Food Glorious Food (part 2)

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Hackney, the part of east London where I live, has certainly been made culturally richer, and its eating options yummier, by a long history of waves of immigration. If I walk the length of Kingsland Road, I’ll pass though Vietnamese, Chinese, West Africa, Turkish and Orthodox Jewish communities – and their eateries.

But the biggest food influx in east London in recent years has been…yes, American food. Within easy walking distance of my home in Hackney and where I work, a little further south, there are countless rib rooms, multitudes of dirty burger options, red velvet cupcakes and whoopie pies galore, and no shortage of speakeasy gin bars. And not only have east Londoners been chowing down on barbecue and fondant icing, and slurping juleps and Old Fashioneds, for a while, but we’ve also adopted other US dining conventions, like having cocktails with dinner (just fine in my book) and queueing at no reservation restaurants (not so happy about this one, unless I can have a cocktail while I wait).

I think, however, that I can now sense a new trend on the horizon that’s on the verge of displacing the American food that’s been so ubiquitous here in recent years. Just as the humble burger got jazzed up, layered up and priced up into the gourmet delight east London’s hipsters know and love, humble fried chicken has now ben getting the same upmarket treatment at spots like Tramshed and Wishbone.

But I think all this clucking over spicy wings and poussin is actually part of something even bigger and newer than the fast food-gone-gourmet scene. There’s so much more to chicken than American-style fried chicken, divine as it can be at the right place. Many cultures across the world love chicken and think of it as their own – just ask the Singaporeans, or Jewish people – but right now I’d like to highlight the fact that it’s at the centre of French cusine.

You may think the promise of “a chicken in every pot” is something US presidents say. However, it was in fact first used as a political slogan by late sixteenth/early seventeenth century French king Henri IV. And a cousin of a friend who works in a very swanky London restaurant, says the smart money on the London dining scene is looking east to Paris rather than west to New York these days.

And round where I live in Hackney, French or French-ish restaurants are sprouting up everywhere – east Londoners, have you tried Oui Madame or Bouchon Fourchette yet?

Just to be clear, we’re talking French food Hackney-style here – the informality of the indigenous greasy spoons and the more recent US diner trend has made an indelible impact on how any food gets served up here. This is not slices of kiwi fruit and raspberry coulis novelle cusine-style dishes. We’re talking peasant food and Parisian café fare – croque monsieur, coq au vin and proper chocolate mousse, all washed down with humble vin rouge.

I even reckon there are signs that this new-style earthy French food is even making its presence felt in the Big Apple. For instance, the latest foodie craze there is a doughnut (ok, if you insist – donut)/croissant hybrid that apparently has Manhattanites queuing round the block every morning.

But if I want American food with a little bit of je ne sais quois, I know where I’m going. New Orleans was always there already, taking African dishes and adapting them with French techniques, or making a French staple from local ingredients and creating something new and special in the process.

New Orleans food is my favourite food in the whole world. For anyone like me who was brought up standard European home cooking, eating gumbo or beignets in New Orleans feels like a departure, but also a homecoming to somewhere you never knew you belonged. Is there a better way to represent America on a plate?

Food Glorious Food (part 1)

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When I was growing up, it was rare to hear much that was positive said about American food in London. Usually, it was described as acceptable, but bland and unexciting – and in “such large portions!”

If you agree with Alvy Singer, the lead character in Woody Allen’s famous film Annie Hall, that feelings about food and feelings about life in general are comparable, these kinds of comments are depressing for anyone who holds out hope for transatlantic cultural understanding.

However, Allen’s film also contains some beautiful and quintessentially American food scenes that I think showcase some of the deep and subtle flavours specific to American life and culture – I’m thinking Alvy and Annie chasing a live lobster round a New England kitchen, the comparison between their two very different families at dinner, or when they decide to kiss on the way to the deli on their first date so they can enjoy their pastrami sandwiches properly.

But for a long time, people in London generally weren’t familiar with the richness and diversity of American food, or what it reveals about America. In fact, I think sometimes even Americans aren’t familiar with the richness and diversity of American food, or what it reveals about America. Even a thoughtful and knowledgeable commentator like novelist and small-scale farmer Barbara Kingsolver still exhibits a characateristically New World inferiority complex when writing about the cusine of her native land.

In her great work about her Appalachian smallholding and US food culture in general, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, one of my favourite books, she says that American food could be seen as “more an absence than a presence of specific character: not Chinese, not Italian” and asks: “Is it true that ‘American food’ means ‘nothing’?”

