What America Tastes Like

Rib Artistry in America’s Unhappiest City

In 2014 a team of researchers set out to discover the amount of happiness in the world. Using modern technology and the massive amount of information provided through social media, a measurement tool took place. Through Big Data analysis, the “Hedonometer” was born.

Out of 304 cities in the United States – Boulder, Colorado was ranked happiest. At the other end of the scale, small manufacturing town in Wisconsin pushed the needle back against the left-hand side of the meter. Racine, Wisconsin was indicated to be the least happy city in the United States.

Out of the 48 states I’ve traveled through and the 11 I’ve lived in, my response to Racine’s spot on the list would be: “Yup.”

Although gifted with beautiful Frank LLoyd Wright architecture and featuring one of the most charming rows of houses you’ll find near any US lake, the city now manufactures almost none of the things it did a few decades ago. Just vague despondency and toxic household cleaners.

Hidden among all the bars and taverns, however, is a Saloon. An “Oh Dennis! Saloon and Charcoal House” that is home to artisan ribs of unimaginable craftsmanship and originality.

Finding these ribs in Racine is like visiting a junk store full of some crazy old guy’s woodshop tomfoolery and discovering that Al made a Stradivarius.

The Ribs – These are top-level contenders. The meat itself is tender and fall-off-the-bone – but not mealy and overcooked. These have been slow smoked, and I’d guess that they’re sauced and then thrown across the grill one final time to get a char on the sauce.

You can put them up against anything from the South and they’ll hold their own. Although Fox’s BBQ in Atlanta has a line out the door for ribs, these edge them out for one reason: originality.

Of any ribs I’ve had in the US, these are the most masterful and deliberate with their use of “char” as a flavor. It isn’t overpowering. The spots where the sauce begins to brown, and the places where the tips of the bones have taken on a blackened twist of flavor are used deliberately. That bitter edge plays against a totally unique sauce designed to complement it.

The sauce has sweetness, but none of the expected heavy, drippy molasses flavor. Instead it provides a unique umami/tang. The sauce does not steal the show from the meat, but the way its subtle flavors work with the meat is profound.

The tang in the sauce comes from fruit. I don’t know if it is reduced orange juice or tamarind or what. But it was the right idea, whatever it is. It plays against that hard edge of the char, and the result is magic.

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Hot Dog Engineering

In a city with 8,398,748 people and half as many dripping hot-dog stands, how do you get people to come back for more of your dogs?

You design something that scratches the junkfood itch in a distinctive way, a way that they’ll come back to you for and nobody else.

Gray’s Papaya is iconic processed food. The hotdog flavor is tweaked to a savoriness that can only be compared to beef-jerky. But in a good way. The entirely homogenous brown smear of “chili” is goo that an Icee machine could dispense. But in a good way.

The papaya drink is like a Willy Wonka flavor, evolving after the first drink. The initial sip can only be described as “nasty.” Yet by the third sip it becomes addictive, as if somehow “powdered fruit and milk” was something your body asked for.

From the wacky bright colors to the singular flavors, Gray’s defines itself in ways that a chosen few will devote themselves to fully.

There is always one guy in the breakroom who gets FunYuns out of the vending machine literally every day.

Gray’s is worth checking out. It might be processed just to please you.

This is iconic processed food. The hotdog flavor is tweaked to a savoriness that can only be compared to beef-jerky. But in a good way. The entirely homogenous brown smear of “chili” is goo that an Icee machine could dispense. But in a good way.

The papaya drink is like a Willy Wonka flavor, evolving after the first drink. The initial sip can only be described as “nasty.” Yet by the third sip it becomes addictive, as if somehow “powdered fruit and milk” was something your body asked for.

From the wacky bright colors to the singular flavors, Gray’s defines itself in ways that a chosen few will devote themselves to fully. Either you don’t understand why anyone would eat it, or it’s your thing.

There is always one guy in the breakroom who gets FunYuns out of the vending machine literally every day.

Gray’s is worth checking out. It might be processed just to please you.

2090 Broadway
New York, New York

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Tommy Boy’s Hometown Eatery

In the middle of America is a place called “The Thirsty Pony,” offering all the excess that is wrong with the country and all the abundance that makes us a great big nation.

