You cannot understand a nation’s culture without eating its food

That was the motto painted on the wall of the North Sea Village, a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, about 20 years ago.  I don’t know if the restaurant is still there (probably not) nor which North Sea village its name referred to (Inverbervie?  Sandhaven?) But I still like the motto.  So, in one more Tour Top Ten, I offer you:

TEN MOST MEMORABLE WAYS TO UNDERSTAND THE USA.

1. Czech-American Restaurant, West, TX.  On our way up from Austin to the Tommy Duncan Festival in Hillsboro, we stopped at West, site of a previous culinary pilgrimage for me about 15years ago.  Last time I’d been mildly disappointed, this time I found the right place and was wildly excited: at last, Czech food of great flavour and character in a community still influenced by its original central European settlers 150-odd years ago.  The Czech-American is a somewhat dilapidated joint, ancient pictures hanging off the walls, lighting somewhat murky, fittings a little mix ‘n’ match.  My guess is they’re too busy cooking great food to worry about fripperies like interior design.  It had to be smoked sausage with sauerkraut and Czech fries…yup, good choice…washed down with iced tea.  There are shinier, better-lit places in West, but this is the real deal, and a fine introduction to the Texan melting pot.

2.  Hermitage Cafe, Nashville, TN.  3am breakfast of omlettes, biscuits & gravy, bacon, orange juice, coffee – distributed amongst everyone in different proportions – and the best jukebox of the whole darn trip, pumping out Hank, Left, Loretta and a host of other historic honky tonk greats to a cafe full of current honky tonk greats sharing our breakfast: Chris Scruggs, Danny Mohammed, Scott Icenogle and last but not least Craig Smith. Perfect refuelling stop after a fantastic day and night of music-making and listening on Lower Broadway.

3.   Smitty’s Barbecue, Lockhart, TX.  By general consensus the best of several good barbecues in Lockhart.  I was last here about 1999, when it was still called Kreutz Market. Following a family split, Kreutz moved to a big new location elsewhere in town, but the magic seems to have stayed here in the old building.  Beef brisket tender as marshmallow, and nearly as sweet…  40 miles or so outside of Austin, but unmissable.

4.  Triple XXX Diner, West Lafayette, IN.  A haven of good old fashion American cooking in the fast-food hell that was the Purdue campus.  Sure, they sell root beer, milk shakes, fries, cherry pies and burgers – but all of these things are made here, freshly made, expertly made, made with love and care!  Not much wonder their speciality burger, the Duane Purvis  All American, had reached the finals of the Superbowl Sandwich competition while we were there.

A unique and striking burger, made special by having dollops of peanut butter smeared over the chopped sirloin after cooking and before bunning, this was a memorable treat washed down by a pitcher of their own root beer.  This is the American diner you’ve always dreamed of.

 

 

5.  A tiny taqueria somewhere on the outskirts of Lafayette, IN.  We were whisked in here so quickly by Paul Baldwin, local man about town and owner of the excellent Black Sparrow pub (no mean eatery itself: the blue cheese and fig pizza was our fave), so quickly, I say, that we didn’t catch the name.  The menu two was merely waved in front of us, as Paul recommended one thing in particular: ox tongue tacos.  I’m glad he did: they were fantastic: simple, fresh and flavoursome.  Street-food simple, I suppose you’d say.  And all the better for it.  Mexican food in the UK is rubbish: it buries itself under a burden of refried beans, stodgy rice, guacamole, salsas, corn, tomatoes, grated cheese, multiple flatbreads and pounds of meat.  Here’s the secret, guys: keep it as simple as this and you’ve got one of the world’s great cuisines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.  Birrieria Zaragoza, Chicago, IL.  It was only me who went here, no one else fancied it.  Well, it was a dozen or so miles out of the city centre in an area that we were advised to avoid.  The other thing that might have put folk off was that the only dish it serves is goat meat.  Not to worry, I persuaded two Chicago resident friends, Gene and Debby, who had never heard of it and were not overwhelmed with anticipation, to drive me down there and use their excellent Spanish to smooth the way.  (Not essential, but I think it helped get us an even warmer welcome than we would have done.)  So, nothing but goat…to be precise steamed and braised goat meat, served in a deep, subtle ancho chile sauce.  Accompanied by a picante salsa in a granite bowl, and condiments: lime quarters, diced raw peppers, cilantro (coriander leaves) and dried chile peppers of some kind.  And lots of paper napkins to wipe the inevitably sticky fingers.  Ask Gene and Debby, folks, it was an absolute joy: simple food cooked to perfection.  They’re on the web if you want to check them out, or better still just pop down to 852 South Pulaski Road: a Polish name but a Mexican neighbourhood…and a chowhound’s dream.

