So it has come to this, the end of my blog, the end of our time living in the US. However, upon leaving the US, we did some more travel and found time to fit in four more states. As such I won’t do the usual discussion of the flag and facts about the state. For once it will be about the food!
First up, a trip to Chicago, the largest city in Illinois. Rather like New York City, Chicago has some food traditions of its own, it has Hot Dogs and it has Pizza and….wait a minute, just like New York City has. Let’s just say that when trying uncover the food traditions of the US, you do become old friends with Pizza, Hot Dogs and Burgers, but then again the variety and tradition can often surprise.
First on the list for Chicago: the Hot Dog – interestingly Wikipedia says “The Chicago area boasts more hot dog restaurants than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King restaurants combined.” This is interesting because a lot of American cities seem to contain more McDonalds than every other business combined.
What makes a Chicago Dog unique? “The complete assembly of a Chicago hot dog is said to be “dragged through the garden” due to the many toppings.” The place we went to on Navy Pier offered a staggering variety and I think this one is a Mac and Cheese Hot Dog.
Sounds like an odd combination, pretty tasty though. When living in the US you constantly see fast food TV adverts and adverts for chain restaurants (like TGI Friday, Red Lobster etc). They are always advertising new products often in quite dramatic style, a huge burger fills the screen and massive rashers of bacon fall out of the sky and crash land perfectly on the burger while flames rear up around the whole mega meal and a very serious voiceover tells us that the new Chipotle Cheese Chargrilled Bacon Burger HAS ARRIVED!
I always wonder who is coming up with these new burgers and new pizzas, because all these chains constantly need new products to throw around the TV studio for the next 10,000 adverts they’ve already booked. No problem you would think because restaurants are always creating new meals and they are always changing their menus. True. But what if you were serving pretty much just burgers? And what if you needed to come up with a new burger four times a year? And what if your customers only liked cheese and bacon?
The amount of “new” burgers from these chain places that are basically just a bacon cheeseburger is unbelievable. Yes, sometimes a curveball gets in there like guacamole or mushrooms but basically it’s a new bacon cheeseburger every time. I feel even more sorry for the people trying to come up with a new Pizza, since cheese is already a given there. I kid you not, one “new” pizza being offered by Papa Johns was the “six cheese” pizza. That’s six kinds of cheese. I can just imagine the guy charged with coming up with a new pizza screwing up endless pieces of paper as the deadline approaches and his boss comes in: “Well, what did you come up with?”. “Errrmmmm you know the four cheese pizza”. “Yes, what’s your angle?”. “I was thinking……six cheeses?”. “You are…..A FREAKIN’ GENIUS. I LOVE IT.”
So back to combinations and this was the other combination someone had recommended to me in Chicago – Chicago Mix popcorn. It’s salty cheese popcorn mixed with sweet caramel popcorn (from Garrett’s – also on Navy Pier). Sounds not nice, but hey sometimes these things work. Unfortunately I didn’t even get to talk about deep dish pizza which we also tried.
So after Chicago we did a West Coast road trip starting in Seattle. I would say Seattle is like an unkempt and grungy version of San Francisco, but since San Francisco is like an unkempt and grungy version of a normal American city that makes Seattle unkempt and grungy squared.
I liked it though. It’s up against the water, it’s got a free West Coast spirit and the museums were excellent. Being a modern city founded in the late 19th Century it’s outlook is very different to the East Coast. I was seriously impressed by the EMP – Experience Music Project Museum, founded by Seattle native, Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft). It celebrates modern culture with massive exhibits on Seattle’s musical legacy – Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix to name but two. After seeing the excellent museums of Washington DC it was impressive to see a museum which really dealt with modern culture (it also comprised a big Sci Fi museum): here’s the guitar tower.
As well as it’s modern outlook and culture, Seattle’s food scene is very different from the pizzas, hot dogs and European immigrant influences of the East Coast and Mid West. Seattle is famous for two things food-wise – Fish in the Pike Place Market – where the fishmongers inexplicably throw fish quite long distances to each other – unsure why walking is a problem for them – and Starbucks Coffee.
