnaise, which I have always found rather revolting, and it’s certainly better than the closest British substitute, “salad cream.”

Another of my favorite lunches is sushi. Now, sushi can be had here in Britain, and it can even be had down here in Falmouth—the Tesco Express on the corner sells a sushi combo tray, and I have been told it is pretty good. The problem is that I like very specific types of sushi, and I like buying them from a place where there is a Japanese chef standing at a little kitchen station making it in front of my eyes. In other words, I want the real thing, I want it fresh, and I want to be able to pick my flavor. My absolute favorite is the kind where large shrimp have been slit up the middle, pounded flat, and draped across the rice:

(It looks like it might wander off the plate at any moment, doesn't it? Kind of like one of Delia's sculptures in Beetlejuice? Or the parasitic alien babies in Alien?)

The shrimp, for some reason, are often slightly sweet, and that sweetness contrasts wonderfully with the soy sauce. My second favorite is the Philadelphia roll, which I had for the first time in—you guessed it—Philadelphia, near where I did my undergraduate degree. The Philadelphia roll sounds absolutely disgusting, but I am forever grateful that I gave it a shot: raw tuna (which is sometimes replaced by salmon) and a bit of Philadelphia cream cheese, wrapped up in rice and nori. Again, the slight sweetness of the cream cheese goes excellently with the soy sauce. I don’t know why I even hesitated to try this the first time, because I love cream cheese in everything, and this dish did not disappoint. In the sushi restaurant in Williamsburg, this was referred to as the "Good Time Roll"--I have no idea why. In any case, perhaps I need to take a trip to a larger city, such as London, so I can enjoy my favorite sushis on British soil.

In Williamsburg, my favorite sushi provider was a grocery store chain called Ukrop’s, which also had a rather extensive supply of other ready-made quick-assembly meals. This includes a large soup and salad bar. Unless you visit late at night, just before closing (which, after long hours at school, I often did), there is always a full vat of Ukrop’s beef chili, which I love. It is neither too thick and gravy-like, nor too thin and broth-like. Actually, it is a slightly more gourmet version of the chili that Wendy’s sells, which I also love (and which only costs $0.99!). As you can see, my palate can be satisfied by quite simple things.

Perhaps my all-time favorite lunch is Miss Melinda’s Special from the Old Chickahominy House:
(What you can't see in this photo is the famous OCH resident cat, who wanders in and out as he pleases and lounges wherever he likes--but, of course, not on your breakfast table).

On the day that I moved out of Williamsburg forever, we did not have enough time to visit the OCH one last time for a nice, gluttonous, Southern breakfast, and I still feel the sting of not having had a proper farewell. Miss Melinda’s is only open until 3 PM, so you either get breakfast (at which they serve the most amazing thin, rectangular biscuits, which I have never seen equaled elsewhere), or you get lunch. Miss Melinda’s special is a whopper, and I can only eat it all when I am starving, or when I have the time to stretch lunch out over a long period of time, giving my stomach a chance to slowly digest each course before moving on to the next. The first round is a salad. The first time I saw it, I was a little disgusted, but then I ate it and was sold: A small bed of iceberg lettuce, topped by a pineapple ring and some canned peach slices, covered by a spoonful of Miracle Whip(!)-like dressing, covered by shredded cheddar cheese. Strange but delicious. Next up is the soup and sandwich combo—those beautiful rectangular biscuits filled with Virginia cured ham (the saltiest meat you will ever taste) and a cup of Brunswick stew. As you can see, this is old-school coastal plain tucker, dating back pretty much to the very first European Virginians. The final course is dessert, which is a selection of pies; I nearly always chose the chocolate mousse pie, because how can you not? To wash it all down, you get a cup of iced tea. The only thing that could make this meal better is combining it with shopping, and, what do you know, the half of the building not devoted to the restaurant is a store that sells antiques, holiday decorations, and a beguiling assortment of jewelry, decorations, books, cards, and other gifts. Miss Melinda's Special is so good that I once treated myself to one as a "consolation meal" after visiting the dentist and receiving a particularly uncomfortable filling. I do not know what I was thinking when I ordered food while half of my face was still numb; I spent the entire meal covering my mouth while I chewed and frequently wiping my chin, since I had no control over what I was doing. All the same, even with half of my taste buds asleep, it was scrumptious.

If your appetite for my American food nostalgia is not yet whetted, come back tomorrow for thoughts on snacks, dinner, drinks, desserts, groceries, and assorted other edible items...

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