CHICAGO BLUES

I’m a Yankee doodle boertjie

By Chris Pretorius 16 July 2021

Sandwich, loaded. (Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash)

You need a dry Afrikaans sense of humour to survive in the USA.

Chris Pretorius

The author supports Isabelo, chef Margot Janse’s charity which feeds school children every day. Please support them here.

I don’t know who I am any more. Okay, I realise it’s not quite a unique state of being but it is annoying nonetheless. Contributing to my emotional conundrum is the fact that I’m writing this on the 4th of July. The 4th of July is American Independence Day. It’s a long weekend in the middle of summer and everybody goes completely bonkers. I should be out there drinking Bud Light, throwing burgers and hotdogs on the grill, waving the Star Spangled Banner around, and blasting off fireworks. Instead I’m sitting here brooding and feeling like a cranky rootless vagabond.

I am a US citizen. I’ve had a US passport for many years. But I don’t feel American. I don’t even sound like a bloody Yankee. After all these years I  still find it hard to understand some Americans, especially on the phone. So I tend to limit my calls. My sense of humour is utterly un-American. People here look at me strangely when I attempt to say something funny. My dry Afrikaans sense of humour just doesn’t cut it here in the land of the open mic and loud stand-up comedy. It is also the land of dazzling bright smiles, something I am incapable of. It’s hard to be my carefree sullen self while surrounded by dazzling smiles all the time.

I definitely have a different sense of time. Not that I work at a slower pace or anything. I just can’t be bothered to look like I’m doing things faster than I actually am. I even talk slowly. Americans pride themselves on looking efficient and always tend to be in a tizzy, rushing around, doing 10 things at once. There is a reason Americans invented fast food. That notion you have of the relaxed laidback yank is a myth. 

I’m used to it now but in the early days it really struck me that just about everybody here was going around either munching on something or sipping from a plastic cup or bottle. Jaws constantly in motion. Having a kid in school here brought it home to me that you can’t organise any kind of gathering or event or playdate without some parent offering to bring refreshments usually consisting of potato chips and chocolate chip cookies or donuts. You just can’t plan on doing anything without someone offering to bring something to eat. It’s kind of sweet but it also puts you under the obligation to reciprocate and everybody ends up in this vicious refreshments cycle.

My wife Jill bought this Dunkin’ Donuts spread specially for the photo, and she and my son Willem were crawling around laughing while setting it up. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

Even in work meetings, no matter what time of day. You walk into the room and there is a box of Dunkin’ Donuts on the table and everybody is sipping a Starbucks coffee. Or clutching the ubiquitous bottle of water. As if, in the middle of a meeting, they would suddenly dehydrate, shrivel up and die. If you want to really spook an American, tell them they are in danger of dehydrating.

I love coffee, but I want to drink it from an actual ceramic cup while calmly sitting down, or leaning on a counter, to savour it, not walking around and slurping it from a paper cup. To sit down means to hit the pause button, which is un-American, because it means you’re checking out of the mad rush, if only briefly. Dear God, that person is sitting down and not looking busy! Must be a foreigner!

Americans, of course, are notorious for eating lunch at their desks, or while otherwise engaged. Generally lunch is seen as an opportunity to fuel up, not a moment to relax and enjoy food in the middle of a busy day and perhaps have a conversation. Share ideas even. If I ran a business I’d much rather have my employees doing that, even having a beer, rather than huddling behind their computers munching stale soggy sandwiches and wilted lettuce leaves. Not the kind of milieu that leads to wild creative thinking. Bring back the three Martini lunch! Sort of.

Speaking of lunch, I have serious issues with American sandwiches. They’re just too overloaded for my taste. It’s impossible to find a sandwich here that doesn’t contain everything including the kitchen sink. So consequently, no matter where you buy it or how much you pay for it, the mishmash of flavours makes them all taste the same. Even so, Americans just love arguing about where you can buy the best sandwich. By best they mean how much stuff is piled on it, never mind what it tastes like.

I once saw a quote by the founder of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, considered by many to be the best deli in America, that a good sandwich should be so thick that you can’t get your mouth around it and the juice should be running down your arm while you are trying to gobble it up. As a matter of fact, I’ve had one of their thick sandwiches and it tasted just like any other thick sandwich out there. (Once I managed to get my mouth around it.)