She goes on to answer her own question by bringing out what I see as some excellent witnesses for the defence: “We have our New England clam chowder, Louisiana gumbo, southern collards and black-eyed peas.”

But the book also describes a trip to Italy, where Kingsolver raves about the hyperlocal and ancient food culture of the Tuscans and Umbrians. These peoples, she says, “were living on and eating from this carefully honed human landscape more than a thousand years before the Pilgrims learned to bury a fish head under each corn plant in the New World”.

She lovingly describes “the tomatoes dressed with fruity olive oil“, her enchantment with pizza names like “Margherita, Capricciosa, or Quattro Stagioni”, and her attempts to wash and dry the seeds extracted from a zucche di chioggia, a particularly luscious variety of Italian pumpkin.

But tomatoes and pumpkins are native to America – and there’d be no margherita pizza if Europeans hadn’t journeyed across the Atlantic. And the history of most kinds of food, once you look closely, is one of dislocation and hybrid.

It’s arguable that there’s no food with roots in only one place, just as there are no such people, and no places with people of only one type. America’s a melting pot, but so are London and Italy, and all ones that produce very tasty meals.

Meet Me In New Orleans (Kind of…)

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A warm night, palm trees, people happily chatting to strangers. It could almost have been the Marigny and not Hackney. The dive bar in a dilapidated building certainly had a New Orleans “we just threw this together ourselves” kinda vibe, but then these types of venues are oh-so-Hackney too, which also has a love-hate relationship with a shipwrecked-at-the-end-of-the-world reputation. Other clues we were in London not Louisiana: the palm trees were plastic and the temperature outside dropped rapidly once the new June sun went down, but people really were talking happily to people they didn’t know.

Normal London rules for dealing with strangers, in case you’re not familiar with them, are as follows: eye contact – weirdo; smile – get off at the next stop; and unsolicited conversation – run! In New Orleans, on the other hand, strangers will stop in the street to talk and introduce each other to their dogs.

I was at an event called Meet Me In New Orleans, which took place last Saturday and was organised by an excellent organisation called New Orleans in London, which aims to bring the music and culture of the Crescent City to the UK’s capital. I would say their mission is a valid one; all things NOLA are relatively unfamiliar to Londoners who, in common with most Brits, tend to think that the US starts with New York and finishes with California, with not much in between. But the New Orleans magic was certainly making its presence felt here. As well as engaging in friendly chit-chat, people were actually dressed up, with many girls in actual dressy dresses (a rarity in London), which made this habitual overdresser happy – I’d made what I thought was a daring last-minute decision to don my party skirt and purple beads.

The venue had made an effort to show some Louisiana hospitality and brio too, serving gumbo and pralines alongside the east London tipples on offer – gin and tonics, Japanese beer. The gesture reflected the slightly mystical affinity in New Orleans between music and food. Somehow they’re always connected there, and once you have one, you never have to go far to find the other. Louis Armstrong always used to sign his letters “Red Beans And Ricely Yours” after the classic New Orleans Monday night supper and, in the modern day, one of the city’s biggest jazz stars, Kermit Ruffins, can often be found cooking up outside Bywater bar Vaughans on a Thursday night in between his sets with his band, the Barbecue Swingers.

Which leads me nicely on to Saturday’s music. It was provided by trad jazzers Dixie Ticklers, the rocking Fallen Heroes and DJ Lil’ Koko. Early on, there was some awe-inspiring swing dancing going on, but as I can’t manage any kind of dancing that requires me to remember the difference between left and right or turn at a set time, I was much happier when proceedings descended into a free-for-all Mardi Gras mosh pit.

We heard classics like Tipitina’s, When The Saints Go Marching In, and even some Mardi Gras Indian-style call and response. But what stayed in my mind most was chief Dixie Tickler Dom James’s rendition of the eerie St. James Infirmary Blues. As I listened, I remembered being in Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street a couple of summers ago, and hearing New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield play it. Afterwards, he said it was strange that, even though the song was so linked to the city, he’d never been able to find any trace of the hospital to which it referred.

That’s because the St. James Infirmary was in London, a medieval leper refuge that’s now St James’s Palace, though, according to most accounts, this place isn’t even the true birthplace of the song. It’s supposed to have originated in an Irish ballad cycle entitled The Unfortunate Rake. My mother’s family come from Ireland, and I can confirm that you can rely on strangers talking to you there, maybe even stopping you in the street. However, the nights, even in summer, are likely to be chilly. So on balance it’s probably a good thing that none of us, myself included, are obliged to stop in the place where we started.