Yankee Diner in Yorkshire

10478940_10152610385453659_2184305803429400924_nAt this time of year in particular, I am always on the look out for anything which can satisfy my summer homesickness.  Front porches and screen doors are in short supply in Yorkshire.  Unfortunately.  But there are opportunities for American food.  Today, after a lovely day at the seaside in Filey, we paid a visit to Hickory’s Roadhouse and Grill on the far side of York.

The decor was frankly overwhelming.  It was a bit like being snogged by Uncle Sam at a Tea Party Convention on the 4th of July.  But in a fun way.

10505358_10152610569738659_7096430288502285512_nMore importantly, they had root beer.  Good root beer.  Root beer with the right kind of foam on top in a glass bottle root beer.  Bliss.  They gave me a deal on a take home four-pack.

The waiters were friendly and yes, just a little bit sexy.  That helped.  The food was not only authentic but yummy and served in Yankee-sized portions.  The chili dog I had was first rate and I got fries and onions rings!  The decadence. After trying out the homemade bbq sauce, I found myself wishing it came in a shot glass.  You can buy bottles of it to take home but I didn’t trust myself.

Apparently, this place is known for Man v Food type eating challenges.  The Wall of Shame and Wall of Excuses kept the kids entertained while we waited for our food.  “Sorry, I have to get home.  My goldfish is drowning” was a particular favourite.


You Can Get It on a Stick

fairYesterday I introduced my dear English husband to a beloved American institution: The State Fair.  And not just any State Fair, folks…the biggest, the greatest, the bestest State Fair in the land.  Yes, I am talking about the one, the only IOWA STATE FAIR! Cue brass band as the audience goes wild.

He wasn’t terribly impressed.

‘Well, it’s just like the Great Yorkshire Show isn’t it?’

‘NO!’ I protested, horrified.  ‘The Iowa State Fair is much bigger.’

‘I doubt it,’ scoffed he.

In fact, the Iowa State Fair is twice as big covering a space of 445 acres to the Yorkshire Show’s 250.  In 2011 1,080,959 people attended the Iowa State Fair as opposed to the Great Yorkshire Show’s near record attendance in the same year of 135,086.  The comparison is not fair however (pardon the pun) as the State Fair goes for two weeks and the Yorkshire Show lasts three days.

‘And there’s a Goosey Fair near where I grew up,’ he continued dismissively.

‘Sorry?  Goosey Fair?’

6217744545_5335979a08_zSo named because it began as a festive trade event for geese, the Nottingham Goose Fair is now known for its amusement rides and games.  It has been running nearly continuously for over seven-hundred years, cancelled only due to Bubonic Plague and two World Wars.  The Iowa State Fair has been operating since 1854—the oldest State Fair in America.  Unsurprisingly, The Great Yorkshire Show is older, but only by seventeen years.  Both also closed during World War Two.  Sadly, the famous Scarborough Fair no longer exists.

dragon riderWhat The Iowa State Fair lacks in sixteenth century plague anecdotes, it makes up for in sheer size, scope and variety.  The Midway alone covers ten acres—ten dizzying acres of puke-inducing rides and cash-gobbling carnival games.  Several stages host everything from historical recreation performances, a National Anthem singing competition a strong woman demonstration, circus acts, both traditional and contemporary music.  We just missed a women’s rubber chicken throwing contest.  I was devastated.

2013 Butter Cow and CalfWhat we did not miss, what no one should miss is the world famous Butter Cow.  It’s a cow…made of butter!  First sculpted in 1911 to promote the dairy industry, the Butter Cow is an Iowa State Fair institution.  Over the years the Butter Cow has been joined by various butter farm scenes, a butter replica of American Gothic and (my personal favourite) a Butter Last Supper.

‘But, but…how?’ sputter folk when I attempt to spread the word.

Simple: refrigerated display case.

corndog sign‘OK fine,’ I admit to my Englishman, ‘You have things like a State Fair.  But they will not—definitely not—have corndogs on a stick.’

‘No,’ he smirks.  ‘We have no corndogs on sticks.  You’re far more likely to find Real Pie Company stands made with fresh, local ingredients,’ he boasts, trying to take the high road in a sea of deep-fried wonderment.

I found evidence to the contrary.  The Great Yorkshire Show may celebrate the joys of Wensleydale and fifty different ways to stuff a sausage casing, but fair grub pretty much means hot dogs and burgers on both sides of the Atlantic.  So there, ha!


It is impossible to escape Fair Food at the Iowa State Fair.  It’s everywhere.  It’s invariably deep fried and you can get it on a stick.  Fried chicken on a stick, deep-fried cake on a stick, deep-fried pickle on a stick—all with an added bacon option.  Apparently you can get salad on a stick at the fair, but I’ve never seen it.  I suspect it might be rumour.


Nothing says Iowa State Fair like a hand-dipped, deep-fried corndog.

For my British readers, corndogs require explanation.  Cornbread is a staple Yankee dish made of cornmeal (which is a bit like polenta), milk and eggs.  Southern recipes add sugar to the cornbread, but this Yankee prefers a more savoury taste.  Cornbread can be baked but traditionally should be fried in a cast iron skillet.

dunk dog

To make a corndog, the hot dog is skewered, dipped in cornbread batter then deep fried to golden perfection.

iowa-state-fair-corn-dog-from-iowastatefair-orgI like to drizzle ketchup on one side and mustard on the other.  My daughter thinks they are the greatest invention since bacon.  Wait a minute…bacon corn dog?  There’s a bacon corn dog stand!  And you can get it on a stick!

Serve generously with Lemon Shake-Up on a stick followed closely by antacid on a stick.