It is a hoot. It’s the rare spot that follows through on the gonzo vibe promised from the road. Both the decor and the food are packed with kitschy, silly tidbits. Drenched in “try the cheese glop” atmosphere. A Zoltar fortune-teller greets you when you walk in.

The over-the-top bar food is – vitally – actually pretty good. And that is what transmutes this place from deplorable excess into celebratory abundance.

Potato Trio – Flawlessly fried tots, seasoned fries and cinammon-y sweet potato waffle fries. You get three dips to mix-and-match, each of which is house made from an inspired recipe. The cheese glop is thick and flavorful, and you may want a side order of extra-goo even though they’ll charge for it. A creamy sweet dip made with real cream cheese goes well with the sweet-potatos, though palate-fatigue sets in quickly with that one. The sweet-and-hot dark, tarry ectoplasm is absolutely delicious. And may have whiskey in it.

Super Nachos – One time I was at a county fair and saw a horse that was bigger than I am. Literally a ton of gleaming muscle. As I looked up into those calm, black Percheron eyes I felt a sort of respect that was probably biological.

These nachos caused a similar reaction when they hit the table.

Six tostadas form a mountain range of gringo goodness. Lots of meat, lots of beans, lots of cheese, and a truly “super” amount of everything. Never before in a restaurant have I met nachos that there was enough of. All the ingredients are of good quality, and tasty in an American-Mexican way if not up to authentic-family-recipe standards. More stuff will fall off of these and onto the pizza pan while you try eating them than you get in many whole meals.

Tommy likey.

1935 Cleveland Rd
Sandusky, Ohio

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Caviar and Millennium Falcons

It probably isn’t possible to be human without being biased against cultures other than the one which raised you. The best we can do is recognize the bias for what it is, try to correct for it rationally, and choose to transcend it emotionally using compassion. When a pilot notices her plane is angling to the left, she can adjust her attitude, and fly through whatever winds are pushing her off-course.

I’ve been judgmental of wealth culture.

My neighborhood was in the bottom 1% of childhood poverty when I was a kid, but for a while my parents sent me to a private school. This was quite the bucket of cultural icewater on my head. I was the one kid driven to that school in a rusty Pinto.

What I judged as “bad” about this culture was a disrespect for toys. My Star Wars toys were precious to me. I never put on any of the stickers that came in the box, because I knew stickers could get worn and leave those sticky brown spots. None of my toys had a bent piece of plastic or a missing wheel.

Somewhere in the home of every single rich kid’s house was a broken Millennium Falcon. Every single time someone invited me to play, I saw a busted Falcon in the corner of a bedroom or garage. Some sat canted like a junkyard relic, missing a piece of landing gear. Nearly all of them were missing the hatch on the gun turret. A couple had been split in half.

Kenner released those massive plastic ships in 1979, retailing for $105.79 if adjusted to 2019 dollars. Every one I ever saw in a wealthy home was broken. Not only that – the kids didn’t care.

It was the lack of appreciation and gratitude that bothered me. Unfortunately, it seems that the more we own, the more challening it is for us to develop our gratitude for these objects. Yet we often try chasing this gratitude by trying to own more, as if the “next” thing will be worth appreciation.

As an adult, I’ve worked toward a sort of cross-cultural empathy. Compassion gets easy when you get close to people and find out how they hurt. When I’ve lived in ghetto neighborhoods I noticed that opiate addiction was rampant. People wanted to escape their lives. When I’ve lived in rich neighborhoods – I’ve also noticed that opiate addiction is rampant. People wanted to escape their lives. We all got problems. For rich people those problems are severe. They just don’t have anything to do with shoes or gas-money.

We all eat food.

So what is the food of the upper-class in New York? When people want to spend $295 on Peking Duck, where do they go? Is the food actually good? Is it better than shrimp-n-grits? Is it truly refined and elevated in some way, or does it just come in really tiny cubes stacked vertically?

“Hakkasan” in New York offers some of this culture. The French tire-company that reviews fancypants restaurants shows the Michelin man giving Hakkasan a big “Okey dokey!”

Inside? Yes, it is a Bret Easton Ellis fever-dream of upscale environment, all dark wood and lurking electric-blue lights. That being said, it’s remarkably comfortable despite the nightclubbiness, and the service lives up to the high-end vibe. They’ll tuck your napkin in for you.

But what if you came looking for food?