Fun fact alert! “Originally the company was to be called Pequod, after a whaling ship from Moby-Dick, but this name was rejected by some of the co-founders. The company was instead named after the chief mate on the Pequod, Starbuck.” Here’s some more fun facts from Wikipedia (I love a well-researched blog). Starbucks opened in 1971 and had one store until 1984! However if you average out their expansion since 1987 till today – they’ve opened at a rate of about two a day and they now have more than 20,000 stores. Aarrgh. That sounds like world domination to me.
What can we say about Starbucks? Well they’re good business people, I think that much is inarguable. We went along to the first Starbucks store, next to Pike’s Place Market and even that seemed like good business. People were queuing out of the door! That said, I continued my proud tradition of ignoring the Starbucks words for different sizes “primo”, “venti” etc. I use a tried and tested technique, called English and use the words “small”, “medium” or “large”. It seems to work.
Oregon is not a very visited state but is an interesting one nevertheless. It’s part of the Pacific Northwest region with neighbouring Washington state and somewhat similar in its modernist liberal outlook in the cities but also with a load of lumberjacks in the countryside. When I tried to search the wiki for lumberjack food the only reference I found was that lumberjacks “won reputations for consuming large amounts of food“, and you have to remember they won that reputation in America. Pretty impressive.
But there was no further information on lumberjack food, so we went to a hippy modernist city instead – Portland. Portland is positively European, everyone cycles and there’s loads of organic stuff and vegetarians. Portland has a food tradition all of its own though – food trucks.
Portland has 100s of them and there is a definite scene with various websites like Food Carts Portland and Cart Attack cataloguing all the different carts. But these aren’t your usual burger van or chip van that clutter up festivals, fairs (and increasingly the car parks of DIY and home improvement stores – odd). No, these food trucks are gourmet delights, they cluster together in food cart courts, where you can get a fresh smoothie mixed at one, Vietnamese street food at another and handmade chocolate at a third. They’re also brightly painted and an interesting experience to walk around.
In the end, I had some kind of guava smoothie followed by a salmon wrap from a Norwegian themed food cart. That’s right, Norwegian. That’s not normal restaurant diversity. That’s the kind of diversity you’d only get at the UN. Anyway here’s a picture of said wrap with the silver bullet-like Norwegian food cart in the distance.
As you will know the US is famous not just for food (and for coffee and beer and everything else I’ve talked about on this blog) but also for wine. Duty bound we headed to the Napa Wine Valley, just north of San Francisco. The Valley is around 40 miles long and we stayed in the north in Calistoga. We took bikes out and toured the vineyards with generous wine tastings at each. It was a great way to do it because you can ride right next to, or through, the vineyards and also because I don’t believe the drink drive laws apply to bikes. Not that I’m condoning that but if you have drunk a bit and you fall off your bike into a load of grapes, I imagine they’d make a nice cushion.
After that it was a straight trip down Route 1 which is a classic US drive. It hugs the coast from San Francisco down to LA. That middle section is surprisingly wild, barren and beautiful. You wouldn’t expect a very sparsely populated rocky coastline in California but it’s there and it seems untamed.
We had time for one final food stop (a fish taco – very typically Californian) so as we came over the hill from the long, winding route 1 into Southern California, we aimed for Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos. We got some very tasty, zingy tacos with plenty of lime and coriander (or cilantro as they say in the US) and took them down to the beach.
We watched the surfers and decided to stop to watch the sun set on the Pacific Ocean having reached the end of the road and the end of the journey.
So here is the end – all 13 original states completed, 12 extra states done (plus the District Of Columbia) plus three more I didn’t blog about (Florida – Cuban Sandwich in Tampa, West Virginia – Ice Cream sandwiches and Nevada – what else but the Las Vegas buffet?). So all in that’s well over half of all the states in the US. I think I visited only two that I didn’t do a food thing in (Montana and Mississippi, and both we were in for less than a day. So pretty committed!
But it was well worth it, it made us go out to different places, many of which were really memorable and served some of the tastiest food I’ve ever had. It also made me appreciate the diversity of the US. It’s too easy when travelling in the US (particularly outside the very biggest cities) and from the view of the interstate to think of the US as completely dominated by a bunch of chain restaurants and chain hotels and so on. However, if you make the effort to look then you will be rewarded by all the tradition and diversity that’s just under the surface.
