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.

Aye-Up, Tour!

10458444_10152532787108659_6439064225440468270_n“The world is watching us,” said the man from Malham in the Yorkshire Dales tourist office.  “We best make a good showing of it.”

Aye.  The world is watching my neighbourhood.  And not just in a creepy googlemaps kind of way.  And not just watching.  Over the next few days the world—or at least the bicycle lovers of the world—will be descending up on us as host to the most prestigious cycling event on the athletic calendar: The Tour de France.

For those of you who are rather confused why Le Tour is coming to Le Nord, allow me to refer you to my blog post of January 2013.  If you can’t be bothered to click on the link, let me sum it up for you: The Grand Depart (start) of the Tour De France (big bike race) will be in Yorkshire (Leeds-Harrogate then York-Sheffield) this week-end.

10513471_10152554109763659_21541252559353369_nI have never been at Ground Zero for a major sporting event.  Being taken unawares once on a Saturday morning during football season in Lincoln, Nebraska was enough to turn me off all sporting events for life. Not that I was ever turned on by them.  If you are not au fait with American College Football, in the mid-late 1990s, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were Kings of the…errr…I want to say “pitch” but I’m not really sure what to call the thing people play football on. For me, that nightmarish football Saturday felt like being caught up in some cult parade: a human tide of red surging in one direction with singular intent.  I dropped my farmers’ market booty, got on my bike and pedalled away at speed just in case the mob needed a virgin (to football) sacrifice.

My bicycle saved my life that day, and it was not the only time.  Children of the 80s lived on bikes and I was no different.  As a teenager I hated my driver’s ed instructor so much that my bicycle became a form of protest.  “I have no need of a car.  My two-wheeled environmentally-responsible rebel vehicle takes me where I need to go in this frankly very small town.  I shall ride it with smug superiority.”  And I did.   Everywhere.

10421206_10152554097403659_260002573400864410_nIn fact, my best memories of getting from point a to point b all involve a bicycle.  Racing a thunderstorm with my cousins in Iowa, the sirens blaring in our ears, rain drowning us and lighting all around.  Riding Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois during my college years on a bright red Trek mountain bike I named Felicia.  I even, one memorable evening, rode it in the dark without a bike light.  But only once.  It was far too scary.  But memorable.  The summer I spent as a girl scout camp counsellor in Wisconsin.  Every day we had two hours off.  Every day I spent those two hours riding around the incredible countryside.  I saw the best sunsets that summer.  And here in Harrogate we are lucky enough to cycle paths like The Nidderdale Greenway, where I experienced my favourite moment as a parent so far: seeing my daughters biking side by side. 10438918_10152487063738659_6333466069554672502_n

I am certainly not alone in my love of the spoke and chain.  Recently, cycling has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the UK.  Great Britain has won The Tour de France two years running and dominated cycling events at the 2012 Olympics.  This has led many to take it up as both exercise and a greener way to travel.  I see more bikes every day.  Maybe in the near future York will be like a second Amsterdam in the sheer number of people cycling everywhere.  Who can say what Le Tour may bring? 10514590_10152554102568659_4902562814346299244_n

Meanwhile, in the present day, Yorkshire is getting her glad rags on for the spotlight.  It’s quite exciting being on stage.  I do love a spotlight and a stage.  The Yorkshire decorating committee has been hard at work for some time dressing up our already beautiful county. In November 2013 the call went out to knitters of all ages and persuasions to deck the streets with boughs of jerseys.  Tiny little knitted t-shirts in colours representing the various winning Tour jerseys have been draped from the lamp posts of every city, town and village in the county. So many tiny knitted t-shirts in fact that local councillors were concerned about the structural soundness of iron posts groaning under the weight of adorably rampant woollyness.  Worry not though, dear readers. No lamp posts have been harmed and the bunting is cute as hell! 10514603_10152554124568659_8960884357956830103_n

On a purely selfish note, I am thrilled that Le Grand Depart is happening the day after American Independence Day.   I never get to celebrate The Fourth of July.  This year not only do I get the day off but I get to ride the Pre-Depart celebratory wave.  Of course, I realise the bunting, streamers are not for my silly little national holiday but If I tilt my head and squint a bit, all the little GB flags look almost like the stars and stripes.  Almost. 10406391_10152556847863659_3159653235933347244_n

Flags, ickle knitty jumpers and bunting draped around anything that holds still long enough are just the beginning of the party atmosphere in Yorkshire.  Yellow bicycles have been appearing in the most amazing places and in some truly creative ways.  Businesses in particular have been going all out for the customers they expect to pour into our area.  A Harrogate restaurant even customized its wine labels to celebrate “a summer of cycling.”

