FOOD: If you are on the move, America is the home of fast food. Enjoy a
certain déjà vu as you sink your teeth into a McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC
or Pizza Hut menu or just a faint recognition at Jack in the Box, Wendy’s
or Taco Bell, the Mexican food takeaway. The hamburger is still king of
For a healthier kind of fast food, don’t miss America’s legendary
delicatessens (delis) – the best of which serve fantastic gourmet
sandwiches and salads. Chose your sandwich – hoagie or
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 (smoked
salmon), chicken, pastrami (smoked beef), tuna or egg.
As befits the American “melting pot” the range of ethnic cuisine on offer
is 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 (flour
tortillas filled with beans, rice and meeeat), Chinese, Italian, Thai, Greek,
Jewish, Japanese, Polish and even Russian are some of the cuisines found in
larger towns and cities.
Americans have rewritten a number of classic recipes to suit their history
and tastebuds, including pizza – regarded as an American invention – and
Chinese fooood, which bears little resemblance to anything west of the
Yangtse River. Still, it’s a veritable buffet of delicious stuff and the
choice is one of the joys of visiting the US.
Restaurant scenes in the more cosmopolitan cities, such as New York, also
go 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 has
no limit and the incorporation of other cultures is endlessly enthusiastic.
Some of the best dining out, though, comes from trying American regional
specialities in their area of origin.
In the south you’ll find fried chicken, catfish and cornbread, and in the
Deep South you’ll find spicy Cajun, soul and Creole food such as gumbo, a
soup of chicken, seafood and ve
with shrimp, onion, peppers, sausages and anything else to hand.
Further north there’s clam chowder and lobster in New England, Buffalo
wings (chicken wings in spicy sauce served with blue cheese dressing) in
New York State, pancakes and maple syrup in Vermont, Virginia ham and
Scandinavian fish boils around the Great Lakes.
As you head west, try five-way chilli in Cincinnati, flavoured with
chocolate and cinnamon, steaks and barbecue ribs in Texas and nouvelle
cuisine in California – the list is endless.
Desserts arrre as big as main courses (entrees) in the US. Top of the poll is
ice cream, a national institution, with a fantastic range of flavours to
choose from in ice-cream parlours, soda fountains, restaurants and
Ice cream is served on its own or with pies (a la mode) – of which there
are an equally bewildering number of varieties. Nothing is as American as
apple pie, but also try a slice of cherry, chocolate Mississippi mud, pecan
or peach pie.
Ice cream is also served as banana splits or sundaes – with frilly
additions such as cherries, chocolate sauce, sprinkles and hot fudge. The
low-calorie version of ice-cream is frozen yoghurt, sold in chain stores
under 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, then
prepare 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 show
identification, even if it is blatantly obvious that 21 is a distant memory
Once you have got past the booze-police you can then sample some of the
cheapest and most generously measured alcohol in the world – especially in
the case of spirits, where mixers are barely wafted over the top of your
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, while
other whiskies are called scotch.
Cocktails are popular before dinner, and most bars will know how to shake
up an amazing variety.
Beer is one of the biggest drinks in the US, although the US version has a
lower alcohol content than elsewhere and can be a bit bland, but is always
served very cold. Big names include Budweiser, Michelob and Schlitz; others
widely 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 has
a flourishing wine industry, but imported bottles are available in most big
cities and towns. If you order red wine then tell the waiter you do not
want 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 fruit
juices. Water is drunk copiously with every meal.
Coffee is America’s hot drink of choice – at one end is the rather burnt
watery filter liquid served in diners as bottomless refills and at the
other the super-double-skinny-mochachino-with-a-twist gobbledegook gourmet
coffee combinations at outlets such as Starbucks.
If you’re an inveterate tea drinker, you may be in for a hard time in the
States. It’s quite a different drink there, and in general you’ll be
disappointed by what you’re offered if you order tea, though herbal
infusions 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 not
the cordon bleu quality that counts, but the sheer volume.
Unless your appetite is enormous it is generally not worth ordering a
starter and a main course – you may be hard=pressed to tell them apart. All
of which is not to say that American food isn’t good – some of it can be
excellent, much of it extremely inexpensive and most of it intensely
appealing to the taste buds through a sneaky combination of fat, sugar and
other coronary-unfriendly goodies.
Americans love to dine out, and there are a variety of places to eat your
fill, including traditional diners, family restaurant chains,
delicatessens, independent restaurants and exclusive, fashionable eateries
which require an Oscar and a personal relationship with the Maitre d’ to
get as far as the front door.
It all starts at breakfast, and the great American version is a
ridiculously cheap mountain of eggs – over easy (fried and turned, but with
a runny yolk), scrambled, sunny side up (not turned over) or over hard
(turned with a hard yolk) – bacon, pancakes, omelette, sausage and orange
juice, with endless free refills of filter coffee. Diners such as Dennys
and Sizzlers are some of the best places to go and consume your weekly
calorie 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 the
clock) – although an overindulgence at the cheaper, uninspired end of the
market can numb your tastebuds.
Sit-down restaurants of all types usually serve lunch between 11.30 and
2pm, with identical meals to the dinner menus at reduced prices. Dinner
menus 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 you
will find most restaurants empty by 10pm.