Just coming to the end of Easter holidays, blessèd two week interlude in the teaching calendar. This year we combined as many possible permutations of ‘Easter’ as we could, from traditional Return of the King of Kings/actual monarch religious celebration, as the Queen came to York to do the Maundy money ceremony – not “Mornday”, newsreaders of Britain – to the more commercial and sugary frenzy, as other people contributed chocolate eggs to us and we were happy to avail ourselves. Vernal equinox, spring fruits, Ēostre worship, all that.
Part of the snacky goodness, one of our favourite new distractions, is Man vs Food, a TV prog currently being repeated on ‘Dave’ channel and Food Network UK (both on Freeview). If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it details how this cheeky chappy, Adam Richman…
…took it upon himself to attempt a series of eating trials across the USA. It’s a paean to ‘over the top’ American cuisine: a dish called ‘Suicide Wings’, super, eye-wateringly hot chilli chicken pieces; a 16oz shake + Pound of Meat sandwich; four-burgers-with-nachos-and-cheese-sauce in a bun the size of a tractor tyre; 74 oz of steaks and sides… you know, ludicrous food.
To punctuate the face-stuffing, the charming Richman also makes time to look at more sedate delicacies, amuse-bouches such as awesome-seeming Baltimore crabcakes, astonishingly made from only crab, from the sadly-now-defunct Obrycki’s Crab House and Seafood Restaurant. (T’internet chat suggests that Baltimore still has 50 other crab restaurants superior to Obrycki’s, which is good to know, unless you’re a crab of course, or perhaps especially if you’re a crab…) It’s funny to see simpler fare such as this, and the likes of traditional Square pizza (with the sauce over the mozzarella) in Brooklyn, juxtaposed with gargantuan steaks that look like the tongue of a blue whale, jostling on plates with cartwheels of caramelized onions, wheelbarrows of coleslaw, actual pounds of fries topped with jalapeños and cheese…
It would be easy to get horrified by all this, of course. One might see it as confirmation of the sniffy European cliché of America being the home of gastromorons. I mean, just to conform to the type of Anglo-aesthete baffled by the flavorclash, I can understand people, especially Brits, who balk at the idea of ‘gravy and biscuits’… it all looks so claggy, so overdone, so smothered in plastic cheese and stupid sauces and devoid of actual food…
[Quick semantic sideplate: in the UK, biscuits = cookies, although they are crunchier than Millie's Cookies style cookies, and are often served with tea; gravy is the thinnish, brown savoury liquid served as an accompaniment to Sunday roast meat dishes, or any potato/pastry-related meal, or with chipshop chips. American readers, help me, is 'biscuits and gravy' essentially some sort of savoury scone with a really thick savoury sauce accompaniment? Or is it a bit sweeter? And which way round should it be referred to, 'gravy and biscuits', or 'biscuits and gravy'? I ask because I recall referring to "peas and rice" once and being gently corrected. These things are important... Image sauced from Mama's Southern Cooking website]
Such thoughts ignore the often delicious flavour combinations, the kind of mix of over-the-top inventiveness and actual simplicity in taste and execution, evidenced by Richman. Although perhaps to be expected from such a famous melting pot of a country, the tendency to see all American scran as meat in fondue is like assuming that all British people boil pizza. And whose fault is it anyway? As well as Native American, Mexican, Asian influences, there is clearly a European heritage underpinning a lot of American food, particularly north European, with its tendency to serve up heaving helpings, platters of gloop-slathered slabs of beast, clogged bowls of extraneous carbs. J, who’s half Dutch, argues that this is just an American twist on what is essentially healthy food: potatoes, salads, proteins, albeit in solid portions. I would counter that a country whose national dishes include bitterballen (deep fried breaded balls of meat… which J says are served with “Mmmm, mustard – and beer”…) cannot really start throwing its weight about with health-related commentary.
It’s not just the (Pennsylvania) Dutch… I lived in Germany when I was younger, and they loves – loves – their meat and potatoes there; it is no coincidence that one of the UK’s national heroes is a porky priest called Friar Tuck. We could range across the Old Continent. More recently, I have a vivid memory of a pal ordering something in Estonia that sounded appealing on the menu and was served as a plate – tureen, really – of thick, whitish sauce, swimming with chunks of what we assured ourselves was pork. In the same eatery, I’d ordered a steak tartare as a starter. I’d wanted to try steak tartare since reading celebrity vet James Herriot’s rapturous description of it when I was a kid. When it arrived at the table, it was the size of half a rugby ball. Tasty, but that’s a lot of raw cow.
It is such European feats of largesse I am reminded of when watching Richman attempting to negotiate dishes that, served in measures perhaps about an eighth of the size, would be stupendously tasty, but which take on something of the ordeal when couched in terms of who’s-he-trying-to-fool ‘non-competitive eating’. The ‘finish it in an hour’ stipulation is usually what does for Richman, and is perhaps part of a perception of wilful gluttony that has rankled with various TV critics, much more than the preposterous foodstuffs being tackled. Maybe a continuing idea of “America” as an affront to good taste and restraint, a culture devoted to encouraging immediate over-consumption, with a concurrent lack of taste… which view has been in place in certain portions globally pretty much since the USA set itself up. Richman’s enthusiasm and generous humour, also a great American tradition from where I’m standing, undercut the indulgence. He is always pretty clear that what is being prepared is exceptional. When he dines, there is a conspicuous absence of elephantine fatties with drink-carrier hats in the room.
Adam Richman’s love of playfully daft food, and his fellow countryfolk, is clear. He and they can be seen frequently near collapse laughing at the absurdity of it all. Richman is more often than not thwarted by his own inability to complete the challenges he undertakes. I mean, one could read that as a kind of subtle politico-gustatory metaphoric commentary, if one were so inclined.
Do you know what, I thought I’d be able to say something about Richman’s fellow traveller, TV chef Guy Fieri, but I think I’m a bit full. Fieri, appropriately, has a thing for spicy food, and an entertaining way of saying ‘coomin’ instead of ‘cyumin’. His series, ‘Drive-Ins, Diners and Dives’, is still all about the comfort food, but less of the gargantuan dimensions and more of a focus on ingredients with a view to construction… No, I was right – can I get a soda water please?
That’s better. Anyway, it makes perfect dinner-time viewing. Yesterday evening we had a delicious Friday treat: Indian food from the Shahi Tandoori on Nunnery Lane (Shahi Vegetable Bhuna, Saag Aloo, Pakora Vegetable, Prawn Madras, Pilau Rice, Vegetable Pilau, plus free poppadums and dips. Deee-licious! Top takeaway troughing, and lots of leftovers for lunch today too). That frugal superhaunch seemed a fitting counterpoint to the eagle-stuffed dolphin and 10-gallon hat full of root beer that Richman was attempting. And in the battle between man and food… food won.
Now, for a cycle… if I can just get – huff! – off… this couch… no, I’ll read Year of The Fat Bastard tumblr instead.