March 23, 2013
Another, very detailed, if not wonderfully drawn flag, and is it me, or do both figures in the drawing look quite shirty? As though they’re mildly disgusted that they’re going to have to work with each other in this new colony?
Delaware intriguingly has a date on its flag, the date at which Delaware ratified the constitution, the first state to do so, giving rise to its official nickname “The First State”. What actually gave rise to the name, according to the Delaware government homepage, is this. ‘“The First State” became the official State nickname on May 23, 2002 following a request by Mrs. Anabelle O’Malley’s First Grade Class at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School.’ Any state that is willing to enact legislative change on the basis of a letter from a class of 6-year olds is alright by me.
Many years ago, before I ever went to live in the US, I was intrigued by Delaware. I’d heard of it as a state, but had no real conception of what it contained. We all know a little about New York, Texas or California, even those states we know little about such as Kansas or Iowa, we have an idea that they’re in the middle and probably have a lot of farmland in them (correct).
But what of Delaware? What does it contain? What’s it all about? I knew it was small (the second smallest of the states in fact). I am always attracted to the idea of small countries and islands. There is something infinitely appealing and slightly mysterious about an island or small country to me, in the way that say the idea of a big place like Germany, Poland or a big state like Nebraska doesn’t have. I remember when backpacking that the idea of visiting small, mysterious islands in the South Pacific intrigued me much more than say Australia. At one point I had the idea I’d like to write a book about travels to such places, the types of mysterious, often small places you’d heard of, but didn’t know anything about, entitled “You went where?”.
The reality of visiting such places is that they’re often not as interesting as they promise (although sometimes of course they can be). I feel there must be a lot of people out there like me, intrigued by the idea of a place. For instance, take San Marino, this tiny nation or “enclaved microstate” as wikipedia calls it, gets as many as 3 million visitors per year! So there’s either a lot of people like me, or a lot of box-tickers out there who just want to tick off as many countries as they can, because what the heck is attracting 3 million people to San Marino? As Lonely Planet puts it “It’s all very toy-town, and the packed streets and kitsch souvenir shops are not everyone’s cup of tea. But the novelty value of this enclave cannot be overestimated”. Lonely Planet lists the top thing to do as “Revel in pure unadulterated kitsch in San Marino’s overdose of souvenir shops”. Really? But enough of San Marino. For the second time, what of Delaware?
Well, while Delaware is not a total write-off, it’s also perhaps not the most interesting of states. Fun fact, Delaware is the only state to have no national park, national monument or national battlefield. Even Guam (not even a state) has one. It also has no major professional sports teams, no commercial airport and contains the fewest counties of any US state (3). So what does Delaware have? Well it’s got this guy, Vice President, and long-time Delaware senator, Joe Biden.
Here’s Joe up to his old tricks:
So what else do we need to know about Delaware? More to the point and finally to the point of this blog. The food! Well unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) Delaware does not have a state food. It does have an official state beverage – milk. But I don’t think that would make a great blog article. Here’s me drinking some milk in Delaware! Tastes the same as anywhere else.
So what does it have? Well there is actually a Delaware-only chain of Burger restaurants called “The Charcoal Pit”, whose website declares: “Be a part of a true Delaware tradition!”. Ok this will do I thought. Actually to be fair to the Charcoal Pit, they do provide a twist on Burgers, they cook them over Charcoal rather than grill them and they’ve been doing it this way for over 50 years. So a trip to the original Charcoal Pit in Wilmington was in order.
I imagine it looks as it did when in opened in 1956.
I mean how 50’s does that look? It’s a bit like being Marty McFly in the original Back to the Future. It does definitely hark back to that classic 50’s era we know from the movies when High School students went to the diner and ordered Milk shakes and Burgers. Unfortunately not that many of these establishments still exist, ruthlessly exterminated by the price-cutting tactics, and the shift to drive-thru pioneered by McDonalds and Burger King. However, a few stick around, if only out of nostalgia and loyalty.
The pit is also pleasingly retro on the inside, not in a clean, calculated way like a Johnny Rockets or Fuddruckers, but in a “we never thought to replace this stuff” kind of a way.
The place had personality, and mini jukeboxes.
