Snacks. Despite all the wonderful and filling things on hand for lunch, I always find room for snacks later in the day. One of my favorite snacks is the cracker (especially when paired with cheese), and in this department, Britain is sadly lacking. There are chips (or “crisps,” as they say here, since “chips” are what Americans call fries), but I have never liked potato chips. There are pretzels, which are decent (though my husband still pines after the American brand Rold Gold, and, as I mentioned, German-style pretzels). And, logically, there is an endless array of biscuits and cookies and cakes made to accompany tea. But there is only a very small collection of things that I would call “crackers,” and, of these, there aren’t many tasty ones. What I really want is...:
(The only time I didn't enjoy Wheat Thins was the time we got an ant infestation and I got a very nasty surprise when I ate my way down to the bottom of the box.)
I have loved Wheat Thins for as long as I have loved tuna melts—probably because I have fond memories of being served them both by my mother during summer break from school. A close second to Wheat Thins is Kashi crackers, or, in fact, anything else made by Kashi (cookies, granola bars, frozen pizzas, cereal…).
My first choice for a sweeter snack is graham crackers, which, you may or may not know, were originally designed as a snack to curb adolescents’ carnal desires. I am not sure whether they have this effect on me or not, but they sure do curb my hunger—especially when they are covered in a thin veneer of cream cheese (yes, again). My favorite graham crackers are the cinnamon kind, which they do not have here in the UK. In fact, there are no graham crackers at all, but there are digestives, which are pretty darn close—especially the Hovis wheat germ digestives.
When I first went to college, I discovered the 7-11 of the east coast: Wawa. I am not sure what is so special about Wawa, but I quickly became addicted. One reason for this is their soft pretzels. They aren’t as good as the German ones—a little too heavy and moist—but they are still darn good. Imagine my pleasure at discovering that Williamsburg, too, had a Wawa right next to campus. I probably ate more Wawa soft pretzels than any other food during the duration of my graduate degrees. I should write Wawa a thank-you letter. At meal times, I often accompanied my pretzel with one of their pre-made salads, my favorite of which were the southwest chicken salad and the walnut-cranberry-feta-chicken salad. I have tried recreating these at home, and they are just not the same—perhaps it is the lack of plastic bowl and fork?
The other thing that has kept me going since my undergrad days is smoothies. I can eat smoothies for any meal of the day and in between any meals of the day. I love smoothies so much that I used to smuggle food out of the dining center during my undergrad days and make smoothies in my room using a blender bought specifically for that purpose. Much more convenient was going to Tropical Smoothie Café once I moved to Williamsburg. If anything can challenge Wawa pretzels for the most-eaten-food prize, it is TSC smoothies—in particular, the pomegranate plunge. My husband also loves smoothies, and is forever disappointed with the lack of smoothie-sellers in the UK; wherever there are smoothies, they do not have quite the same consistency or flavor, in his opinion. Again, this is something that I can make at home quite easily (or, at least, I could if I could find a blender worthy of my money). However, I just do not know how to recreate the heavenly flavor of the TSC pomegranate concoction; even if I could, it might not taste as good when not drunk in the miserable heat and humidity of the Virginian summer, which makes it a particularly refreshing treat.
For my husband’s sake, I’ll mention one more snack that cannot be found in the UK: atomic fireballs. He has quite a taste for these fiery little candies, and always gets a couple bags when we are in the States:
(Atomic fireballs--did I mention my husband's birthday is at the end of the month? Hint, hint.)
For some reason, this craving strikes me funny, because the atomic fireball is such an unassuming little candy. It is found hanging in the $1/bag section in the grocery store (or, my favorite candy stop, CVS), which I normally glide past on my way to find the Twizzlers. I never met anyone in my life who liked them until I met my husband. Luckily, they preserve quite well, so it’s easy to bring back quite a haul from the US and nurse them along for a couple months.
Something else my husband indulges in when he visits the US is hot dogs, and I will admit that I love them, too. The UK does sell them, but they are not quite the same (though my husband has found some pretty decent substitutes). We both know (or, rather, would prefer to not know) what is in hot dogs, and neither of us cares. When I think of hot dogs, I can’t help but picture Larry’s Dawghouse in Athens, OH, and the now-defunct Sundae Shop in my hometown, The Plains:
(Proof that my spelling above wasn't a typo. I don't know what a "weenie shake" is, and I don't think I want to. I'll just stick to Strawberry, thanks.)