Madder things are happening as well.  In the town of Ripley, just off the  aforementioned Nidderdale Greenway, a man is working night and day to complete a stone sculpture of a cyclist biking atop what looks for all the world like a pyramid.  10492303_10152556846068659_3554964477559972465_nArt is happening.  Music is happening.  Drama.  Film.  Food.  And lots and lots and lots of bikes.

Pride.  That is what’s happening in Le Nord.  Folk here take for granted that Yorkshire is the best county in England.  This is not news.  I think these hard northerners are really looking forward to showing off for the rest of the world. 10455316_10152554106893659_8826107814946882365_n

Of course, Brits being Brits, there are many who would make a face at my grandiose claims.  “Oh, dear,” I’ve heard them say when conversations shift to Tour Talk.  “It’ll be awful.  I may have to hide/leave town/immigrate.”  I take these protests with a block of salt.  They said the same thing about the Olympics and we all know how that turned out.  Granted, Le Tour will not garner the same level of attention as the Olympics but now that England is out of the World Cup, I reckon the country is ready to get behind a sporting event we stand a good chance of winning.

Even if Wiggo is awol.

Over the Tall Grass Prairie

prairie1In the early 1970s my parents moved from Iowa to Seagate in Brooklyn, New York City.  At this time Seagate was nearly exclusively populated by Jews, so much so that I believed menorahs were Christmas decorations and didn’t understand why our house didn’t have one.

Women often tried to speak Yiddish to my dark haired, dark complected father, while my freckled WASP mother fielded questions about whether folk in Iowa still had problems with the Indians.

prairie2Problems with the Indians.  In 1973.  Bear in mind most residents of Seagate have been no further west than Staten Island, but still…

prairie3

The Midwest of America has a rather poor reputation, when it has any reputation at all.  Most people in the UK when I tell them where I am from say “Oh, right…that’s one of those middle ones,” in a disappointed voice because I am not from New York, Florida or California which are the only states most of them recognise.

Presidential election coverage gives the Midwest a different reputation as being that swath of Republican red which streaks through the country like a bloody wound (my two states Iowa and Illinois are nearly always the solitary splotches of blue on that map by the way).

prairie4Even our fellow Americans seem to look down on us as being that enormous thing which prevents them from enjoying a shorter LA-NYC Red Eye flight.

prairie5I used to feel the same way.  I would look around the endless miles of cornfields broken up only by endless miles of soybeans and just feel depressed.  Flat, boring, stupid Midwest.  Then a friend of mine told me to shut up and look up.  “Just look at that sky,” he told me.  “There aren’t very many places where you can so that much sky.”

prairie6I looked up.  He was right.  Midwestern sky is overwhelming.  It’s dizzying.  How could anyone not realise the world is round after looking up at that enormous bright blue dome?

prairie7My next revelation of the beauty all around me came when I began regularly biking along Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.  In the early 1990s, an effort was made to encourage native prairie grasses and flowers to grow along the edges of the trail making a beautiful path for walkers, runners and bikers.

prairie8Signs were posted at regular intervals informing bikers, runners and walkers not to disturb the natural growth of the prairie.

Many other city planners and conservationists have worked hard to preserve the Midwest’s ecological heritage.  As my father explained to his granddaughters, in pioneer days there would have been tall grass prairie as far as the eye could see across most of Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.  West-ward expanding nineteenth century Americans on horseback would have waded through it up to their chests.  The idea astounds them.prairie9

In the twenty-first century, nature reserves throughout the Midwest,including the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, offer visitors an opportunity to see, smell and hear the history of the land.

prairie10

Look up, look down, look out on the beauty of the prairie.  An “alien” landscape to English gardeners (according to my Mother-in-Law), but as much a part of the Midwest as big sky and rolling cornfields.

All photographs taken at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge by Paul and Freya Elmer.

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!

heartattackalley

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.

dipdog

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.

Guest Post on our visit to the Mississippi River by Freya Elmer aged nine

river and flagsOn Wednesday  the 31st  July  my Mum, my annoying  sister Juliet , my grandma, my grandpa and I went  to the Mississippi river.  First we came from the Chicago airport from Brussels and Manchester.  We went on an airplane two times.  Then my mum’s friend Lisa drove us to a hotel which took four hours!  Then we drove to the Mississippi River with grandma and grandpa.

miss and missesMy annoying sister Juliet and I threw stones into the Mississippi River.  Juliet threw one of the stones into my head “accidentally” she said.  I went along the dock and almost gave grandma a heart attack. The Mississippi River is so big and the current is so strong that it could take me away in two secs to the open ocean.

freya riverThe Mississippi River is epic!