It also had a pleasingly simple menu, not one of these fancy places with a variety of options. On the hamburger front, you could get it plain, with cheese, “Deluxe” (with lettuce and dressing) or “Special” (with Fries) I kid you not. But since we’d come for the burgers, that sounded fine.
I ordered a special and a milkshake (classic), and I must say the Burger was perfectly respectable, decent if nothing particularly special. That said, the milkshake was a delight; thick, tasty and served as they often do in the US with the silver mixing shaker and a spoon. Delicious. No picture of the milkshake unfortunately, but here is the classic open-faced Burger.
So what have we learnt about Delaware? Maybe it doesn’t have any national parks or sports teams or airports or major cities but so what? It’s a slice of America just the same, and it’s got some nice beaches and pretty towns. Plus it’s got diners with Burgers and milkshakes. What’s more American than that?
So all 13 states done, I will though do one more post to wrap up the whole thing.
One more for the road…
August 1, 2012
The second state in our tour of the south, not an original state, but a fine state for food nonetheless.
On to the flag:
An excellent specimen it is too, it looks like the paintjob you’d put on a NASCAR, and no doubt it has been. Tennessee’s state motto “Agriculture and Commerce” does leave a little to be desired though. Agriculture and Commerce? That’s about the least descriptive thing you could say about a state, it distinguishes it from no other states, or even any semi-modern society. In fact it doesn’t even signify a semi-modern society, even an agricultural land of peasants and serfs that had developed a rudimentary bartering system could be said to have “Agriculture and Commerce”. So it doesn’t really tell you a lot. Maybe Tennessee just wants to keep your expectations low.
But it needn’t, because Tennessee has a lot going for it, lots of great food, amazing music, and some decent scenery. Tennessee actually also has three distinct regions, which is pretty good going. On the East side the Appalachian mountains run down the state, and Tennessee has preserved a large part of it as the Smokey Mountain National Park (with the other half of that park in North Carolina). The middle section is a flatter, plains-esque territory and is dominated by Nashville, and then on the western side you have the Mississippi river, and the lowlands of the Mississippi delta, with the main centre being Memphis.
The food that dominates the south is “barbecue”, this comes in lots of varieties, but is generally centered around slow-cooked/smoked meats. Across the south the barbeque varies substantially, so in Texas it means beef, in the Carolinas it means pork. The sauces, and rubs also vary by region. If you’ve followed the blog, you may remember the North Carolina entry with the pulled pork in a vinegar-y sauce. Since we first stopped in the eastern region near North Carolina, we had a chance to stop in at an old shack style restaurant with a huge smoker off to the side.
This restaurant is famed for it’s barbecue beans, which have little shreds of pulled pork in there. Absolutely delicious, and I was quite amused to see on the menu that they were just called barbecue beans with no mention of the meat. This new-fangled vegetarianism mustn’t have reached the foothills of eastern Tennessee yet.
Since Tennesse is so intricately linked to music, it’s fitting if I intersperse some music stuff in here. As well as the three distinct regions, each with a distinct food culture, they have an even more distinctive music culture. Eastern Tennesse and the smokies has bluegrass. Unfortunately for a lot of people when they think of bluegrass, they think of banjos, and when they think of banjos they think of THAT SONG from Deliverance, which is fine, as it’s a great song and a great scene, but then they think of everything else that happens in Deliverance. Certainly not a great advert for the south.
If you’ve never seen the scene or the movie, watch the video. When we were in the Smokies area of Tennessee we went to a bluegrass evening of the Rocky Branch Bluegrass club. It’s just an evening held by the local people in the community hall, where they jam and play old time bluegrass music. The standard was exceptional though, and every room had a different style going on, from a kind of concert led by a charismatic, evangelical Vietnam vet, telling jokes inbetween songs, to a group of young guys playing in a circle. It was great to see that community spirit, keeping up traditions that had been going on for centuries, ever since Scots, Irish and English settlers brought their fiddlin’ to the Appalachians.
