More and more restaurants are opening in London with an American theme, promising American bbq, ribs, burgers, etc. You might think this was a boon to those of us recently returned from the States and homesick for the cuisine. But, to be honest, we’ve not tried very many of them since the first ones we tried were so sub par.
The main problems are lack of cheap produce, space and labour. It is a rather sobering thought that a lot of what makes American food possible is exploitative working conditions and questionable standards in the food industry… But other problems are more fix-able. For a start, there’s a lack of love and care, leading to a an undervaluing of knowledge and a disregard of tradition. American food in the UK has been created as something generic. Although it’s trying to be the opposite of McDonalds or Burger King, it can be just as packaged and soulless. For example, what is ‘American bbq’? Anyone who’s even watched the Food Network should know that there’s no such thing. If you’re serving pulled pork alongside beef and barbecue sauce at least acknowledge that these are dishes from very different parts of the States.
Street food is likewise made with a certain lack of care. Too often I’ve had pulled pork sandwiches disintegrate in my hand because the pork was too wet and the bun too flimsy. Street food needs to be constructed with an eye to the consumer eating it on the sidewalk – there should be no need for tables next to the food truck. Also there’s almost too much commitment to, as Burger King used to put it, having it your way. In the States I became used to having things as they came in that place. I wouldn’t ask for a lobster roll with mayonnaise if I were in an area that served it warm with butter. I wouldn’t ask for Texas bbq sauce when eating pulled pork in North Carolina. The best street food should be thoughtfully designed down to the details of the best sauce and garnish to eat with it – so that to ask for ketchup should be as unthinkable at a foodtruck counter as it would in a Michelin starred restaurant.
I know – I’m a snob when it comes to American food. Except when it comes to biscuits and candy… Here at least is something you can get in its original state quite easily in London, if your craving runs to cookies and cream Hershey bars, oreo cookies, or Swedish Fish. There are at least three American candy shops between Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street tubes, and they also sell American cereal and the overly processed Twinkies (which I must admit I could never bring myself to try, even when I was in DC). Supermarkets often have small American sections alongside the Indian and Chinese sections where you can get your Lucky Charms and Baby Ruth bars. And I’ve been very pleased by the advent of Butter Finger cups for the British market (saltier and more peanuty than in the US).
Perhaps the main way we eat American in the UK is in our own cooking and in our attitude to food. We’ve started cooking our own American brunch dishes (more on this in my next post), and we’re militant about grilling outside whenever we can – even on a weeknight – and not just saying it’s too much fuss.
We also recently realised that one ‘American’ brunch tradition we can follow in London is the Jewish tradition of bagels. You can get bagels in the supermarket, but they’re usually preserved, or slightly stale, or disappointingly small. Those made in the bagel shops (which seem to have declined in popularity while we were away so are few and far between now), aren’t much better. So next weekend we might walk to Brick Lane and pick up some fresh bagels from one of the venerable bakeries up there. It won’t be quite as effortless as walking down to our much-missed local deli ‘So’s Your Mom’, but then, nothing in the UK is!