Tuesday, 15 January 2013

One Week of US Cuisine

 I've said before that American food gets a bum rap.

Perhaps when you think of "American food" you think of McDonalds, drive-thrus, diners and do-nuts. To some extent you'd be right to think of those things. They are everywhere.

They are on every street corner, on every intersection, by (or in) churches and museums. The food is cheap, sweet, and childish, and often famous for the branding or business model more than anything else.

But that's not everything. You know it's not. If you don't believe me, I'm going to show you. In just one week, I'll make you a fan…

A Week in US Cuisine

America has a very rich immigrant culture, and some fabulous cuisine to boot. Finding excellent food here can be surprising and wonderful. And it's fun. American food is undoubtedly fun. What American food sometimes lacks in sophistication it often makes up for in experience and good humor.

Take my mum's visit over Thanksgiving week, for example. She wanted to experience American food. She's travelled all over the world - Europe, Asia, South and North America. She's tasted all sorts of cuisine. She's even been to the USA a fair few times. But when I asked her the first thing she'd like to do when she arrived she said "go to the supermarket".

So that's what we did.

Monday - Supermarket lunch


In the UK a supermarket lunch is a sad affair - usually comprising a wrinkled baked potato sitting under a heat lamp all day, cheap baked beans, and terrible tea, all served on suspiciously sticky tables. Do British supermarket want to punish families for spending their afternoons traipsing up and down the shopping aisles? The food is an afterthought, which is a worrying thing in a store that sells food.

Not so here in PA.

I'm not talking about Super-Walmarts with a Subway franchise inside. I'm talking about lesser known, small family chains of supermarkets. A prime example is Wegmans, once dubbed the 'Anti-Walmart' by The Atlantic magazine (in an unsponsored article, it appears). The Wegmans approach to food and shopping is a little different to that displayed by most supermarkets. Whole Foods comes close, but not quite.

Wegmans is a beautiful playground for food and produce, complete with a miniature railway circling high above the cheese department. Lunch there could be take-out pizza, sushi, a hoagie, or a wholesome twist on pub lunch, complete with specialty draft beer. Everything on the menu, from the seasonal beer to the multi-grain marathon bread, is available in-store to take home.

And that's how supermarket dining should be. It's seems so obvious. A supermarket's food should be like a giant exciting tasting counter. Trust Americans to actually make grocery shopping fun.

Tuesday - Reading Terminal Market

The Philadelphia cheesesteak is ubiquitous. I won't go into the debate over Pat's, or Geno's or Tony Luke's here,  because I've yet to try them. I didn't realize the sin of my ways until I took my mum for lunch in the city center.

The Reading Terminal Market is another fun food playground, a disorienting cuisine casino bustling with tourists and lunching business locals. It's a Caesar's Palace filled with all sorts of cultural fayre, including, of course, the cheesesteak.

Carmen's is great for the uninitiated cheesesteak consumer - they'll advise you the most popular way to do it. Provolone or Cheese Whizz? Sweet peppers or not? I can't remember because they fried it up so quickly. I get the impression they are used to hungry and bewildered tourists bumbling up to their neon sign.

And for dessert: On a cold November afternoon of culinary touristing, who can resist an apple dumpling once featured on the Food Network?
The dumpling was a fat individual apple pie with a flaking crust and hot spiced apple filling dripping with cream. For three bucks a piece this fall filler was a pleaser. The birch beer is an acquired taste though.

A local businessman beside us lunched on sloppy joes and coffee. He noted our accents, "you had cheesesteaks here?" he enquired, "because, you know that's like, how can I say it, it's like going to Heathrow Airport for fish and chips".

What a faux pas. I visibly winced. The very suggestion of an Airport providing a quality fish supper! I promised I'd try an 'authentic' cheesesteak ASAP (confession: I still haven't).

Wednesday - Hoagie

Surprising fact: The hoagie is THE official sandwich of Philadelphia, not the cheesesteak. As such, they are not without their controversy. The origin of the name is a little unclear for a start. A hoagie is a Philly twist on the ubiquitous submarine sandwich, reputedly named after Hog Island, Philadelphia, where Italians and other Europeans worked on shipbuilding for the World Wars.

Forget Subway or even local hoagie purveyor and 'Hoagie Day' sponsor WaWa for a decent Philly sub. A true hoagie comes from an Italian market, and one should contain enough meat for afternoon tea sandwiches for the whole British Royal Family.

Thursday - Thanksgiving Dinner

Turkey, sweet potato, and pumpkin. What else can I say?

Friday - Drive Thru

During the national hangover from America's favorite holiday, it seemed apt to get take-out. We opted for Popeye's Louisiana Fried Chicken, purely because it's fun for us Brits to order chicken with biscuits and end up with cheese scones rather than something to dunk in hot tea. I know this isn't authentic American Soul food by many measures, but the drive thru certainly is a US tradition. 

Saturday - Traditional US cuisine?