All Hail the Taj MahVee

bakeryMy mother is annoyed with me. Apparently in one of my blog posts I insinuated that American grocery stores are rubbish compared to those in Britain. I betrayed my family, spat in the face of my nation, roasted the red, white and blue over a slowly turning spit. My bad. In an effort to spring me from the maternal dog house, and because there are few things my mother loves more than being right, she dragged me on a trip to La Grande Dame de Grocerie, the Shopgri La, the Taj Mahoard commonly known as Des Moines, Iowa’s 86th Street Hy-Vee.

cartThis is not just a grocery store it’s an adventure in Yankee indulgence. From the child friendly racing car carts (trollies) to the artfully arranged produce to the young woman who became extremely confused when I attempted to bag my own groceries (only the lowest class shops make you bag your own here and even they get teary eyed when they see you do it). The Taj MahVee (my father’s title, I cannot take credit) fully satisfied this homesick ex-pat Yankee like a long-sought balm for an age-old wound.

produceIf this seems a bit poetic for what is essentially just a shop where you buy food, then you obviously have never spent significant time away from home in a foreign country. It’s strange and silly the things you miss and food is usually the first thing you crave. The comfort and reassurance of tastes, textures and even label art you grew up with. I nearly wept over a bowl of Quaker Oats Maple and Brown Sugar oatmeal my first breakfast here. Yes, I know you can get porridge in the UK but the texture is different. Yes, I know I can add both maple syrup and brown sugar to my porridge and yes I know that it seems exceedingly silly to add not one but two different types of sweetener to porridge anyway but it’s what my father gave me every morning before school every year of my childhood and I love it.
cheeseI must also retract an early criticism concerning the variety of items available in a US grocery store. I still found myself stressing over which of the fifty different brands of peanut butter to buy (I’m not exaggerating, there were fifty) and negotiating my mother’s very definite preferences for one particular brand only of anything I tried to put in the cart. “No!” she cried, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “Not those tortilla chips (which were on sale), they taste like cardboard. We buy these tortilla chips (which look utterly identical but cost twice as much).” In addition to the variety of brands, there was also a wide variety of items in general, and not in the way Sainsburys and Asda offer a wide variety of items. There was no electronics section, no clothes, no DVDs, no kitchen appliances—just food, toiletries and (to my delight) a separate section larger than our neighbourhood Tesco Express labelled: Wine, Beer and Spirits. Hurrah!

chipsThe deli counter was particularly dizzying in its selection of different meats, including bacon cured ham which made my daughter squeal, and cheeses, including Wensleydale with Cranberries! There were even weird-ass chips/crisps like Chicken and Waffle, Garlic Bread, Dill Pickle, Lemon-Lime and Pizza.

So what do I recommend? How can I help steer a foreign traveller on American shores around the overwhelming selection of Yankee products to zero in on the items which summarise what I think is…maybe not the “best” of American food, but certainly these are the things I reach for shortly after landing. First, let me warn you that the Taj MahVee is not typical. Do not wander into any old grocery store and expect the wonders I have described. But the following list should be available just about anywhere.

1) Claussen Kosher Dill Pickles. After giving my mother such grief about being so particular in her choice of brands, I will immediately brand myself a hypocrite. But when it comes to pickles, brand matters. Thanks to an increase in the Polish population we can now get something approaching a decent gherkin at most grocery stores in the UK, but nothing beats a good American Dill Pickle and Claussens are the best. You will find them in the refrigerator section not on the dry good shelf. They come whole, halved or quartered (“spears” it will say on the label). I hope no one at the Taj MahVee saw me cuddle mine just before I put it in my trolley.

2) Hot Dogs. You think you know them. You know nothing. Do not be put off by the ingredients list—in fact don’t even look at it. Grab a pack of Oscar Mayer Wieners, some buns—preferably those made at the store’s bakery, a tub of French’s mustard, a jar of Vlasic Pickle Relish (or Claussen) and charcoal briquettes. Then get thee to a park which will have permanently erected barbeques on site, so this is something you can do even if you have no cooking facilities.

3) Pillsbury Refrigerator Cinnamon/Orange Rolls. This one will require an oven. Steal one if you have to. These were our Sunday morning/Special Occasion breakfasts when I grew up. Crack open the tube, separate the uncooked rolls on a cooking sheet and bake for fifteen minutes. While they are still hot, ice them with the little tub provided. Eat them hot, these babies wait for no one.

4) Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Accept no substitute, only the blue box will do. They are microwavable, so if your accommodation has a microwave but no stove you can still enjoy this staple of Americana. Remember to steal a bit of milk and butter from your hospitality breakfast. I also add a generous spoonful of cream cheese, which you should also be able to nick from hospitality. My friend Corrie makes me bring boxes of this stuff back for her every time I visit. Don’t worry, babe. They’re already in the suitcase.

5) Hot Tamales, Twizzlers and Tootsie Roll Pops. These will be found in the candy aisle—Candy Aisle, not Sweets or Sweetie Aisle, you will look all day and not find that. Hot Tamales are like cinnamon jelly beans and they come in a variety of heats. There is intense debate among fans between Twizzlers and Red Vines.  Both are a…I want to say “strawberry flavoured” but really they are just “red flavoured” liquorice. Tootsie Roll Pops are a lolly with chewy toffee in the middle. Look carefully at the wrapper and if you get one with an Indian on it you win…something. I was never very clear about this but in primary school they were valued commodities.

6) Chex Mix. If you are travelling around the USA this will be your savoury saviour. You will find it either in the same aisle as crackers or possibly beside the chips/crisps. It’s sort of an American version of Bombay Mix.  In fact you can find something like it called, appropriately enough, “American Mix” at Sainsburys, but it’s not as good. It’s a combination of cereals (Chex cereal comes in corn, wheat, bran and probably a dozen other varieties—look for it in the cereal aisle), pretzels and nuts all bound up in a mysterious seasoning which I think includes Wooster sauce.

7) Rootbeer. I debated including this on my list because most Europeans think it tastes like medicine. I think it’s the elixir of the gods. Drink it well chilled or even pour it over several scoops of vanilla ice cream for a classic Root Beer Float. Heaven. If you want a sweeter root beer go for A&W. If you prefer something with a bit of bite to it try Barq’s.

dryBefore embarking on your Yankee shopganza, be warned. Most things in America will have more sugar in them than you are used to—even the bread tastes sweeter to me. Similarly, some things will taste saltier. I got quite excited when Asda began stocking Ruffles Crisps. Then I tried some and was horrified at how salty it tasted, but I think that might be the brand.

checkoutNo doubt your travel guide will have forewarned you about sales tax, so remember than the final bill is more than just a sum of the prices advertised. Sales tax varies state to state. Some have none at all, some tax only certain items, some have lower or higher sales tax. Just be prepared before you shop.

