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Friday, June 13, 2014

Lust and Longing: An American Ex-Pat Goes Grocery Shopping

"When I was living in England I found that the more I lived abroad, the more American I discovered I was." — Daniel J. Boorstin 

   It's true; at least it is true for me. In the three years I've lived here I've discovered the "American Me." When one is living in one's native country it is not necessary to think consciously about one's nationality or cultural identity--it is a part of the air one breathes; it is the Mother tongue. We don't miss what we've always had on hand and taken for granted. We have no idea what things we will pine for, sigh for, and jones over (American slang meaning to crave something.) And therein lies the ex-pat's dilemma.
NB Valerie moored up outside of Tesco--Frogmore Wharf
   One can eventually find--if not the very same item as in America--a product very near to what one thoughtlessly took for granted back in the States. It does require a lot of sleuthing though to suss things out.
   For example Baking Soda over here is Bicarbonate of Soda, garlic powder is called Garlic granules, etc. Some products are simply not available here and a British equivalent is necessary. Muscovado Sugar is a ready replacement for brown sugar, and adds a richer, deeper flavor than American brown sugar which is refined white sugar with a layer of molasses spray painted over it; Treacle subs for molasses, and Lyle's Golden Syrup puts corn syrup to shame! Lyle's syrup has a lovely butterscotch flavor that makes baked goods MMMM yummy! Corn syrup is thick, sweet and lacks character--period. Some American products are available here like Jif Peanut butter but the British brands are in my opinion far superior--not as sugary sweet, or greasy.
   Recently we've noticed Tesco supermarkets are beginning to provide more American products in their Foreign Foods section. Here are some product pictures and price comparisons:
Americans will faint at these prices! Will Brits pay them? What about American ex-pats? Depends on how badly you miss them.

   Let's start with Jiff Peanut Butter. Tesco charges £4.00 ($6.40) for a 454 gram jar. A 16 ounce jar is the closest American weight; 450 grams is equivalent to 16 ounces. Stateside my daughters can pick up a one pound jar for $2.78 (£1.73). 
   Smuckers Goober Grape and Peanut Butter spread is £4.50 ($7.20) for 510 grams. Again 16 ounces Stateside is the closest one will come to the actual 17.999 ounces in 510 grams. My grandsons can enjoy this spread on their bread for a mere $2.96 (£1.85). 
   Kraft Macaroni and Cheese comes in two sizes: Single dinner, and Family size. This product is a staple of most Americans for those times when one is truly too exhausted to cook. For American poor folk it is a common cheap dinner.
   Back when my kids were young I used to make a quick and easy meal by making a single box of Kraft Mac 'n' Cheese per the instructions. Before serving I added a drained can of tuna fish and a drained can of green beans. Tossed up and heated through with some lemon pepper on top I thought it was a lovely bit of cheap and cheerful. My kids however were not so keen. This dish came to be called "shitty" in our house--as in " Oh Ma do we have to have shitty for dinner?" 
   Over here the single box of Kraft Mac 'n' Cheese costs £2.20 ($3.56) for 206 grams . In the USA it costs $1.59 (£1.00). The family size box costs £4.75 ($7.69). In the States it costs $2.99 (£1.84).
  A1 Steak Sauce at Tesco costs a hefty £5.50 ($8.80) per bottle! At Walmart in the States one could buy A1 Sauce for $2.98 (£1.96). 
  Kelloggs Pop Tarts fruit filled, cost £3.50 ($5.67) for a box of eight. In the states an 8 pack costs $2.18 (£1.34). 

   A 425 gram can of Libby's canned Pumpkin costs £2.00 ($3.24). In the States a 15 ounce can costs $1.74 (£1.00).
   Tesco gouges its customers £1.50 ($2.43) for one 335 ml. can of Cherry Dr. Pepper soda pop. In the U.S. a 12 ounce can (354 ml) costs $0.58. 
    Twinkies! A well loved American junk food with enough preservatives in it to last for twenty years on the shelf. £7.50 ($12.15) for a 10 pack; Americans can pick them up at the local grocers for $3.49 (£2.15).
  A word to the wise: If you like Pepsi cola original formula made with sugar you can find 12 packs of 355 ML cans on the Foreign Food shelf at Tesco for the princely sum of £12.00 ($19.44)!  Back home in Washington State I could buy a 12 pack of Pepsi original in 12 ounce cans for $5.49 (£3.58). Talk about being gouged!!! But then out of curiosity I went to Tesco's regular soda aisle where I found Pepsi "Regular" which is also made with sugar. A 12 pack of 355 ml cans costs £3.50 ($5.67). It pays to comparison shop.
   Sometimes we run across supposedly "American" products which I've never heard of before, for example Tesco bakery is making much of their fresh baked bread, including the large, round Apple and Pecan bread on the right, whose plastic bag sports a U.S. flag. £1.90 they want for it as well! Unless this is some phenomenon from the American South, I have never heard of Apple Pecan bread and I wouldn't eat it either. I do wish Tesco would hire me to choose their American food products. Not only would I make far better choices but I would be willing to provide demos at the store to get Brits hooked on those products as well!

