Now, I will be the first to admit I am not in a position to write much about the eateries of The United States of America. Although I have travelled right across the country from Los Angeles to New York and up to Maine, all by rail and road, my eating-out experience has been quite lamentable, with a few exceptions.
This was partly because when not on my Great Rail Adventure, I was staying exclusively with friends and family, and clearly I am not about to comment on that, except to reiterate that there is no experience so rewarding as sharing the making and eating of food together, it beats eating out any day.
While on my Great Rail Adventure however, the opportunities to eat out slipped past me in a blur. During the day we would stop at what I called a Gift Shop Cafe; that is to say the GIFT SHOP part was the main draw, the cafes were generally pretty standard. With very few exceptions I headed for the salad bar, selected a few green leaves, grated carrot, beetroot etc.etc – hardly a gourmet diet. Why? I will explain. In the evenings we often arrived at our hotels quite late, after a day of deeply satisfying visits to great natural wonders, or city tours, or just simply driving. Room Service was predictably available, and on the whole mediocre – classically one one occasion I phoned for a plain omelette and salad, which I admit was not on the Dinner All Day Menu, but a 3-egg omelette appeared on the Breakfast Menu. I was told that the kitchen was “too busy” to supply this seemingly straightforward meal. I could have burger and fries, chicken and fries, sides of every description (even salad) but the kitchen could not also add an omelette! Why didn’t I go out? Well, although in a group, on the whole the couples went their own ways after the official ‘tour’ was done, and I was travelling on my own – would you go into a strange place at 8:00-9:00 at night after a long day to look for somewhere to eat? The “main drag” was often several blocks away. Call me chicken if you like, but there was another reason that I didn’t go out, and here it is.
Almost universally, restaurants serve TOO MUCH FOOD. The “To-Go-Box” or “Doggy Bag” mentality has America in its grip, and presumably people take it for granted that if they cannot finish what is on their plate they are entitled to take it home, having paid for it. How does that figure for the hotel guest? And in any case, how often does the “doggy bag” get shoved in the fridge, forgotten and trashed? Pretty frequently, I would hazard. Who wants re-heated burger and fries? Empanada? Boeuf Stroganoff? So unless the paying guest really has a dog or possibly a pig, my guess is that most of this stuff goes in the bin.
Why do I care? Well, faced with too much to eat, firstly my appetite vanishes in direct proportion to the size of the dish. A piled high plate doesn’t appeal to me one bit, give me enough to eat but not more than enough, and while Cuisine Minceur was not exactly my bag, equally I don’t want enough food to feed a family of five. I had, in one hotel, a club sandwich and hand-cut fries. The tray arrived, beautifully presented: the sandwich was 4-inches thick (yes, reader I measured it), the bottom layer of bread and turkey was over 1-inch; the next layer of bread and salad was even thicker though that might have been because the lettuce was crisp and bouncy – it was, the final layer of tomato and bacon with the bread topped out to 4-inches. Well, I don’t know about you but I cannot open my mouth 4-inches wide and get all that in, (nor do I want to, which is why I dislike burgers so much) so I had to deconstruct it. I left the turkey layer and ate a BLT. The other odd thing was that the bread was fried? So not packageable for the next day anyway. So at least half that went to WASTE. The chips, which were nearly the best I have ever eaten, came hot, crisp AND with the skins on but there was at least 10-ounces, well I didn’t actually weigh it, but I have a pretty good sense of weights and measures, so you will have to take my word for it. Served with this banquet were TWO miniature bottles of tomato ketchup and two mayonnaise and two sachets of mustard – all but one went back, OK the others could be used again as the seals were not broken, but why so many in the first place?
Here’s the thing. I belong whole-heartedly to a campaign being furthered by my son, Tristram Stuart. A global exposure of food waste and here am I in a country which fosters over-provision on a colossal scale.
I am not a thin person, but many Americans make me look sylph-like – I wonder why? Do they eat too many HUGE milkshakes, too many 4-inch club sandwiches and too many 10-ounce portions of chips?
Tristram is coming to New York and will feed five thousand people on a banquet of vegetables that are currently being thrown away because they are wonky, but even the ones that pass the appearance test are getting binned – are you ready for his message? I hope so, I truly hope so.