Thursday, January 31, 2008

29 January 2008: Syrup

So here we are.

They have the internet in the USA, it appears, so I will be able to continue with the occasional blog. In fact, since arriving here a couple of weeks ago, it's been a curious journey to find what they do and don't have over here compared with the UK.

For example, they have immigration and border controls that make you want to shake your fists at the sky and cry "why me?". Arriving at DFW airport with a visa in my passport that we fought a hard seven-and-a-half-month battle for. For the uninitiated, a visa is a good thing to have when you want to enter another country: it means the country you are trying to enter has already granted you entry clearance. Previously when entering the USA for a visit, I'd had to fill out a green form entitled 'I-94 Visa Waiver' which means I'm telling the immigration officer that I'd like to visit the USA for a period of less than three months and I have proof that I'll be leaving (usually in the form of a return or onward plane ticket). The officer then asks some questions of varying degrees of severity and eventually decides to let me in. But when you have a visa it's different: it means the US embassy have already done the questioning and have decided that you are to be let in. Visa means "entry clearance". In the UK it really does mean that: armed with visa in passport, Gloria was never questioned about anything when coming into the UK.

The US, however, decided that it's not enough to have entry clearance. I had to not only show a whole bunch of supporting documentation (remember the brown envelope from my previous blog?) but also, instead of the guy saying "welcome to the USA", I had to be taken to an extra area for additional questioning and form-filling-in. Why was this not done at the US embassy in London? I have no idea, but it took us a full two hours before they eventually allowed us through (admittedly, this was partly due to there being 32 immigration desks, of which 29 were closed, so there was a good solid bit of waiting for everyone). However, they did let us through, so I now have full permanent immigrant status, a Green Card on the way and a Social Security number so I can pay taxes. Yay!

As a quick aside, you might wonder what happened about the chest X-ray we were told to take on the plane with us and show to the immigration officer. I pulled it out and offered it to him, pointing to the bit on the letter where it says "you must show this to the immigration officer". Unsurprisingly, he said "I don't know anything about X-rays" and informed us that the real purpose of it is to give it to a local doctor when I register. Which does, kind of, make sense, although why we had to take it on the plane with us remains a mystery.

So we made it through and have spent the days since arrival generally travelling around saying "hello" to as many people as possible, including visits to Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana as well as Texas. In addition to this there's been the question of what we can and can't get at the supermarkets, an investigation that I have begun at quite a thorough level for fear of running out of essentials such as malt vinegar and PG Tips. And overall, I've been very pleasantly surprised.

It's quite amazing to me how much America has changed since I first visited back in 1991. Back then the cars were all huge saloon models with flashing brake lights that doubled as indicators (orange indicator lights were few and far between). There was no way to find out the cricket scores short of very expensive phone calls back to the UK. There was certainly no Indian food and the height of international excitement was finding a small branch of Harry Ramsden's in the Atlanta Underground food court. Now it's different: it's not just the internet and cheaper international phone cards, it also the invasion of cars from the Far East with their orange blinkers and hatch-backs and, most interestingly, the foods that are slowly becoming available at the supermarkets, or, at a slightly higher price, the 'World Market' shops which are now in all the cities. (For reference: the day I write this blog, 1 UK pound is equal to $1.98).