Small twists like the cocoa powder in the breading of the “crispy chicken in mango and kumquat” brought a smile to my face. I was looking for the heavy-hitter that would take me to flavor-Tian, and expecting to find it because of the blue lights and the two forks and all. But most bites of the meal were more clever-and-distinctive than ultra-delicious.

One item, however, knocked it out of the park. So far, in fact, that every other player in the meal ran past home base. This one menu item elevated the whole shebang into a vibrantly recommendable experience. In fact, these tiny morsels rank in the short list of food I’ll never forget:

Hakka roasted duck and pumpkin puff

You get a row of five two-bite-sized pumpkins filled with a sweet and savory duck filling. The pastry itself is what’s incomparable. Usually I have some clue as to “how it was done,” but in this case I can’t imagine how pumkpin flour fried in any sort of oil could result in this phenomena. It’s textually unlike any other fried food, and the little orange shell brings nuanced flavors that linger in your mouth like a sweet note sung in the Taj Mahal.

Somehow it manages to stick to your teeth delectably, crisply separate when you bite it, and lend a creamy texture that perfectly complements the duck while haunting your mouth with a nectarous complex richness after all other flavors fade away. You have to just sit there a moment, exhaling the memory of that little pumpkin.

You wonder how that event was possible in your mouth. And if they’d still be crisp after servants flew them to you on a private jet.

311 W 43rd St
New York, New York

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Dystopian Nachos

Perhaps, if humanity so chooses, we will eventually do away with all fleshly interpersonal interaction.

Wouldn’t it be better just to have pictures of people on screens? It is easier to make pictures go away when a screen says something you don’t like.

There is always the possibility of dystopia. Someday, we may push a touchscreen causing machines to inject Mountain Dew into our carotid arteries.

Many people’s minds believe that not having to interact with a human being would instead be a utopia.

We’ve all had that night where we smoked too much weed and became afraid of calling the pizza guy for some reason. The “social anxiety” tolerance threshold was lowered by hallucinogenics.

Smartphones seem to be lowering this threshold for society in general, especially younger generations. I once saw a billboard that said You wouldn’t talk to your friends, so why would you talk to a restaurant?” I squinted at it and frowned. I read it again. “Why wouldn’t I talk to my friends?” I had to ask someone what the sign meant, and they explained: “It’s an advertisement for a food-ordering app. They think that you don’t enjoy making phone calls to anyone, including your friends.”

Once that message sank in for me, my eyes got wide. That’s the most frightened I’ve ever been of a billboard.

My sense is that while the benefit of “lack of social anxiety” might appeal to us for awhile if we choose this particular utopian dystopia, we would all eventually start to wonder why we felt empty in our souls.

To fill my stomach with warm, mostly organic material, I ate at a gas station.

I sampled this anti-human (techno-cultural? non-cultural?) experience, of all places, in the South.

Junkatron cyberfood from the future is available today, ordered by touchscreen.

I hadn’t eaten at a “Sheetz” before. You play a colorful videogame on the computer to find what you actually want while the screen tries throwing extra things at you.

No, I don’t want to add “Extra Big Ass Tacos.”

No, I don’t want “Ultimate Mega Quiche.”

A few minutes after you beat the game, a human being shuffles out of the enclosed metal “kitchen.” This “Human Serving Unit” may or may not cower inside a steel cage in the back, emerging only when prodded by electrical shock from his robot overlords. Serving Unit 75876 shoves a plastic box of “Stuffed Nachos” across the counter to you.

These were entirely submerged in a thick goo. So far so good. A delicious and decidedly unspicy meaty paste is folded into triangles of corn tortilla and fried. There is a distinct possibility that Sheetz buys factory-seconds from Jack In the Box and sells the frozen deepfried tacos that shattered during shipping. The yellow sauce is thick and has a dull cheddar flavor, asking for an element of acid or jalepeno to truly qualify as “nacho” cheese. But it is plasticly pleasing and I was given a big bowlful.

This is exactly what you’re hoping for when you give a robot $3 because you want to eat something other than food.

If you’re a fast-food employee, your employed days are numbered. It doesn’t take a PhD to push fries across the counter.

Of course, considering the fact that a robot can access every text and study ever scanned into the internet, you may want to save up a little nest-egg if you have that PhD, too.

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Milk-Robots From a Simpler Time

We see the dark side of consumerist society all around us. It plugs our arteries with trans-fats. It fills our children with a sense of superiority based on what they do own – and envy for what they don’t.

