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!

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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 (Remix for Submission)

piccsP2Y61

It 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, my neighbour brewed me a cup of tea.  After a challenging day of mountain climbing in Wales, my exhausted 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 unforgiveable.

Tea can cause great controversy in other ways as well.  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, though there are cultural regulations surrounding its use.  In the US, this variation is almost strictly regional.  South of the Mason-Dixon Line sweet tea is the norm whilst Northern Yankees like myself drink it unsweetened.  As with most things in Britain, the difference between sweetened or unsweetened tea tends to be less regional and more class-based.  “Builders Tea” is a strong brew made with two sugars—hard working man’s tea for hard working men.  Grr!  A middle-class tea drinker from the Home Counties would look disdainfully down her nose at such “common tea behaviour.”  Sniff.

Sugar aside, 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 an Add-the-Milk-Lastist while my friend Corrie from Lancashire is a Milk-Firstian.  Milk first and her rose is red, yet we will speak to each other.  Amazing.  Allow me to explain.

When I make a cup of tea, I put the bag in the cup, pour over the boiling (boiling, mind you!) water and then, only after my tea has steeped to a rich dark russet, do I 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 Red 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 Firsties 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.

A 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 Red Corrie…despite her deviant, Lancastrian ways.

One tea-related issue continues to unite Britain as a nation under leaf.  The firm and shakeable belief that iced tea is a myth.  An unnatural and mystifying myth.

Kitchen-Talks-Iced-Tea-2

Iced tea.  They just don’t get it.  Iced tea baffles Brits more than a poodle smoking a pipe.  You can explain how refreshing it is.  You can draw them a picture of it.  You can hand them a dewy glass on a hot summer day.  They might take a polite sip, but I guarantee you it will only be out of well-bred politeness.  Watch in wonder then as they 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 a seaside café in Yorkshire she ordered.

“Iced tea?”

“Of course,” the waitress beamed back.

One can only imagine the panicked conversation which took place amongst the café 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 hot pot of tea and a glass containing a single ice cube.

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

“The only iced tea I recognise is of the Long Island variety,” boasted a member of my Harrogate book club when I attempted to introduce them to my beloved summer drink.

“Iced tea does not compute,’ moaned another, shaking her head in bewilderment.

“Unnatural,’ the women agreed.

“It’s just tea poured over ice,” I protested.  “It’s lovely.  Really.”

The ladies of my book club looked suspiciously at my sundrenched pitcher, brows crinkled, lips pursed.  Disapproval, disgust and a bit of disorientation coloured their expressions, as if they were gazing upward at some unsettlingly pornographic new constellation rather than a delightful blend of chilled orange pekoe and mint. They exchanged looks, daring one another to try the alien concoction.

Instead they shrugged, shook their heads and muttered “She’s American.”  As if this both explained and forgave my deviant behaviour.  Then they put the kettle on.

 

The 4th of July Blues

Newsflash, America: the British do not celebrate Independence Day.

FatGirl-coverThis should be a no-brainer, yet my Yankee friends and family cannot conceive of a world in which the 4th of July does not include a day off, a barbeque and a fireworks display.  My own parents should be accustomed to this since, for most of my childhood, July 4th fell in the middle of Summer Rep season and there was usually a 6:45pm stage call.  Sometimes we might see distant fireworks during intermission.

Today I went to work at the usual time.  I did have a New York Deli sandwich and three Reeces’s Peanut Butter cups from the Co-op for lunch though.  This evening, after school and work, my family and I barbequed some burgers.  And that’s all she wrote.  Maybe I could have snuck over to the American military base outside of town to watch fireworks from across the road but I find the idea frankly depressing.  Like watching a circus through a window.  I have hosted barbeques at our house before.  I make far too much food and put Bruce Springsteen on the stereo.  But that doesn’t really fill the void either.

There are only two days on the calendar which make me feel truly homesick: Thanksgiving and Independence Day.  The British do not celebrate Thanksgiving either.  Another no-brainer that baffles those back home. I have tried to convince North Yorkshire County Council that American is a religion, making the 4th of July and the third Thursday in November High Holy Days which I should, by rights, have off work to celebrate in the manner of my people.  It hasn’t worked.  Yet.macxal-b781003076z.120120914133311000gse18stav.2

As compensation, I get Bonfire Night, aka 5th of November aka Guy Fawkes Night.  It’s a reasonably patriotic occasion, as patriotic as it gets in Britain.  Though it feels strange to celebrate a guy who tried to blow up parliament and over-throw the King.  Yes, I know we are celebrating the fact that he failed, but sometimes that little nuance gets lost in the rebellious North.

There are fireworks.  But it’s in November.  A fireworks display where no one plays God Bless America and during which I dance about to keep warm feels wrong.  Instead you inevitably get the Star Wars theme and sometimes Ride of the Valkyries.  Hot dog and burger barbeques are replaced by sausages and toffee apples around a bonfire.

46___SelectedOh, yes.  There is an enormous bonfire on which we get to burn an effigy.  Traditionally it’s a straw representation of Guy Fawkes, but it could be anyone really.  George Bush was a favourite a few years back and there is even one community in the south which every year petitions Rome for permission to burn an effigy of the pope.  It’s always granted.

