America is one of the easiest places to spend your vacation. Still, a lot of people in Holland think of it is a major tour de force to go there. There are many stories I can write about my USA and Canada travels, and maybe I will, but let me focus on one important aspect of vacation: food. The Dutch are notorious for being weary about food in other countries. Time to set things straight here.
The older I get, the more I appreciate sitting down and relax over a meal at the end of a vacation day. Mind you: not the food I prepared myself, but that is served to me in a restaurant. But I am not your typical Dutchman here. The Dutch do not trust food outside their own borders. In fact, the reason why so many Dutch prefer to spend their vacation in a caravan, or RV trailer as it is known in North America, is their fear for foreign food. Better take your home in scaled down size with you and prepare the meals yourself, or bring out that BBQ as much as possible when sitting in front of your caravan. I’m sure that this fear is one of the reasons that the Dutch are convinced that you can only spend your vacation in the North America in a rented RV, no matter it will limit them big time in the possibilities they have. I’ve never done that, and I’m sure I would have seen a lot less of that fascinating continent if I did instead of renting SUVs. I also know people who think that the culinary achievement of American cuisine can best be enjoyed in McDonalds and Pizza Hut – these are the only eateries they will see from inside, because these franchises are the only ones they know.
There is good food and there is bad food and you’ll find both in any country. My vacation budget will not allow for dining in high class places. I did once in Hyannis Port, close to the Kennedy compounds, and my tip was returned with a printed card, stating that “due to the location and the reputation of our restaurant, a 20% minimum tip is required”. But to get back to my point, there are enough non chain restaurants, often even in smallest of towns, that serve a very reasonable dinner. And there are franchise restaurants that are worth trying out. I’m very pleased with The Olive Garden, that serves Italian food without charging too much. And I must say, the ultimate in hospitality ever enjoyed in a restaurant was in an Atlanta Olive Garden. When the waiter brought me my second glass of excellent Pinot Grigio, he asked me “would you like the bottle, sir?” Now, that was a bit overdoing it – me being the only at the table to drink wine. So, I politely declined. “Are you sure, sir?” the waiter insisted. “You don’t want to take the bottle with you? It’s past nine, and we will probably not have any orders for Pinot Grigio anymore tonight, so the bottle is yours.” I do not think you would ever hear this in a Dutch restaurant. Put the cork on, in the fridge, and use it tomorrow.
Another pleasant chain restaurant is Applebee’s. The food is nice, very reasonably priced, and the restaurants have a very agreeable sports café mood. There is a slight problem however with Applebee’s if you like to take your time. Applebee’s may not be a fast food restaurant, but they really like it when you finish your food fast. Barely after swallowing the last bite of your steak, you are asked if you care for some dessert. And the dessert is accompanied by the bill. That is something we are not used too. Dining out is a night out in Holland, and it takes at least two hours from our first drink until the coffee to finish it all off. Rushing is however not necessary in the Old Country Buffet ‘all you can eat’ for 8 bucks or so restaurants you’ll find in the Midwest. Oh my, I have never seen anything like that. ‘All you can eat’ in Holland usually limits to spare ribs, or salad bars, but what unfolds before your eyes in the Old Country Buffet borders on the unbelievable for this modest Dutchman. Chicken, roast beef, ribs, steak, soup, potatoes, rice, pasta… you name it, it is there. And a wild variety of desserts, not to mention to free non alcoholic beverages. I still have that vision of that maybe seven year old kid walking with a plate pilled up with all kinds of desserts – walking carefully, otherwise he would have spilled ice cream, or pie, or custard, everything was there on his plate on top of each other. “Look Mom, what I have!”
Is there an American cuisine? I don’t know. America is a big melting pot and that translates into the many different dishes you can choose from. If I had to make a choice, I’d say that seafood is the most American food you can have. Nobody can make seafood like the Americans and Canadians. And that is why I chose to stop by at a typical Maryland Chesapeake Bay seafood restaurant that advertised the region's famous blue crabs. Men’s Journal, which I read before travelling to this region, advised to try this Chesapeake culinary specialty and who was I to doubt that? What resulted was the most bizarre dining experience I’ve had in my life. The fact that we got dressed in plastic aprons should have said enough, but feeling ridiculous we took these off soon. And then the horror began. A bucket load of crabs was served, together with two hammers and the warning: do absolutely not eat the devil’s fingers. What devil’s fingers? Looking around I noticed a lot of people slashing their crabs. I will never forget the nun, clad in plastic, hammering with so much force on her seafood, as if she had to release years of accumulated frustration. What unfolded before our eyes, and where we were part of, was nothing more like a cheap splatter movie. Parts of crabs were spitting in my face, while their legs were broken off in search of some exquisite meat. The photo says enough – I might add though that it is my travelling companion looking in dismay there at his food. An attractive blonde woman noticed our inexperience and bewilderment. She smiled at me, behind her biker boyfriend, as if she understood and was sending me her encouragement. I still remember her look, crab leg hanging from her mouth and grease slowly dripping from her chin. Somehow her smile was even erotic this way.