As I watch Meghan Markle, Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex, on an outing with the Royals, I can’t help wondering, as she tucks into palace grub, if she ever misses genuine American food.
I came across the former actress, now Duchess, on the set of Suits, which filmed in Toronto and where I had been dispatched with a small video crew to interview the stars. We were usually treated like interlopers on location, as we were in the way of productions on a tight budget and schedule. However, we were there to publicize the shows and on Suits we were shown every courtesy. Those who have never been on a film or series set have no idea of how much hanging around goes on and we frequently waited all day to get our five minutes with this or that actor. Suits was no exception, although the actors were engaged and engaging once they sat down in the interview chair. Sadly, all these interviews run into each other and I have little memory of what Ms Markle and I talked about, except that she was charming.
I’m sure I asked her how it was for an American living in Toronto, and she did say that she enjoyed the ability to walk the streets safely and anonymously. As we now know, the anonymity didn’t last long!
If she ever does miss American food in the UK, she won’t be alone. I have been tortured by the worst Eggs Benedict (at the Duke of Devonshire’s Cavendish Hotel near Chatsworth). I have had awful Caesar Salads. I have suffered limp BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich). I have hated insipid Chilli con Carne, tasteless Mac and Cheese, disgusting Oysters Rockefeller and more. My Top 10 foods that were invented or perfected in America and have not made the transition back across the pond successfully, can be rounded out with Barbecued Spareribs, Cobb Salad, Thanksgiving Turkey and Vichysoise.
If you think the phrase “As American as Apple Pie” means they claim ownership of a dish that clearly comes from the West of England’s apple country, be assured it merely suggests American food all came from somewhere else and then got improved. The world has sent its “poor and huddled masses,” as the Statue of Liberty has it, and turned them into good Americans. They brought their regional cuisines and turned them into something else, usually an improvement, although I’d have to argue against the American version of Chinese food.
Here’s some stories of how these foods came to be, most of which can be found in my cookbook Market to Table (shameless plug!) or in the articles in my Gentleman’s Portion blog. Links to the recipes are included, of course, so you don’t have to buy my book, but I’d love it if you did (Hint! Hint!).
Barbecued spareribs: I discovered pork spareribs in a Notting Hill butcher back in the 60s after my dad had been on a trip to Kentucky and returned with stories of a succulent feast he’d enjoyed with his hosts. Can you believe it, he said: “They cut off the long ends of pork chops and BBQ them!” I asked the butcher for the ends of chops and he presumed they were for the dog. “Usually we chuck them away or send them for rendering,” he told me. But I realized what a bargain they were and became quickly addicted to a very cheap way to entertain friends with deliciously messy food eaten with the fingers. Somehow the recipe escaped my blog and my latest cookbook, so at the end is the one from my original book How to Eat Well and Stay Single. Now ribs are fashionable and butchers sell them for a scandalous price, but I doubt you’ll get them in the UK as good as they are in America’s Deep South, where making BBQ is considered an art.
BLT: I may be on shaky ground claiming bacon, lettuce and tomato on toast as purely American, even though it is the second most popular sandwich in the US, according to a poll. The BLT abbreviation wasn’t common until the 70s, after pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg created Giant BLT and perhaps started the trend. In the UK, BLT is often served on limp bread with a thin scraping of margarine replacing the crispy toast and mayonnaise I believe is essential.
Caesar salad: I’ve told the story of how Caesar Cardini came to create his eponymous salad in California in 1924 in a recent article, so I won’t repeat myself here. It’s a simple enough dish. Just chopped Romain lettuce with a fancy dressing. In England, it usually comes with the wrong lettuce, soggy croutons and dressing out of a bottle. Ugh!
Chili con carne: This dish is one of the best forms of American regional food, emanating from what is now northern Mexico and southern Texas before WWI, and eventually spreading across the States through inexpensive working men’s ‘chili joints.’ The debate continues as to whether beans or tomatoes should be added, but I like it with both, as well as a vegetarian chili sin carne. In England I’ve been offered a pale imitation that had almost no taste and certainly very little kick, rather like a dull mince stew.
Cobb salad: There are lots of versions of how this salad came to be. I like the story from the Brown Derby in Hollywood. In 1937, the restaurant’s owner was Robert Howard Cobb. One day, he had not eaten until near midnight, so he mixed together leftovers he found in the kitchen, along with bacon cooked by the line cook, and tossed it with some French dressing. That’s the version I remember Larry David telling on the television series Curb Your Enthusiasm (season 2, episode 3, I looked it up!). Not often found in UK but should be.
Eggs Benedict: There are two famous New York eateries, which each say their version of Eggs Benedict is the real one. I prefer the claim of Delmonico’s Restaurant, the very first public dining room ever opened in the US, since theirs is clearly the oldest. In the 1860’s, a regular patron of the restaurant, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, wanted something different to eat and asked Chef Charles Ranhofer (1836-1899) for his ideas. He offered her a dish which he named eggs Benedict and published the recipe in his cookbook, The Epicurean in 1894.
Coincidentally, that same year, 1894, Mr. Lemuel Benedict, a Wall Street broker, who was suffering from a hangover, apparently ordered “some buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs, and a hooker of hollandaise sauce” at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. The Waldorf’s legendary chef, Oscar Tschirky, was so impressed that he put the dish on his menu and named it after the banker. Whatever the story, eggs “Benny” and variations, are among my favourite Sunday brunch foods. But no longer in England.
