Depending on how well you know me (actually let’s be honest, if you follow me on Instagram), you may or may not have learned that I recently took a trip across the pond to see what all the fuss was about the in United States of America, having never set foot there before. After six weeks of gallivanting from the East to West Coast and encountering quite a few, shall we say, ‘characters’ along the way, I picked up a thing or two about eating in this economic powerhouse.
1. The State of California is scared of everything
Whilst sampling some premium supermarket own-brand sour cream and cheddar crisps (I refuse to call them chips; chips are soft and go with battered fish), it first came to my attention that the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is very dramatic. As I scanned the various processed ingredients on the back of the family-sized bag (it is virtually impossible to get anything smaller), I noticed a warning:
Immediately panicked, I shared this notion with my travelling companion Vicky. Naturally more relaxed than me about these sorts of things (the sort of person that thinks unwashed vegetables are good for the immune system as opposed to my ‘the 3 second rule will kill me’ ethos), she assured me this was likely a legally obliged formality.
The more food I perused and consumed, the more I realised this seemed to be the case: almost everything came with a warning. Seemingly, everything was going to give me cancer, including just setting foot in a bar. After the first 36 warnings, it’s quite hard to take death threats seriously; in the end, we would affectionately refer to the family-sized bag as the ‘cancer crisps’. How tasty and MSG-smothered they were.
2. Processed food is much cheaper and more readily available than fresh food
This one sounds obvious, given America’s reputation. But it really is astonishing how easy and budget-friendly it is to get a burger, fries or a dollar slice instead of some nice fresh vegetables to cook something up yourself. Case and point: a giant slice of pizza can be found across many states for a dollar or two. In Philadelphia, after actually asking the staff in a pharmacy where I could find fresh vegetables because I was so dismayed by the lack of large supermarkets in the city centre, I was directed towards an organic-y, Whole Foods-esque store with gleaming rows of fruit and veg stacked amongst various gluten and dairy-free treats. Selecting a red bell pepper, I nearly choked on my middle-class privilege as the checkout assistant revealed the price of the pepper to me as $3.25. That’s about £2.50 in English money, and it prompted a wistful dream of the 60p peppers so easily accessible over here.
The pepper set the course for a theme across the trip: fast food is cheap and easy, fresh food is not. Even the 7-Eleven convenience stores served hot slices of pizza, chicken wings and hot dogs over the counter as well as shiny donut rings for a snip price, whereas their sad pre-packaged salads and veggie sandwiches cost between $6 – $10. Dang.
3. Deep dish pizza is amazing
Before I experienced the wonders of this hearty meal, I always assumed that ‘deep dish’ was the same as ‘deep pan’ — the sort you’d find at Pizza Hut, with a base and crust which is thicker and doughier than the standard. How very wrong I was. Deep dish pizza is an entity unto itself: inches thick, it was somewhere between a pie and a pizza in both its structure and dough texture.
At Chicago-originating chain Giordano’s, we opted for a small ‘Super Veggie’: recommended for 2-3 people, we scoffed at the small circumference and declared that this would be an easy feast. After two bites of the cheese pie studded with mushrooms, broccoli, olives and spinach, we realised our error in judgment: half a pizza had the width and density of an entire lasagne. The passata and olive topping enrobed the stringy, oozing insides, a protective layer of crimson to guard a cheese-and-carb match made in heaven.
So did we finish it? Of course we did.
4. Taco Bell is disgusting
Okay, so wouldn’t it be nice if I said ‘Oh we found this DARLING little trattoria in San Francisco run by local nuns with ingredients hand-sourced from the nearby Californian regions and delivered to us by ex-convicts reintegrating into the community through the restaurant’s not-for-profit cooperative scheme’, but it felt somewhat important to explore the staple chain restaurants that seem to crop up in so much American film and TV (we were excited to explore Walmart, too, until our Chicago Air BnB hosts told us that they pay their staff little to nothing and treat them really badly. Not cool, Walmart). Taco Bell made the bucket list, and incidentally a bucket is what we felt like reaching for after sampling what they had to offer. Unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), I didn’t get a photograph of our meal, so let me try and paint the picture with words.
Behold: a taco shell. SPLAT. Flavourless mushed beans the consistency of poo. Two cubes of chopped tomato. Three shreds of orange plastic cheese. One squeeze of watery sour cream. The ghost of something that was once iceberg lettuce. Seasoning? GOOD ONE.
Now, I am willing to accept that as vegetarians we may not have had the full authentic Taco Bell experience. But (call me biased), I just can’t imagine how plopping a lump of animal carcass onto this car crash of a meal would have made it any better.
5. California is the best state for veggie and vegan friendly food
Generally, I was surprised by the USA’s lack of veggie options. Whilst many of the cities’ traditional cuisine centres around meat – New York pastrami, Philly cheesesteak, pepperoni pizza – I still expected them to be a bit more accommodating for their plant-based friends. Frequently, you’d be up to your ears in burgers every style except meat-free; most diners didn’t even offer the token veggie patty on their menu.
Once we got to California, however, it was quite a different story. Here was veggie street food, gluten-free pasta stores, vegan chain restaurants. We had found our mecca, and it was a resplendent vegan fried chicken waffle west coast. Hand me the cacao-banana-coconut-milk-ginger-date-green-juice-macca-spinach-kombucha smoothie! (It’s LA, bitches).