FOOD: If you are on the move, America is the home of fast food. Enjoy acertain déjà vu as you sink your teeth into a McDonald’s, Burger King, KFCor Pizza Hut menu or just a faint recognition at Jack in the Box, Wendy’sor Taco Bell, the Mexican food takeaway. The hamburger is still king offast food.For a healthier kind of fast food, don’t miss America’s legendarydelicatessens (delis) – the best of which serve fantastic gourmetsandwiches and salads. Chose your sandwich – hoagie or sub (French bread),club (three slices of toast with fillings sandwiched in between), rye(black rye bread) or bagel and fill it up with cream cheese and lox (smokedsalmon), chicken, pastrami (smoked beef), tuna or egg.As befits the American “melting pot” the range of ethnic cuisine on offeris vast – both at fast-food take outs and serious restaurants.Mexican food such as Tex-Mex tacos (fried corn tortillas), enchiladas(chicken, beef or cheese wrapped in corn tortillas) and burritos (flourtortillas filled with beans, rice and meat), Chinese, Italian, Thai, Greek,Jewish, Japanese, Polish and even Russian are some of the cuisines found inlarger towns and cities.Americans have rewritten a number of classic recipes to suit their historyand tastebuds, including pizza – regarded as an American invention – andChinese food, which bears little resemblance to anything west of theYangtse River. Still, it’s a veritable buffet of delicious stuff and thechoice is one of the joys of visiting the US.Restaurant scenes in the more cosmopolitan cities, such as New York, alsogo through food fads – so you may arrive and find the only thing to eat,darling, is sushi, Basque food or stir-fried armadillo. The imagination hasno limit and the incorporation of other cultures is endlessly enthusiastic.
Some of the best dining out, though, comes from trying American regionalspecialities in their area of origin.In the south you’ll find fried chicken, catfish and cornbread, and in theDeep South you’ll find spicy Cajun, soul and Creole food such as gumbo, asoup of chicken, seafood and vegetables and jambalaya, a spicy rice dishwith shrimp, onion, peppers, sausages and anything else to hand.Further north there’s clam chowder and lobster in New England, Buffalowings (chicken wings in spicy sauce served with blue cheese dressing) inNew York State, pancakes and maple syrup in Vermont, Virginia ham andScandinavian fish boils around the Great Lakes.As you head west, try five-way chilli in Cincinnati, flavoured withchocolate and cinnamon, steaks and barbecue ribs in Texas and nouvellecuisine in California – the list is endless.Desserts are as big as main courses (entrees) in the US. Top of the poll isice cream, a national institution, with a fantastic range of flavours tochoose from in ice-cream parlours, soda fountains, restaurants andsupermarkets.Ice cream is served on its own or with pies (a la mode) – of which thereare an equally bewildering number of varieties. Nothing is as American asapple pie, but also try a slice of cherry, chocolate Mississippi mud, pecanor peach pie.Ice cream is also served as banana splits or sundaes – with frillyadditions such as cherries, chocolate sauce, sprinkles and hot fudge. Thelow-calorie version of ice-cream is frozen yoghurt, sold in chain storesunder names such as TCBY and I Can’t Believe it’s Yoghurt.Cookies (big biscuits), waffles and syrup and rich frosted (iced) cakes,such as carrot cake, are other favourite teeth-janglers.DRINK: If you want to drink alcohol with your meal, or in a bar, thenprepare to be asked to prove your age (the local term is to be ‘carded’).The minimum drinking age is 21 and you will be asked to showidentification, even if it is blatantly obvious that 21 is a distant memoryfor you.Once you have got past the booze-police you can then sample some of thecheapest and most generously measured alcohol in the world – especially inthe case of spirits, where mixers are barely wafted over the top of yourglass.Popular spirits – or “hard liquor” – include gin, vodka, brandy and whiskey– served with ice unless you ask for it “straight up”.American whiskey is called bourbon, Canadian whisky is called rye, whileother whiskies are called scotch.Cocktails are popular before dinner, and most bars will know how to shakeup an amazing variety.Beer is one of the biggest drinks in the US, although the US version has alower alcohol content than elsewhere and can be a bit bland, but is alwaysserved very cold. Big names include Budweiser, Michelob and Schlitz; otherswidely available include the European Heineken and Canadian Moosehead,watered down for American palates.Wine is not generally drunk with meals, apart from in California, which hasa flourishing wine industry, but imported bottles are available in most bigcities and towns. If you order red wine then tell the waiter you do notwant it chilled – it has been known!Non-alcoholic drinks include milkshakes, Coke and Pepsi, lemonade, iced Tea(chilled tea with lemon and lots of sugar), Dr Pepper – a sarsaparilla-flavoured fizzy drink, sugary Mountain Dew and Gatorade, milk and fruitjuices. Water is drunk copiously with every meal.Coffee is America’s hot drink of choice – at one end is the rather burntwatery filter liquid served in diners as bottomless refills and at the other the super-double-skinny-mochachino-with-a-twist gobbledegook gourmetcoffee combinations at outlets such as Starbucks.If you’re an inveterate tea drinker, you may be in for a hard time in theStates. It’s quite a different drink there, and in general you’ll bedisappointed by what you’re offered if you order tea, though herbalinfusions are big news.DINING: The one adjective that best encapsulates American food is big.Americans love (and some would say live) to eat, and in general it is notthe cordon bleu quality that counts, but the sheer volume.Unless your appetite is enormous it is generally not worth ordering astarter and a main course – you may be hard=pressed to tell them apart. Allof which is not to say that American food isn’t good – some of it can beexcellent, much of it extremely inexpensive and most of it intenselyappealing to the taste buds through a sneaky combination of fat, sugar andother coronary-unfriendly goodies.Americans love to dine out, and there are a variety of places to eat yourfill, including traditional diners, family restaurant chains,delicatessens, independent restaurants and exclusive, fashionable eaterieswhich require an Oscar and a personal relationship with the Maitre d’ toget as far as the front door.It all starts at breakfast, and the great American version is aridiculously cheap mountain of eggs – over easy (fried and turned, but witha runny yolk), scrambled, sunny side up (not turned over) or over hard(turned with a hard yolk) – bacon, pancakes, omelette, sausage and orangejuice, with endless free refills of filter coffee. Diners such as Dennysand Sizzlers are some of the best places to go and consume your weeklycalorie allowance in one sitting, for around $5.Deciding what to have for lunch or dinner is a full-time occupation, and whatever you want to eat, the chances are you can find it (around theclock) – although an overindulgence at the cheaper, uninspired end of themarket can numb your tastebuds.Sit-down restaurants of all types usually serve lunch between 11.30 and2pm, with identical meals to the dinner menus at reduced prices. Dinnermenus will often have “early-bird specials” between 4pm and 6.30pm,offering a blow-out meal for around $6. Americans tend to eat early and youwill find most restaurants empty by 10pm.