Ella Windsor says that if you don’t like pigging out, you won’t much enjoy eating in the US, where The Cheesecake Factory serves portions big enough to kill an ox
My American friends in England never stop complaining about the food here. It’s all ‘gloopy’, they say, and they bitch about the warm beer, grey curries and unidentifiable soups. Sometimes their longing for US comfort food — beefburgers, hotdogs, cookies, tacos and dairy queen ice cream — becomes so strong that some of them even resort to a company called the Food Ferry, a British Internet site that delivers Skippy Peanut Butter, beef jerky and Oreo cookies.
My solution is a little different. I tell them that American food is overrated, unhealthy and revolting, and the sooner they wean themselves off it, the better they will feel.
American food seems pretty impressive at first sight, but during a four-year stint in the US I realised that it is basically a con trick: bigger isn’t necessarily better; brighter colours don’t mean more intense flavours; sugar tastes good, but leaves you feeling depressed, sick and still hungry.
British cuisine may be considered bland but at least, by and large, you know what you’re putting in your mouth. One of America’s bestselling snacks is a cheese dip designed to be scooped up with nacho chips. It’s runny, it’s orange, it tastes like cheese, but a label on the jar says that it’s a ‘non-dairy product’. Then there are Twinkies — small yellow sponge cakes found in the lunchboxes of most US children. Twinkies are made of such mysterious stuff that they don’t have a best-before date and are subjected to scientific tests. ‘A Twinkie was left on a window ledge for four days,’ says one Internet report, ‘during which time many flies were observed crawling across the Twinkie’s surface but, contrary to our hypothesis, birds — even pigeons — avoided this potential source of sustenance.’
Even the food that’s made of food is a challenge. A pastrami sandwich comes with a good six inches of meat in the middle — how do you get your mouth around something that’s nearly as big as your head? After a few attempts, any appetite you might once have had is gone. Have you ever tried an American apple? They look perfect — enormous, red and shiny — but have the consistency of cotton wool. It’s the same with the meat: huge, juicy-looking steaks, and chops, perfectly grilled, pink inside, but tasting of wet paper.
The Cheesecake Factory is one of the most popular family food chains in the US — and for me the most grotesque example of American food. A single slice of cheesecake is as big as a brick and would more than suffice for a meal. An entire cheesecake could quite easily put a small child into hyperglycaemic shock. It must put a strain on family life, having to watch your nearest and dearest eating this gunk. The cheesecake is just one of the ‘factory’ specials whose metal menu lists hundreds of other dishes, like the Tons of Fun burger: ‘Yes, It’s True! Double Patties, Double Cheese, Triple Sesame-Seed Bun with Lettuce, Tomato, Red Onion, Pickles and Secret Sauce. Served with Fries’ and the Mile-High Meatloaf Sandwich ‘Topped with Mashed Potatoes, Crispy Onions and Barbeque Au Jus. Served Open-Faced on Extra Thick Egg Bread.’
The labelling of dishes in American restaurants provides an interesting challenge to both menu-writer and reader. Ordering from the food encyclopaedias of restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory is rather like resitting one’s SAT tests. There is a full page dedicated to every beast, bread and starch as well as every national cuisine; also ‘fusion’ dishes. Whatever I chose, I was always left worrying whether I’d made the wrong decision. And despite the bewildering variety of foodstuffs on offer, any attempt to veer from the menu is greeted with blank incomprehension:
‘Just the turkey, please.’
‘The dish comes that way.’
‘But I only want the turkey, thanks.’
‘I’m sorry, miss, that’s not possible.’
‘But I know you’ve got grilled turkey — it says so right here.’
‘That’s our Grilled Turkey Sandwich, miss. Our Grilled Turkey’s on our dinner menu.’
‘But surely you can just remove the bread?’
‘No — I’m sorry. Like I told you before, the Grilled Turkey Sandwich comes with the bread.’
‘You make it sound like it’s born with the bread.’
So you decide to eat in, but this involves a trip to the supermarket and hours spent trying to spot the microscopic differences between thousands of identical brands. Whereas in England we would have an aisle of grains and jams and cereals, Americans will dedicate an area the size of a tennis court just to varieties of bread: loafs of every shape and shade, bagels and buns, waffle mix. Often, in desperation, I’d just go for the most adventurous option. ‘Coconut-sprinkled sweet potatoes’ made one appearance in my flat, but only one.
Half the problem, I think, is that food isn’t just food in the States — it’s an obsession. Not only does Adam’s Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple Cheesecake exist, it can be gawped at online. The Krispy Kreme website features a five-minute video with a jaunty electronic soundtrack showing rows of little doughnuts browning slowly on a conveyor belt, before being lovingly glazed, bought and eaten. Food even provides whole states with a sense of history and identity — Midwestern towns fight over titles like ‘home of the peanut’, ‘birthplace of the corndog’, ‘Krispy Kreme Kountry’.
And with the excesses of American food comes a national fixation on dieting: as Eric Schlosser reports, McDonald’s has attempted to cash in on this with a McLean burger for dieters. We may not go to the gym so often in Britain, but our food doesn’t demand that we do. I flew back from America looking forward to shepherd’s pie and pints of beer only to be confronted by an upsurge in American fast food in London — not enough to keep my US friends happy, but still worrying. Perhaps we and the Americans should pay more attention to global gastronomy. We could form a food think tank to wean the US off sugar and on to snails, squid and sushi. It would make us all healthier — and happier.