American Hungry (Running out of options)

Las CebollasOur favorite restaurant has shut down. Before, if I wanted to lament the lack of decent food choices in town, I could afford to feel a little whimsy about it, but now I’m broken-hearted.

There are so many restaurants in Madison. We have four steakhouses in two blocks – Outback, Rafferty’s, Logan’s, Longhorn – this creates and illusion of choice and a reality of irritation.

And I understand now why it takes so long for the natives to agree on where to eat, why it’s so difficult to choose. Because you could have 20 good experiences at a restaurant, but if they get it wrong once, that’s it, you never want to go back.

I have some favorites, but mostly it’s like settling down to choose a movie on Netflix – is a choice of a thousand shitty movies (and Thor – I could watch Thor again) really a choice?

Steak 'n' Shake's California Double Steakburger - a restaurant I don't hate.

Steak ‘n’ Shake’s California Double Steakburger – a restaurant I don’t hate.

We become spoiled by familiarity, by security. I thought I had it figured out. For Mexican, we went to Las Cebollas. For “this is like a real night out and I’m going to wear a shirt with a collar” steak, we went to Longhorn (or rather, we let other people take us to Longhorn), for “getting home late and we don’t want to cook, and damn, I’m going to have a beer with this” Chinese we went to Panda Express. And then there are the extra-budget “I get the feeling  that someday something is going to go down at this place” options of Ryan’s and Steak ‘n’ Shake – my less than guilty pleasures that I love for the duration of the meal and then spend the rest of the day regretting.

There is the pretense at Italian food – the wide-eyed, cold-plated horror of the Olive Garden, and Fazoli’s, which has a menu and prices I’m tempted by but have been forbidden to enter. (It’s said that the food at Fazoli’s is like school dinners, but I liked school dinners).

And then there are the burgers, which I rarely buy but take seriously when I do.  I can enjoy breakfast at McDonalds but I couldn’t eat their burgers. I can love a #1 or, belt allowing, #2 at Sonic, but it has to be the right Sonic. Wendy‘s is great, but hey, is it really so great, or have I just turned it into something so mythical that it will inevitably disappoint? Checkers, oh dear, I will never go back to Checkers.

You don’t go to Burger King in Rivergate, even when you have coupons, because they will take forever and then give you the wrong order anyway, and so you will cut out the coupons but keep them in your car until they expire, and then throw them away, feeling like the worst victim of a zipcode lottery. The burgers help me understand why you can drive through a town with every fast-food place imaginable and still see nothing you want. And God forbid you’re sharing the ride with another adult – no one can agree, because we’ve all been burned by these nasty restaurant, because our tastebuds have broken, because we’re tired, and a little bit sickly, and already thinking about what we’ll do after dinner anyway, so why can’t we just have food injections instead?

When I arrived in Tennessee, the restaurants were a mysterious blur, and then I got to know them, and for a period of time that I can never get back, I loved them. Applebee’s, Chilli’s, O’Charley’s…I couldn’t fault them, mainly because there were so much more enjoyable than so many British restaurants – not so much for food quality, but just in the sense that they’re actually open and you can get parked.  But now I’m like the rest of us here, and I see the holes, and I feel ripped off even when the check is absurdly cheap, and the food is just not good, and I feel sorry for the staff, and most of all I wonder why, driving past, how all of these bad restaurants stay in business, why they’re so busy on a Monday night, and of course I know why – we’re just so damn lazy – and I look at restaurant customers and they’re not having a good time, this is nothing special, it’s not close to a treat – the only positive emotion on display is relief that we’re not at home, that there won’t be washing up.

In December we rolled up to Las Cebollas and the doors were locked and the lights were out. And now we’re screwed, because this was the one place we agreed on, the one place that was inexpensive but not nasty, where the staff were friendly but not cloying, where it seemed…authentic but that didn’t matter anyway, because I just know that Rebecca and I, we knew what we were going to have before we walked through the door, and we felt comfortable to have the best conversations of our American lives in that place. We worked things out in there.

And we’ll never know what happened to the owners, and I wonder if the staff are finding other jobs, and then I think, really? Were we that close? Were they on our Christmas card list? And this illusion of intimacy, of making a closed down business somehow about me, it’s one of the least endearing parts of my American assimilation.

So instead of the angst that I don’t deserve, we’ll look for a new place we can boast about (and if you don’t count the number of times we’re mentioned in the violent crime news stories on we are so very low of things to boast about in Madison). We tried Las Fiestas for Mexican, but it didn’t come close. There’s Fat Juicy Taco, which is special in a different way, but that’s in Hendersonville.  So the search goes on for a lazy-meal restaurant, for the place to go for dinner that costs under $30 for our big/little night out – or we face the alternative; flying back to Edinburgh once a week for a smoked sausage supper. And to be honest, I doubt anything we find here will ever come close to that level of raw indulgence.


