Sunday, 6 June 2010

Cravings, Pt. 3

Drinks. I don’t have very many complaints about British drinks. My favorite drink is sparkling water, and there is pretty much nowhere in Britain, or, seemingly, Europe, where you cannot find sparkling water. This is not the case in the US, where waiters act as though you have just asked for something truly bizarre like, I don’t know, whale’s milk.

If I were forced to make a critique, I would complain about the lack of good root beer. I generally don’t indulge much in pop (yes, I say “pop,” because I’m from Ohio; I will also say “soft drink” if forced, but I loathe saying “soda”), but, if I am going to, I would prefer it to be root beer. If I had a choice of brands, I would pick Barq’s:

(Barq's: it has bite)

Unfortunately, Barq’s doesn’t get very wide distribution even within the US, and I have often found it hard to get my hands on some even while living Stateside. Even more difficult to find than Barq’s root beer is Barq’s red cream soda, which may be my all-time favorite fizzy drink:
(The pop itself is the color of the carton; imagine how nervous my grandparents were when I drank Barq's over the new white carpeting during my clumsy childhood days)

This particular delicacy is sold in Portsmouth, Ohio, where my grandparents and extended family live, so at every family gathering I guzzle a few cans to get me through the next several months. Barq’s red cream soda not only tastes good, but it is also strongly associated with some of my fondest childhood memories, and even seeing a can makes me happy.

A treat that I often indulged in during high school—again, while I was too young to fully understand how bad it was for me—was Italian cream soda. These were sold at the local café, Perks (a reference to the coffee shop in Friends). Basically, they are a mixture of soda water, flavored syrup, and cream. I particularly liked those made with berry syrups (raspberry and strawberry), but my favorite was kiwi. Sometimes you’d get lucky and have a generous server, who would put in extra syrup, and other times you’d have someone who drowned the flavor in soda water; the gamble was part of the fun. I missed these immensely when I went off to college. I was quite distraught to return one day to discover that the entire Perk’s menu had changed and the cream sodas were no longer on offer. Thus, not only can I not get them here in the UK, I cannot get them at all. However, if I could locate a source of appropriately-flavored fruit syrups, I bet I could probably whip these up at home.

I am not sure when, but at some point in my youth, post-Barq’s red cream soda and pre-Italian cream soda, I discovered Snapple. For a while, when I was in high school or college, there were threats that the Snapple company was about to go out of business, and I panicked. However, much to my relief, I have seen no evidence of this. Originally, I loved Snapple’s strawberry-kiwi juice:

(I think I started drinking Snapple sometime after you could no longer find Clearly Canadian--my preferred "special" drink)

Once I started drinking tea, I became fond of Snapple's lemon- and raspberry-flavored iced tea. They also have some great lemonade. Their motto is, “Made from the greatest stuff on earth,” and, if taste is any indicator, that’s true. If I can’t get Snapple iced tea, I’ll go with the Nantucket Nectars variety. One advantage of that is that Nantucket Nectars sells a half-and-half drink, which is half iced tea and half lemonade. I have got to figure out a recipe for that, because it is knock-you-off-your-feet good. One little extra quirk of these brands--their bottles come with a fact written on the inside of the bottle cap; the Snapple facts cover random topics while the Nantucket Nectars facts focus on—surprise!—Nantucket. Although both these brands are found pretty much everywhere that I have been in the US, they are not in the UK at all.

Nor is Herbal Sage mint tea, but that’s not surprising. It is a tea blend mixed by a company in my hometown, and it is excellent. You would think that all mint teas taste similar, and to some extent they do. But I think that most commercial mint teas are derived from peppermint, which can sometimes be a bit harsh. The Herbal Sage blend appears (though I could be wrong) to mix in some spearmint, which I love. If they don’t, they must do some other special thing to sweeten the flavor a bit, making it milder and gentler. Herbal Sage teas can be purchased not only in local stores in my hometown, but also online. They do ship internationally, so if I ever get desperate enough to pay the crazy shipping fees, I could give them a try. The only problem is, the mint blend is no longer listed on their website, and I fear that they may have discontinued the line.

Dessert. As far as desserts (which go by the general name of "puddings" here) are concerned, there isn’t much to complain about. For one thing, I don’t really eat them all that much, and for another, you find the same basic kinds of frozen and baked goods in the UK as you do in the US (only here, “cake” is sometimes called “gateau,” since the English like stealing culinary terms from the French; “candy” is called “sweeties”).