Ordering a sandwich in places like Amsterdam or Paris is a whole different story. They keep it simple. A ham sandwich is usually good bread or a crisp buttered roll with mustard and a slice of ham on it. You can taste the bread, you can taste the butter and you can taste the ham. And I think therein lies the difference. Americans have lazy tastebuds. Simple perfection goes mostly unnoticed here. Like Hollywood movies, everything, including food, needs to be loud, fast and furious.

I’m not much of a beer drinker any more, but I like a good beer on a summer’s day. Call me a cook, but I prefer that beer to be served in a glass. Pouring beer into a glass releases the aroma and reveals the colour of the beer, and then there is that all important head of foam. And it just tastes better in a glass. But forget about a glass if you order a beer in a restaurant or bar here because everybody swigs beer straight from the bottle. So you have to ask for a glass and usually, when they finally remember your glass, your beer has gone flat and everybody is onto their second drink.

I’m also very picky about beer. Back in my South African days I used to be a Castle guy. I liked that dry, clean lager taste. Although the last time I had a Castle in South Africa it tasted suspiciously like American beer. So either my taste memory is playing tricks on me or they’ve changed the formula. The latter, I think. My preferred beer is pilsner, or lager, a style at which the German and Central European brewers are masters. It is also the most difficult style to brew and get right because its sheer simplicity will immediately show up flaws in the brewing process. It also takes a lot longer than IPAs to brew, so why bother?

Half of the craft beer cooler in my local supermarket. Couldn’t stand back far enough to fit the whole thing in. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

Thirty years ago when I arrived on these shores (I say shores because Chicago is on the shores of Lake Michigan), Americans drank only Budweiser or Miller. Interestingly, the Great Lakes shore line, also known as the third coast, is longer than the East and West coast shorelines combined. Leinenkugel was the only so-called independent brewery that I can remember. Well, they called them beers here but I had to check the label to verify that I was actually drinking beer and not horse pee. They sucked, to put it bluntly. And they were always so cold I thought my fillings would pop out of my teeth, probably to hide the total absence of any flavour. Also, Budweiser and Miller are brewed with rice and corn syrup, by the way. But then, people who can drink root beer can drink anything I suppose.

To digress for a moment, it’s interesting that Budweiser has been embroiled in a trademark dispute with the EU for many years. Brewers in the city of Budweis in Bohemia have been brewing a lager style of beer referred to as Budweiser for centuries. When Anheuser-Busch began brewing beer in St Louis in 1876 they also called it Budweiser, to appeal to the many North and Central European immigrants settling in the Midwest Great Lakes area. But when they tried to trademark the name in Europe the Czech breweries objected. The European courts ruled that Budweis was a protected Geographical Indication, and blocked the Americans from trademarking the name in Europe. Consequently they had to market it as “Bud” in Europe. Apparently appeals are still ongoing, nearly a hundred years later. Makes me think of some of the stuff happening in SA at the moment, like the agave and mezcal issue with Mexico. Not to mention Methode Cap Classique, formerly known as good old champagne until those pesky French objected.

Interesting that in the early 20th century America played fast and loose with international trademark agreements. South Africa had a similar attitude during the apartheid years, as if international law didn’t apply to it. Now the Americans are super touchy about the Chinese flaunting trademarks, something they did themselves not too long ago. But after all is said and done, I have to wonder what kind of moron would bother to buy an American beer in Europe anyway.

Pilsner Urquell, the world’s first pilsner, dating back to 1842. Still brewed in Pilsen, Bohemia. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

Fortunately for me, because of the huge influence of the above-mentioned settlers, finding decent German or Czech beer in Chicago has never been a problem. Every pub used to have at least Stiegl, Bitburger or Pilsner Urquell on tap. Note, I said “used to”. Suddenly local craft brews are all the rage. America has bounced from under malted barley hopped corporate beers to a tyranny of over hopped craft IPAs. And before you know it, Starbucks, never a slouch when it comes to trends, might start adding hops to their cappuccino. It’s like that sandwich you can’t get your mouth around and the juice runs down your arm. Urgh! If you are a budding local craft brewer reading this, do us a favour and skip the IPA stuff and go easy on the hops, okay?

