You’re not from around here are you?

NachosPeople have been asking me to post more. The only thing is, I am saving up for my trip to Vegas over Christmas, so I am not really getting up to much in the way of wacky hyjinks. That said, perhaps a little social commentary on food mixed in with the mundane minutiae of my daily life will do. Despite the rather enigmatic title to this post, this post is mostly about food.

One thing I can immediately say about the food here is that Texans don’t really know the meaning of “portion control”. The image on the right is of some nachos I had in Austin. This sort of dish is what’s known as “tex mex“. Mexican food, done the way Texans like it. That is to say, not authentic like mamá used to make. Tex-Mex usually carries with it negative connotations of “lower class” food. To be honest, Tex-Mex ain’t so bad.

The curious thing about this particular dish, though, is that it was the entrée! I specifically asked the waiter how big the entrée was and he said it was “quite small”. I had about half of them then got up to find the waiter.

“Look, I’m sorry. I guess everything’s bigger ‘n Texas. Can you cancel my main course please?”
“Oh… I’m sorry… Too much for you huh?” he said with concern, touching me lightly on the shoulder (I don’t know about you but some stereotypes appear to be pretty darn accurate). I finished my nachos and left the same sort of tip I would have left had I had the full meal, no need to be stingy.

Tipping is a curious thing here. You have to tip, it’s socially expected. People in the service industry here get paid next to nothing to wait tables. In fact, sometimes they pay for the privilege of working in places where the tips are good. They can make a good living off it, if the patrons are generous.

Generally, one tips 10-15% of the final bill. If you’re paying by cash, you leave some change on the table. You don’t tell the waiter or waitress to “keep the change”, they have to bring you change and you have to leave it on the table. That’s the norm.

If you’re paying by card (debit or credit) you simply write the tip on the receipt you get after paying for your meal and they deduct the tip from your account afterwards. I am not sure exactly how it works, but it looks like banks take a gamble and “hold” a certain amount of money on your account every time you make an electronic transaction of this nature, that allows them to do the tip afterwards.

So far I have eaten at fancy restaurants like that one, at bars and at a place called “hot wings” where you can get chicken wings without the bones (yay!). I have eaten at a real-life truck stop (where I think I got food poisoning from badly cooked chicken for my troubles). I have had baby back ribs at a steak house and “chicken fried steak” from the “black-eyed pea”. I’ve had hibachi (American for teppanyaki). I often get Chinese takeaway at the Panda Express and have even tried some variants on fast food here.

In short, I have been systematically trying all manner of local food to get a “flavour” for the local cuisine.

This is a lot easier than it sounds. Every weekend after church I have lunch with “the guys”. Yes, mom, “the guys” happen to be gay but this bunch of guys are in the 70, 50, and 40+ brackets, they are also either celibate or in committed relationships, so I am pretty “safe”.

We try to go somewhere different for lunch every Sunday, last Sunday I was treated to an authentic “American diner” experience. It was authentic, from the checkered table cloths to the “booths” that lined the walls, to the very camp maitre d’… No, wait, he wasn’t quite authentic but he was funny. I ordered an iced tea to drink, because that is the done thing.

Perhaps I should explain iced tea. Literally, they make a pot of (usually Lipton) tea, cool it, and pour it over ice. You don’t actually order “iced tea” you just order “tea”. It’s almost impossible to get “hot tea” here and who would want it anyway? At 101 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, no one but an Englishman would drink tea out here.

The iced tea phenomenon is so pervasive here that some fast food joints have iced tea dispensers along with the coke and sprite, you can also get it in the supermarket along with your coke and sprite. There are two variants of iced tea: sweet or un-sweet. Sweet tea has sugar in, of course, and is quite a favourite. Many of my American friends are connoisseurs and will complain about the flavour of their tea or reminisce about this one place back in the past where they did iced tea the “traditional” way (whatever that is).

After sipping my tea a little gingerly, I asked what an authentic American lunch from an authentic American diner would be. I was directed immediately to turkey & dressing. They also highly recommended “fried okra”. So I ordered that with some fries. I considered that if I was going authentic, then the more fried things you have the better.

“Fries? You sure?” They asked with concern. “With dressing?”
“Uh.. I suppose dressing isn’t gravy then?”
“No, no” they laughed. “It’s kind of… it’s a starch.”
I got salad instead.

“Can I have a salad, please?” I asked the waitress. She was certainly authentic, right down to the expression in her weather-worn face and the stains on her apron.

“Doo what?” she replied
“Uh.. Salad”
“Um, sorry, saaaelaard”
“Oh, salad! You’re not from around here are you?”
“And what kind of dressing?”

I froze. They always ask that. Americans are all about choices. When you order a salad you have to quickly choose between half a dozen kinds of dressings. I just knew there must be an authentic dressing to go with my authentic turkey and okra lunch, but I didn’t know what that could be. Like choosing a fine wine to go with one’s fish, I am sure the wrong choice here could be socially devastating, my gay friends were watching.

“Ranch, please” I said hopefully
“Doo what?”
“Ran.. oh wait, sorry.. Raaeench”
“Oh, ranch. You’re really not from around here, huh?”

That ordeal over with we awaited our meals, “dressing” turned out to be a large helping of stuffing (about as much stuffing as there was turkey) along with a generous helping of cranberry sauce. It was quite nice.

Fried OkraAnd now, I turn my attention to the fried okra. Okra is the “gum” in “gumbo” (one thing I have yet to try is authentic Cajun gumbo). It’s essentially a pod that contains seeds surrounded with slime. When cooked in the right way, the slime goes all “gummy”, hence the name “gumbo”. They explained all this with glee just before I popped one into my mouth.

Since Americans will fry almost anything it’s only natural that they would dice, batter and fry okra as well. It came in little cubes, covered in breadcrumbs with little bits of green peeking through. I couldn’t taste much but a vague “plant” flavour through the batter. It wasn’t fantastic, but wasn’t disgusting either. Apparently some people absolutely hate okra but it wasn’t a bad experience all-in-all, if you put lots of salt on it.

I also tried “turnip greens”. These are the leaves of a turnip, fried in butter. I jokingly asked: “so what do you do with the actual turnip, throw it away?” they looked at me in surprise, they had never considered eating the turnip and weren’t really sure what happened to it.
“So, I guess they eat the turnips in England, do they?”
“What do they do with the greens?”
“Throw them away I guess”

Aren’t people strange?