American Food Is Underrated

Usually, when you somebody tells you about delicious and fine food, you’d think of somewhere like Italy or the South of France. Certainly not the East Coast of America. Hopefully, I’m going to change your mind with this post because American food has a huge range of diverse food to offer, from Italian-American to Puerto Rican and Chinese in New York.

I like to think of myself as pretty good in the kitchen, mostly thanks to my ten years in the catering trade when I was younger, where I would do every job from washing dishes, to waiting tables and making food for hotel guests. I even met the Royal Family on a Navy ship in Portsmouth many years ago, and served their wine.

In short, I have an appreciation for great food and I’m not alone there either – the Americans seem to use it as their favourite pastime. There are fast food places everywhere.

In New Jersey, for example, you can go to Wawa at lunch time and make your own sandwich up on touchscreens which is pretty much like the automated version of Subway, and grab a water ice (known as a Slush Puppy in the UK) from an ice cream place after. Then in the evening after dinner you can head down to a local funfair and get some funnel cake. We did all of these things, and while I wasn’t particularly fond of the funnel cake, I loved the atmosphere there – it was exactly like being on the set of a movie.

Not too long ago, I read a discussion about living cheaply in New York City and food was mentioned. It turns out that a hugely popular dish is something called Pernil, which is slow-cooked pork shoulder. It’s cheap, and because it’s slowly cooked at a low temperature it turns out to be amazingly tender when done. It’s pretty common in the Puerto Rican community in NYC, and one day I had a go at making it myself! Here’s how it turned out:

Pernil, cooked by yours truly

Restaurant-quality food for not a lot of money…

I’m going to turn my attention to the inevitable here: burgers.

Burgers, burgers everywhere…

You see, in Britain we also have McDonald’s, but the portions are a lot smaller than in the US. When you order over there, they hand you an empty cardboard cup with your meal and your first thought is “where the hell is my drink?”. Fear not young man; you get unlimited drink refills in virtually every food place in America. Also, the smallest burger they do is a double quarter-pounder:

Eating a McDonalds in Philly. It tastes the same as the UK, by the way

We also went to a cute little place called Johnny Rockets, which is a 50s-themed restaurant on South St in Philadelphia. The staff inside will sing to you and put on a show sometimes. I felt like I was on the set of Back To The Future. Cherry Coke with a straw in it was the obvious choice of beverage to accompany the food.

No burger is complete without bacon

While in New York on our second visit to the city, we were feeling a little hungry when we saw a board outside an Irish bar which advertised something called a “Hulk Burger”. I was already sold by the name of that thing, so we went in. It was an absolute monster and I finished it all. Glorious.

I’ve already mentioned the Chinese food in a previous post, so I’ll skip that for now and move straight onto my favourite: Italian-American.

Now this is where I feel at home – I love pasta, chicken, and white pasta sauces (I’m not a huge fan of tomato). While talking on Skype with my friend from South Jersey, she’d tell me about all the wonderful food they would have as an Italian-American family and a particular dish called Chicken Florentine.

I’d link it to you, but most of the recipes you’ll find on Google are just plain wrong. The way I learned to make it was directly from an American mom. In a nutshell: you take chopped chicken breast, fry it until cooked in a large pan/wok, then add cute bow-tie pasta, salt/coarse-ground black pepper/garlic/oregano, cream, milk and spinach then serve it in little bowls.

It’s heavenly.

A work in progress…

…aaaaand DONE!

I also remember having a conversation about deep fried food, and she mentioned deep fried Oreos. Yep – those little cookie things. I was skeptical and thought I’d probably throw up if I tried one, but when we went to Atlantic City on the Jersey shore, I had my chance.

They were incredible. Like little chocolate cakes!

These weren’t greasy at all, and I liked them so much I had two!

If you know Philadelphia or have been there before, you’ll know what the holy grail of food in that city is. I probably don’t even have to say its name, but for the benefit of everybody else: Cheesesteak.

I had no idea what to expect when I first heard of it. My first thought was: “so what do they do, put a slice of cheese onto their sirloin or what?”. Nope, not at all. What a Cheesesteak is (apart from being the most delicious way to eat steak ever), is an 8-10″ long baguette-style bread roll filled with very thinly sliced ribeye steak mixed with cheese and onions, served hot.

On my final day in Philly, her dad drove us down to Geno’s to try out the famous steaks they do there. I’d had one before, but this is different. This is where Cheesesteak was invented. I placed my order at the little window and literally in 10 seconds I had a “wiz wit” in my hand for $8.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the best fast food that I’ve ever had, by a long way!

If this kind of food replaced kebab shops in the UK, I would be a very happy man indeed. There’s also a potential business idea there… #hint

I could talk forever about American food, because it’s far more diverse than I expected. I loved the fact that I got to use the little food stalls they have on a lot of the street corners to grab a hot dog or a pretzel. They love pretzels there and I’m not talking about the tiny little snack we get in the UK either:

A food truck on the corner of 8th & Market in Philadelphia

Being back in the UK doesn’t mean that I have to go without the new style of food that I’ve discovered – I’m a decent cook so I can make most things. If I can’t, then I can just order it from a specialist importer!

