American Home Cooking Part 2

In part one I discussed how, in American households, there is a much greater tendency to arrange a meal into bowls and trays, and have the family serve themselves. This of course results in a lot of leftovers. And no treatise on American eating would be complete without discussing leftovers. It’s such a big part of life here in the US of A. I can safely say that back home, we’ve never once had leftovers for dinner. Each meal is made and consumed within the same day. During my stays in the U.S I’ve found that leftovers often constitute at least two or three meals per week, sometimes more. My roommates and I will plan our meals at the beginning of the week, and note which ones will serve as supper for two nights, or which can be reused as something else- sandwich or taco filling for instance. We would make big meals- and as always in America, generously and lovingly seasoned- that would often be served into bowls. If we wanted a second helping, we’d go back to the counter and serve up some more.

Salads are also big in America. Most restaurants will have a salad that accompanies your meal, and the question invariably is not “Would you like salad?”, it’s “What kind of salad do you want?”. Salad is often paired with things it wouldn’t necessarily be seen with in the U.K, and many times we prepared a salad to go with our meals; bowls of fresh green Spring Mix, sprinkled with garlic croutons, sliced red onion, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and a healthy addition of Italian Dressing, that sat beside our main plates. In the USA there’s no such thing as a salad without dressing. It would be considered as utterly vestigial as a truck without wheels.

I should point out quickly that I’m not saying every house adheres to a strict, uniform mode of eating- be it in the U.K or the U.S. What I’m saying is there are aggregate truths to the way a nation eats- ingredients and customs and tastes entirely their own. But of course, each household will explore these national tendencies in different ways. And that’s something I find very interesting- the rituals of a given family. When I first started living with Aaron and Anne-Marie in Wisconsin they weren’t yet engaged, but I had the feeling of stepping into the kitchen of a long-married couple. There was an aroma of love. They seemed to have the goofy humor of a husband and wife, teasing each other, but knowing exactly the other’s movements and skill, knowing each of their responsibilities without discussing them, moving unconsciously in a system entirely their own, as though they had been cooking together a lifetime. I remember Anne-Marie leaning on the counter with a beer in her hand, watching Aaron stir cut-up Italian sausage in a skillet.

“We like to drink beers when we cook,” she told me with a homely smile, and offered me one. I accepted a Spotted Cow, Aaron taking a break from stirring to have a hearty swig of his own. Already I was being immersed into ongoing traditions, the subtle rituals of domestic life. Music is another one. Whenever I cook with the two of them, soft music plays in the background. Nothing like the punk rock or rap we’d listen to in the Panther; the kitchen always filled with light and soothing indie or “coffee shop” music. First Aid Kit. Lord Huron. Best of all, Zella Day.

This was the environment in which I learned to cook. I had made basic meals before when I lived in Winchester, but it wasn’t until I lived with my American roommates that I learned what might be called the craft of cooking. Technique. How to properly hold a knife, which knife to use for each item of food, the fundamentals of cooking raw meat, as well as the hygienic maintenance of a kitchen, and the French philosophy of Mise en place. But what did we make?

One thing I have noticed about the American culinary landscape is how much it adores sandwiches. Sandwiches here are nothing like the sandwiches back home. They’re massive for one thing. Some are impossible to eat as a whole. What I love best about sandwiches in the USA is that they are treated like an art form. American cooks are constantly trying to innovate and push the concept of a sandwich to maximum extravagance. Sandwiches also serve as the creative expressions of different regions within the USA, and often are a combination of tastes from the settlers of a particular place. This summer we made French Dip (of Los Angeles origin) and a shrimp Po’Boy (New Orleans).

What’s interesting is that sandwiches can be considered a main meal in their own right in the USA, whereas at home they tend to be more of a lunch time thing. I don’t remember us ever having sandwiches for dinner back home, nor at restaurants. The French Dip, Philly Cheesesteak, and Po’Boy are favorites of my roommates and I, and the ones we made were delicious.

Of course, there are some practices that are adopted nationwide- for instance Americans hold their forks in their right hand, they drink milk out of glasses and plastic cups instead of mugs. Mugs in the USA are reserved for coffee (which they drink a lot of) and tea. Contrary to popular belief, Americans do drink tea, but mostly it will be iced tea or herbal and green teas.

Our meals this summer also saw an incorporation of Mexican cuisine, and we frequently made quesadillas and tacos for both lunch and dinner. I spoke before about household traditions, and a specialty of Aaron and Anne-Marie is their crab-dip in a bread bowl. I’ve been lucky enough to experience it twice now. The first time was in Wisconsin, where we were living in Eau Claire and joined by Aaron’s sister Elizabeth. With so much leftover crab dip, Anne-Marie decided to use the rest the following day to make crab dip quesadillas. The experiment worked, and Aaron hailed her genius. In America the surest way to someone’s heart is to cook them good food. We remade the crab dip this year for our NBA Draft Party, and once again we used the leftovers for quesadillas.

The other big dip we made that day was Buffalo Chicken, which is a staple of Super Bowl parties and sporting events. We made this twice this summer, the second time coming in the form of a sandwich.

Other successful recipes included our Greek gyros chicken, Shrimp Fajitas, Chicken Primavera, Stromboli, Lemon Chicken with Asparagus, Bacon & Barbeque Sauce Beef Burgers, Pasta with Sweet Italian Sausage, and so on and so on. Enjoy the pictures, and be sure to share with me the meals your family & friends hold dear!

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About mjvowles2014