Bringing it back (UK treasure)

angel delight

Image by hmmlargeart via Flickr

So America is fine, America has all kinds of good stuff. I hate to mention the teeny-tiny areas where it is lacking. Such comments are usually met by (a) the not-travelled with genuine astonishment, and by (b) the travelled with a list of reasons I’m crazy for wanting to live here in the first place.

So don’t get mad, it’s okay. I could’ve lived without the following items, but seeing as I didn’t need to, I’ve chosen to live with them instead. Courtesy of purchases at Sainsburys, Boots and Heathrow, I filled the non-existent gap in my suitcase with the following:

4 packets of Angel Delight (butterscotch flavour)

This is like American pudding except for one thing: I want to eat it.

There is nothing of  nutritional value in Angel Delight. The first ingredient is sugar and the rest are a canny blend of emulsifiers and anti-caking agents. But I do love it. My brother also loves it and we are both old, old men.

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Conversations with Americans Pt.4 (The Sweetest Taboo)

Chick-Fil-A's signature chicken sandwich

Image via Wikipedia

Occasionally I spend my time teaching people marginally less “American” than myself about what qualifies as taboo conversation topics here in the United States.

Money, sex, politics and religion. Unmentionable, unbearable, to openly discuss the things that drive this country.

No, that’s not true. We can still talk about food, television and cars. We can watch celebrities prepare food on the Food Network and then drive somewhere to eat food. And while you’re there, you can have the “You know there’s an Applebee’s where the IHOP used to be? Across from Steak ‘n’ Shake?” conversation.

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What I like about you is…

strawberry shortcake gum

So it’s been three glorious months in the United States. And somehow, despite my staggering foreignness, I have not been kicked out, thrown in jail, or even spat at in the street.

I think this is because I can match (and sometimes surpass) the American enthusiasm for Things We Didn’t Know We Needed. I’ll admit that I spent quality time last week opting Rebecca and myself out of marketing lists for our email, phone and postal addresses – but I do delight in coming across the new and exotic:

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Books, records, donuts (16 again in NYC)

Generation Records

Good times spent in the basement of dusty record stores

As advertised, I finally made it out of Brooklyn by myself, guided only by signs that tell me how to do (and not to do) absolutely everything, and survive for several seconds completely on my own in Union Square before I grabbed hold of an old friend and begged directions to the nearest donut shop.

Rebecca and I had broken up. For one day only, but it was necessary, after the weeks spent together packing up the house and flying to the US, to do something apart so that we would have something original to talk about.

Vulnerable tourists, we were both babysat, Rebecca with Ali and me with Shawn. The girls went high-brow and indulgent, hitting the MOMA and then slinking back for massages. Shawn and I went for an altogether more…teenage option. Continue reading

Hangin’ in Brooklyn (it’s big apple enough)

So they let me in. 

Brooklyn sign

Applebee's "Brooklyn" sign, just in case you forget where you are between the appetizer and dessert

I was treated to a sense of shattered anti-climax at Immigration Control, taken by three different escorts a waiting area with mirrored glass and bolted-down chairs where surely nothing good is possible. And in under a minute, I had signed something I didn’t read and given electronic, and then inky, fingerprints. And I was, in the words of the official who was neither unpleasant or friendly, “good to go.”

So we went. And after some excellent baggage-handling and train ticket buying at Newark, we quickly ran out of steam at Penn Station, faced with the no-brainer of spending two more hours on trains or retreating to Kabooz’s and nursing Diet Coke and nachos until our friend Ali finished work and came to rescue us.

It was an appropriate introduction to New York City.  I had neither the most exotic accent or most interesting “what brings you here?” story in Kabooz’s. The only thing that really set us apart was the pile of luggage making a nuisance of itself by the employees-only door.  Our waitress inevitably looked like a fashion model, and of course then later confirming that she was an aspiring fashion model. Everyone wants to be something else here, right? (I know personally I’m eager to be someone with a job and a house, kinda a person who has the stuff we left behind in McLand). Continue reading

Missing it already (You can’t get that at Wal-Mart)

Gregg's Sausage and Bean Melt

Gregg's Sausage & Bean Melt. Just 28g of fat, but tasting like so much more

My wife posted online about some British items she’ll miss when we leave, an impromptu list which caused a well-meaning reaction from family and friends along the lines of “Don’t worry about X, we have plenty of Y here”.

And hey, talking about things you’ll miss before you’ve even left? Sounds like someone’s changed their mind, sounds distinctly like cold feet.

But both these reactions are to misunderstand how we’re feeling as our departure date grows closer. Rebecca doesn’t think Tennessee is negligent in lacking any of the Scottish things she’ll miss, whether it’s Radox Sleep Easy bubble bath or an IKEA within driving distance. Nor will she search for the next best replacements when we get there (aside from an electric kettle, but that’s just a basic United Nations quality of life issue). It’s just…stuff, stuff that exists here right now, that reminds us where we are and what has made the last ten years a particularly British experience.

In a fit of marital solidarity, here are the 7 things I’ll miss just because:

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