May the ‘Vee be with you!

A Tale of Two Teas

piccsP2Y61It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British love their tea.  It is their comfort, their panacea, their obligatory social activity. Tea is the answer to every question.  When planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the first thing my neighbour did was brew me a cup of tea.  After a challenging, exhausting day of mountain climbing in Wales, my sister-in-law spied a café in the distance and fervently declared her intention to “make love to that tea shop.”  In our household, the ultimate passive aggressive act is to make a cup of tea for yourself alone.  Such selfishness is unforgivable.

Tea can cause great controversy in other ways.  Serving it with a splash or two of milk is fairly standard in the UK, but by no means obligatory.  Some prefer tea with a slice of lemon.  Never try to serve it with both as lemon makes milk curdle.  Sugar is completely optional.  I am not sure if there is a regional pattern related to the addition of sugar in tea as there is in the US.  South of the American Mason-Dixon line, sweet tea is the norm while Northern Yankees like myself mostly drink it unsweetened.

Few issues cause greater debate amongst English tea drinkers than the timing of the milk.  It is an issue which divides families, drives wedges in otherwise happy marriages and brings friendships to an end.  I am definitely a Milk-Lastist while my friend Corrie is a Milk-Firstian.  And yet we will speak to each other.  Amazing.  Allow me to explain.

When Milk-Lastists such as myself make a cup of tea, we put the bag in the cup, pour over the boiling (BOILING, mind you!) water and then, only after the tea has steeped to a rich dark russet, do we remove the bag and add a bit of milk.  The rationale here is that once cold milk is added, the temperature of the water is compromised thus ruining the steep.  This philosophy enjoys the support of many great scientific leaders (namely my husband and his entire family).

On the other hand, Milk-Firstians like Corrie place the bag and the milk in the cup first and then add the boiling water.  Whilst I sneer at Milk-Firstians and all they stand for, I believe the theory behind their method is that if the milk is already in they do not have to calculate the space left in the cup for the adding of milk.  Some of them do not even bother to rationalise their ways and simply claim this is the “proper way to make a cup of tea”.  Again, I sneer.

Another, more charitable view, of the Milk-Firstian way is to claim that it is an evolutionary throw back to the days when tea was always made in a pot with loose leaf.  In cases such as this, adding milk to the cup as the tea steeps away happily in a separate container makes sense.  Primitive but understandable.  I still love my friend Corrie…despite her deviant ways.

One tea-related issue unites Britain as a nation under leaf: iced tea is a myth.Kitchen-Talks-Iced-Tea-2

Iced tea baffles them more than a poodle smoking a pipe.  They just don’t get it.  You can explain how refreshing it is.  You can draw them a picture of it.  You can hand them a dewy glass of it on a hot summer day.  They might take a polite sip, but I guarantee you it will only be out of well-bred politeness.  Then they will fire up the kettle faster than you can say “What the—

During one of my mother’s early summer visits, she dared to hope.  At the Magpie Café in Whitby she ordered: “Iced tea?”  The waitress beamed back: “Of course.”  One can only imagine the panicked conversation which took place amongst the Magpie wait staff when faced with an order for iced tea.  If my mother had asked for yak’s milk fermented with monkey piss they would have been less put off than by her request for iced tea.  But, to the eternal credit of their service and manners, the nice young lady served my mother iced tea.  That is to say, she brought out a small boiling pot of tea and a glass containing a single ice cube.

Honestly, that’s about the best you can hope for.

I am training my family to be more open-minded about iced tea.  Whilst my husband is a lost cause, my eldest daughter Freya is a devoted fan of both iced tea and English tea (though she shocks her father often by asking for it black with lemon).  During summer visits to America she loves making Sun Tea.  This traditional Yankee method is achieved by placing tea bags and cold water in a sealed glass container then leaving it out in the sunshine to brew naturally with solar heat.  Sun being a rare and precious thing here, Freya and I have devised our own method of making iced tea to enjoy in the summer months.  Try it if you dare…

 Yankee Iced Tea

In a glass jug, pour one pint of boiling water over three black tea bags and two peppermint tea bags.  Allow the brew to cool completely before removing all bags.  In a large pitcher, dilute the pint of concentrated tea with three more pints of cold water.  Top up with a generous amount of ice.  Serve cold.  You could also try experimenting with lemon, chamomile or jasmine tea instead of peppermint.  Enjoy.  Or at least try.

Is British Food Really That Bad Part Two: The Sampling

Why do so many traditional British dishes sound like euphemisms for sex?  “Oh aye, I gave her a right serving of me Ploughman’s Lunch.”  “Going home for a bit of the old Yorkshire Pudding (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  “She’s a lovely bit of Crumpet.”  Bangers and Mash doesn’t even require much imagination to make it sound naughty. Cream Tea anyone?

I ask you?  These people are so rude!  What do you mean it’s just me…

But wherever you are you gotta eat (words of wisdom from some mother no doubt).  This can be quite a worrying fact of human life when one is in a foreign country.  There are, of course, inevitable universals—like the McDonald’s sign indelibly fixed to part of the wall around the Tower of London pointing tourists in the right direction for the nearest heart attack.  More recently, Subway has firmly transplanted itself in the UK.  I remember vividly when the first beloved sandwich shop opened in Harrogate.  I did a little dance.  Literally.

Outside of fast food options, it seems anywhere you go in the Western World, you can find a version of a grilled cheese sandwich (in the UK, ask for a cheese toastie or simply “cheese on toast”) and apple pie (here they call it “apple pie” but you get it smothered in warm custard rather than with a scoop of ice cream).  Hot cheese on bread and apples in crust aside, there are aspects of English cuisine that seem exotic–or at least strange–right up until the time you actually eat it.

For those of you new to Britain, contemplating a trip to Britain or simply curious about what all this weird sounding food is really all about, let me offer the following anecdotes from my own explorations into British Food.