Next up Memphis, which is a different proposition altogether. Now Memphis is poor, really poor, there’s even a section in the Lonely Planet entitled “Abandoned Memphis”, which lists the best abandoned buildings to go and have a look at. Take that Detroit! A lot of these buildings are actually pretty central, and they are too expensive to tear down, and wouldn’t be profitable to refurbish so they just stand there. You get the sense that Memphis was one of those cities that probably was just about growing during the good times, but post-crash it has suffered. Regardless you can’t take away Memphis’s fine food and music culture, which for me, outside of the massive obvious cities like NYC, Memphis is probably only second to New Orleans.
Doing this blog we’ve eaten in some pretty dodgy-looking places, and we ate in two barbecue places in Memphis, and they may just win it for looks from the outside. They kind of almost looked closed, but that’s just shabby-chic, and besides it does not matter, because Memphis barbecue was the best barbecue I have eaten hands down.
The two places that we ate at, Cozy Corner and A+R barbecue were absolutely leagues ahead of anything I’ve had anywhere else. The meat was so tender and so flavourful, particularly in the pulled pork sandwiches, and the ribs were good too. Plus barbecue spaghetti is a Memphis tradition that is just the icing on the whole barbeque experience. Delicious.
Music-wise, Memphis is a fantastic town, although everyone is kind of there because of Elvis, the real soul of Memphis is the blues. Elvis helped popularise that style, fusing it with pop and rock and roll (and general crooning), and a trip to Graceland is a must, even if it’s so expensive that you feels like you’re taking part in an organised pickpocketing event, where you are the main attraction, but I enjoyed it.
I’ve certainly been dragged around enough country homes and manors during my youth, but it was interesting to see a house preserved in an homage to the excess of 70’s luxury, shag pile carpets on the ceiling, lurid yellows, vinyl, and three TVs installed next to each other since Elvis liked to watch all the main news programmes at once. He would have loved NFL red zone.
But it also gave you an appreciation for the cultural impact of Elvis, who I think in some ways was the most important cultural American icon of the 20th Century, you can certainly see the rise of the “teenager” linked to the rise of Rock’n’roll and that was personified most by Elvis.
We also stopped finally in Nashville, which is a fun town, and is again very distinct, country music is the order of the day, and for food, hot fried chicken. Both were good, we went to 400 degrees hot fried chicken, although I learnt that when they say hot fried chicken, they really mean it. Since the post is getting long I’ll stop, but Tennessee is a great example of the diversity you can find under the surface in the US, if you can see past the bright glowing arches of McDonalds and the rather 70’s looking Waffle Houses that blight the landscape…
July 2, 2012
On to Georgia, the end of the road is near – this is state no. 12 out of the original 13, which leaves only Delaware after this one. We did Georgia in the midst of a trip to the deep south, so I will accompany it with a post on Tennessee.
Anyway Georgia, time to see the flag:
Those that read this blog regularly (all three of you) will know that now is normally the time that I pithily dismiss the flag as amateurish, childish or just plain confusing, but not this time. Because normally I just click the link on wikipedia to download the picture of the flag, this time I accidentally clicked the word “flag” underneath the flag and it actually led me to a whole article about the flag, in this case the article (and it’s a long article) was entitled “Flag of Georgia (US State)“. I’ll be honest, I was amazed. I went back and yes, there was an article for the Flag of Connecticut, Flag of New York, whatever you like.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since everybody knows that Wikipedia contains some incredibly detailed articles, as this link to “The 8 most needlessly detailed wikipedia articles” will show you. For instance the article on “Ancient Jedi” is “a comprehensive list of Jedi that, oddly enough, have never actually appeared in a Star Wars movie. Instead, the list includes any and every Jedi who was referenced, even in passing, in every Star Wars book, comic or video game.”
So yes, in sum, it’s unsurprising those flag articles exist, but if I’d have known this I could have spent the time telling you facts such as these; Georgia’s flag was only adopted in 2003, because the previous design was made up mostly of the confederate flag (still associated with racism by some). The even more interesting thing was that they only added the confederate flag on to the state flag in 1956, 100 years after the civil war, some say as a reaction to the supreme court’s ruling that schools should be desegregated. Fascinating. Instead I have been stuck trying to decode the flags by trying to extract the meaning from all those curious pictures of blacksmiths and bunches of grapes that are normally found on them.