Sometimes, however, we catch a glimpse into an earlier stage of these cultural developments. We might visit an unfamiliar town and walk through a time-portal into a 20th-century version of “consumerist culture.”

This was when store owners just wanted people to eat their hamburgers, and nobody had thought of addicting people to transform them from “human beings” into “heavy users.” There are still little enclaves of capitalism out there where the air is filled with light amusements instead of exploiting smog. A few, usually elderly, businessowners are still more goofy “carnival barker” and less “predacious CEO.”

Such dinosaur-parks are naive, maybe. Outdated, maybe. But also so amusing they’re darn near wholesome.

Walking through the door of “Stew Leonard’s” grocery store – a creepy song and dance performed by grinning animatronic milk cartons?

You have my attention, Stew. Now give me a “taco croissant” free sample.

As a grocery store, the everyday items manage to be competitive with the neighborhood Sav-n-Pic-n-Shop-n-Whatever.

As a theme park that sells brussels sprouts, it’s one heck of a value.

This place could seriously overcharge on all their items. Instead, they just seriously overcharge on some things.

The $7.99/lb buffet-style deli food at the end of your journey, ranges from worth it (massive meatballs) to meh (the wing bar.)

Quite a few items are cheaper than the average boring grocery store. And those stores don’t have talking animals.

In the finest of American capitalist traditions, you are simply invited to upsell yourself. You can get all your practical shopping done and get out of the door with $2.99/lb ground chuck. You can, in theory, walk past the fun.

Good luck trying to do that while navigating a labyrinthine deli section, with the smell of fresh cookies blowing in your face. Can you make it past the innovative house-made goodies, which are reasonably priced considering they seem to be of generally high quality ingredients?

Here’s where they got us – Chocolate-chip cookies sandwiches with cannoli filling. The protruding ricotta is rolled into a ring of chocolate-chiplets. The whole thing ends up with the texture of cookie dough and the richness of a cannoli.

Sure, a superficial “sizzle-over-steak mentality” may be destroying America. We’ve become afraid that if you make something real, people won’t buy it. The modern take on capitalism says to make something snazzy but not real, sell only image, and die rich and evil.

Stew Leonard’s says: “Bring ’em through the door with sizzle, but go ahead and serve an actual steak.”

Those tiny chiplets on the cookie-cannoli are made of actual chocolate, not brown wax.

3475 Berlin Turnpike
Newington, Connecticut

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Puerto Ricans Making the American Dream Happen

Classic American Dream: 1) Do something good. 2) Do something you’re innately suited to. 3) Figure out how to make it sell. 4) Grow it. 5) Let your children grow it.

Okay, so the mainstream of American culture has forgotten every element of this American Dream except for “Figure out how to make it sell.”

Yes, there is a shortcut to step 3, where you just sell whatever crap people will buy.

Terrible things “sell.” Videos of homeless people fighting each other “sell.” Political temper tandrums “sell.” Burger King ranch dressing “sells.”

That crap may have deluded the grandchildren of Beaver Cleaver into thinking that “goodness” and “authenticity” would hold them back. Our immigrants, however, are behind the times. They have not bought into the queasy-exploitation-nightmare version of “The American Dream.”

They are still striving to make that naive and wonderful “American Dream” a reality. And in “New Britain,” a tiny caucasian town in Connecticut, a Puerto Rican family is succeeding with “Mofongo.”

It’s real. It’s what comes naturally from them and who they are. You’ll buy it because it’s good, not because it exploits you. They’ll grow it into a chain.

And who knows, once there are 4,000 “Mofongo’s” across the nation, perhaps they’ll become an evil corporation. “Big” doesn’t need to be “evil,” it just usually works out that way.

But today, they are making kickass food and making the dream happen.

Pork Mofongo – I’m always impressed when I can’t tell exactly what is going on in the seasonings but they work. That happened here, but I’m not well-versed in Puerto Rican food to begin with.

The pork! There are spices here that push pork to new heights. This is marinated and slow-cooked, so that each bite is both tender and full of flavor. If you haven’t had it before, prepare yourself for something quite new from the corn in mofongo – it’s a rich texture with an involved chew. The seasoned meat melds with the mellow flavors of the corn, and you get a dish worthy of naming your restaurant after.