Spanish and Britican vs. "authentic" Mexican Food
 I sometimes long for a plate of burritos, enchiladas, a Tamal and some rice that is honest to goodness Mexican. It is the food I've grown up with prepared and cooked by Mexicans opening restaurants in the USA. It is a good thing I can make most of these favorites from scratch although I will admit to never trying my hand at making Tamales. They must be made in large batches by a kitchen full of women following their abuela's recipe in order to be any good.
   I've checked the menus in Mexican restaurants over here to find food that is mainly Spanish--not Mexican. While there is nothing at all wrong with Spanish cuisine, it is not the same as Mexican; to assume so is akin to thinking Indian food and British food are the same thing.
   Grocery store products claiming to be Mexican made by American companies such as Old El Paso are in reality what I call Britican--loosely based on Mexican food changed to reflect British tastes. There is also an assumption by grocers, restaurateurs and perhaps Brits in general that "American" means hot; blow the top of your head off and make you weep when going to the loo kind of hot!
   Les used to tease me because each time we went shopping I would slowly peruse the "Mexican" food section looking for mild green chiles. Nope, nada! The only chiles on the shelves were red or green Jalapeños--and occasionally a can or jar of Chipotles which are in fact smoked Jalapeños. When considering a pizza to go (take away) in some of the local shoppes over here, a standard menu offering is The American, littered with you guessed it--Jalapeños, which is like saying all British foods contain jellied Eels.
   At the Moscow, Idaho Saturday Farmer's market in summer one could buy literally hundreds of different varieties of fresh and dried chiles. Not all chiles are hot. Pasillos, Italian Pepperoncinis, Anaheim, Banana, Guajillo and several other varieties are lovely and mild--all that unique chile flavor with only a mild heat. 
   The Scoville scale is used to rate the heat in chile peppers in Scoville Heat Units or SHU. Jalapeños and Chipotles come in at 8000 SHU. By comparison, Poblanos rate 2000, Bananas are at 900, Anaheims are at 600, Pepperoncinis rate 500 and Pasilla peppers are a mild and fruity 150.
   Nearer the top end of the Scoville scale are peppers like Jwala and De Arbol (30,000 SHU), Aji and Tobasco fly high at 50,000, Birdseye, Habaneros and Piri Piri Peppers turn up the heat at 300,000 SHU, and The Bedfordshire Super Naga Chile is a brain frying 1,120,000 scovilles and makes my point that Brits like to spice up nearly everything--hot-hot-HOT!!
   Mexican Fajitas are traditionally cooked on a super hot cast iron oval Fajita skillet. The meat is seared as are slices of red and green bell peppers and white onions, seasoned with garlic, lime juice, paprika, cumin, and chile powder for those who like them spicy hot. Wrapped in a hot flour tortilla this is a slice of Mexican heaven. 
   Over here one can pick up an Old El Paso brand Fajita meal kit--for Oven baked Crispy chicken Fajitas. Whaaaat???? The kit contains a shaker bag to coat the chicken which is baked in the oven. The ingredients include dried onions, black pepper, tomato paste, salt, vinegar, ginger (really???), lemon juice, Guajillo peppers (2,500-5000 SHU's), garlic powder and paprika. 
    Another meal kit that leaves me perplexed is Smoky BBQ Beef Enchiladas with cream sauce packet included.
   Now the word Barbecue comes from the term Barbicoa which comes from the West Indies, and supposedly from the Taino Indians of the Bahamas. While BBQ is finger lickin' good it is not Mexican. Some of these kits contain nutmeg, bay leaf, leek, parsley, Rosemary extract, and cream cheese--none of which I have ever encountered in traditional Mexican food.    
   Finally there is Mexican Corn. Over here cans of Green Giant Mexican Style Corn includes corn, onions, black beans, red peppers, and lime juice.  
   In the States Green Giant's Mexi-Corn contains corn, green and red bell peppers.
   I will give Brits credit for their ability to borrow food from other cultures and put their own special twist on things as well as their open minded attitude to trying almost everything at least once. 
   Still when one is 7000 miles from home, one wants the real deal not the near thing. I've yet to source bologna lunch meat, sweet Italian Sausage, or La Choy crispy Chow Mein Noodles which add deep fried but not greasy crunch to everything from Chow Mein to cookies. 
   At long last Tesco apparently heard my fervent prayer for mild chiles and I found them in jars at the Frogmore Wharf Tesco in Rickmansworth.
   Les nearly had to hide in the loo while I dropped to my knees in front of the aisle and wept in gratitude.
   While the Enchilada sauce over here is adulterated with coriander, breadcrumbs, and other distinctly non-Mexican spices, I can make my own sauce from scratch and now with mild chiles my Mexican food will finally taste authentic--but not blind us with heat.
    Another American product I despaired of ever finding in England has popped
 up miraculously and I am thrilled to have access to Agave Nectar. Made from Agave cactus, it is a low glycemic natural sweetener and I've used it for years to replace sugar wherever possible.