You can’t make a proper Cheesesteak without Whiz.

These are sold by my local Asda store (owned by Walmart)

In summary, American food has more variety and depth than I could have possibly imagined. We didn’t even go to any classy/expensive places to eat out either. As I’ve probably explained in a previous post, being a guest at their Jersey home for dinner was a fantastic experience for someone who doesn’t even live in the same country.

In short:

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On New York

New York is probably the best and worst city you’ll ever go to at the same time.

It’s dirty, full of rats, stinks to hell, is full of people who don’t give a shit about you and just want you to get out of their way, but is also one of the greatest places on earth.

Let me explain why.

It’s mostly about the attitude.

Nobody cares where you’re from, what you’re doing there and what you’re doing next. They may feign interest: “Oh you’re from England? Cool…”, then they surely move on to trying to sell you some worthless trinket which will probably break into pieces in two week’s time.

In some ways, compared to where I live, this is the ultimate freedom. You can truly be yourself in this city, because nobody actually cares what you do. As a side note, it’s perfectly legal for a woman to be walking around topless in NYC. You learnt something today. Thank me later.

It’s this exact attitude which attracts me to this city. In London (and LA, I imagine), it’s all about where you are, who you’re with, how you look. “Hey look at MEEEE!! I’m so cool!”

In New York, nobody cares. Do what the hell you want. Nobody will remember you. This is the place where you can be yourself, and nobody is going to judge you other than maybe yelling at you for crossing on a “Don’t Walk” sign…

When Krystal and I went to New York, it was incredibly hot. 36.C+. I needed to carry a drink around with me constantly. Take my advice and buy soft drinks in bottles. The water tastes funny from the tap – in Chinatown at least.

The food they serve can be a little unusual too.

I was actually quite okay with the amount of people that were around in NYC because I’m pretty used to it in London, and this wasn’t much worse. Times Square even had spare paving stones with no people standing on them.

Look, an empty sidewalk!

Alright, just kidding. Here’s what it was really like:

Yep; chaos. Getting onto the bus from Chinatown was equally crazy when it was late. We chose to take the bus from Philly because it was pretty cheap, but we had no idea about the kind of people we’d be sharing the bus with on the way back.

These people were literally stepping on each other to get on. They would do anything to jump the queue and guarantee their seat on the bus, even though everybody had a valid ticket.

Some lady was there with two toddlers in her arms at the door of the bus and even she was getting shoved aside while the rabid “people” stumbled up the steps. She flipped out a bit. I also had to put my arm across the door opening to prevent Krystal from being pushed around too. Luckily, we made it on and back to South Jersey, although it took us almost 3 hours for some reason.

We spent two days in New York in total, but probably could have used up an entire week just wandering around.

We both got sunburnt, mostly from spending hours lazing around in parks and going to see this little lady:

In all, the parks were probably the highlight of my New York visit, if I’m honest. It’s probably because I got some quiet time to spend with my companion/tour-guide/partner-in-crime.

One really great moment was when we went to the M&Ms store in Times Square, then headed over to Central Park to chill out, eat chocolate, play on the swings and annoy the kids by stealing their slide.

Here’s what that view looks like:

We also went to see Ground Zero on the second day. It was free to get in, but you have to book tickets before you get there. The security going in was OTT as can be expected, but it was worth going, maybe just to pay your respects if anything else.

This place is certainly thought-provoking:

I’m not really sure what else to say about New York, which surprises me because there’s so much to see there. Maybe I’m a bit overwhelmed by the experience. I’m sure I’ll add more to this post later.

I’ll leave you with this great photo I took on board the ferry:

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The Story Begins Here

I felt that I should probably explain what the title of this blog means in my first article. So, here goes.

It all started when I met an adorably-cute girl last summer, Krystal. I’ll leave the specifics of that for another time, but the short version is that we became very good friends and I found myself on a plane headed over to Philadelphia.

I was coming from London so it takes a fair amount of time, 8 hours to be exact, and I’d been up since 6am that morning having experienced my usual 5-6 hours of sleep.

That evening, which was on a Sunday, was wonderful and I headed to bed in my hostel in a very good mood and excited for the next day’s exploration. The plan was to head to New Jersey (where Krystal lives) and we’d go to the aquarium close to her school with one of her other friends.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of saving money by booking into a dorm room for the first few days instead of a private room. There were around 16 of us packed into there and throughout the night I was constantly being disturbed by people coming into the room, snorers (the guy in the bunk above was especially loud) and the most annoying person of all who’d have random coughing fits just as I’d be nodding off to sleep.

I got zero sleep that night.

Checkpoint: it’s now been 30 hours since waking up at my London hotel.