Fiesta Fries – There was a lot of depth to the meat in these, a slow-cooked coarse ground beef with a texture almost like a good sausage. Even the cheese sauce has quality ingredients and care put into it. You’ve never had nacho-fries quite like these, in a good way.

This is a locally-owned business offering a signature dish that’s likely to carry them across the country.

260 Main St
New Britain, Connecticut

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Our Hamburger Families

Your super-duper-Great Grandmother lived in Africa maybe 230,000 years ago. So did my super-duper-Great Grandmother. She was the same lady, the Most Recent Common Ancestor of us all.

Think about all the kickass diversity and development our family has come up with since then. We all grew up and got jobs as farmers or colonializers or fascists or pirates, or graphic designers in Portland Oregon. Yeah, lots of arguments between brothers and sisters have happened over the years. The occasional Inquisition and atrocity, too. But eventually we may all reach a point of general maturity that helps us to get along with each other. At least on holidays.

What if you could have lunch with out grandma? The “Mitochondrial Eve” that scientists say was genetically at the divergence of macro-haplogroup L into L0 and L1–6?

Okay, what if you could have the Most Recent Common Ancestor of hamburgers? She is the grandma of an American species that migrated worldwide.

At “Louis Lunch” down the street from Yale, you can have lunch with the mt-MRCA of hamburgers.

DIg it, this is the shared ancestor of all burgers. From these two slices of Wonderbread the black-bunned burgers of Japan evolved. The doughnut-bunned 1,500-calorie favorite of Luther Vandross in Georgia. The 134-lb shareable Mallie’s burger in Michican. This burger set sail to other continents, getting filled with pigeion meat in London. Becoming an entire steak topped with chicken schnitzel in Australia’s Fitzroy pub.

Burgers on each inhabited landmass are stuffed with macaroni and cheese, edible insects, and peanut butter and jelly. Diversity kicks ass.

The world’s “original burger” takes a long time to brown to perfection in what appears to be the engine of a steam-powered locomotive. It’s the same upright-boiler the place had in 1895.

This burger is only a simple thing. You’ll wait for it while standing in a restaurant the size of a toolshed. And it is worth seeking out because it is simple and good.

Wherever Louis sources their meat, they need to keep getting the cows there. When you are offering just salt and pepper, you need some flavorful ground chuck. These cows bring it, and the cozy personable staff brown it for you and stuff it between slices of white bread.

261 Crown St
New Haven, Connecticut

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Pizza and Rap Music and Regional Evolution

Human beings are territorial. We can make pissing contests out of even the most beautiful things we create and share with one another. This results in both ugly disputes and beautiful evolutionary progressions.

Although many people don’t know this – rap music was originally invented to AVOID violence. It was a way to channel competitive, masculine energy. Neighbors didn’t need to shoot each other to prove which hood was the best. Representatives from each would channel aggression into boasting rhymes or feats of breakdancing. Pretty beautiful.

Once the whole country got into rap music, it had to split up and compete. The culture started celebrating what it had originally tried to escape. Representatives of each neighborhood forgot they were supposed to be boasting and dancing. By September 13th of 1996 Tupac was shot, and on March 9th of ’97 a drive-by killed Biggie Smalls.

Since then, the squabbles of rap music have grown through more peaceful contest, and interpollination between diverse regional evolutions has pushed the development of the form as a whole.

I’m glad that nobody got killed in the East Coast VS West Coast Pizza Wars.

Its hard not to feel strongly about regional pizza styles, though. The East has some skinny pizzas. (“And that’s bad!” or “Good!” or “The One True Pizza!”)

Although come to think of it, California is skinny, too.

In fact, just like the average citizen of the region, Midwestern pizza is the fattest of all American pizzas.

So we have a sort of metaphor for America in pizza. Heavy in the middle.

I decided to explore this whole “East Coast” thing, in the land of Connecticut, where the pizzas are EVEN SKINNIER than in New York.

It seemed to me that the most Easty, or least Midwest and Westy of pizzas, would not only be skinny but have no sauce. An mollusks sitting on it, to boot. “Frank Pepe’s” serves a famous one just a few miles from Yale college.

This is a super crisp crust. A deeply satisfying chew surprises you after the crisp initial bite. That well-tuned combination makes for a truly compelling experience.

