I’ve written about my favorite restaurants in Houston and how they made my time there special, but what really made my summer this year were the meals my roommates and I cooked together in our apartment. What’s that saying? Teamwork makes the dreamwork. Perhaps it’s this, and not our experiences dining out, that have changed my taste buds so drastically in the last few years.
In this post I’d like to discuss American home cooking and the way Americans eat, all through the lens of my personal experiences. Of course, every household has its own traditions and I’d like to explore some of ours, and how I used my friends and their families as case studies to form an image of American domestic life. In some ways, as I write this, I’m imagining myself as a historian from the future, reporting on the habits of a few, freedom-lovin’ natives.
Back in the U.K my family incorporates a lot of Moroccan and Greek influences into our meals. At least once or twice a week at the Vowles household you’ll find dishes that use couscous instead of rice and orzo instead of more traditional, Italian pasta. We like olives and feta, and it’s something of a staple here to make a lemon-chicken or lamb dish every week. That’s not to say that the food is in any way Mediterranean; it can’t be unless you get all your produce from a Greek delicatessen or something. Every country has its own agriculture and its own ingredients, so think of it more as British food with a somewhat Byzantine accent. We’ve also been known to make more traditionally British fare in the way of casseroles and stews, or meat accompanied by a wide range of vegetables- the classic British favorites of broccoli, carrots, peas, sweetcorn, green beans, cabbage, kale et cetera. Once in a blue moon some cod in a creamy sauce, and every now and then an Indian meal- though not bearing any resemblance to the curries of New Dehli.
When I came to the USA five years ago, one of the first differences I noticed was that there was less of an enthusiasm for stews and casseroles in American kitchens. A lot- almost all- of the meals my mother made were in some kind of sauce. Very seldom if at all did we sit down to a dry piece of meat. And almost every day in the cafeteria of the University of Winchester there would be something resembling a stroganoff or a curry. Perhaps it’s because this is a bitter isle and down the centuries food has been typically prepared to warm us up, much in the same way beer in the U.K is traditionally room temperature and bitter, not like the cold, refreshing lagers that dominate the American heartland.
Another thing I noticed was that meals were arranged in different ways. Back home we were each given a plate of food, a casserole or something accompanied with rice or vegetables, and that was that. The table runner only held the candles that lit our dinner. In the USA, I saw a lot more of what you might call a mini potluck, the plates empty and the table adorned with options. This allowed me to control my portions and I’d find myself in less situations where I was desperately trying to reach the finish line. In America families like to mix and match, passing between them plastic bowls of salad or potatoes and all kinds of condiments. Dinner felt a lot more freeform. One thing I vividly remember is eating dinner with my host family in 2012, and my host dad saying “I fancy mine with some buttered bread” and so a loaf of bread and a tub of butter sat alongside the other options on the table. I just couldn’t imagine them ever sitting on the dinner table back home.
In the USA, particularly the Midwest, beef reigns supreme. Back home we’ve made brisket in wine sauce, or roast beef on Sundays, but I can’t ever remember my mom making steak. One time I visited my roommate Aaron’s parents during my years in Wisconsin, and his mom made beef steaks. There is a casual, hospitable feel to an American dining room that always seems ready to entertain. There always seems more room for riders in the night to come in and sup. I thought to myself If we hadn’t come, or had come very late, what was she going to do with all these steaks? It’s very much a grab-yourself-a-plate-and-join-in scenario. So we grabbed our plates, joined the family, and helped ourselves to the options in the bowls and trays laid out along the table. I’m always thinking how relaxed Americans seem, and I thought about the idea of bringing a guest over to dinner at my parents’ house in the U.K, say, a half hour or so before dishing. They’d go off the deep end. There’s not enough food! You should have told us this morning! Goodness, what will we do?
I thought then to a meal I had with Aaron’s family in 2014. In fact it was the first day I met them, and in order to make me feel welcome they asked what American favorites I liked. I told them I liked Philly Cheesesteaks and Green Bean Casserole. A strange combination, Aaron told me with a chuckle, but his dear family went about and made it as though it were a perfectly sane request. If anything they seemed to relish the idea, and there seemed to be this great sense of energy about them. After all, every American is descended from a pioneer of some kind, so perhaps that’s why they always seem to have a thirst for adventure and a lack of fear for the unknown. Why not? seems to be the American mantra. That day I played basketball in the driveway with Aaron, his younger brother Joseph, and Anne-Marie’s younger brother Brock. Afterward we all gathered in the dining room and Aaron’s father said to Brock “We’re having Philly Cheesesteaks and Green Bean Casserole. You staying for dinner?”
Even a pre-planned dinner had the flexibility, perhaps the expectation, of last-minute guests. This to me was a quintessentially American interaction. In the U.K, the question would go “Would you like to join us for dinner?” and if we’re talking my family it would be asked about a week in advance.
“Sure,” Brock said, sitting down. In America there is a lack of the formality that I’m used to. Everything is very casual. Aaron and Anne-Marie’s families both seemed like one big family, as though this sort of thing would happen every week. In the U.K, someone (like me for instance) in Brock’s position would have answered “Oh I couldn’t possibly!”
I’ve long since learned that in the USA, when someone offers you something or invites you somewhere, you absolutely should not respond “Are you sure?”
I wouldn’t have asked you otherwise, an American would tell you. Don’t second-guess them; they want you to take them up on their generosity.
I wish I had a picture of that meal for this blog, but back then I was far too shy to whip out my camera at the dinner table, having just met all these people I had imagined one day meeting for two years. But rest assured that it was quite delicious, and my anxiety was spared the guilt of suggesting something truly crazy.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this piece- if so, be sure to Subscribe so you don’t miss the next part. Before the end of the week I will release episode 2, and continue to cover my observations of home cooking through to the present day, and the meals we made this summer!