250px-Bangers_and_mash_1Bangers and Mash.  This is a rather risque name for a frankly vanilla sort of meal.  The “mash” is mashed potato and “bangers” are sausages.  (The term is also used by some as a slang term for breasts, but if you are ordering in a pub you will not get a bodacious waitress inviting you to eat potato from her cleavage.  Sorry to spoil the fantasy.)  English sausages can vary wildly in quality—from the utterly marvelous to the barely digestible.  If you are purchasing from a grocery store, the varieties of sausage will amaze you.  Like many food products, the varieties are given regional names: Lincolnshire, Cumberland, Aberdeen Angus etc.  Should be served with a rich, onion gravy or a tin of beans.

images (1)Crumpets.  Crumpets are very difficult to describe to an American because we really have no equivalent.  They are generally served in similar ways and under similar eating conditions as American biscuits (which the English have no concept of) or English Muffins (only here they are just called “muffins”).  Visually they are approximately the same size as a muffin and smothered with butter/butter-like product and either jam, honey or marmite.  (Marmite is a controversial topic deserving a separate post of its own).  But the texture of a crumpet is completely different.  They are chewy for starters, not flaky or crispy at all.  Though if toasted properly, they can get a slight crispy edge to the top.  They have a subtle sourdough flavour.  Serve warm with a hot cup of tea.

ploughmansPloughman’s Lunch.  This is another one of those English dishes that sounds far more terrifying than it actually is.  At most cafes in this country, including those at major and minor tourist destinations, you will see a Ploughman’s Lunch advertised, but mostly likely will avoid it out of sheer terror and/or confusion. A Ploughman’s Lunch could not be more Yankee friendly if it tried.  It’s basically a just a cold plate of cheeses, meats, salad and a roll generally served with some kind of relish, pickle or chutney.  I convinced my Dad to try it a few years ago and it has become his lunch of choice in the UK.

black-gold-stick-with-slices_350Black Pudding.  Also known as blood sausage, Black Pudding often takes a starring role in people’s nightmares about English food.  My sadistic brother-in-law, well-known fan of Black Pudding, could not wait to force it on me.  Interestingly, England is not the only country which has black/blood pudding on its menu.  Most European as well as many Asian countries produce a sausage whose primary ingredient is congealed animal (usually pig) blood and grain fillers such as oatmeal.  In the UK, Black Pudding commonly comes in a log and is sliced and fried as part of a cooked breakfast.  But what does blood sausage actually taste like?  Have I dared to eat it?  Could I even look at it without fainting?  Sorry to disappoint you, but Black Pudding tastes pretty much like a rich, meaty textured sausage.  Nothing scary at all.

spotted-dickSpotted Dick.  Even the Brits admit this one sounds like some kind of sexually transmitted disease.  It is, in fact, one of the many delicious varieties of steamed sponge pudding.  Imagine taking something that is essentially cake batter, but instead of baking it, you steam it in a sealed, buttered bowl.  I have no idea where the “dick” part comes into it, but the “spots” are raisins.  Drench it in warm custard and enjoy.

Single Yorkshire Pudding for cut out Keywords: Baking Batter source: FOODPIXYorkshire Pudding.  Contrary to logic, Yorkshire Pudding is not a dessert—though its basic recipe is similar to unsweetened pancake batter.  Yorkshire pudding is essentially a side dish for a savoury meal, usually roast beef or sausage, served with liberal amounts of gravy.  Perhaps the nearest example America has to it is the way biscuits are sometimes served with fried chicken or sausage gravy.  The flavour, texture and cooking method are like nothing else I have experienced.  It’s a crispy, chewy, slightly fluffy, sort of fried pancake.  My husband, eldest daughter and mother are utterly devoted to this dish.  Personally, I can take it or leave it but I usually keep my ambivalence quiet because folk in my neck of the moors get very passionate about their Yorkshires.

Is British Food Really That Bad? Part One: Adventures in Produce

It is a known fact on a nutritional level that we are what we eat.  There is a great deal of truth in that statement on a wider scale as well.  By microscoping what a nation puts on its table, you see into its very soul.  Many people sneer at British cooking—even the British in that self-deprecating way they have.  The duelling adjectives: bland and boring are frequently batted around in ignorant conversation, and I use “ignorant” here in the true meaning of the word: without direct experience. While preparing for my immigration back in America, I heard sinisterly whispered stories about blood pudding, crumpets, bangers and mash—food that sounded like it belonged in a horror film rather than on a plate.  What does all this say about Britain’s soul I wondered?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATherefore, one of my first acts as a foreigner planning on settling down for a good long stay, was to visit popular grocery store chain Sainsburys.  Here I might be able to satisfy my curiosity over these fear-mongering rumours.  In Sainsburys I was greeted by an entire aisle of Indian cooking ingredients, a wondrous pickle section of jars labelled Ploughman’s and Piccalilli (which I thought was a circus); a dizzying array of cheeses boasting local names like Lancashire and Wensleydale and only one kind of cheese was orange!  Imagine.

organic-sausages-english-meatSausages were made with pork, sage and apple, and the produce was the freshest and most varied I had ever seen outside of a farmer’s market.  To be fair, there was also a nauseating array of potted meat products–some actually having the nerve to simply call themselves “potted meat”.  Honestly, do these people have no imagination or sense of marketing?  Another label sporting Old Glory art work read: “American Style Hot Dogs”, subscript: “in brine” on a large glass jar containing what looked like floating…um…things that look a bit like hot dogs but aren’t. So far the scariest thing I had seen was an attempt at American food.

In typical English fashion, there were many things familiar to me, though they were called by different names.  Courgette instead of zucchini, eggplants were labelled aubergine, and when I asked if they carried Butternut squash, the confused assistant led me to an aisle full of what looked like Kool Aid in large plastic bottles.  Squash, I learned later that day, is a concentrated fruity liquid you mix with water to make a drink, which—funnily enough—tastes like Kool Aid.

I spent two and a half hours just walking around, ogling the differences.  It was better than a museum, and far more informative to a Yankee transplant yearning to blend in.  I filled my shopping basket with a wedge of Wensleydale with Cranberries, Cumberland sausages, Cox apples (I could go on for hours about the glory of English apples), Crumpets, a jar of something called Lemon Curd and a copy of BBC’s Good Food magazine—another valuable contributor to my culinary enculturation.