Krystal wanted to show me her school, Rutgers University in Camden, before we headed to the aquarium. For those of you who don’t know, Camden is one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. In a single day the other week, 8 people were shot. I’m not sure you’d call it a city either – more like a ghetto, or hell on earth. It’s probably worse than Detroit, but I certainly have no intention of confirming this.

Her school is just on the outskirts, which is a good thing, but we had the great idea of driving through some of Camden-proper on the way. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in all my life. It was hilarious at the time, but if anyone had decided that these three middle-class white people driving a nice car looked like they were worth robbing, we’d have been in real trouble.

I only took one picture there, and it doesn’t show much. Mostly because it would be a little stupid to go pointing an iPhone at somebody’s house.

Eventually, we parked up and went to her school.

A big difference between American and British universities is that the American ones are often small towns in their own right. Rutgers Camden has it’s own police force, for example, who (I assume) would come racing down the street ready for action if you pushed one of these buttons:

Being shown around was really interesting; I got to see where we would often chat on Facebook while she was supposed to be doing actual work and where she’d have Cheesefries with a soda for lunch. I hugely enjoyed seeing all the everyday things that they take for granted but a tourist would never see. I made sure to specify before I visited that I wanted to experience American life as if I lived and worked there. I was not left disappointed.

So, that was all good fun. After this we went to the Adventure Aquarium of New Jersey. By this time, I was feeling terrible due to the lack of sleep. Here’s Krystal’s new best friend:

After this, the three of us went back to her house in the pretty New Jersey suburbs, which was a short drive away, to have dinner with her parents.

Her mom is an amazing cook; because they are Italian-Americans they like their pasta and chicken dishes. I had the chance to try her wonderful Chicken Florentine which is Krystal’s favorite. It’s now also one of mine, and I’ll actually be cooking it tonight at home.

After this, she called up one of her friends, Jess, and we hung out for a while and drove around. We went to a place called Riverside (or was it Riverwinds?), and Krystal showed me where people would go to “talk about things” when they wanted privacy. To my slight relief, she didn’t start any deep conversations. It was right on the shore of the Delaware river, if I recall correctly.

I was seriously exhausted by this point, and only just hanging on. I wish I’d had some sleep the night before because when I get tired I mentally shut off and get real quiet and introverted. This was the exact opposite of what I wanted, because I struggle with being painfully shy sometimes as it is.

At around 10, we ended up back at Jessica’s house where she decided to smoke a couple of bowls. She offered me one, and while I initially refused, I couldn’t really resist. Besides, Krystal’s argument was pretty compelling: “Come on, you’re in America, you gotta do it”. I only had just the one, but this was about to be the start of a near-disaster. American Law #1 broken.

I was drifting in and out of sleep by this point, and she drove me to the train station so I could get back to Philly. Before I got out of the car, she said “Are you sure you’re gonna be ok?”. What I should have said was “No”, but what I actually said was “Yeah, I’ll be fine”. She made me promise that I’d text her when I got home.

So, there I was: awake for 48 hours with no sleep, stoned, horribly confused, and in a strange place at midnight waiting for a train by myself. What I’d completely forgotten was that the trains run on a single track at night so I missed the first because I thought it was going in the opposite direction to Philly. After about 30 tortuous minutes, I saw the right train and got on.

Before I got out of the car, they said that it was the stop after the NJ-Philly bridge that I needed (8th & Market). I could have sworn that I went over a bridge but I couldn’t see shit out of the windows into the blackness, so I got off and found myself at a station called Broadway. Hey, no problem I thought – it sounds like Philly, right? I’ll just get a cab.

I went up the stairs, and saw a bunch of very dodgy-looking characters loitering outside the main doors of the station. I decided to go back to the platform and this is when I got a text from Krystal. All it said was “Worried”. I replied back saying I was in some place called Broadway by mistake and that I was waiting for the next train which was roughly 30 minutes away. I hadn’t actually gone over the bridge yet, and was still in Jersey.

Later she would tell me that I had gotten off the train in the worst possible place you could be at 1am in America. I was right in the middle of Camden.

I know we complain about having so many security cameras in the UK and how it’s all a big surveillance society, but trust me – I would have felt a lot happier if they actually had any on these platforms.

This is still not the end of the story, because after I got onto the next train I even managed to overshoot my stop by two stations in my confused state. I had to find my way back to 8th & Market without using Google Maps (data in the US is £6 per MB if you’re roaming) which wasn’t much fun. I asked a couple of guys who were smoking fags (chuckle) outside a gay bar or something, and they pointed me in the direction of Market St. It took me at least another half an hour of walking to find it.

Eventually I arrived back at where I was staying at around 2am and texted Krystal to let her know that I was safe. It had taken me more than 2 hours for a journey that should have taken around 20 minutes.

A lot of bad things could have happened that night, but I don’t think I really stood out as a tourist or anything, so I was probably just left alone because they assumed I was a native. I was also very careful about when I took out my phone or cash for any reason.

If anything like this ever happens to you?

Trust me – just stay at their house instead of going on a crazy adventure in the middle of the night in a strange city. You’ll thank me later. Or, even be able to.

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