American Times Washington: Mutant meat and two veg

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Americans who travel abroad have become wearily accustomed to accusations that they are responsible for "dumbing down culture", otherwise known as the Disneyfication of - well - pretty much everywhere. Small matter that one of the fiercest rearguard actions against colonisation by Disney was fought not on the poppy-strewn fields of the Ile de France but on the (real) battlefields of Manassas, outside Washington DC - and won. Small matter, too, that Euro-Disney, known as Disneyland Paris, is now a commercial success and that Disney's profits at its US sites have taken a (shallow) dip.

Most astonishing of all, perhaps, might be the discovery that if you are looking for sophistication in food and drink, you stand a better chance of finding it these days in the themed restaurants of a Disney park than in most American cities, with the possible exceptions of Manhattan, San Francisco and Miami. Even San Francisco, though, has its limits, exemplified in the decision of the renowned Chinese chef and gourmet Ken Hom to hang up his toque and head to France.

Hom's departure should have been shocking to any American fan of Chinese food. First, because - despite being lionised in Europe - he is an American Chinese born and bred. Second, because world-ranking chefs - if they travel - tend to go to the vast American market, not away from it. And third, because he left with a degree of disillusionment, shaking the crumbs of what he regarded as bastardised Chinese-American food from his shoes as he went.

Hom's complaint could be summed up as the dumbing down of America's tastebuds. "Americans don't appreciate Chinese food," he said recently. "The perception is that Chinese food is cheap grub." At the other end of the scale, he says that when Americans buy themselves a wok and set out to prepare Chinese food, they wanted nothing less than a banquet - and exhausted themselves in the effort.

His last book published in the US was based on simple- to-prepare family food using accessible agreements. But he still could not crack the American market. A recent random survey of ethnic cooking confirmed much of what Hom said. Americans will eat anything and everything, so long as it tastes and looks passably familiar. And for all their embrace of "lite" this and "healthy" that, if it's not big and beefy, it is unlikely to pass muster. Foreign food is very quickly submerged into the mainstream of American food and loses much of its character.

While this is no news at all to firstp-generation immigrants or frequent travellers, such observations often shock restaurant-going Americans, who are under the impression that veal parmigiana, spaghetti with meatballs, and other American culinary delights are genuine imports rather than mutants catering to the convention that any self- respecting dish must have meat and veg and bulk. Such meals, if well prepared, may have merits - just as Chicago pizza pie has merits - but they bear no resemblance to anything on a menu in Italy.

The ultimate and most frequently encountered mutant is "French dressing", which comes thick, heavy, creamy, stuffed with preservatives and - as with every American salad dressing in a bottle - completely dominates what it is supposed to complement.

But salads were not Hom's chief complaint. His was a spice and texture problem. On one hand, Chinese food was seen as "cheap", on the other, when a particular restaurant becomes fashionable, Americans will pay whatever it takes, ordering off the top of the menu without hesitation. But if the food does not then taste vaguely familiar, they will complain it is inedible. That means easy on the spices, heavy on the portions, and let the customer mix 'n' match the "sides" (trumping the chef and letting one hundred flavours fight).

That Americans could be shocked to find out that their favourite "ethnic" dishes are not genuine may be a small sign of change. Just in the past year, quite "ordinary" restaurants will produce a tray of olive oil and vinegar if you ask for it. Newspapers are publishing letters from returning American tourists expressing amazement that what they ate "over there" tasted nothing like its counterpart "over here". And classes have been started in New York where "grandmas" are recruited to teach second and third generations in preparing the food of their homeland, lest the art - and the tastes - be lost.

While waiting for the grannies to have an effect, though, you could do worse than order a hamburger. Its ambitions are few and it tastes as it should. Just hold the French dressing.

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