What struck me most deeply about my grocery experience was the variety.  In America we have a kind of variety.  We go the grocery store and get to choose from twenty different brands and types of peanut butter—Skippy or Jiff, smooth, crunchy, extra crunchy.  But in the grocery stores I have visited here, I find a real cornucopia of ingredients and products.  At least thirty different varieties of potted meat.

British-Cheeses_520The produce was something else which stood out to me.  No Florida oranges here—they all come from Spain.  And the strawberries…gods above the strawberries!  A longer growing season and shorter distances mean that regional fruits and vegetables are easily available and fresh when they are in season.  Hundreds of traditional cheeses with local variations are a highlight, though British cheese is often over-looked in favour of its flashier French neighbour’s.  The influence of the nation’s growing plurality is having a very positive impact as well on the culinary variety in the British diet—Indian food in particular now widely recognised as being the country’s favourite meal.  More recently, Mexican food has also become common place.  When I first moved here, there might have been half a shelf featuring a few Old El Paso items.  Now there is a quarter aisle devoted to Tex-Mex ingredients.

What is best about British cooking is the use of fresh, local, if possible seasonal ingredients and a real sense of national identity and pride in food.  Unlike other aspects of British culture, affection for their own cuisine is something Brits can get behind.  If you want to see a Yorkshire man cry, ask about his mother’s Yorkshire Pudding.  If you want to get told off by a Yorkshire granny, suggest that cheese is a really stupid thing to serve with fruitcake.  And if you really want to get your ass kicked, bring up the superiority of French cuisine.

Love them or hate them, the likes of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsey have made English food sexy.  The British seem to have a real sense of pride and love in their traditional dishes and products.  From their mouths…to their hearts, to misquote the old Jewish saying.  Because food is not just about eating.  Food is family, it is politics, it is history, it is narrative and, no matter what your therapist says, food is love.

In the next blog post, I sample some of those scary British dishes and tell you what exactly what Blood Pudding, Crumpets and Haggis are really like.

Fruitcake Revolution

It begins with the aroma of oranges and clove. It begins with selection and remembrance. It begins and ends with gurgles of brandy. Shrivelled fruits who thought they’d never feel plump again swell with drunkenness surrounded by burly chunks of nuts in the darkest of sugars. All come together under a blanket of marzipan and icing. And cheese. With fruitcake there must always be cheese.

Oh, I can see the look on your face. Fruitcake? You grimace, back away in disgust and horror with a faint trace of “I thought she was alright, but fruitcake…she can’t be serious!”  Oh, I am serious people. When it comes to fruitcake I am very serious. Fruitcake is serious.

“Seriously gross!”

Shut up, you in the back! You know nothing of fruitcake truth. Now listen and learn; open up your mind to the possibility of fruit plus cake.

To be fair, in America Christmas fruitcake is an object of ridicule: a gelatinous brick of barely recognisable jellied fruit, candy and nuts. It can be useful for propping up one leg of that wobbly card table you dust off from the garage to house extra relatives or for lobbing at the loved one who dared gift with you a tie, but I cannot recommend it as an actual comestible.

I’m sorry Yankees, but we need to face facts: our burgers rock, our delis are a religious experience, our diner breakfasts kick the asses of all other breakfasts, what we can’t do with a chicken wing isn’t worth being done and we understand the necessity of freshly popped popcorn at the movie theatre. But our fruitcakes suck. Really, really suck.
The British, on the other hand, do not have delis, diners or chicken wing themed restaurants (do not get me started about their idea of popcorn) but they know how to do fruitcake. Fruitcakes are serious here. They are enjoyed at Christmas, Easter and are the traditional choice for weddings. The Brits know how to rock dried vine fruits.

I began making traditional English fruitcake my first Christmas in Yorkshire. I researched recipes then created my own version. I fed it brandy as it matured; I lovingly glazed it with apricot jam then smothered it in marzipan and royal icing. Twelve years later, Christmas fruitcakes are a family tradition steeped in ritual. And comedy.

Mister’s favourite “My Wife Did This” anecdote involves my virgin attempt to make homemade marzipan. I might have used the wrong sugar or said the wrong spells over it because the damn stuff would not roll out properly. After assuming minimum safe distance for an hour or two, Mister returned to find little icing sugar footprints throughout the house and most of the attempted marzipan in the bin. The rest stuck to the kitchen ceiling. I swear I have no idea how that happened. I buy marzipan now.

My father was my first fruitcake fan. Thrilled by his adoration, I made him his very own the following Christmas. I soaked the fruit for weeks; I fed the resulting cake for months and decorated it meticulously. When we came home from Christmas Eve Carol Service, we found my aunt’s dog thoroughly enjoying my homemade fruitcake. While my frantic aunt consulted her veterinarian to see what effects brandy might have on her darling Australian Shepherd, I huddled foetally beneath the Christmas tree, clutching the last crumbs of my masterpiece.

Several Christmases later, I made several small fruitcakes to give as gifts to my growing fan base. Worried our cat (memories of my aunt’s dog still stung) might leave footprints in the drying marzipan (again with the marzipan) I stored the cakes in the oven overnight (you can see where this is going). I of course forgot all about them the following evening when I heated the oven to bake lasagne. My resulting screams of horror alerted our neighbours to a domestic trauma. The police officer was politely sympathetic as she watched me dispose of four cake corpses still leaking almond paste pus.

Comedy traumas aside, British fruitcake is a revelation worthy of a revolution: dark, rich and boozy with nary a neon candied lime in sight. This Christmas the time is ripe for a British invasion of fruity/nutty proportions. Cast aside your preconceived notions of fruitcake and embrace the true nature of this glorious Christmas tradition!

Rich Fruitcake

 for a 7-inch round cake

 Combine 2 cups of mixed dried vine fruits (raisins, sultanas, currants), ½ cup candied cherries, 2 tablespoons candied ginger, juice and zest of ½ a lemon, juice and zest of ½ an orange, 1 heap spoonful of whole cloves (be sure to count them out), and 3 generous tablespoons of brandy.  Seal in an airtight container and leave to sit anywhere from overnight to a year.  Shake the container every once in a while.  When you are ready to make the cake, remove the cloves, leaving one for luck.  I tend to use 25 cloves for December 25th.

