Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I Hate American Food

boiled peanuts

American Food on the Road
By Joan M. Baril
I hate American food. No, pass the grain of salt. Of course, I don’t hate all American food. In New York, we had wonderful meals. The Minnesotan village of Grand Marias, just south of Thunder Bay, boasts excellent restaurants. New Orleans, and the entire state of Louisiana, dishes out one heavenly meal after another. For three days running, I went back to the same restaurant in Grand Isle for the shrimp etouffe. I still remember the mussels cooked in wine in San Francisco. And so on.
But driving through a Kansas small town I saw a sign that said Thai Restaurant. I ordered pad thai. It was an unusual pad thai. I considered it. Certainly there must be various regions of Thailand with their own regional cooking and even their own types of noodles. But macaroni? I looked for the shrimp mentioned in the menu but could not find it. The waitress, using my fork, pulled open the pile of macaroni to reveal one canned cocktail shrimp.
“One?” I said.
“It says shrimp, not shrimps,” she replied.
You can’t argue with that.
In North Dakota, I ordered a veggie sandwich on croissant. Except it was a hamburger bun.

“This is not a croissant,” I said.
“It isn’t?” said the waitress in genuine surprise.
“And there are no vegetables as mentioned in the menu. Just a slice of melted process cheese.”
“They are under the cheese,” she said and sure enough a finger paring of red pepper, a strip of tomato and a flake of something else, perhaps zucchini, lurked beneath.
You would think I would learn. The name of a dish has no relation to the traditional dish. Alice in Wonderland, who learned that “a word means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less," would understand.
A risotto was a pile of plain white rice. A mixed salad was a dinner plate (!) of chopped iceberg lettuce with a bottle of Kraft to mix in. The tea was made by holding a cup with the teabag in it under the hot tap. None of these places, except the last, were cheap. I paid 30$ for fish and “risotto.”
“Have some refried beans,” said the church lady at the church dinner. I put a couple of tablespoons beside the water seeping out from under the mashed potatoes. The beans gave pause. They had been cooked in chocolate.
I do not malign true American food. I have tried alligator. I have tried crawfish.  On a Rio Grande canoe trip I ate white bread dotted with hot peppers, beans mixed with hot peppers, chili made with an inordinate amount of very hot peppers.
I actually like biscuits and gravy even though the gravy is white and thick as paste. I am one of the few Canadians I know who enjoys grits and boiled peanuts.
biscuits and gravy - I like it.
The owner of a diner explained to me how difficult it is to skin a turtle, and even though he raised them in a special pond and catches them too, he takes them to a professional turtle skinner. A Louisianan showed me how to stake a chicken leg into the swamp to catch crayfish. At a near-by campsite, I met Grandfather Frog, who, his family told me, was famous for catching frogs and cooking them.  I turned down the invitation to dinner. A line has to be drawn somewhere.
            “A Greek salad is made with spinach or romain,” I said. “Not iceberg lettuce.” Actually I did not say it. I no longer tell the restaurants of the Midwest how a dish is traditionally made and so I no longer sound like a show-off foodie. Also all the salads from North Dakota down to Arizona are made of iceberg lettuce. I just eat them.
            “Vinaigrette is not thick red glug from the Kraft bottle.” I did not say this either.
            “A spanakopita should have four or five crisp filo sheets on top, not a single soggy thing. And there should be a bottom crust also.” Another unsaid comment.
            “Would you like to join us for Thanksgiving dinner?” said the woman at the next campsite. “I’m boiling the turkey now.” 
This was in the panhandle of Florida. Her husband and sons were squirrel hunters. Luckily they had not shot any.
            Inside the trailer, I watched the hostess peel and chop hard-boiled eggs and add them to a bowl of hot water. “This is how I make gravy,” she said and sure enough she spooned it on the boiled turkey slice.
After that we all said grace, no one more fervently than I.

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