Tuesday 16 December 2014

5 American Christmas foods you won't see in the UK - and 5 UK foods you won't see there!

 [All American Christmas Lunch!] 
We in the UK have had a long love affair with American food. The latest trend is Thanksgiving - there might not be a single Wampanoag indian in the whole of London, but that doesn't stop us giving thanks that we can gobble down more turkey - Amazon tell us that sales of Thanksgiving foodstuffs are up 804% since 2011.

So what about American Christmas traditions? aren't they the same as ours? We've all seen plenty of Christmas dinners in American movies. There's a big turkey in the middle of the table, just like ours, and plenty of bowls of steaming, err, stuff. There's the question - what exactly is in all those steaming, delicious bowls? I had to investigate ...

[Green Beans and Onions]
1. Green beans. Now the Americans share our love/hate relationship with the Christmas sprout - but there's another vegetable even closer to their hearts. The green bean. Now I'm ambivalent about this humble bean - occasionally I'll have them gently steamed alongside my steak, but that's it. Well, it's on every American Christmas menu I can find - and no simple steaming here.

Nope, to be completely authentic we need Green Bean Casserole. This dish was originally created in 1955 by the Campbell soup company and even has its own Wikipedia entry. To simplify, take 2 cans of french beans for 1 can of Campbell's mushroom soup and half a tin of French's French Fried Onions. Stir. Bake. Eat. If more is more, add cheese.

2. Candied Sweet Potatoes. I can imagine how this one happened. Someone, somewhere, complained that their sweet potato wasn't, well, sweet enough. Ha, that's an easy problem to solve. Like the green bean casserole, the basic dish is almost brutal in its simplicity. One can of sweet potato or yam. Half a cup of brown sugar. A quarter of a cup of butter. And the all important secret ingredient - one and a half cups of marshmallows. Bake. Eat.

[Candied Yams]
I've actually eaten this delicacy in Memphis, and I'll tell you now, it's not subtle. It's like cake filling. Don't over do it.

3. Corn. Like most English people, I've got half a bag of icy sweetcorn in the freezer. Occasionally we've been known to boil a corn-on-the-cob. But what had never occurred to us was to mix it with the same weight of whipping cream. Oh, and add butter. And parmesan. Bake. Now we're looking at a proper Christmas dish.

4. Dinner rolls. You'd think, after all the sugar, butter, cream and cheese above, you'd never need more carbs? Don't be silly. You need bread. It's not optional. If you want, you can get seasonal and bake them into a wreath. The word I keep seeing in the recipes is 'buttery', and I suspect we're talking unsalted buttery too - to my tastes, American rolls are strangely sweet. But don't you dare leave them out.

[Christmas Jello Salad]
5. Christmas jello salad. I've never seen salad on a British Christmas table, but my idea of salad isn't the same as an American's. We're not talking a bag of Tesco salad leaves and a gloop of salad cream here. Instead, there's rich and creamy salads, such as the Waldorf, salads with cheese, nuts and rich dressings. Of course!

But the salad that made me stop in my tracks is the Jello salad. Described to me by my American friend, Chris, I thought this might be a peculiar Texan dish, so strange it might only unique to their family? Nope, a quick Google shows me a hundred recipes, but the approach is always basically the same. You need a green jelly (lime), a red jelly (cherry) and a clear jelly (lemon). Create and set a green layer, then mix cream cheese and marshmallows with the clear jelly to make the white layer. Set again. The pour on red. Then you have the three layer festive delight pictured!

So why is this a salad? Is this eaten with the main course or the desert? Chris, help us out here!

And in return, what dishes are we unlikely to see travelling back across the atlantic?

[I want these]
1. Roast potatoes. Mash is the American potato dish of choice, and it's likely to grace our table too. But one thing this anglo-irish house would never be without is roast potatoes. We might replace our turkey with beef, but would never, ever skip the roasties.

To my American readers, a word of advice - if you've never had these, then either try cooking them yourself or try them in Englishman's kitchen. Never eat them in an English sunday-lunch pub or an all-you-can eat carvery. These hard, leathery, bland frozen-and-deep-fried pockets of nastiness should be avoided at all costs. The best roasties are always homemade. In goose fat. I am so hungry right now.

2. Roast parsnips. The rest of the world considers parsnips as animal feed. Yet we roast them, along with our potatoes. What does that tell you about the British? Sweet, slightly chewy. That's parsnips, not the British.

[These pies aren't made of meat]
3. Mince pies. Right, let's get this straight. Mince pies haven't contained mince since the 18th century (except, perhaps a little suet if you're being authentic). This little pie has a long history, brought back by the Crusaders from Middle East (where the combination of fruit and meat is more common). The minced tongue and veal is now replaced (and perhaps improved) by alcohol soaked fruit.

Eating them - in our house certainly - has a degree of tradition. First, you gently peel off the lid. Then you cram in the same quantity of brandy butter, and perch the lid back on top. The butter melts into the hot pie, which you then liberally douse with cream. Now I'm feeling faint.

4. Brandy butter. What do you mean you don't have brandy butter in the US? It's pretty much what it says on the pot - brandy, butter and sugar, whipped together. Christmas pudding wouldn't be the same without it.

[Flaming Pudding]
5. Christmas pudding. Ah, but of course you don't have Christmas pudding either! This isn't a pudding in the American sense. It's more like a heavy cake comprised of dark sugars, bread crumbs, alcohol soaked fruits (again) and nuts. It's served hot, with lashings of the aforementioned brandy butter. Oh, and we set fire to it too. No, really.

And as a bonus - Christmas Crackers! Now, these crackers aren't food, like saltine or Graham, but they are a tradition that seems to stay firmly on this side of the Atlantic. My friend Chris (of salad jelly fame) tells me the story of when his family attempted to introduce a little 'old fashioned Englishness' into their Christmas - having spied these, no doubt, in some British period drama.

[Don't eat this]
During dinner, each cracker was carefully unpeeled and unwrapped, the hats worn and the jokes told. This tradition went on for years until Chris' English wife demonstrated their proper use - two people take hold of each end and pull - inside the cracker is a little bit of gunpowder, as used in a cap gun, which goes off with a satisfying crack. At this point the cracker then sprays its contents across the room, and you're sent scurrying under the table to find the small plastic gift. Such fun!

And finally, you really need to start celebrating Boxing Day. No, we have no idea why it's called that either. But it does mean you can eat the same food all over again.

Happy Christmas!

Further reading (and inspiration)

Christmas Traditions: Britain vs. America
10 Ways Brits Do Christmas Differently to Americans