Being a foodie, it was logical that I would catch up with the Food Network at some point. As it happens a friend pointed me in the right direction, and there I found reruns of Floyd (a culinary guru of mine) and Nigella, a host of American shows about various aspects of food, restaurants and cooking, plus assorted reality shows with a context of food.
In particular, I was directed to a show called Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, hosted by the genial Guy Fieri, co-owner of two restaurant chains in the States (Tex Wasabi and Johnny Garlic’s.) Guy (AKA Guy Ferry) is a stockily built extrovert loudmouth and self-marketeer with an eccentric beard, aggressively spiked blond hair, ubiquitous shades (often worn on the back of his head), earrings and a big cheesy grin that tries – and fails – to say “Hi! I’m your buddy.” Did I say loudmouth? Guy bellows. I mean, he has two modes: silent and bellowing.
Also part of Guy’s accoutrements is a large and expensive collection of classic American cars, probably indicating he is well overpaid for doing a job almost any foodie would give their eye teeth for (providing the food could be liquefied and sucked up through a straw!)
Guy’s role in this programme is to tour the full dimensions of the US to visit dining venues, talk to the owners, watch the chefs produce their most popular dishes, then sample the results in unutterably grotesque mouthfuls, usually accompanied by paroxysms of delight, contorted facial pleasure and moans fit for Nigella. That he has not yet keeled over due to over-furred arteries is truly a miracle, since it’s not health food we’re talking about here, of which more shortly.
The sheer variety in DDD (or “triple D” as it is also known, which I am reliably informed is nothing to do with the dimensions of any lady’s chest garments) is at least slight improvement on Adam Richman‘s programmes on the same channel, since Richman seeks out excess, and boy did he find it to the point of overkill – a month’s worth of fat and calories in a single meal. Yes, we’re talking the biggest, fattest, juiciest, greasiest burgers on planet earth, burgers so obscene you can count the American obesity problem mounting by the second, not least in Richman himself. The undertakers of America must be rubbing their hands in glee!
Richman left the channel in 2012 and by mid-2013 had apparently lost 60lbs! Doubtless a similar period of retrenchment for Mr Fieri is following very soon, though one wishes the same fate on the good people who eat daily in the diners, drive-ins and dives featured in his programmes. Balanced diet, anyone?
Anyway, back to DDD. The name of the show alone speaks for itself – almost. Diners and Drive-ins are essential components of American gastronomic tradition, even if “dives” require further definition. Now there are many thousand such establishments across the length and breadth of America, but these are specifically chosen as mom-and-pop joints rather than global chains – the sort that have been handed down in the family for generations, whose people get up at 4am to make those specialties from scratch, who marinade their beef for days at a time, who jealously guard the secret ingredients that differentiate their product from the competitors and who have people queueing out the door day after day for their tasty grub, indeed the sort of real food one would travel a very long way to taste, though most of the diners featured are locals who use their diners daily, and good luck to them. Worth also saying that the retro 50s architecture of some diners alone makes some places to die for and worth travelling a long way to see. A far cry from Dean’s Diner and other commoditised British pseudo-American diners.
These places are essentially purveyors of American comfort food, paying great store by the fact that they have continued unchanged for X years, and still do things the way they were always done, cos if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Slowly over time dishes may well evolve, maybe some new dishes will be added to the menu to accommodate changing tastes among the clientele, but essentially this homage to the American past is what it is all about – tradition and continuity in a land where history is relatively short is hugely important, and the sort of diners we’re talking about want above all else familiarity, certainly not Blumenthal-style molecular messing, nor could anyone possibly describe it as health food. No doubt you they will do you a plain roast chicken sandwich, hold the mayo, hold the blue, hold the gravy, but that is not what diner culture is all about.
So what is American comfort food? Well if British comfort food is now stuff like roast dinners, meat pies, macaroni cheese, jam roly-poly and now the Indian or Chinese takeaway, it doesn’t take much imagination to see Americans going back to their family roots to find the dishes that make them sigh with nostalgic delight. Yes, we’re talking extravagant cheese burgers with fries and slaw, fried chicken, sausages and pizzas, the BBQ specialties on the wood grill, many more cooked for hours in a smoke pit – especially pork and beef ribs and chicken, lots and lots of fried stuff. And each diner has its own twist on each dish.
Perhaps the most attractive are the deli specialties like fresh pastrami, mouthwateringly tender, pulled pork, brined corned beef and brisket, but don’t forget specialties like the clam chowder, catfish and lobsters, the chilli and the sandwiches. Maybe it would be better to pass the absurd cakes and ridiculous sundaes and deep-fried desserts, but – oh look! – there’s the “mac and cheese” as they call it over there. Even on a burger too. OMG!
But American comfort food extends to morphed specialties from the old country, evolutions from the food of Italy, Greece, Spain, Latin America, almost any country you care to name. The traditions are kept alive and the flag is kept flying, wherever it is. Nor will it surprise you to learn that that this global pick & mix is exactly the sort of food Guy’s restaurants in California sell too. Sushi and BBQ? A very American combo, to be sure, proving above all else that America has the capability to absorb ideas and flavours from around the world faster than anywhere. This is a tad ironic given that a very substantial proportion of Americans never leave America, and a goodly number won’t even make it outside their own state boundaries, but clearly they need their jaded taste buds to be refreshed these days – but not too far away from smoked ribs and fried chicken.
Enjoy it while you can, because there is no doubt whatever that some food featured within is spectacular and amazing, the very best America can provide – but be prepared for the onset of indigestion. Yes, DDD does feature a lot of different recipes, but it also features many variations of the same ones, since American diners routinely serve – well – American diner food. The tendency is for decreasing marginal utility to set in quite rapidly: the first two or three episodes will seem spectacularly wonderful, but by the 4th, 5th and 6th you’ll be starting to feel blasé and…er… cheesed off by it all.
OK, that’s it, I’m off… but sadly not touring the US of A. Ciao, baby!