Earlier today my brother-in-law asked if we burn effigies of the King on Independence Day.  I think we should definitely start doing this.  I can see it now.  Sunburnt folks gathered in their tank-topped masses and baseball hats as a straw man strapped to a wooden cross gets paraded through the cheering crowd to be ritually incinerated.

On second thought, we should probably stick with hotdogs.

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.

Ex-Pat Yankee Dreams of Home

Rootbeer, pickle relish, tacos. The sound of a front porch screen door slapping on its sprung hinges. Choruses of June bugs accompanying firefly acolytes in a sanctuary of summer twilight. Thunderstorms. National parks. Distances. Corn.

Rivers of a proper size and people who use their car horns and raiding mulberry trees. Singing Battle Hymn of the Republic as part of a large, harmonious choir. Sundays that mean something.

A decent doughnut with a bottomless cup of coffee. Diners, truck stops, service. Taking a Greyhound bus across endless miles of straight road. The sound of the letter R. Submarine sandwiches of architectural size and shameless self-belief.

The people who have known me and loved me since birth. Closets. Skunks. Flags.

Ducks made of calico at shopping mall craft shows. The county fair. My mother’s cheesecake and my father’s houseplants. The friends who grew up with me. “God bless you.”

Mark Twain one man shows, country music radio, roadmaps based on geometry. Saturday garage sale expeditions planned with military precision. The rapid-fire voices of auctioneers. Serious heat and serious cold and a history that is my own.

The feeling I belong, even as a discontented outsider, to a world that had no choice but to welcome me.

old house
Also corn dogs.

When a Yankee Visits Yorkshire Part Three: Grandma’s Adventures with the NHS

5358673496_d0c1ac3961“I’m afraid there’s been an accident with your Grandmother.”

I had been cleaning all day.  The kind of cleaning you do for company.  Removing books to dust shelves, wiping down picture frames on walls, hovering residual spider webs from the corners of every room.  And then a phone call comes to change it all.

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident with your Grandmother.” 

I thought the weather would be the biggest tragedy of this holiday.  I worried about my husband’s recent bout of flu, the state of the house, the behaviour of my children.  And then a phone call comes to change it all.  There was an accident with my eighty-seven-year-old Grandma, touristing in London before travelling North to see her great-grandchildren (and me).  She fell waiting for the lift and broke three ribs.  So there it is.  People make plans, but life makes other plans and we must chase the bouncing ball of chaos before it rolls into traffic.

Six years ago when my Grandpa lay dying there was nothing I could do to be with my family.  Our patriarch passed and I was an ocean away.  Last week it took me less than a minute to decide how to handle this fresh crisis.  I couldn’t get on a plane to Iowa, but a train to London—that was something I could do.

Packing happened, tickets were purchased and four hours later I got lost in the A&E of St Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster.  Good view of Parliament.  At least Grandma would be able to get in some quality sight-seeing from her sick bed. And yes, Auntie Madge…it is the hospital which went to the moon in that one episode of Doctor Who.  More importantly, it is a flagship NHS hospital which has been providing free health care since the thirteenth century.

“No one has asked us about money.” 

My parents sounded worried rather than relieved, and a bit mystified.  Of course, in an American hospital an eighty-seven-year-old patient in pain would not be hounded for their credit card before admittance, but someone with the patient, a friend or relative, would be taken aside and discreetly asked: “How do you intend to pay for this?”  Yes, even in the Emergency Room they would ask.  If you were bleeding from a bullet would they would ask.

My grandmother was given a bed, a dose of morphine and probably a cup of tea (right up there with morphine as far as the British are concerned).  I’m not going to lie and say her bed was regal or that she had a fleet of nurses flocking to her side seeing to her every need, but she was cared for and given what she needed when she needed it.  That’s the thing about the NHS.  It’s there when you need it—for ANYONE who needs it.  My grandmother was a guest in Britain, not even a citizen, but it didn’t matter to those who treated her.

After a few hours, she was moved into the Victoria Ward for acute medical conditions.   It had an even better view of Westminster.  They took x-rays and blood samples, fed her, counselled her, housed her over-night, gave her medication and a walking stick.  Before her transfer, an A&E nurse warned us we might be asked about our insurance.  Fortunately my grandmother is well insured, but no one ever asked.  Not once. 

377221_10150405441484219_1021563656_nLast week the taxes of Britain paid to treat a frightened, injured foreigner who came to their shores for a view of Buckingham Palace and a cuddle with her great-granddaughters.  My dear, old grandmother so loved by her family and friends.  Thank you St Thomas’ Hospital.  Thank you, National Health Service.  For all the frightened, alone people who come to you in need and receive necessary care, free of everything but their physical pain.  Thank you for looking after her.  My grandmother is worth every penny of tax and so is every other patient you treat.

America, I warn you.  Four tax payers are coming home who now understand exactly how Socialised Medicine works.  They know the truth.  The NHS hospitals of Britain may not have the fanciest equipment but they don’t need it—I doubt you do either.  They use what they have to treat patients in need.  Any patient in need.  It’s not a perfect system, no government system is.  But it’s there when people need it—for anyone who needs it.  My grandmother will not go bankrupt because of an accident.  Four Americans are coming home who get it now.  And they vote.

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.