Tomorrow (November 8) is going to be a very long day. The polls open at 7:00 a.m. here in Pennsylvania and close at 8:00 p.m., but it’ll be another three hours before voting ends on the west coast. It will likely be the wee small hours of Wednesday before we have an idea of who won the presidential election, not to mention the various House and Senate races.
The only way I’m going to get through it is to fortify myself with a full American breakfast. I’m not talking about those ghastly neon-colored cereals that clog the supermarket aisle; rather, a plate piled high with eggs, homefries, toast and maybe pancakes, washed down with endless cups of coffee, probably courtesy of our local restaurant West Avenue Grill (www.westavegrill.com; they do seriously-great omelets and really good coffee).
The Good (and Not So Good) Stuff
The concept of “going out to breakfast” was still unheard of in the UK when I left 30-odd years ago, and was one of the things that I quickly fell in love with over here. It was also the one thing our recent UK visitor asked for, before heading back home. The specifics of what’s on the menu will vary by region, but here on the eastern seaboard it’s all about eggs, potatoes, bacon and pancakes. And coffee, endless coffee, with the wait staff periodically wandering by with a full pot and asking “top up?”
This time around I took the visiting relative to Michael’s for the full American experience — a nearby diner that’s open 24 hours, and has a massive menu that includes breakfast items available all day long.
After spending a few minutes perusing the menu, she asked: “Scrapple? What’s that? Do I want it?”
Every region in the US or UK has at least one menu staple that outsiders shudder to contemplate. Black pudding anyone? (American readers: if you don’t know what black pudding is, look it up, but not if you’re eating.) The Pennsylvania specialty is scrapple — basically, all the leftover bits of a pig that aren’t otherwise eaten, mixed with corn or wheat flour and spices, then fried. It smells revolting, like any sausage of dubious provenance, and I’ve never tried it. So, no scrapple for the visitor.
Homefries and hashbrowns, however, are delicious. The former is basically chunks of cooked potato, fried up with onions; hashbrowns are similar, but grated. Done right, you get a big serving of slightly-crispy-on-the-outside potatoey goodness that goes a treat with any kind of eggs. Down south the breakfast favorite is grits: ground up cornmeal. The resulting yellowish mush looks like porridge gone wrong. Most southerners I’ve met get a look of fervent near-worship in their eyes when they talk about grits. I guess it’s an acquired taste.
Another wonderful discovery over here are pancakes (in some places rather confusingly called hot cakes). Not thin and sugar-drenched confections, these are plate-sized, fat and fluffy; and because this is America, they come in a myriad of choices. My favorite: loaded down with fresh blueberries. There’s an entire restaurant chain called IHOP (International House of Pancakes) that, among other things, has pages of pancake options: strawberry-banana; raspberry white chocolate chip; harvest grain and nut; pumpkin spice… you get the idea. But beware the “syrup” that most places serve with their pancakes; it’s a ghastly sugared confection that’s never been anywhere near an actual maple tree.
Bagels are another American breakfast staple that I’ve grown to love. I know you can get them more easily in the UK now than was the case 30 years ago, but I doubt you’ll find anything like the real thing — fat and chewy and loaded with doughy flavor. Some people swear by onion or poppy seed bagels but, again, the range of options is incredible. Cinnamon-raisin? Blueberry? Rye?
At this time of year the dreaded pumpkin flavor surfaces for a month or so. And in a delightful bit of American cross-cultural hybridization, many places produce green bagels on St Patrick’s Day.(Another local plug: Fill A Bagel bakes fresh on-site every day and has the best bagels, http://www.fillabagel.com).
The one thing you won’t find in any restaurant, and will struggle to produce at home, is toast and marmite. As someone who’s firmly of the view that marmite is akin to ambrosia and should always be found in any halfway decent kitchen, this has been a real problem over the years. You can buy it in the more upscale supermarkets, but only the tiniest jars. Fortunately, no-one else in the family will challenge me for it; my oldest quite likes marmite, but the youngest does not, and the American husband ranks it as akin to liver and firmly on his list of things-that-should-never-be-eaten. Any visitor from the UK knows to smuggle at least one of the oversized jars into their luggage; bring me two, and you can stay as long as you like.
And then there’s the tea. There are very few varieties of black tea available in most supermarkets, albeit shelves full of “herbal” teas are common. There’s a store at the big mall near where I live called “Teavana” which does sell loose teas but mostly various floral concoctions, and all seriously over-priced. I haven’t seen Lapsang Suchong anywhere here.
And don’t even get me started on “iced tea” — or, as I call it, the abomination. Bottles of the stuff occasionally appear in my fridge; I try not to notice.
Every Brit expat probably has a horror story about trying to get a decent cup of tea in the States. My own happened about a month after I arrived here as a graduate student. I wandered into the local eatery on campus and innocently asked for a cup of tea with my sandwich.
I should have known that this was going to go horribly wrong when the server asked “Iced?”
“Er, no, hot please.”
“What? No! With milk!”
After staring at me for a moment like I was some kind of crazy, she picked up a styrofoam cup, filled it with hot water, added a splash of milk, crammed on a plastic lid, placed a teabag on top of the lid and handed me this foul concoction.
I slunk over to my seat, and quietly wept.
From that day on, I’ve drunk coffee. Fortunately, it goes very well with blueberry pancakes.