7.  Cartino Italian Restaurant, Chicago, IL.  A fantastic procession of Italian ‘tapas’ – i.e. small pizzas, pasta bowls, saucers of octopus, parma ham, cheese, etc – to celebrate Dick’s birthday.  Checked tablecloths, giant pepper grinders, cheap red wine…the works. We all had a great time.  (Me, Stevie and Emma had a great brunch the next day, too, at Lula’s Cafe.  A very hip place with a good wine list – including an Arbois from the Jura – wow – though we didn’t sample it at brunch, you’ll be glad to hear.)

8.  Texas de Brazil, Chicago IL.  A woman in a lift recommended this to Dick, and he recommended it to me and Iain.  A good tip, lady…  The idea was to marry the beef-overload culture of Texan cowboys with the, eh, beef-overload culture of Brazilian gauchos.  So you paid a set price ($45, the dearest meal of our trip) and for that got unlimited supplies of freshly grilled beef (various cuts) delivered to your plate on three-foot-long skewers by guys in gaucho gear (several of whom turned out to be Romanian, not Brazilian, but never mind.)  Also sausages, lamb chops and quarter chickens.  They just kept coming, the meat kept piling up faster than we could eat it – till we discovered that if you turned over a little card by your water glass so the red rather than the green side was uppermost, they stopped persecuting you with their delicious, succulent fillets and strips…  Here’s the funny thing, we would happily have paid almost as much money not to have eaten meat at all, and just to have feasted on the fantastic salad and vegetable buffet, all of it sparklingly fresh.  We saw more vegetables this night than we had in the whole of the previous two weeks in Texas and Indiana!  In fact, the three of us probably ate more vegetables this one night than the population of Texas…  To cap it all, if anyone ordered a bottle of wine, a waitress swung down on a trapeze, twirling head over heels as she went, and plucked the required bottle from its shelf on the three-storey-high wine shelving, behind smoked glass, all along the side wall of the restaurant.  It was the stupidest feature I have ever seen in any restaurant anywhere…and another reason to check out this remarkable place.  (Bizarrely, vegetarians would actually eat better here than in most other places we tried across the US.)

9.  Spruce Creek Diner, a few miles outside Huntingdon, PA.  Local presenter and all round good egg Chad Herzog drove us to this place after an early morning visit to an Amish/Mennonite market nearby for pepper & garlic cashews and fresh (non-alcoholic) sweet apple cider.  Spruce Creek Diner is famed for its speciality, the Tray of Fries.  (Which, to the uninitiated, is indeed a trayful of chips.)  A ‘Wall of Shame’ inside the front porch shows photos of the handful of folk who have eaten a whole tray themselves and lived.  We managed a tray (just) between six of us.  Also worth a mention is the soup of the day that day, a sirloin burger broth, and the pies from the bakery next door.  Afterwards we walked, or waddled, fifty yards to what is supposedly the best trout fishing stream in the USA.  Enthusiasts pay many thousands of dollars to come and fish here.  They could come to Stenness Loch in orkney and fish for trout for free (and keep what they catch, rather than having to throw them back…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

10.  A dozen Apalachicola oysters (‘the best in the state’) in Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack, Tallahassee, FL.  $8 for 12 oysters!  Luxury at fast food prices!

Let’s leave it there: I’m full…

. . .

PS  Except maybe just…how about a milk shake at the Triple XXX?  http://youtu.be/h5qicdxIyIo

PPS  You want cheese on that?

Advertisements

All work and no play…

…is not what this tour is about.

After a very hectic and exhausting (though rewarding) week in Chicago it’s been great to get a couple of days off in Huntingdon in beautiful west Pennsylvania.

I should come clean and admit that it’s really the band who have been having the time off: James (stage management and lights) Stevie (sound) and Emma (staff director) have been disappearing to the venue and/or their hotel rooms to do WORK every day.

Except on Tuesday, we, with the aid of our generous and hospitable local presenter Chad Herzog, managed to prise Stevie and Emma out for a few hours sightseeing. (James remained attached to his laptop as firmly as a Scapa Flow limpet to a rock.) Chad took us down some caverns, and up some mountains. But the highlight of the afternoon was a company game of volleyball (the college’s speciality) overlooking Raystown Lake.

Impressive, huh? Sport and mime in one brief YouTube clip!

Thursday evening, after some tech and rehearsal in the afternoon, we persuaded an excellent local cafe, the Standing Stone Coffee Company, to let us set up and play a few songs and tunes. It was great to be in front of an audience again after the break, especially doing a completely relaxed musical set – no need to remember scripts and lighting cues, just heads-down, no-nonsense northern swing for 45 minutes.

Well, I say no nonsense…at one point Dick did attempt to walk out the door during an electric mandolin solo, aiming to perform for the audience while looking in through the plate glass windows at them. Unfortunately his lead was too short, so before he could even stumble past the mic stand he unplugged himself and fell silent. Unlike the audience, who guffawed and applauded this tour de force of musical professionalism: ‘Slick, Vegas-style showbiz,’ as Cornell Hurd likes to say.

Luckily, Linda was on hand to wow the cafe with her swinging fiddle…

All in all, a good warm up for this evening, which will have us performing Long Gone Lonesome to its biggest ever audience, in a 600 seater auditorium at Juniata College. Speaking of which, I must stop now and head off for our tech check and dress rehearsal.

Duncan

Standing Stones…

According to wikipedia “Huntingdon was settled in 1767 by the Rev. Dr. William Smith on the site of a famous Indian council ground, near the spot where Standing Stone Creek flows into the Juniata River. The spot was marked by the erection of a “Standing Stone Monument” erected at the borough centenary and rumored to exist before the founding of the original village which was called Standing Stone.” How appropriate, given Orkney is famed for it’s Standing Stones (see Ring of Brodgar pic). No sign of the standing stone here so far, but we have found the Standing Stone Cafe and in honour of the connection are going to break out the instruments and play a few tunes in there tonight at 9pm. A good chance to get warmed up before the next show tomorrow night. If you happen to be passing, come in along. The sun is blazing again here today, after a day of complete contrast yesterday with long awaited snowfall! It was a gorgeous sight, with every branch of every tree coated in no time.. will post some photos later. Dick got some guddling in yesterday too…  Need to rush off now… we’re off up to see the venue at Juniata College and get some rehearsal time in. Back to work…

Pennsylvania!

Seems like ages since I posted anything here. The days have been whizzing past… We’ve now made it to the 4th of our 5 destinations – Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Chicago was full of so many great experiences, especially the sell out shows at the iconic Hideout Club so it was kinda sad to be moving on. Such a fantastic city, and for me one that perfectly captures beauty, serenity and city mayhem. But it was time to hit the road. We landed here Monday, to a contrasting landscape to Chicago but an equally beautiful one – rolling hills, wide open fields and classic American red farm barns speckled everywhere – like where Superman grew up, as Dick put it. We were met by our host Chad Herzog, the Director of Performing Arts at Juniata College, where our next show will be on Friday this week.

As in Chicago we arrived to unseasonal winter weather of blue sky sunshine, and no snow. We took a stroll over to Huntingdon for a look round – a gorgeous little town, and recently voted by Budget Travel Magazine as the 5th Coolest small town in America.

A fine feed and a few beers in the local diner rounded off a day of travel. Chad has been taking great care of us and has shown us some local sights these past couple of days including Raystown Lake, a beautiful 28 mile long man made lake – probably pinned with people in the summer but deserted this time of year so good chance for a stroll. Plenty of bears around apparently, but snoozing this time of year thankfully.

Then for a tour round Lincoln Caverns, a network of underground caves with gorgeous sparkling formations.

As I’d feared, there was a bat, but only one and he was asleep. Dick got his first Billy Connolly since we got to the States! A common occurence for him apparently in Scotland, Dick tells us his record is 20 in Glasgow, including a drive-by roar from a passing vehicle.

Thomas Fraser popped into my head when the guide was telling us the caves were discovered in 1931, the year he was diagnosed with polio, and the beginning of his 2 years confinement to bed. Not sure what he would have made of the being 30 feet underground. Good acoustics though so he might have been keen to get reel to reel down there for a few songs.

Got in another few local sights today, including lunch at Spruce Creek Tavern, famed for their ‘tray of fries’. Too much for Duncan to resist.. Och, well not quite… they were for us all. In usual ‘Lone Star Swing’ banter style, it was too good a opportunity of revenge for Dick to miss tho… (you’ll get the idea from the photos below). The Duncan & Dick Show could be a go-er…