Prepare a 7-inch spring form cake tin by first greasing the bottom and sides.  Then line with baking paper, allowing it to stick up over the top by a good few inches. Cream ¾ cup softened butter and 1 cup very dark brown sugar.  Add 3 eggs one at a time and beat thoroughly.  Add the boozy fruit, making sure you get all that lovely syrup at the bottom.  Sift together 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 3 heaping tablespoons of ground almond into a separate bowl.  Add to the fruit mixture a little at a time, combining completely.  Add 1 cup roughly chopped mixed nuts and stir well.  Spoon into the prepared tin and level out the top.  The mixture will be very stiff.  Bake at 300F for one hour without opening the oven door to peek.  After one hour, reduce heat to 250F and bake for another hour or so.  The cake will be done when it has stopped “singing”—this is a high whistle sort of sound which it makes during baking.  You can also do the old fashioned clean knife in the middle test.  Let it cool in the tin, then remove it from its wrappings.

To store, wrap the cake in clean baking paper, then again in foil.  Fruitcake should mature for at least a month this way. You will need to “feed” your cake weekly.  Poke small holes in the top and dribble 2 tablespoons of brandy into the holes.  Let the cake soak it up before you re-wrap it.  If you do not want quite such a boozy cake, you can feed it with orange juice.  Fruitcake is quite nice as it is, but if you want to go very traditional with your decoration, this youtube clip shows you how to do it.  To serve in the Yorkshire way, top a small slice of fruit cake with a generous slab of Wenslydale Cheese.

Make it your own:  Instead of brandy, make your cake Irish by using whisky or Caribbean by using rum.  You can also leave out the booze altogether and just use orange juice, but where is the fun in that?   Try making your own cocktail.  One year, I fed the cake alternately with Cherry Brandy, Brandy and Orange Liqueur.  Also, instead of decorating it with marzipan and icing you can glue nuts or glacier fruits onto the cake with warmed apricot jam or golden syrup.


Tea Time?

“Since we are not all ladies of leisure, the idea of taking a cream tea as part of a day out is very important as this really shows that we are having a day off and being hedonistic.”

My first introduction to English Teatime was in—of all places—Lincoln, Nebraska.  In the city’s historic Haymarket District, there was (and still is as far as I know) a charming little store run by a charming little woman: Victoria’s Cousin.  The shop mostly seemed to sell Crabtree & Evelyn, but also offered Afternoon Tea.  About twice a year, the women of University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Graduate Theatre Program would itch for a Gwendolyn and Cecily moment.  We would rummage through our wardrobes looking for the clothes we generally reserved for interviews, steal a pair of gloves from costume stock, top it all off with the only corsage any of us had worn since high school prom and haul our fabulously rose-lotion-scented butts down to Victoria’s Cousin for finger sandwiches, scones and Earl Grey.  In most respects, Victoria’s Cousin was not too far off the mark in terms of authenticity.  Though I have discovered since moving to England that Teatime is relative…and quite confusing.

Raised as I was by BBC imports on PBS, I thought Teatime meant raised pinkies and cakes on doilies.  Imagine my expression when my at-the-time-boyfriend-now-husband suggested at six o’clock at night that we order pizza for tea.  Pizza for tea?  Isn’t this the wrong time for tea?  Where’s my doily?  Where’s my jam pot?  What are you talking about, man?  It was difficult enough living in the Midwest where the dinner versus lunch divide caused me no end of dizziness, now I had to juggle definitions of Lunch, Dinner, Supper and Tea that seemed to be almost random in their usage.  It soon became my linguistic, cultural and culinary mission to figure out what British people mean when they say “Teatime”.

When you move to a completely new country, even one where you allegedly speak the language, you have to accept that you will ask stupid questions and feel like an idiot for at least two years.  It was in this spirit of child-like discovery that I entered into my Quest to Define Teatime.  I was aware of the Victorian model of meal times (also adopted by Hobbits everywhere): Breakfast, Elevenses, Luncheon, Tea, Dinner, Supper; but I set out to investigate what Tea means to Brits in the Twenty-First Century.

At first, I assumed that the variations would be geographically based, as I believe they are in America.  To a certain extent, geography does play a part.  The people I spoke to from the Southern areas of England largely echoed my stereotype of teatime—a light meal served around four o’clock involving some kind of little sandwiches, cake and hot steeped beverage.  The closer these people lived to London, the more consistent this understanding of the word became.  These same people, again, mostly from the South East, defined Lunch as a light mid-day meal and Dinner as the main meal in the evening.

However,  those from the Midlands and the North all divided the eating day in the following manner: Breakfast in the morning (thank goodness something remains fairly universal), Dinner at midday, Tea in the evening and Supper just before bed.  And the differences do not end there: meal size and the level of formality play a big part in how one labels one’s food (or libels one’s food I hear my father jibe).

My friend Dave offered this helpful commentary on the subject:

Dinner is the main hot meal of the day, usually at about 6pm. Lunch is a lighter meal in the middle of the day. Tea is a lighter meal in the early evening if you’ve had your main hot meal in the middle of the day. Supper is a hot drink and a biscuit at 9pm.  “Lunch” is always a midday meal, “Supper” an evening one, and “Tea” either evening or late afternoon.  “Dinner” is usually the evening meal, but it always means a big meal; so if, on a particular day, you have a big midday meal and only a very light meal in the evening, then the big midday meal is “Dinner”. So usually, your big meal is in the evening and you only have a light meal midday, and this is: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner.  Sometimes, on a day when you have got plenty of time midday, you have a great big meal then, and only a light meal (usually heavy on the salad, but with cake as well) in the evening, and this is: Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner, Tea or Supper.

And, at this point, I pray for death wondering why I ever thought it was a good idea to ask my friends to explain the intricacies of English custom.  Others, including London-based Yorkshire-born Tony, felt that where you ate your meal was just as important as when or what you ate.  “Tea is just your evening meal eaten at home. If you go out it becomes Dinner.  At home, Dinner is eaten around midday, but if you go out it becomes Lunch.”  It is true that I never hear anyone say they are “going out for Tea”, unless they mean tea and scones Tea.  So not only do I now have to take into consideration the size and formality, but also the location.

