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.
And for dessert: On a cold November afternoon of culinary touristing, who can resist an apple dumpling once featured on the Food Network?
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
Friday - Drive Thru
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?