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!

Yankee in Yorkshire is On the Move!

Greetings regular and new readers.  For the month of August this Yankee is GOING HOME!  And so this summer’s blog will largely be aimed at my British readers.

Reports from the field will include a visit to the Iowa State Fair, home of the Butter Cow (it’s a cow..made of butter); extensive, comparative studies on the best varieties of Iowa corn; investigations into the superiority of American swimming pools (because we ain’t got beaches in the Midwest); culinary explorations of just how many things can be done to a humble chicken wing.

Marvel also as I show my daughters what a real river looks like, take my nice English husband to a genyooeyene country bar and see just how much heat a Yorkie can stand up to before it melts.

Iowa_the_Beautiful_by_tonyaltn

Have a nice summer, ya’ll.  See ya on the other side!

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.

When a Yankee Visits Yorkshire: Part Two

In my last blog post I doled out travelling wisdom to my Auntie Madge, soon to visit Britain for the first time.  Then I spoke of what TO do when travelling in Yorkshire and its environs.  Now, I wish to warn you a little.  Here is what NOT to do when visiting us across the pond.

3650175597_b45d936b0b_zDon’t let the weather stop you.  Spring in Yorkshire is a beautiful time of year: crocuses and daffodils and narcissus everywhere.  My first impression of England from the air was that it looked like a giant golf course.  Grass so green it seemed fake and so many tiny cars zooming about.  But all that floral splendour and greenery comes a cost and the cost is the weather.  It’s unlikely to rain the entire fortnight you are here, Auntie, but at some point (unless the fates of nature or the gods of tourism favour you) you will encounter Weather.  But do not let it stop you.  If the British let Weather cancel their plans, an entire nation would grind to a halt.  So, as comedian Billy Connolly says: “get yourself a sexy rain coat and live a little.”

_791920_towers_300Don’t expect service. If you have never watched Fawlty Towers this will mean nothing to you, but it’s one of my favourite observations of British culture from American comedian Greg Proops.  “I used to think Fawlty Towers was a screwball comedy then I visited England and realised it was actually a hard-hitting documentary.”  Mr Proops’ point is that service is not a priority in Britain the way it is in America.  When I walk into a shop, no sales assistants eagerly descend, wait staff never greet me with beauty pageant grins and ask every ten minutes if all is well, and no exchange of good and/or services concludes with “have a nice day”.  While this may not sound like a big deal, I assure you it does take some getting used to.  In my entire time here I have only witnessed two Brits send food back to a restaurant kitchen, though many more have quietly complained and put up with unsatisfactory food.  I have some theories as to why service is so poor in Britain but I will save that for a later post.

tea-vs-coffeeDon’t drink the coffee.  England is a nation of tea drinkers. We may have embraced coffee culture to a certain extent, but unless you are at a Starbucks or Café Nero I would give your usual cup of Joe a miss in favour of a brew.  Instant coffee.  That’s what you find over here.  Instant coffee.  Oh you can get filter coffee, but unfortunately few people realise that coffee grounds, unlike tea leaves, do not require boiling water to release their full potential.  Therein lies the difficulty in enjoying coffee on this side of the pond.  My advice: when in Yorkshire, drink the bloody tea.  Except when visiting my in-laws because their coffee is caffeinated nectar.

Don’t forget the exchange rate.  Currency will be your first concern when your plane lands.  Most likely you will bring some British money with you but don’t worry if you don’t.  Airports are full of cash machines all happy to eat up your Yankee dollars.  And eat them they will.  As I write this, the exchange rate actually is not too bad for a Yankee visiting the UK: 1.5 dollars to every pound.  In the recent past this has been as high as 2.5 dollars to the pound.  Even so, you need to keep calculating.  It’s all too easy to slip and forget just how much you are spending.  On that trip to Darbar I wrote about in the last post, I tipped the wait staff the equivalent of $20.00.  In my defence I was new in town and slightly drunk.  

969594-queenlaughDon’t be intimidated.  For the first few months I lived here I kept a pretty low profile.  If I was out on my own I spoke as little as possible because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.  Mostly this was due to the fact that every time I opened my mouth it began a thirty minute conversation (see previous post).  It was a waste of time.  Don’t be intimidated.  Speak up, ask questions, bother people.  The British may look a bit scary and I still think they lack a few essential facial muscles, but they’re a bit of all right really.

Safe travels, Auntie.  We cannot wait to introduce you to this country we love.  Stay tuned for the last in this series: Madge’s travels in Yorkshire.