A few weeks ago, I got a vicious stomach virus and couldn’t keep any food down. When this happens to me, I like to buy a giant box of popsicles, particularly the kind that are made with real fruit (e.g., Edy’s frozen fruit smoothie bars):
(I like that there are actually little bits of strawberry in the bar. That helps me pretend they're healthy.)

These are the ideal food for the purpose, since they have nutrients, they melt away and don’t sit in your stomach, and they provide sugar to keep your immune system fueled. The only problem is, they aren’t sold in Britain. Our local grocer sells a very strange substitute called “Twister” (if you can figure out what “fruit” flavors Twisters contain, your next one is on me). When I was well enough to visit the more distant market, I did find a closer approximation (with only three per box!), but most of the places where we do our regular shopping do not have these on offer.

Another thing I haven’t seen anywhere is Pepperidge Farm cookies. Again, I don’t indulge that often, but every now and then I get a craving, and there is nothing that tastes better than Pepperidge Farm snickerdoodles (or goldfish, for that matter, but they don’t belong in the dessert section). They are soft, moist, and chewy, the perfect blend of cinnamon and sugar and who-knows-what-else. I have always thought that I make some pretty good cookies but here are just some commercial products that you cannot duplicate at home, no matter how good your technique. You give me the same recipe, and I will not be able to achieve that Pepperidge Farm magic. Fortunately, I can distract myself with the multitude of gingerbreads, shortbreads, and Cornish fairings here, and, in fact, I hadn’t even longed for a PF snickerdoodle until I sat down to actively contemplate what foods I was missing.

Shopping for groceries. I could write a whole column on shopping in another country, and, one day, I probably will. For now, I will just give the abridged version. Let me begin with a qualifier: Overall, I find that shopping in the UK is immensely preferable to shopping in the US, since the UK is much more green (less excessive packaging, more local foods, fewer additives, more organic) and also because there are better prices on goods from Europe (such as my staples, Pellegrino and olive oil) and on produce (because it’s all local). Also, I should admit that we generally do our shopping in places that are, perhaps, not the most upscale—the little Tesco on the corner (Tesco Express), the slightly bigger Tesco up the street (Tesco Metro), and Asda (owned by and similar to Walmart). However, we also have gone to full-size Tescos, Sainsbury’s, and M&S (I’ve also gone to Lidl, but that doesn’t improve anything), and many of my complaints hold up.

One of the most infuriating shopping trips occurred after I had gotten a craving for New England clam chowder:
(The only thing missing here is oyster crackers.)

I have a couple excellent recipes for this very American meal, and I was having a serious longing for it after watching someone eat some on TV. Unfortunately, despite the fact that England is an island, despite the fact that we live in a coastal town, I could not find clams anywhere—no cans or jars on the shelf, no fresh ones, no frozen ones. I had to substitute cockles, which are, let me tell you, subpar. Once I got home, I did an internet search to see if I could order a few cans online, but, as far as I could see, the only way to get clams in England is to order them wholesale for restaurant use. I cannot fathom that this could actually be the case, but I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary, either.

Another lacking meat is canned chicken. Now, the idea of eating meat from a can is probably not all that appealing to most people, and I admit that it is a bit "bourgeois." However, canned chicken has a lovely light texture and is easier to use than freshly-shredded chicken in a number of dishes. These include soups (of which I make many) and, most importantly, quesadillas. Quesadillas are a nice, quick meal—you sandwich some chicken and some Monterrey Jack between two tortillas (maybe with a little corn, cilantro, and spring onion, if you desire), brush the tortillas with a bit of olive oil, and throw them in the oven for 10 minutes. But here in the UK, I have to first cook my chicken, then cool it enough to shred it, and then make the quesadillas--thus, the process becomes much longer. To make things worse, it is very difficult to find guacamole to accompany the quesadillas. This means that I have to make it by hand, which hasn’t worked out so far--not because of my technique, but because I struggle to find ripe avocados. They are all either rock-solid, or half-germinated, and nowhere in-between. I will take some responsibility for not being able to figure out how long to let the rock solid ones sit before they are nicely mushy, but it is very hard to coordinate this when you have only a tiny window of time before the mild temperatures and moist air convince your avocadoes (and potatoes and garlic and onion) that they should start blooming.