I don’t like white bread at all, except in the context of providing a bun that encases an American-style hot dog, slathered with ketchup (and maybe a little fake cheese sometimes, just for variety) and washed down with a strawberry milkshake. Another problem with the UK hot dog situation, from my husband’s perspective at least, is that Britain is sadly lacking in good pickles. My husband wants tangy kosher dill pickles, and all he can find here are sweet, miniature, vinegary pickles. After much research, he discovered one brand that successfully mimicked the American style, but it's an obscure brand that can't be found in most grocery stores. Thus, it is necessary to fly all the way to the US in order to have the total, original hot dog experience.
Dinner. While we’re on the topic of my husband, I’ll address another of his issues with British food. Here in Britain, minced meat seems always to be mixed with bread crumbs when being formed into a patty, loaf, or ball. Sometimes there is only a bit of bread crumb, such as the normal amount you would insert into a meatloaf in order to absorb excess moisture and help the loaf maintain its shape. But, more often than not, there is quite a lot of bread crumb, which dilutes the meaty flavor. My husband was quite relieved to find that my culinary skill-set included the ability to make burgers the American way, with few or no additives and all the focus on the meat.
When I think about dinner items that I miss, I mostly think about dishes that can only be bought in specific restaurants. When I graduated from college, I did not miss anything about my undergraduate life—except some of the restaurants that I used to frequent in Haverford. One of these was The Wild Onion, in nearby Rosemont. They had the most amazing hummus appetizer, with (obviously) homemade hummus, freshly-baked pita wedges, fresh balls of mozzarella, and slices of tomatoes and cucumbers. Simple, natural, satisfying, filling. The appetizer was made for several people to share, but I would order one for myself and have it as my meal. Another good place, and a favorite among all the locals, was Peace-a-Pizza. They had two restaurants near my campus, one of which shared space with another favorite, Hope’s Cookies. Peace-a-Pizza, predictably, sold pizza by the slice, so you could mix and match flavors. I particularly loved their buffalo blue cheese pizza. When I went to my college reunion a couple years ago, we went out to eat at Peace-a-Pizza, and their buffalo blue cheese lived up to my fond memories. Afterwards, we walked across the room and got some of Hope’s famous (giant) gourmet cookies and handmade ice cream. Calorific, yet divine (or should I say, “Calorific, thus divine”?).
Williamsburg, too, has many restaurants that I miss. Other than the establishments I mentioned earlier, which I mostly frequented for lunch, the place I went most often was Sal’s Italian. Unfortunately, a fire wiped out Sal’s original facilities during the fall of 2009, but I believe they are now back up and running in a new location. This is a good thing, because it would be a shame to deprive clientele of their excellent five-cheese tortelloni. I could never figure out why it was called “tortelloni,” because the waitstaff always said “tortellini,” and the food on my plate was definitely tortellinis. Maybe it was just a typo on the menu—the “i” and the “o” are pretty close, after all. But, whatever they really were, they were good: The only alfredo sauce-covered food that I have let myself indulge in during my adult life. (I used to love alfredo as a kid, but then I found out how incredibly unhealthy it is, as are so many things that taste that good). Another great thing about Sal’s is that they did both take-out and delivery, and there were many long days that ended with me eating a plate of Sal's pasta while sitting on my couch with my two cats. Of course, tortellini and alfredo sauce, and Italian food in general, are easily-reproducible, and I’m sure I could find a substitute here in the UK. Part of the charm of Sal’s, though, was the way that everyone there knew me because I visited so often, the hustle and bustle (it was always packed by a combination of locals and tourists), and, when you ate in the restaurant, all the hand-painted murals on the wall. It will take quite a bit of work to reproduce those elements, in entirety, here in the UK.
Just around the corner from Sal’s was another favorite—Nawab. Nawab was legendary for its buffet, but that was never my thing because my favorite dish wasn’t ever featured:
(Mutter paneer--homemade cheese, peas, and tomatoes)
Now, anyone who knows anything about England knows that there is a huge Indian population, tons of Indian food stores, and even more Indian food restaurants. Unfortunately, here in Falmouth, the only Indian restaurant I’ve been to (and I admit that there are a couple more to try) does not serve mutter paneer. I did try to make it on my own, using store-bought paneer (which is something I never found in the US), but it was a disaster. Nawab also had extra-gustatory charms, including outlandishly fancy decorations and, again, waitstaff that knew you if you were a frequent customer. Once, I went out to eat there while studying for finals, and after I had finished my meal I wanted to flip through a few more notes before leaving. My waiter unexpectedly brought me a complimentary glass of after-dinner wine to help me through my ordeal. (Though he knew me as a returning customer, he did not know me well enough to know I don’t drink; no matter—I was so flattered by his thoughtfulness that I choked down the alcohol anyway).