Claire is an anthropologist—which means talking about things like What is Teatime is pretty much her raison d’etre.  It was Claire who first really opened my eyes to the fact that the definitions of meal times have far more to do with class than they do with what’s on your plate, where you are or what time of day it is.

Whether you have lunch dinner or tea is still seen by some to be a definite indicator of class.  I invited some colleagues around for Tea a few weeks ago.  One of them absolutely assumed that I meant cakes and scones at five when we finished work.  This is ridiculous, as anyone at work cannot take afternoon tea properly, so most people would assume that I meant Dinner, and not Tea.  To all intents and purposes it looked as if she was making the point that the meal is properly called Dinner.  This then made her look a bit like a snob for pointing out, albeit sideways that I was using the wrong term.  The majority use the terms interchangeably, and to make a stand looks silly these days.

Presumably, Claire’s work colleague, if she was not raised by a lady of leisure, was at least raised by someone who wanted to give the appearance of someone who could be a lady of leisure if give the proper opportunity.  And it is that very issue of status or perceived status that is at the heart of what Teatime means. Claire, though she spent most of her young and adult life in the Northern areas of the country, now lives in Kent, which is near enough to be within commuting distance of London.

With all this in mind, it now makes sense that people from the traditionally “working class” North would classify Tea as a meal in the evening and not an afternoon affair.  Someone who can take tea and cake at four o’clock is not someone who has to bring in the sheep, work the mines or live by the factory time clock.  Similarly, the more affluent and status-conscious Southerners are used to thinking of Teatime as the afternoon break before the proper evening Dinner they dress up for—or, at least they do in Downton Abbey.

This brought my attention to the lunch-dinner divide I encountered so often in the Midwest.  Almost invariably, it was people from a rural background who referred to the mid-day meal as Dinner, meaning that the meal was quite substantial and not just the sandwich and bag of chips/crisps, which has come to define lunch in our busy modern world.  Similarly, everyone I interviewed agreed that, regardless of time of day, Dinner is a large meal, while Lunch is a smaller but snobbier way of labelling the midday meal.  Not exactly a strict class division, but still a parallel was drawn in my mind I had not seen before.

So where does this leave me?  How do I negotiate these politically and socially charged definitions of Teatime?  After careful consideration and reviewing my research of interviews, I decided that the common connection was that Tea is a light meal—not something heavy with many courses resulting in a loosening of trousers and a recuperating nap (stay tuned for future posts on the beauty that is Sunday Lunch).  It can be formal or it can be casual, depending on who you are, where you are and how you are, but it is always light.

And if you chance to visit Harrogate in North Yorkshire, Teatime is Betty’s!

Do the Trans-Atlantic Trifle

If all this talk about Jubilees and Diamonds and Union Jacks spilling all over the place has you Yanks feeling left out, why not indulge a bit of Anglo culture in a way Brits understand best: add liberal amounts of alcohol.  And if you are in the UK feeling bloody sick of all the bunting, flag waving and endless hats parading across your telly, why not smother your bitterness in the American fashion by using your last day off to stuff your face with sugar?  Better yet, why not achieve both objectives in a trans-Atlantic, special relationship, shoulder to shoulder bonding activity?  Let’s all make trifle!

Trifle is my favourite pudding/dessert to make because it skips all the boring parts of cooking and gets straight to the fun bit.  You can make the cake and custard and even the jam from scratch if you feel you have something to prove, but it’s entirely unnecessary.  Trifle also has the creative benefit of being infinitely diverse so you can let your creativity go mad.  I have never made trifle the same way twice but I have never made a bad trifle.  That’s the third and most important benefit to this dish: it is pretty much un-f**k-up-able.

So, how do you actually make a trifle?

  1. The Cake.  The cake element for trifle needs a dense texture because of what you have to do to it.  It has to be a cake which can take some serious gastronomic punishment and still come out swinging.  Angel or sponge will not do the trick.  In the US this generally means pound cake or something else with a brick of butter in it.  In the UK we call it Madeira.  I have also made Trifle with brownies, Jamaican ginger cake, my Granny’s ginger cake recipe and my mother’s Pumpkin Bread recipe (I had something to prove on both those occasions).
  2. The Jam.  Once you have selected your cake, you need to cut it into small cubes.  Small is the only description you’re going to get from me there because it doesn’t really matter.  Once you have your cubes, slice each cube in half, smear each end with jam and sandwich the halves back together.  The choice of jam depends very much on your choice of cake.  I have used strawberry, apricot, rhubarb and ginger, raspberry and even apple butter.  After jamming your cake, jam the pieces in the bottom of a large, pretty glass bowl which has been greased lightly with butter (yes, butter—man up for god’s sake).  Glass is crucial so everyone can be impressed with the layers.
  3. The booze.  Aha!  The fun bit!  After placing your jammed-up cake bits in the bottom of your best, buttered, glass bowl, use a lightly buttered spoon to press the layer down slightly.  Then sprinkle about two or three (four might make it too soggy but it depends on how big a trifle you are making) shots of alcohol over the cake.  Traditionally it should be sherry but I don’t actually like sherry so I have used pretty much everything else possible: brandy, whiskey, mulled wine (that was at Christmas), amaretto, rum…whatever you got basically.  I would not recommend Bailey’s because there are two creamy layers to go and that might be over-kill.  If you are making this for a young audience, you can use juice, depending on how difficult your children are at bedtime.  Just kidding social services—I would never…illegal…immoral.  Moving on.
  4. Fruit and or Jelly.  The next layer is controversial, but since the cake needs to soak you have time to ponder.  The first several times I made trifle, I topped my boozy cake layer with a sloppy fruit layer.  Soft fruits such as raspberries, strawberries or otherberries stewed in some kind of (preferably alcoholic) liquid are most common, but it is open to interpretation.  I have used roasted rhubarb, baked apple and even cherry pie filling straight from the can.  After about the third time I made trifle, my husband whined about the lack of jelly/gelatine/Jello.  So you can mix your fruit with a pack of gelatine, pour that over the cake layer and let the whole thing sit in the fridge until its set.
  5. Custard.  This layer is not up for compromise…much.  After your fruit has cooled and/or gelatine set, cover your creation with a generous layer of custard.  In the UK they sell pre-made custard in every form and size imaginable.  In the US you basically just need to get your hands on some vanilla pudding.  Or do you…  I have made trifle successfully with chocolate custard, so presumably chocolate pudding would work too.  Or butterscotch or white chocolate or cheesecake or possibly even pistachio.  It’s risky though.  Custard in the UK has a slightly thicker consistency than American pudding, if I am remembering accurately.  I have it on good authority that Anglophilia in the US has led to wider availability of British products.  You might be able to find Bird’s Custard Powder or pre-made Ambrosia Custard.  Again, if you have something to prove you can make it yourself.  I have never attempted this but I am told it’s simple.
  6. Cream.  Your fabulous creation is nearly complete.  The second to the last layer is whipped cream.  This can be tricky because custard lacks a firm stable base for cream smearing, so if you are whipping your cream from scratch (which I always do) be sure not to make it too stiff.  I generally add a bit of whatever alcohol I poured over the cake layer to the cream before whipping, but it’s not necessary.  You could pipe the whipped cream on or use whipped cream from a spray can if you are in a rush or just can be bothered.
  7. Big Finish.  Decorating the top of your trifle is essential for your final statement of artistic gluttony.  Also, if your whipped cream layer went on badly the topping can cover your smearing sins.  Toasted almonds, sliced fruit, crumbled shortbread, crushed amoretti biscuits, mini chocolate chips…it’s all good.