Early on, in one of my first shopping trips with my husband, I also discovered that it is virtually impossible to find bread crumbs and corn meal. Fortunately for me, bread crumbs can be manufactured at home, either out of stale bread or crackers. On the other hand, unless I decide to get in touch with my Native American roots, the corn starch problem is a bit harder to solve. Corn starch (called “corn flour” in the UK) is everywhere, but this is a thickening agent that dissolves in water, and comes from the soft bit inside corn kernels (that’s the endosperm, for you botanists out there). What I want is the gritty stuff you get when you take whole dried kernels and grind them up—the stuff you use to make breads and tortillas and polenta. Confusingly, this product is apparently sometimes called “corn flour” in the US (though not anywhere I have been), while here in the UK it is sometimes referred to as “polenta,” though, as far as I am concerned, “polenta” is an Italian dish of cooked corn meal:
(Corn MEAL, hence the mealy texture)

(Polenta--boiled corn meal; also found in the format of logs, slices, sticks, and--here in Britain--rectangles)

Sometimes, I wish we all just spoke one language (American English, of course). In any case, I have not found corn meal in any regular grocery store here. My husband assured me that it had to be around, since it is used often in African cooking, and there are many African immigrants in the UK. It’s true that Cornwall is a bit, how shall we say, lacking in diversity, and maybe in larger cities this ingredient is easier to come by. Here in Falmouth, I have discovered that I can find it in the local health food store although, ironically, I have yet to need it since finally adding it to my pantry. The health food store has also been useful for supplying molasses, which I use for baking on a fairly regular basis. I haven’t been able to find molasses in regular grocery stores, but this may be because they have things like treacle (which is not as dark as molasses) and golden syrup (light-colored treacle that is similar to corn syrup), which can be pretty good substitutes.

One last general longing I have is for Trader Joe’s:

(If you re-use your own shopping bags, you get entered into a drawing to receive a week's worth of free groceries!)

My college boyfriend was from L.A., and his mother used to send the most wonderful care packages full of Trader Joe’s food. I had never heard of this store, because at that point few, if any, existed in the East. I was quite impressed when he took me there in person during a visit to the west coast. Not only were the prices phenomenal, but much of the food is local (or, at least, more local than in regular grocery stores), organic, fair trade, healthy, and quite tasty. Their frozen dinners are delicious and are great for when you are running short on time. Their boxes of black tea are dirt-cheap but make a great “cuppa,” to use the British phrase. They have the most wonderful “old fashioned” cinnamon graham crackers, and these amazing little tins of green tea mints. Shopping at Trader Joe’s is great whether you are shopping off a list or just wandering around and picking up whatever looks good (although that is a little dangerous because you can quickly spend a small fortune, since everything looks good). Add in on top of that the fact that all the cashiers wear Hawaiian shirts and ring giant cowbells to signal various things (shift change, completion of sale, etc.), and you have a truly American experience.

Cooking. Cooking in another country is something else that deserves its own column, and it will get one. However, right now, I don’t want to talk about my own cooking, but about the cooking of my family. In addition to my dad’s scrambled eggs, there are other dishes that cannot be replicated by any other chef in any other place. For instance, my grandfather’s green beans and my grandmother’s “cheesy potatoes,” both of which are served only at family holiday gatherings (Thanksgiving, for the former, and Christmas, for the latter). Last year I spent Christmas with the in-laws, and although our meal was quite delicious, it was hard to go without the cheesy potatoes. Like any self-respecting American, I love my mother’s apple pie, and I have to say that I don’t just love it because it’s my mom’s but because it really is excellent. My mom also makes (or, made, before the health-conscious, low-carb days) a tasty shepherd’s pie. I can make a respectable knock-off, as can half the people in Britain, where the dish originated, but it just isn’t the same. Even better are her whole-wheat calzones filled with sautéed squash (peppers and onions removed just for me) and blue cheese, covered with marinara sauce. The all-time greatest “Mom” dish is fried chicken and mashed potatoes. In fact, this is my ideal comfort meal, along with a side of green beans and a dessert of apple pie. I often request this horrifically unhealthy dish on the last night of a visit home, before I take off for distant lands. The calories and the fat may stick around for a while, but so do the contentment and the memories of home. Even though all the necessary ingredients for this dish, and the other family-made dishes, can be found in the UK, they just wouldn’t taste the same. Sometimes it’s not just what you’re eating, but who prepared it and where it’s being eaten. As much as I’ve always loved “international” cuisine and disliked many “American classics,” sometimes you just want a taste of home:

(When they have personalized aprons, you know they have to be good cooks.)

p.s. While finding pictures for this article online, I found the website of a British candy store that sells Twizzlers and Barq's root beer--and they deliver!

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