One last fun place in Williamsburg is Kyoto, which not only serves sushi, but also devotes half the restaurant to a Japanese steakhouse:
(Just to make sure you know what sort of food is served there, they shaped it like a pagoda. This style meshes well with the colonial theme found everywhere else in town.)
When I was a little girl and we took family trips to the beach, we almost always went to a Japanese steakhouse. I am not sure, but I do not think that these exist in the UK; in fact, they might not exist outside the US—given how flamboyant and showy they are, I cannot image that they actually originated in Japan, despite their name. For those unfortunate souls who have not been, let me explain. A Japanese steakhouse consists of maybe a dozen or so “tables”, each of which is actually a giant, flat stovetop surrounded on 3 sides by a narrow counter. Each table seats about 8-10 people (if your party is smaller than this, you end up sitting with strangers), and all of you get to watch your food prepared before your very eyes, and then eat it fresh off the stove. This involves a lot of throwing and whirling of knives, banging of metal tongs and spatulas in drum-like ways, eggshells being caught in chefs’ hats, flaming onion volcanoes, having freshly-grilled shrimp thrown into your mouth (hopefully—more often than not, they go over your shoulder or onto your lap), and, if you are really lucky, seeing your chef squirt cooking oil from a bottle shaped like a peeing man (Can you guess where the oil comes from?). Even within the US, there are lots of people that haven’t been to steakhouses. I personally introduced three people to the experience, including my husband, not so much because I actually am entertained by the show (it kind of loses its charm when you're an adult, and when you've seen it two dozen times), but I am entertained by the fact that people find the show entertaining. It is so American, and every now and then, it is fun to be a stereotype.
These days, trips to the US always involve visiting my parents in my hometown, which gives me a chance to revel in two other dining experiences. One is truly an indulgence, and is not only American, but Appalachian: Bob Evans. Bob Evans was a farmer originally based in Rio Grande (pronounced rye-o grand) in southern Ohio. His restaurants have been around since 1962, and are now found all up and down the east coast, including in Durham, NC, where I visited often during my time living in Chapel Hill. Bob Evans is a true homestyle experience. I am referring not only to the food—good old meat-and-potatoes frontier fare—but also to the decorations, the servers, and the clientele. If there are any doubts as to whether I am truly an Appalachian girl, let me end them now with these four words: I love Bob Evans. Bob Evans is comfort food at its finest, and my absolute favorite is the chicken’n’noodles dinner, started by a house salad with ranch dressing, and accompanied with fresh-baked rolls. You can also get the chicken'n'noodles served over a bed of mashed potatoes:
(Further proof of how much I love chicken'n'noodles: It is the meal I ate on my wedding night.)
My other local favorite is Casa Nueva, which is pretty much at exactly the opposite end of the spectrum from Bob Evans, food-wise. Casa is a co-op, and they buy most or all of their ingredients from local producers. Thus, everything is seasonal and most things are organic. My parents’ first date was at this restaurant, and to this day they usually go once a week, for after-work drinks and/or dinner. When I was younger, I used to love the Casa quesadilla, but my current favorite is their jasmine rice salad with sesame soy dressing. It is delicious, and so large that I can often get two meals out of it. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really love Mexican food, and even though Casa is kind of a mixture of hippie/health food, it has a strong Mexican theme. However, their jasmine rice salad is so good that I will forgive them their excessive use of the dreaded onions and peppers in other dishes. To some extent, I am pretty good at recreating the jasmine rice salad at home, but their homemade sesame soy dressing is still a mystery to me. My parents buy containers of it to eat at home. Since I can’t do that here in the UK, I must satisfy myself with wearing a Casa Nueva t-shirt proclaiming that I am a “Lil’ Locavore.”
One last general comment about dinners: In the majority of the restaurants in the US, your dinner will be preceded by a salad that comes as part of your total meal. I love this. I love rabbit food, and I love rabbit food that I do not have to pay extra for. In most places in the UK, if you want salad, you have to order it separately, and it does not come cheaply. The only thing that makes up for this egregious stinginess is that the greens here are usually much more exciting and flavorful—my particular favorite is lamb’s lettuce, which I had never seen before arriving in the UK:
(Lamb's lettuce: named for its resemblance to a lamb's tongue, part of the valerian family, good raw or cooked)
Now that the major meals are out of the way, it's time for drinks and dessert...