Trifle is best if made the night before up until step five or six.  The cream should ideally be added just before serving.  Above all, be creative and have fun because with these ingredients it’s hard to go wrong.

Don’t F*** with our Pies!

My fellow Iowan (or Iowegian depending on who you ask) and one time ex-pat Bill Bryson wrote many marvelous books about his observations on British culture.  In Notes from a Small Island he admits that many of Britain’s culinary contributions are less than savoury.  I use savoury in literal sense because Bryson expresses big love for British desserts, or puddings as they are called here, or sometimes “afters”.

“Don’t f*** with our puddings,” he writes in no uncertain terms.  Because the British have this culinary art form nailed!  The term “pudding” has two meanings here.  The word can mean any type of dessert, but it refers specifically to a kind of dessert made with a batter than closely resembles sponge cake, though it is steamed rather than baked.  The resulting steamed sponge is served with warm custard, which resembles vanilla pudding.  (I plan to write an entire post praising custard in the near future.  When I think of all the years I wasted eating vanilla pudding cold…what a fool I was.)

Steamed puddings have as many varieties as cake.  My personal favourite is Sticky Toffee, available in a perfected form at the Magpie Cafe in Whitby.  My husband is partial to    Jam Roly Poly with layers of jam rolled inside steamed sponge .  This is oddly difficult to find and I am far too intimidated to make it myself.  When my Mother goes to her Happy Place there is generally a Treacle Sponge there, available in a perfected form at my Mother-in-Law’s house for Sunday lunch.  There is also a savoury pudding called Steak and Kidney which has permanent residence in my husband’s Happy Place.  So much so that he has been known to find excuses to travel two hours north where the village of Warkworth, Northumberland hides the Topsy Turvy Cafe which has certainly perfected the Steak and Kidney Pudding in his opinion.  Bet he finds a way to detour there on our way to Scotland next week.  “Don’t f*** with our puddings” indeed!

But puddings are not the only sacrosanct food product in the UK.  This week has seen another beloved culinary friend placed in the spotlight of political theatre.  I speak of pies.

When the British talk about pies they are not referring to the fruit-filled, meringue-topped cream-studded items available in America–though of course Brits have those too.  Just as  everyone here understands that “potato” means “boiled potato”, “pie” means “meat pie”.  They closely resemble pot pies, only with less vegetable to dilute the shameless meat and gravy  love fest.  The catch-all term of pie also encompasses the pasty.  I have a love-hate relationship with pasties.  The love from all the years my mother made us eat them, the hate because I never liked them.  I knew I had truly married my mother in male form the first time I saw my husband’s eyes light up on a trip to Cornwall.  So many pasty shops.  I don’t think he stopped drooling for a fortnight.

Imagine his horror then upon reading a news article earlier this week about a proposed price increase to pies…indeed the horror went round the nation: “Don’t f*** with our pies!”

Unlike the US, the UK has no sales tax–at least not on the surface.  There is an additional price on some items buried in the advertised price label on products making quick math work unnecessary (GO TEAM BRITAIN!).  This took me several months to get used to when I first moved here.  The hidden tax does not exist on all products.  VAT or Value Added Tax  is placed on items classed as “non-essential” or “luxury”.  Alcohol, chocolate and cake for example are all covered by VAT, though biscuits (cookies) are not. Biscuits, apparently, are essential.  So are pies…until now.

The Government in its Age of Austerity wisdom has decided the time is ripe for a pasty tax.      Of course it’s not actually called a “pasty tax” or even a “pie tax”, what it is trying to do is classify this darling of the hot fast food world as a luxury item rather than a food staple.  The trouble is, the public have taken this in a very different way.  Pies and pasties seldom grace the tables of the posh and privileged.  They evolved from working class convenience: folk who worked the mines or the fields needed satisfying food they could consume with dirty hands.  When Tories get their hands dirty they do it metaphorically.  Thus, the political hot button of the “pie tax” comes down to class.

It has been quite entertaining watching the Conservative Tory Government, with its boys raised by nannies and educated at Eton, back track in the face of public outrage over taxing the nation’s beloved hot snack food.  Prime Minister David Cameron’s insistence that he once enjoyed a pasty at a Petrol Station in West Yorkshire was particularly amusing for a variety of reasons.  First of all because I am not convinced Cameron has ever eaten a working class pasty in his life, second because the Tories have been so burned by both the pasty tax and the petrol crisis so much this week and third of all because I am not sure Cameron can find West Yorkshire on a map as it’s far too North for his socio-politcal sat nav to locate.

I can’t wait until they decide to declare a biscuit tax.  Little old ladies up and down the country will be raising their wrinkled fists shouting: “Don’t f*** with our biscuits!”  Then the Tories will truly be screwed.