While I think I could end this entry and have definitely made some good points on flags, wikipedia and the ancient jedi, I will turn now to the food, or in this case the drink. Normally, when trying to decide what to do in a particular city it’s a case of realizing which state is next, then researching until something looks suitable. In this case I already had something in mind, “The World of Coca-Cola“, Coke was founded in Atlanta and is still based there, and to be honest what is more American than Coke? I think the only thing that can make a case for being more American than Coke is possibly America itself, but it’s close. Some parts of America don’t really look like what you’d expect America to look like, but Coke? It always looks and tastes exactly how you expect. Score one Coke.
Despite the fact that going to the World of Coke feels like being inside a giant advert, it was still enjoyable. I actually thought the history of it was interesting. The history is of a drink that was originally sold in pharmacies and soda fountains, but the genius of the whole thing was the branding and the promotion. Coke (with that same swirly logo that has existed since the product’s creation) was being put on lighters, playing cards, matches, pretty much before anything else. The entrepreneur who bought the Coke brand/recipe from the creator seemed to be pretty shrewd in giving out coupons so that something like a quarter of the US population had tried a Coke within 10 years of its launch, which considering that was the 1890s and globalisation/homogenisation of later years was unheard of, it’s kind of astounding. But beyond promotion and advertising, as Coke would have you believe, their product is pretty special too:
I would concur in the sense that, I don’t think it’s advertising with Coke, but I think it is that related concept of branding. In fact according to Interband – Coca-Cola was the world’s most valuable brand in 2011 (IBM being second). But although Coke is aspirational, like a lot of products it’s meant to make you feel good, it’s also a great leveller between people, as Andy Warhol once said:
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
As for the World of Coca-Cola I also enjoyed the Vault, which is huge bank like vault where you are promised that you will learn the secret ingredient of Coke (spoiler: you don’t), and the tasting room at the end, where you can try hundreds of Coke’s different products from around the world. Think green-tea flavoured soda from Japan, blueberry flavoured soda from Kenya etc. It was fun but to be honest once you’ve tasted about fifty different sodas, you just have one prevailing sense of taste, and it’s just sweetness, but too much of it, which brings me to my next point about the south.
The key thing about the south, and Georgia as much or more so than anywhere else, is the sweetness of the food. I feel it’s highly appropriate the world’s favourite sweet drink, or perhaps sweet food/drink of any kind is from Georgia. While we were in Atlanta we also got to go to Mary Mac’s tea room, a traditional southern restaurant, and everything was really sweet, the sweet potatoes, the sweet tea, called “The Table Wine of the South” and that other Georgian specialty, the Peach Cobbler. It was all great, but you felt like you could get the shakes after.
A bowl of sugar, also known as a Peach Cobbler.
April 22, 2012
Now South Carolina, here’s a state I can get on board with. Unlike its neighbour North Carolina, which has a southern history but has gone in a more urban, generic, modernist, could-be-anywhere in America direction, South Carolina is still very much the south. First the flag:
Good flag, no people engaged in menial tasks, just a palm tree, at night. Very few flags take place at night, so that’s a bit different. The only issue is it looks like someone’s tried to put the leaves of the tree through a shredder, but never mind.
As I was saying, South Carolina is the south, not this fancy “New South” of megapolises like Atlanta and Dallas, no, the old south, old money, estates, palm trees and old pickup trucks. We headed to Charleston which is rather more of the money and estates, than the other side, the rural side of pick ups and billboards for churches, which you can see as you drive around.
Charleston got very wealthy on the back of slavery, and in the early 19th Century a lot of the richest people in the US lived in and around Charleston, on plantation estates, where they lived in luxury while their slaves toiled in the heat. Since the south feared that slavery would eventually be banned, they rebelled and the Civil War was actually started in Charleston. As you probably know, it didn’t work out so well for the South, and it could be argued that since South Carolina is still one of the poorer states in the US, it never fully recovered its glory days.
Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the American civil war were fired in 1861:
One of the very, very few plantation estates still standing (most were destroyed by vengeful Union soldiers as punishment), this is the Drayton plantation:
But why the history lesson? Well as I’ve learned repeatedly in doing this blog that where there is history, there is good and unique food. From the cajun origins of New Orleans’ cuisine, to the Italian roots of the New York scene, where there is history there is something interesting to be eaten. South Carolina does not disappoint, and rather like New Orleans it has a whole cuisine of its own, in this case “lowcountry food”. Called the low country because of it’s marshy coastline and the fact it is near or below sea level, it has a range of associated dishes, often to do with the crustaceans and seafood that are abundant. Lots of oysters, crabs, shrimp and things like that.