Okay, enough of beer already. It’s the 4th of July and here in America the 4th of July is synonymous with barbecue. The word barbecue comes from the Caribbean word barbacoa, meaning cooking meat over an open flame. But here it means slow cooking meat smothered in sauce for up to 15 hours over very low flames and lots of smoke. With lots of sweet sauce involved.

Mention the word barbecue to any American male and first they’ll tell you about their barbecue sauce recipe with a secret ingredient (probably either ketchup, cinnamon or maple syrup). Then, for the next hour at least, they will hold forth on which city has the best barbecue. St Louis, Missouri, Kansas City, Nashville, Austen Texas, Dallas… And I say none of the above. I’ve tried barbecue in most of the above cities and I don’t like the stuff. I just can’t see the point in slathering meat with some sweet, icky yucky overpowering goop.

I’m very much a salt and pepper kind of guy when it comes to grilling meat. I want to taste the meat and the fire. To me, that’s all it needs. Note, I’m not including chicken here. I was a little surprised to see how many braai sauces there were in South African butcher shops and supermarkets during my last visit. Careful, it’s a slippery slope, that.

Lem’s, an African-American barbecue shack on Chicago’s South Side. Been there since 1954. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

Even Chicago has a barbecue scene, mostly on the South Side and, interestingly, the pitmasters are all African-American. Interesting because the barbecue smokehouse tradition has basically been appropriated by the young, tattooed, weird facial haired craft IPA beer brewing crowd, its origins as a Southern Black food largely forgotten. Like many black jazz musicians, pitmasters fled the Deep South during the time of the underground railroad and brought their craft to northern cities like Chicago and Detroit.

So whether I like it or not, barbecue ain’t goin’ nowhere. It’s an American tradition. But over-hopped IPA? I’m not so sure. Craft whisky and gin distilleries are suddenly a big thing. I shudder to think where that might end up. There is already a bar around the corner from us that has more than a hundred whiskies available.

America is kind of a fickle place. Things come and go at quite a rate here. Americans love fads. And now with social media they come and go even faster. Back in the ’60s, fondue parties were the big thing. In the ’70s it was quiche. Remember “Real men don’t eat quiche”?

In the ’90s there was hazelnut flavoured coffee. And sun-dried tomatoes, which now you can’t find anywhere. A few months ago it was avocado toast. People paid up to $15 for a slice of toast with mashed avocado. Not kidding. And rainbow food, like rainbow bagels, is really hot right now. Imagine a brightly coloured rainbow bagel with salmon lox and cream cheese first thing in the morning. Enough to make your morning headache go downhill fast.

A year or two ago, bone broth was the health drink du jour. Oh, I also remember, back in the ’90s, you couldn’t go anywhere without tripping over a focaccia. I haven’t seen focaccia around in ages. A few years ago ramen joints crowded with young people Instagramming themselves slurping ramen popped up on every corner. With poké bowl joints hot on their heels.

And then there was the cupcake thing, apparently inspired by Sex and the City, but I wouldn’t know because I never watched it. I always wondered how a shop could survive selling only cupcakes in expensive cities like Chicago or New York. Well, apparently not too well because they’re mostly gone now. But that didn’t deter the macaron shops following closely in their wake. It’s one thing to see macarons at your local bakery. But a shop selling only macarons? Even I can do the maths.

Then of course there is soy milk, followed by almond milk, followed by rice milk, oat milk, even hemp milk. And let’s not forget the gluten free thing and the GMO free thing. At least I think the Europeans are more GMO phobic than Americans, so let’s hand America that.

Well, I should stop here because I don’t want to give people the wrong impression. I’m perfectly happy living here in Chicago. And whether I like it or not, I am actually American. On paper, at least. So I guess I should get my sorry Afrikaans-boy ass out there and throw some hotdogs and burgers on the fire like a good American. It is 4th of July after all. I’ve never been a flag-waving kind of person so I’ll skip that part. One has to draw the line somewhere. DM/TGIFood

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