To run through the check list:
- Twining's Tea (all brands) available at Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertsons, Winn-Dixie, all the main ones. PG still requires a trip to the World Market or other import store, but frankly we have enough to last me a good six months yet, by which time we hope to receive some from the UK.
- Malt Vinegar is now available as one of Heinz' "Gourmet Foods" products, alongside the Balsamic and White Wine vinegars, and every bit as expensive ($1.74 for one of those normal 250ml vinegar bottles).
- Cadbury's: bit of a false dawn on this one - Cadbury's brand chocolate (Dairy Milk etc) has been available over here for at least six years but it's not actually Cadbury's: look on the back of the wrapper and it says "Made in the USA under licence by Hershey Inc." If you know Hershey's chocolate you'll know that it's not going to be the same. If you can't get anything else, this fake Cadbury is the best available (and it's at all the Wal-Marts, no trouble to find it), but for the real stuff you need to go to an import shop such as World Market and pay the import prices.
- Patak's curry paste: Mr and Mrs Patak, bless 'em, have now set up a small US distribution operation. This is encouraging, and I hope the shops that carry the product will expand. World Market carries a couple of the pastes ("Mild Curry Paste" and "Hot Curry Paste" rather than anything interesting like Madras) along with a tandoori grilling sauce, and the prices aren't too bad ($3.99 compared with about £1.50 at Sainsbury's, so a 52p or so markup). We also were very pleased to find it at a small college supermarket in Tennessee which specialised in organic and health food. (Curry as a health food? I like that idea.) Further investigation, we hope, will lead to further finds.
- Naan bread: got some from the World Market in Birmingham, Alabama, but despite being imported from a company in Leicester, it was a little dry and disappointing. We have a couple of recipes for naan, so I suspect we'll be making it rather than buying it in future.
- Poppadoms: yet to see any in our two weeks so far, but we do know of an Indian/Pakistani shop in San Antonio which sells the Crazy-Eyed Rabbit brand. However, we also have yet to see lime pickle on sale anywhere, so it may be that this combination is something that will require a trip to the internet import shop.
- Maltesers: like other "real" English sweeties, we found this one so far only at the World Market but we did find it at a ridiculous price - the 'Christmas Edition' tube of Maltesers was on clearance (75% off: in the US they do understand what a clearance sale should be, M&S please take note) and so they were selling a nice 80g tube for 99c each. That's about 51p. That's cheaper than Asda. We bought four and later regretted we didn't just buy their entire stock.
- Fruit Gums/Fruit Pastilles: I know, a Nestle product these days, but we have to keep the economy of York turning over somehow. Unlike the UK chocolate products on ridiculous markup ($1.75 for a Crunchie bar: no thanks) these were at the World Market for 99c each, normal price. Again, that's 51p. I've become accustomed to seeing a little sticker saying "42p" on these in the UK. I can cope with a 9p markup.
- Dandelion & Burdock: not required as they have Root Beer here. Early experimentation has shown that Stewart's and IBC are the best root beers, with Sioux City not far behind, but the research continues.
- Golden Syrup: this is an important one as it's a key ingredient in Mars Bar Cake, not to mention my late grandmother's legendary "chocolate cake with no eggs in it because it's wartime". It's hard to find a substitute for this as Tate & Lyle famously use only pure cane sugar for their syrup, whereas over here the culture is geared towards corn syrup. We brought a big tin of the stuff with us, and will use it sparingly, but we have found a few potential substitutes at the supermarkets and, at just one World Market, we did find it on import with a hefty mark-up. So it does exist over here, it's just a little work trying to find it.
- Lamb: this is more a Texas issue than a USA/UK issue: the only place you'll get lamb here is if you go to the Mall and find a 'Wraps' take-away in the food court which features 'Gyros' (= Donner Kebab). This is surprisingly common, a pleasant discovery. Beyond that, however, Texas is a lamb-free state. We are lead to believe that the Fort Worth Central Market will carry it, but certainly none of the normal supermarkets do. We had no problem finding a reasonable selection of lamb (imported from Australia, of all places) in both Tennessee and Alabama, and indeed even found Paxo stuffing at the World Market to go with it, so perhaps we just need to move east a little.
- Sausages: Again to my surprise, "link sausages" (or 'sausages' to you and me) are available here at Wal-Mart. Not much choice, just regular slightly-seasoned pork, and they're not going to be threatening Upton's of Bassett for the sausage-of-the-year award, but hey, they're available. It's tempting to get a few recipes for Lincolnshire or Cumberland sausages and make then up by hand. Certainly regular sausage-meat is freely available.

And on the down-side, a few things we've not found and aren't hopeful of finding:
- Kebabs: on the kebab front, there's a reasonable number of 'Kabob' restaurants and take-aways, along with the 'Gyros' at the Malls, but frankly nothing that matches up to the Charcoal Grill on Portswood Road and certainly nothing like Big George's tandoori chicken donner kebab. Having said that, I've never had anything as good as that anywhere else in the UK either, even in London.
- Fish and chips: Harry Ramsden doesn't seem to have made it big out here yet, although I'm not much of a fan anyway. There's nowhere I can see offering chips like you'd get from a traditional British chippy: thick-cut and greasy-hot, just begging for vinegar. (Aside: ever tried putting vinegar on McDonald's 'French Fries'? Everyone should try it once.)
- Back bacon: or middle cut, or collar cut (which, frankly, is hard enough to find in the UK these days) - these are just not around. Oscar Meyer do produce 'Canadian Bacon' which looks a little bit like the round bit from back bacon but is suspiciously exactly circular, and doesn't really taste like that fine thick-cut dry-cure stuff that Uptons sell.
- Clotted cream: don't even think about it. I understand there is a firm in North Carolina which makes it and will overnight-air-freight it for a truly ridiculous price.
- Rain. It doesn't rain here very much at all.

So we're settling in, slowly but surely, still job-hunting and heading to the pharmacy every time we need to look on the internet. It's a little different, but as I said before, nothing like as different as it was when I first came some seventeen years ago. Maybe it's globalisation, maybe it's progress, maybe it's just me getting old, but it really doesn't feel as foreign as I expected it to.

And so, here we stay.


Anonymous said...

Never known a man so eager to pay taxes!

Glad you are in and safe. Love to you and G


Anonymous said...

Just a little bit of info regarding Hershey and Cadbury. The quality and formula must be maintained, otherwise it is not a Cadbury product. Hershey has the US capabilites to sell the Cadbury items effectively, whereas, Cadbury could not do it the same in the US. Buying at the international stores, you will get the international labeling and pay higher prices, but you'll find it was a waste of money. Enjoy

DuncMcRae said...

Well, I'm not sure it's a waste of money: it may well be that Hershey have to maintain the formula to a degree, however when you taste it you can tell pretty clearly and obviously that it's not the same stuff. There is a familiarity to the taste that makes you think 'hm, that's a little like the chocolate I know' and that (I would guess) is due to using a higher amount of vegetable fat in the recipe like you do for British-style chocolate, BUT it's noticeably drier in the mouth (bleah) and when you melt it to make Mars Bar cake you actually have to add a little bit of milk to it to make it work.

Whether that means they're breaking the rules, I don't know, but do a side-by-side taste test and see what happens...