American Made: A double dog from Dear Franks, Skokie, Illinois.Oh say can you see, does that star spangled banner yet wave.
It is the 4th of July, and the smell of American cooking is wafting through the olafactory organs of this long-time expat.
A hint of American cooking rises in our kitchen, at the Valentine Hilton, on occasion.
It means hot dogs served with tomato sauce, mustard, pickle relish, corn relish and cheese, with a side of potato chips.
It means potato salad made with Hellman’s American mayonnaise, potatoes, eggs, salt, pepper, chivesand finely-chopped celery.
It means tacos where the meat filling is made from scratch.
It means watermelon occasionally sprinkled with salt.
It means cranberry sauce is usually on hand.
It means pumpkin pie on the fourth Thursday in November.
It means Betty Crocker chocolate cakes on birthdays with home-made icing on top.
It means napkins on the table at every meal.
I can’t say we prepare American-style food once in a while because we are patriots; it’s just the way my wife Ann and I were brought up, in the land of the brave and the home of the free.
And it doesn’t extend to everything: we don’t make macaroni and cheese; we don’t serve boiled potatoes, we don’t drink percolated coffee;we don’t eat orange cheese.
Like most Australians, we look at the mass market diet of America with amazement whenever we visit the old country. I can safely say we are well past the novelty factor, but it’s still fun to see how the American half of the world eats out.
It feels like the tide had turned on the American notion that a big serving is a good serving. One of the most interesting dishes we had on the last visit stateside was a “chopped salad” featuring small black beans and small, crispy tortilla strips at Pizano’s on State Street in downtown Chicago.
Pizano’s was known for its pizza – didn’t America invent that, too? – but it wasn’t what we needed for a late meal. The chopped salad, which we shared, was full of finely chopped vegetables, herbs and chicken breast and salami. It went down a treat.
We also ordered a breaded eggplant parmesan sandwich (well, one healthy thing out of three isn’t bad) to go with it, which we also shared. It was topped with mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce, but the serving was small enough to enjoy.
We came across the small tortilla crisps again, at Wolfgang Puck’s Express restaurant in Los Angeles International Airport. They were spread across a tortilla soup, and again proved to be a small, but delicious, component.
We did get caught out by gigantic servings once or twice, most notably at a chic breakfast eatery in downtown Chicago called Eggsperience.
Breakfast anyone: Quesedilla, that comes with hash browns, Eggsperience, Chicago, Illinois.
We avoided the obvious, like caramelised apple pecan pancakes, but were ambushed by a frittata the size of Texas and a quesadilla nearly as big. They were tasty, just huge. And, in case they weren’t big enough, they came with a side of hash browns.
Chicago is a great place to satisfy the itch for an American hot dog. Jim and Tom’s at Bensenville is a hot dog shack that knows its business – and it’s on the way to the city from O’Hare Airport. They know a hot dog is supposed to be a meal, to be savoured, enjoyed, dripped onto your chest, licked off your moustache.
Dear Franks, in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, is another hot dog hang-out. Dear Franks “Double Dog” is perfect. With chips, it takes about three innings of watching a baseball game on the overhead TV to eat a double dog meal. All the dogs at Dear Franks come with mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, sauerkraut and celery salt.
Even a treat has its limits: stay away from the breaded mushrooms, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, seasoned waffle fries, cheddar fries on the side menu.
The temptations were bigger at a novelty burger joint in Castle Rock, Colorado, on the southern outskirts of Denver. Crave Real Burgers is marketing masterpiece, with a wide range of naughty burgers, such as the Luther (bacon, cheddar, egg and onion with two glazed donuts as the bun) and the Wolf (pulled pork, ham, bacon, cheese and onion strings – plus the hamburger). And, fried pickles, as a side dish. The food is delicious, but clearly dangerous in large doses.
If I had one weakness, it would be for the American cinnamon bun, which has never caught on in Australia. Anybody who’s been through a US airport knows the magnetic drawof the Cinnabon outlets, which specialise in the sweet buns. As good as they are, like apple pie, the little guys can make them even better, like the caramel rolls served hot every morning at the Colonial House restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota, near Mount Rushmore. Doughy, sticky, sweet and moreish to a fault.
But we survive, with Ann mastering the making of caramel slice to fill that sweet-tooth ache, among many other specialties. And we still proudly call Australia home.