I’ve been living in DC nearly a year now and in many ways I’ve become quite American in my tastes. I believe mac and cheese is the equivalent of a vegetable side dish, and I expect my coffee cup to be refilled at least twice in a restaurant. I can devour an entire serving of salad or both halves of an overfilled sandwich without too much trouble now. I’ve also made the transition from biscuits to cookies pretty painlessly. But there are still a few American versions of foods that I can’t get on board with, and some British/European treats that I just crave. I wrote before Christmas that it had been difficult to get mince pies here, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So this is a post about how we’ve been managing.
Most of the time our desire for old favorites has not been that strong. R says that, for him, food desire is largely contextual. It’s true that as soon as we got here we wanted to eat American things like pancakes with maple syrup, and R had the various delights of the DC food trucks to get him through lunches. But when it came to regular dinners at home, we yearned for the old favorites, and, really, they’re all I know how to cook, especially without my recipe books which took a while following us over here. We don’t really do ready-meals and like to avoid frozen food in general, so I realised I’d have to adapt my repertoire and/or take on the challenge of finding those British essentials.
Of course, we were incredibly lucky to be in DC, where there are stores that stock foods from all over the world – I can only imagine how impossible this task would have been if we’d ended up somewhere more rural or less international. I should also note that we had rather high standards having lived for about five years near Borough Market in London. So this is not the story of your everyday mom shopping for her kids – which would be (I imagine) an equally difficult situation. I know when I went on holiday as a child my parents had to pack British cocoa pops for my sister and me because the Spanish version tasted just slightly different and we wouldn’t eat it. But anyway – here are a few of our challenges:
- Bacon. I have looked and researched now for a year and have to conclude that in the US you cannot get the kind of bacon we’re used to in the UK. We have to be content with getting the most premium and expensive bacon to ensure we’re getting non-cured no-nitrate bacon, and it’s still mainly fat and always smoked. I would kill for a good bacon sandwich right now.
- Cheese. In DC this is actually not bad. From Whole Foods we’ve even got cheese exported from Borough market(!) One thing that’s difficult to get is low fat cheese. I always used to reach for low fat laughing cow or Philadelphia when I was dieting, but I could only find Philadelphia here and found it far thicker than the British variety and not nearly as nice as a result.
- Milk. Just a quick gripe that milk over here does not last as long because it’s not pasteurised. You can get UHT, but apart from that it’s milk that goes off within about a week.
- Bread. Even in DC this one’s difficult. The best French bread we’ve had was from a wine and cheese shop up in Van Ness (Calvert Woodley Wines and Spirits), and we’ve had excellent breads from Whole Foods. Luckily Harris Teeter near us has La Brea – another perk of being in a multinational city I think.
- Crumpets. Sometimes in the UK we’d just have crumpets for dinner. This is another thing I’ve just been unable to find over here though. Thomas ‘nooks and crannies’ muffins look very similar, but they’re really just muffins – a very different thing.
- Smoked haddock. Very much a British thing. The Americans also seem to prefer to hot smoke fish, so their varieties don’t require cooking. I’ve substituted smoked trout, which is generally available, at a later stage in my recipes and just gently warmed it through. Generally other fish is very good and easy to get hold of – clams, mussels, crabs etc. are wonderful. Supermarkets are fine for seafood, but there’s also a big fish market on Maine Avenue that’s very well regarded.
- Game. It’s illegal to sell wild game that you have shot, and farmed game is unpopular because people hunt or know people who hunt (it’s legal to gift or trade game). There are a couple of specialist butchers out in Maryland and Virginia that can source it for you though. I got frozen venison from New Zealand and the butcher boasted that he had a good contact for Scottish pheasant. That’s when I most missed Borough Market.
- Mac and cheese. Surprised? Well, in the UK packet pasta in sauce was my go-to when R was out, so I thought I’d be thrilled with Mac and cheese from a box. But no – I think unless you’ve grown up with it, this processed, fake cheese tasting powder that’s not even cooked into the sauce is disgusting. Luckily most of the supermarkets round here stock at least one flavor of Know pasta in sauce (or ‘pasta sides’ as they’re known here).
- Oxo, Bisto, marmite, Worcester sauce, mustard. It is possible to get good and familiar versions of all these, for a price. Know – bless its ubiquitous availability – chicken and vegetable stock cubes are good substitutes for oxo, but American bouillon cubes are full of palm oil and other additives that tend to make the end result greasy. American mustard is yellow and tasteless, but versions of Dijon are readily available in DC. For whole grain and English I’ve had to go to specialist international shops (World Market) and Whole Foods.
- Noodles. In the UK we got very used to Cantonese style egg noodles, but these are pretty impossible to get over here. Noodles are mostly made with wheat and so taste/feel not very different from pasta. Prawn crackers are another of my favorite things that we just can’t get anywhere.
- Curry etc. There are two Pataks curry pastes that I’ve been able to find – one mild, one tandoori. More and more curry and stir fry sauces are appearing in Harris Teeter lately, so this is becoming less of a problem. Naan bread is more specialist but can be found at World Market or Whole Foods. And finally:
- Sausage rolls. And scotch eggs, and cheese and onion rolls, and bacon turn overs, and all those other wonderful British pastry and picnic food. I’m not sure how much longer I can survive without these – I think I’m going to have to learn to bake them…
World Market has been a lifeline. It’s also where we can get gingernuts, hobnobs, digestives, European chocolate and chocolate spreads, some haribo (though not my favorite flavors or jelly babies) – and of course, for a couple of weeks before Christmas, and for a much inflated price, mince pies and pfeffernusse. Also we got some great care packages from friends and family in the UK over the Christmas period – thanks guys!
So mostly it’s fine. We’ve found ways to manage, and I’m planning to cook far more American recipes this year, which should make things easier – and more interesting.