  While progress is arriving slowly there are still things for which I long:
   Hot Dogs--or Frankfurters, and American style sausage in general. It took me a long time to find an American hot dog equivalent over here. Yes, there are Hot dogs in jars, touted as "American style!" To that I must insist that no real died-in-the-wool American would ever let a Hot dog in a jar pass their lips. To put a fine point on this theme--American Hot Dogs are also NOT sausages. They are not Brockwurst, Brautworst or some other form of sausage. I've had my heart broken a number of times after seeing a food booth at a market advertising Hot Dogs. Nothing could be further from the truth for an American and the average "wurst" cannot hold a candle in my opinion to a Ball Park 100% all beef "Plumps-as-it-cooks Frank, or a Nathan's Dog.
   I find it odd in the land of the Beefeaters that while fresh meat is generally quite tasty, sausages over here are bland, tasteless and filled with bread. I gave up eating sausages until I found Heck brand 97% pork sausages. If I want bread with my sausage I will toast a slice and put it under my meat.
English fry up
Britain is known for its breakfast--the quintessential English Fry Up which consists of British Bacon (for an American it is like kissing your sister), sausages grilled till very dark brown and leathery, two eggs staring (whites done, yolks raw and looking at you), fried mushroom slices, half a broiled tomato, a small bowl of baked beans, sometimes a pile of chips, and toast. 

Real hashbrowns, crispy bacon and eggs over easy!
  I jones for an All American Fry up, which includes American bacon--not British streaky bacon which is cut thin enough to see through--but thick, crisp, wavy bacon which crunches when you bite it and is known by its secret American name: meat candy.
   Keeping the bacon company are two eggs any way you want them. I like mine "over easy" which means they are flipped gently so the whites are cooked but the yolk is not, leaving a thin white membrane of cooked egg over the yolks. I once asked for my eggs over easy and the waitress thought I was propositioning her. 
  To finish the American Fry Up, accompany it with a heaping mound of freshly grated, crispy hash browned potatoes--not a triangular frozen potato cake. Add a plate of toast or a stack of pancakes. Mmmm good!
A picture of the fresh meat counter: Billy Bear Sausage, Ox Tongue, Corned Beef and Ham.
   Things I've found over here that I could never find in the States??? Freshly prepared, hot baked pasties. OH-My-GOD!!! The original British fast food--these hand held pies filled with minced meat, onions, potato, carrot, and swede are to die for. An Egg McMuffin or Sausage McBiscuit has nothing on these beauties freshly baked and filled with British love. We enjoy a walk around a village or town on a Saturday morning and stop for a fresh, hot pasty which warms our hands in winter as well as our bellies.
   Fresh baked goods in general over here are fabulous. And there is not a strawberry grown anywhere else on this planet to rival fresh British strawberries and that is not an overstatement.
   Also lets not forget Pimms! Fresh fruit and booze cannot be beat. Pimms is the sophisticated, grown up sibling of Sangria.
   With all the things I miss its a very good thing the quintessentially British life I live on the canals with my lovely English husband and our truly wonderful friends is only available Over Here; a life that makes missing out on some home grown favorites totally worth it.  


Jacquie said...