White Clam Pizza – The textural yin-yang of crust has obviously been refined over decades, and it makes a perfect vehicle for carrying simple seafood flavors. The brine and mineral of fresh clams, with only a slight umami tweak from a meager sprinkling of parmesan, is all you need for a clam-pizza.

Perhaps this is the best shellfish pizza ever, although I would point out that my expertise lies far outside such clamtastic claims. “Seafood pizza” is not my wheelhouse, yet I cannot imagine clam flavor or texture pairing so well with any other crust.

However, this needs to be said:

I ate a $22.50 medium pizza, and then noticed myself eyeing the food trucks we passed on the way home.

What pizza is “real pizza”? I am the biggest fan of Detroit or Chicago or whoever gives me a lot of quality pizza on top of a pizza. If you will provide me the highest-grade toppings in the most abundance, you have made good pizza. For me, crust is what carries a pizza to my mouth. I am the heathen who would eat pounds of melty fresh mozzarella and unnecessarily complex seasoned sauce on top of most any crust.

East Coast pizzas do remind me of a fifth of a pizza. So the fact that this big clam cracker still impressed me is significant.

157 Wooster St
New Haven, Connecticut

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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What America Tastes Like

Lab Explosions in Your Mouth

America is full of food designed in laboratories. Part of our cultural evolution has been toward “real food” for the elite, and “engineered flavor-nuggets” for those of us who mow our own lawns. Processed powders and potions are cheaper by the metric ton, and since they can be tweaked to over-excite the palate – they are generally preferred by the mainstream.

The biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen might tell us that “supernormal stimuli” is not always good for us. I’m pretty sure he proved that mama birds who “prefer to sit on whatever egg is largest and has the highest color contrast” will choose to sit on a soccer ball – while letting their real babybird-eggs freeze to death. Human beings are making similar choices in food. And I can’t help but think of men who seek “fake breasts” when I read about those deluded soccer-ball mamabirds.

But sometimes oversized lab-flavored “food” is fun.

Friendly’s was an ice-cream chain that turned diner in the 1950’s. She and I drove past plenty of these in the East coast, and finally stopped at one for dinner.

To me, it looked like a good place to “Pick 3 Appetizers.” I’m glad I did, because I like weird food. The first 2 appetizers were mundane, but the third was a hoot.

Cheeseburger Sliders – were fine in a Denny’s sort of way. The burger is not overly processed and the buns have a nice toast to them.

The Fried Pizza Pockets – were on the disappointing side, as the goo inside was mostly uninteresting sauce without even a pretense to pepperoni. The pocket, however, was a fun sort of fried ravioli with a nice crisp outer layer.

But then…

The Buffalo Chicken Strips – hit me with a totally unexpected and bizarre flavor explosion. “What is happening inside my mouth?” said my nose to my brain. This is a deliciously chemical taste, but strangely appealing. And familiar. Where have I tasted this before?

The flavor was savory, it was “extreme,” and it had absolutely nothing to do with “buffalo” or with “chicken.” It had a spice to it, but not a pepper-sauce heat. Instead, this was something I associated strongly with a realm of things you put in your mouth – but not at meals. I chewed, I took another bite. I inhaled this spiced and curious wonder.

“Slim Jims!!!” Ah-hah!

Ooooh-yeeeah! That’s a beefy-spicy-snap right there in my chicken strips!

When chain restaurants get creative with their flavor-chemicals, I tend to enjoy even the disastrous forays into foul territory. Sometimes I’d rather have a cheeseburger-Dorito that tastes like a holographic pickle than eat a real piece of food.

Once a restaurant is large enough, it isn’t a chef that creates the flavors but instead a team of guys in white labcoats with beakers. Specific and unique flavors can be created by ratios of chemicals mixed by the ton, and the result is a “branded” flavor like we associate with McDonald’s fries. (that flavor was designed by a French perfume company)

“More di-ethyl sulfate? Should this sauce taste more… green?” However it came to pass, the Friendly’s flavor scientists were swinging for the “buffalo chicken” fences and somehow hit the ball into left-field. Where it happened to land… exactly in Slim Jim territory.

I busted up laughing. Their ranch dipping sauce has a huge amount of diacetyl in it. Butter-flavored ranch. Those weirdos.

We rocketed down the highway while I dipped my SlimJim Chicken Fingers into Movie Theater Butter Ranch.

94 Elm St
Enfield, Connecticut

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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