Mac and cheese: The origins of macaroni and cheese are buried in time, but it is clearly an immigrant dish, blending strong American cheese, a white sauce with its roots in England, mixed with Italian pasta. President Jefferson brought a personal pasta chef back from Italy and served baked macaroni and cheese in the White House in the early 1800s. Of course, when you think about it, its popularity in those days was obvious. Their cheese was often shipped aboard vessels that would be on their journey for a year or more. Royal Navy cheese was as hard as rock and the US version probably wasn’t much different. White sauce could be made with fresh milk and butter, but worked just as well with rancid butter and sour milk, and if the flour had weevils, then accept that there was more protein included. Dried pasta would keep forever.
The first cookbook recipe for a macaroni and cheese pie was recorded in 1896 in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Kraft introduced their ubiquitous orange ‘dinner’ product in 1937 as a way to extend the market for their processed American cheese and their brand of macaroni, though many contend that’s not an improvement.
Oysters Rockefeller: The authentic recipe for Oysters Rockefeller was developed at Antoine’s in New Orleans in 1899. The story goes that a regular at Antoine’s, on first eating this baked oyster dish, said: “This is as rich as Rockefeller.” John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), was then the richest man in America. The dish was first served 120 years ago by Jules Alciatore, the son of founder Antoine himself, as a replacement for a similar dish using snails. Snails were in short supply and oysters plentiful. The name and the popularity of the dish have lived on, long past a temporary shortage of escargots. The restaurant opened in 1840 and is still going, America’s oldest family-run restaurant and the oldest French-creole restaurant in New Orleans.
Thanksgiving turkey: You might think turkey and the holidays are as English as Charles Dickens, but remember that it was a goose Scrooge gave the boy a shilling to fetch it to the Cratchit house in A Christmas Carol. Turkey is native to the North Eastern states where the settlers first landed and they had a fine time hunting the birds and celebrating with a fine roast bird at Thanksgiving. Most of the traditional trimmings also have an American origin.
Vichyssoise: I’m sure we all think vichyssoise is a French creation, but Julia Child, in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking firmly states it is an American invention. Further research takes us to M. Louis Diat, a chef at New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. In 1950, he wrote in the New Yorker magazine that in 1917 he “reflected upon the potato and leek soup of my childhood, which my grandmother used to make. During the summer, my older brother and I used to cool it off by pouring in cold milk. I resolved to make something of the sort for our patrons and named it after the town of Vichy, not far from our home in France.”
SPARERIBS by Nigel Napier-Andrews from How to Eat Well and Stay Single
- 3 ½ lb side pork spareribs (each rib should be between 3 and 4 in long, back ribs tend to be too short)
- 1 medium size onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- ¼ cup cooking oil
- ½ cup red wine vinegar
- ½ cup soft brown sugar
- 5 ½ oz can tomato paste
- 1 medium size green pepper
- Dash Worcester sauce
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- ½ fresh lemon
- ½ cup dry red wine
- Salt and pepper
Preparation and cooking
- Preheat the oven to a slow 300°F/150° Then put oil in saucepan and set over medium high heat. Peel and chop the onion very finely and add to the hot oil. Crush and chop the cloves of garlic very finely and cook together until the onion is transparent.
- Remove from heat and add ½ cup red wine vinegar, ½ cup soft brown sugar (stir until it dissolves), stir in tomato paste until it is blended. Remove the stalk, seeds and pith from the green pepper, wash and chop into ½ in squares and add. Add up to 6 dashes of Worcester sauce, ½ tsp cayenne pepper and 1 tsp oregano. Cut the skin off ½ fresh lemon, chop the rind into thin strips and add, then squeeze the juice into the sauce, removing any seeds that fall in. Add ½ cup dry red wine and stir in gently to blend ingredients. Return to low heat and simmer for 5 mins or until you have finished preparing the spareribs.
- While the sauce is simmering, prepare the ribs. Cut between the ribs into manageable portions, about 3 large or 4 small ribs to a portion, and remove some of the excess or loose fat. Anoint with salt and pepper on both sides and spear with a knife point all over. Lay out in baking pans so that each piece is separate.
- Ladle on half the sauce so the ribs are well coated. Put the ribs in the centre of a slow oven and turn over after 30 mins. At that point cover the exposed meat with more the sauce.
- Cook for a total of 90 mins, checking no and then and adding more sauce where necessary, so all the sauce is used up by the end of the first hour.
- To serve, remove the ribs from the baking pans with tongs, letting all the excess fat drip off, and lace in a serving dish. Drain the excess fat from the pan and discard, then ladle any of the delicious thick and sticky left-over sauce onto the ribs, excluding burnt bits.
- Serve at once, or keep warm in the oven at its lowest setting for up to 15 mins.
POSTSCRIPT: In the UK in August, I have absolutely the worst Eggs Bennedict I’ve ever had, at the normally wonderful Bill’s in Lewes, Sussex, first restaurant in the chain apparently. The muffins were soggy and untoasted, the ham processed and limp, the eggs overdone, although I’d ordered soft yolks, and the dab of hollandaise inadequate and tasteless. No added sides or garnish offered or delivered.
Categories: Market to Table