In addition it melds pretty well with southern cuisine more generally, so lots of rice, grits, beans etc. We ate in a couple of great restaurants that focus on southern/low country cuisine, the Hominy Grill and Magnolias, and tried some local specialities; shecrab soup – a crab soup made with crab roe, so like a crab caviar soup, perloo – a rice dish, pimento cheese – apparently a Southern speciality, grits (in the form of baked cheese and grits) which was great, which is not a normal reaction to any kind of dish involving grits, and flounder, a fish which is common in the area.
The shecrab soup:
The baked cheese and grits, looking hash like browns:
March 10, 2012
Original state, number 10 out of 13. Pretty good going, done in this order, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and now North Carolina. That only leaves three states, South Carolina (coming up shortly), Georgia and Delaware.
North Carolina, I kind of feel it’s a bit of a something and nothing state in terms of it’s identity. It’s Southern, but not that Southern, it’s kind of urban, but doesn’t really have any noteworthy cities. It’s got some notable universities, but not the really premier universities, and I think that blurred identity extends to its cuisine as well. There’s some interesting-ish food, NC has barbeque, but really would anyone choose North Carolina barbeque over that of Texas, Alabama or Memphis? It’s got some kind of down-home Southern cooking, but nothing as notable as that found in South Carolina or Georgia, and it doesn’t really have strong immigrant food traditions either.
Now my experience of North Carolina is from the I-95 corridor and that is probably not seeing the best of the state. I’ll readily admit that. The Outer Banks and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Eastern and Western side of North Carolina are probably much more interesting (as tourist destinations, I’m not really sure they have any better claim-to-fame for food), but the middle of North Carolina is where the majority of people actually live; Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte etc, and we went to Raleigh. So if you’re British, I would say an accurate comparison would be like Hertfordshire, perfectly pleasant to live in, but not that distinct and not necessarily worth a visit. By the same token, New Jersey is more like Coventry, not worth visiting, or living in. Booyah! New Jersey joke – tick.
It’s a fine flag, it looks like it could be a country’s flag, although I’d be interested in how many people in North Carolina actually know what those dates stand for. It kind of seems like they’re living in the past… Anyway, in keeping with North Carolina’s rather bland, not very strong identity, I really don’t recall seeing a North Carolina flag flying while we were there, particularly strange given we were in the capital of NC, Raleigh.
Food-wise we did a couple of things in Raleigh. One was to get some North Carolina barbeque, the typical (East) North Carolina barbeque, is pulled pork with a vinegary sauce (as opposed to the smoky or sweet, or dry, or wet, or other meats like ribs found in barbeque of other states). We went to a place called “The Pit” which is definitely a great name for an eating establishment. The other thing that typifies North Carolina barbeque is it being “Whole Hog” style. I kid you not. In some of the downscale establishments you actually see them carving directly from the pig. Ironically “The Pit” is one of the more upscale establishments (go figure). I can only presume the downscale ones are called things like “The Hole”, “The Dump” and “The crapheap” to distinguish themselves. Anyway The Pit was great, and the pulled pork was unique and delicious, although I don’t think I’d choose it over ribs.
For those that picked up on the fact that the above style is Eastern North Carolina barbeque, then yes there is Western North Carolina barbecue as well, which is from pork shoulder (rather than whole hog) and is generally coated in a sweeter sauce. The wiki article is here.
The other food thing we did in Raleigh was visit one of those institutions that thrive on word-of-mouth and seem to be relics from a bygone age. Raleigh has it’s own, which is “The Roast Grill”, a tiny hotdog shop which seats about 14 people, and is one of those places that proudly states things like “No credit cards”, “No Mayo”, “No Ketchup” etc. In fact its website declares “Limited Options, Limited Toppings, No Menus”. I think the more of these types of these places I visit, the more I realize that I think pretty much every business owner would love to be as obstinate and unhelpful as possible, if only they were popular enough. When you go to these places that reliably have a queue out of the door at any time of the day, their response is always “Great! Now I don’t have to take credit cards!”.
