Red meat for rednecks

BRAINFOOD: Dress code at the nearly all-male bar consisted of garments sufficiently loose to contain huge shoulders, bear-butts, beer- bellies and ham-hands: the general effect was chequered, woollen and unbuttoned

There we were, on a cheerless errand, wandering among the green hills of the Susquehanna valley, ultimately resting hungrily in Oneonta, New York, home to both the one American college that specialises in football, and to the oxymoronic US Soccer Hall of Fame. As we pondered who could possibly be memorialised on its walls (Tony Dorigo? Surely not the gangly Alex Lallas?) we switched on the telly to hear a string of redneck jokes. None of them were particularly funny ("If when your porch collapses they find three dogs buried underneath, then you're a redneck") but the presenter's smile was so toothy, so full of wholesome cheerfulness, that I wanted to leap right down her decollete.

No, I have not gone bonkers; I merely want to bring into focus that at times the business of food-writing partakes of the anthropological expedition. As Trollope in America noted the extreme toughness of the steaks, and Dickens the character of the beer-hall free lunch, so we had a field-trip to redneck eating.

Rednecks, for those of you who do not know the term, is US for "peasants", for uncouth rural folk: the sort who nurture strange religions, indulge in occasional incest, breed lantern-jaws, tote guns, and generally offend against political correctness - in a word, the heart of America.

Well, Christopher's - one of the three restaurants in town, all owned by the same man - was full of them. Nay, custom-designed for them.That is to say that the attached "lodge", in faux-Adirondack style, is an oversized log-cabin with all the Victorian fretwork, plush, fringed lampshades and dark colouring of a bordello. Dress code at the nearly all-male bar consisted of garments sufficiently loose to contain huge shoulders, bear-butts, beer-bellies and ham-hands: the general effect was chequered, woollen and unbuttoned. We sent one of our sons to collect drinks at the bar. My request for a Bloody Mary iced but with no ice in it resulted in a quart jam-jar full of tomato juice and an unspecified amount of alcohol, plus a whole root of celery; his Martini came, complete with olive, in a glass the size of a flying saucer.

Despite the warmth and good feeling generated by our intake, the sound system proved too much for us and we made our way to the restaurant. This, as such places are, was tended by fresh young things reduced to waitpersoning by the need to pay college tuition fees and fix the muffler on their cars. The boys wore jeans and sodden hair, the girls were dirndled and checker- shirted. They exuded the kind of bumptious friendliness which I associate with American restauration: as though they couldn't do enough for you, if only you really existed. Oddly enough, the wine list was plentiful, well chosen, and cheap. As we had finished one bottle before our waitress returned to take our orders, we were reckless in our selection.

Naturally, we all ate steaks; descending from the hungry cook's 20-ounce (his restaurant had just eliminated staff meals), down through my 12-ounce and my wife's ten-ounce filet mignon. Another bottle down, one could barely see the table for fries, baked potatoes, platefuls of sour-cream and butter, sauce, great wedges of bread, ashtrays, gingham napkins, super-sized toothpicks with frills, and other such impedimenta that the lonely redneck might yearn for on his occasional visits into town.

The whole thing, of course, from the char of the steaks to the obsessive antlerisation of the room, the bare wooden walls, the coarseness of the flavours, the ingenuous mix of potent ingredients, the excess, was an extension, to eating, of the theme park. Redneckery is about an earlier, cruder, America; about plenty, or even surfeit; about the manners of times gone by.

European tourists, who seldom stray from the beaten path, and who certainly will not seek out Oneonta - or Schenectady, Binghampton, Elmira, Cairo, Nineveh and other choice spots in that part of New York State that lies between its capital, Albany, and Buffalo - do not know what they are missing. The perfect time-warp. Small-town America as seen in the Saturday Evening Post. On the main street of Oneonta, the windows of the local department store held a living-room ensemble just as seen on I Love Lucy. Yes, Lucy, whom rednecks loved and love

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