Cousin, cuisine

Pub date August 14, 2007

Given the state of English food, it should not surprise us that English food writers are either embittered and caustic or looking for a way out of their mildewed isles. In the latter group we find Ian Jackman, who hopped the pond hither 15 years ago and has now published a book, Eat This! 1001 Things to Eat before You Diet (Harper, $14.95 paper). If On the Road had been about eating in America and had been written by an earlier, less woozy edition of Christopher Hitchens, it might have been something like this.

But perhaps the Hitchens comparison doesn’t quite do justice to Jackman. Both writers are Oxbridge-educated, adoptive Americans with posh accents, but the Hitch is a bloated warmonger who mongered the wrong war and whose reputation — apart from an ability to recite poetry from memory when in trouble, like a squid squirting ink — seems undeserved. Jackman, by contrast, is soft-spoken and gracious. Of course, he isn’t a pugilist and raconteur who must snap and snarl for his supper on cable television but belongs, instead, to a long European tradition of discovering the New World and taking delight in it.

Eat This! reminds us that no matter how much America fatigue some of us might be feeling these days — and some of us are feeling quite a lot, thanks to Nancy Pelosi and the impeachment that wasn’t — the cultural possibilities of this country remain staggering. American food, in Jackman’s telling, retains its regional quality; New England is still notable for its lobster rolls, the Bay Area is a land of exquisite breads, Chicago is where you want to go for red-hot hot dogs, and in Memphis they use dry rubs on their barbecued ribs. Jackman has even tracked down what I regard, from profound personal experience, as the best cheeseburger ever; it’s sold at Solly’s Grille, in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs, and is so slathered with butter that it’s known locally (and Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland, after all) as the butter burger. No one can eat just one.

Since pretty much the whole world seems to be put out with us these days, we’re lucky our erudite British cousins are on hand to assure us we haven’t yet totally gone to hell. The food is still good here, and they should know.

Paul Reidinger