The City Tavern in Philadelphia is an interesting place. It's conveniently located in the vicinity of Philly's top historical tourist spots, for those visitors with a hankering for 1770s cuisine. 

Yes, the waiters are in period costume, the pewter goblets and tableware are for sale in the restaurant's gift shop, and the chef's DVDs and TV appearances are advertised to visiting diners. But it's not tacky; it's very enjoyable indeed. The beers, brewed traditionally, are very good.

Surprising fact: Did you know that Benjamin Franklin brought tofu to the USA? No, neither did I. 

The jury's out on on this one - I'm not certain it's true, for a start. The tofu tasted okay, but the other hearty dishes, a menu reflecting the USA's European colonial history,  looked far more appetizing. No fish supper though.

US food is, genuinely, not that bad


I hope I've convinced you, or even tempted you a little bit. And if not, not don't worry, we still have a lot of US food adventures to enjoy one day: Traditional BBQ, Asian-American cuisine, the birth of the American diner and the sad decline of roller carhops (yes! they still exist, you just have to know where to find them).

This huge country has so much to offer to tastebuds and huge appetites, I promise, though I'm secretly glad I don't eat like this every week.

What local USA foods do I need to try? And where DO I get the best cheesesteak?


  1. Ew, Popeye! I don't have good memories of it, but I agree US food is "not that bad" and that it has more variety than many in Europe think. Have you tried Cajun food? Its my favorite!

    By the way, I answered the Liebster you nominated me to, thanks again!

    1. I have a soft spot for Popeyes, but mostly because there was one in Coney Island when I worked a summer there. It made a change from the boardwalk food (though still fried, I know).

      Cajun is on my list, truly. I need an excuse to do a tour of the South so I can eat myself silly.

      I really enjoyed your Liebster post! Thanks for doing it, it was a pleasure to read!

  2. This is excellent! Love the photos! Reading "An economist gets lunch" now, and getting hungry!

    1. Brilliant book, and it completely changed my view of American culture. The Freakonomics segment I linked above switched me onto how much US history/food culture is intertwined.

  3. Reading Terminal Market looks awesome! I ate EVERYTHING at the Mercado de San Miguel (http://www.esmadrid.com/en/portal.do?IDM=443&NM=3&TR=C&IDR=1254) when I was in Madrid in October - similar idea, with lots of stalls selling different types of cuisine from lobster to churros. These places are an absolute dream for me (and my tummy!)

    Great post, as ever. I hope you're sampling some lovely American craft beers while you're at it?

    1. Reading Terminal Market is the first place I'll take you when you visit then! Here it is as featured on Man V Food: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1EWwfXwhy4. Going to link to that above now as well.

      Philly is the place for craft beers and I've tried some great ones, although Mark is a bit brand loyal to Sam Adams. That's no bad thing as their seasonal flavors are great, but there is SO much to try around here.

  4. I was convinced already. I try to stay away of the McDo-KFC-... stuff when I visit the US. But we have kids, so we go there sometimes. I love gumbo!


    1. I've never had gumbo! This is exactly why I need to do a tour of the South.

      Most US Fast Food places are designed for families - they are palatable to most people, brightly colored, cheap and quick. Part of the 1950s American Dream. I don't begrudge it as much as I used to.

  5. And .. I was wondering ... what do you think of the Cheesecake Factory? I would love to have it in Europe.


    1. Shhh, I've never been!

      I did once go to a cheesecake place (not Cheesecake Factory) in Manhattan late at night. There was a drunk girl dancing in the middle of the floor singing about cheesecake. The staff flicked the lights on and off to make it feel like a disco for her.

  6. I love the photos you took in this post! I am not sure if you have done this yet, but you should do a similar post with British foods? I'm curious! If you have, then never mind :)

    1. No, I haven't, but I could! I had a similar week when I went to the UK for the Olympics. Watch this space!

  7. Ah, BBQ. It's surprisingly varied. I'm from North Carolina, and we have a VERY different way of making ours (vinegar based sauce, shredded pork...it's a whole culture). It's definitely something you have to come here to try. I've lived in Colorado & Texas, and nothing would make me angrier to see someone order "Carolina" BBQ and then see red sauce plopped onto it- if it comes with sauce poured over it, it is NOT authentic Carolina BBQ!

    I love that pickles are a new thing for you- I'm addicted to them!

    1. I've heard that it's varied, and I'm seriously excited about sinking my teeth into some North Carolina culture!

      Yeah, pickles (aka gherkins in the UK) are part of the culinary culture here in the US in a way that they're are in the UK. I am a complete convert :)

  8. I love Wegmans and am happy to live in a city that has tons of those stores around. The pizza is great. The soups, the Chinese food, and the chicken and biscuits are also good. Oooh, and the Tuscan garlic bread in the bakery is a favorite. The great smell coming from the prepared foods area always lures me over there while doing grocery shopping. : )

    1. See, it works! I swear nobody just goes to Wegmans 'just to shop' - they've made it into a whole experience. It's a very interesting approach, but also a delicious one :D

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