So first up, it’s a weird place, it looks like the only thing that’s changed since the 70’s are the prices. Coke is the only drink and comes in those little glass bottles, but at the end of the day, the hot dogs or “weiners” are what’s important, and they tasted good. They’re cooked up fresh in front of you, and you can have them with onions or with chili, and they were really tasty; eat them in twenty seconds tasty. It really made me think that hot dogs exactly like kebabs get a bad rep, because they’re always cooked so badly. If you actually have a good hotdog or a good kebab you realize they can be truly great.
February 11, 2012
I’m a little behind on the blog, this visit took place at the end of October, and that fact will be important later on, so remember it.
So New York! That most famous of states – well technically not true, it’s a famous city, nobody seems to know much about the state, apart from the fact it contains the city and a bit called “upstate New York”. Bizarrely if you ever meet anyone from New York, they tend to be from “upstate”. Which is a bit of a weird inversion. Weirder still is that a lot of the people who say they’re from New York City are actually from over the river in New Jersey. (Perfectly understandable though, if I was from New Jersey I’d also pretend I was from somewhere else).
I tell you what, all these flags are weird, in this one if you can see the close-up, the woman on the right in yellow is blindfolded, and the woman on the left has a tiny little wizard’s hat on the end of her stick.
So anyway, New York is a bit of a weird one, because I had kind of done it before, back in December ’09 – see the entry here but I had been thwarted in my desire to eat Pizza at some famous New York pizzerias due to the long queues and freezing cold. Instead we went to an authentic Jewish diner and had Matzoh ball soup and Pastrami sandwiches, so not a total loss, but it did mean we needed a return visit.
This time, we really wanted to do a trip round notable New York pizzerias. We went with a pizza tour which I would recommend, as it busts you past any queues, and the guide is very informative. It had a nice mix of generally talking about pizzas and the difference in styles and regions, and also the history of pizza (both in Italy and in the USA). In the US, it’s easy to trace the beginning of Pizza since it started at Lombardi’s in Little Italy in Manhattan.
The genesis was in a grocery story a couple of blocks away where Gennaro Lombardi started selling little pizza-pies wrapped in paper in 1905. When the location was moved the coal oven was moved over, and is still in use today. Interestingly the fire (coal-fired I think) is kept burning all the time, all year-round, apart from the week when it’s closed down for a thorough cleaning. That week is after the busiest pizza consumption day (have a guess which that might be……the day of the Superbowl).
The original oven:
The pizza they make here is still very traditional, a full covering of tomato, and huge individual slices of Mozzarella cheese, much closer to the original Italian style of pizza I would think.
Interestingly as well, most of New York’s notable early pizzerias can be traced back to Lombardi’s, either people who worked there (Totonno) or relatives (Patsy’s and John’s).
At Lombardi’s they proudly display a family tree of New York pizza, you can see Lombardi right at the bottom there starting everything else off.
We also were taken to John’s of Bleecker Street – “No slices! Whole pies only!” which is on the tree above and to Pizza Box a mid-50’s establishment that specialises in the type of pizza we’re perhaps more familiar with as being New York Pizza (i.e. heavy on the cheese – huge slices and pizzas the size of dustbin lids). All three were great in their own way.
The tour also made reference to the pizzas of New Haven in Connecticut which we had visited in 2010. So when that came up, we got to feel like the pizza experts. Here’s a photos of some of John’s brick oven pizza, established in 1929 (the type, age and even size of oven are very important to these pizzerias apparently):
So who wins out of Connectictut and New York? I’ve got to say New York. Connecticut has some great pizza, and some really inventive stuff, but I like the style above, you can’t beat that melted cheese.
Anyway though in case you think this blog is all fun and games, I will reference the info at the top about this trip being at the end of October. We were lucky enough to participate in a quite historic weather event, it was the first time in 60 years that it had snowed in NYC in October. Good thing we had planned to be on this 3 hour walking/pizza tour and I was wearing canvas shoes!
So after the tour, we immediately made for Macy’s where I along with hordes of other tourists were buying new (waterproof) shoes and socks…