Oh poor Jaq, Tesco's still not stocking your favourite Grahm crackers yet though. Do you remember when your last packet went, when that dog knicked them when we were on the Lee and Stort ? we can laugh now, but we were all so looking forward to our pudding treat. LOL. Jacquie xxxxxxx

Bryce said...

Why the heck do you think the 'Mericans are grossly huge and fat? If it doesn't have sugar as the first second or third ingredient, it will NOT be consumed.
Sadly with more US based companies purchasing Canadian food companies, our level of obesity is on the way up too. Smuckers purchased two or three well know Canadian brands a while back.
One was Bicks pickles which used
cucumbers from Ontario exclusively. Smuckers closed Bicks in Canada and the cucumbers now come from Mexico and India where in some cases human waste is the fertilizer. Heinz recently closed the ketchup plant in Leamington
which employed 700 workers and used produce from all over southern
Ontario. The red slop now comes from Mexico. The ingredients now list it as tomatos sauce sugar (here ingredients must be listed in order from largest amount to smallest. Before Leamington closed
sugar was four or fifth on the list in Canada, now it is second.
The reason given was over production however suspect it was the cost of doing business in Canada; as the wages in Canada are
quite high, much higher than the US or the UK by comparison.
Maybe you should fill the readers in on Graham crackers, and the cost to ship four boxes to NB Valerie from Canada!

Elly and Mick said...

Jaq, ditto on the strawberries.... how delicious are they!

How do you make your potato hash brown? What binds it together? Please tell me how to make them. I hate the triangle thingies too.

We were rather partial to the smokey chicken fajita mix in the UK and brought back half a dozen packets. I know it's nothing like authentic Mexican but they still taste good with a dollop of fat free Greek yoghurt (my favourite brand has been left behind in the UK).

You know, when we first arrived in the UK I lamented the loss of so many things that we bought regularly. Now we are home I'm thinking of the auk things I wish I could buy! Can't win can you.

Will enjoy reading blogs again once we have ourselves sorted.
Elly (ex Parisien Star)

Bryce said...

Should have added...
the tradtional English breakfast along with cold toast in a toaster rack, was always described to me as a Heart Attack On A pLate.
Reason is eat a breakfast like every
day is a good recipe for a possible
coronary thrombosis!

Boatwif said...

I cannot agree with your comments on British Bacon and Sausages. You need to buy them from a "proper" butchers.
The RAF at Goose Bay in Canada were fed on US sausages and bacon and we would fly in UK sausages and bacon at an exchange rate of 1lb = 1lb of Salmon.
Love to you both,
Ken and Sue
nb Cleddau, Oundle

Dragontatoo said...

I so love your food related posts! There are a few things I'd like to address...

1. I would NEVER consider feeding your grandsons Smucker's Grape Jelly/Peanut Butter Concoction -- blech!

2. You used to give me such a heap of shite for feeding your grandsons hotdogs that I think karma is now taking her bit of return...

I love and miss you both 1000 Swedish Fish!

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Jacq,
Yes indeed I do remember the great dog theft of our beloved Angel Bars, the crime which took place up on the River Stort. $15.00 and imported graham crackers--all gone down a bloody dog's gullet because its owner couldn't be bothered to keep it on a leash.
I've actually found Graham cracker crumbs in the Foreign Food aisle in Tesco in Wetford--for the princely sum of £^.99 a box!!
Love JaqXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Well Bryce I cannot argue with anything you've said in your comments. I will be doing another post soon which will address the shipment you lovingly posted form Canada.
Love JaqX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Ken,
Well each to their own I guess. We have purchased both British bacon and sausage from a butchers and I still don't like them. But how lucky were you to be able to import the food you loved from home when you were abroad??
Love JaqXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Jesse!
Actually I knew you'd never feed our boys Goober, but I needed to vary my word choice to keep it interesting so I just suggested that you could do that--and it actually inspired you to comment--so it's all good!
As for hot dogs--I don't want them or eat them often, just about twice a year. but when I do jones for them I want an American hot dog--all beef no rusk or cereal. Eat some Hormel maple and pork breakfast sausages for me would you please?
LOL I notice you didn't comment at all about Shitty!
Love Ma

Mike said...

I am suffering from boomerang schitzophrenia!! When I emigrated from the UK to Canada (1977), I missed a lot of food things from the UK (chip shop fish & chips e.g.), having returned we now miss lots of North American stuff, the deli meat counter in a typical UK supermarket is to be shunned!! However fish and chips is still good, and a good fishmonger and butchers are to be treasured. Fortunately we have both in many places on our travels.
Mike, nb GARNET

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs