Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Attempting an American breakfast

I served American pancakes and bacon to my housemate Julia the other day, and she was so impressed that went out and bought ingredients for another breakfast, even inviting her boyfriend over to share in the delights.

“It’s an amazing taste experience,” she assured him. “I’m not usually keen on maple syrup, but it goes so well with the fluffy pancakes and salty bacon.”

I smiled broadly at these words in great relief, because the first time I tried to make American pancakes and bacon here in Nottingham, it was a culinary disaster on every scale.

I love to cook, and in my five years as a food writer, I’ve picked up plenty of expert tips along with extra confidence in the kitchen. So when I realized one day that I had a hankering for good old pancakes and bacon (though I adore the English version of pancakes, they what we'd call crepes), I breezily invited three Nottingham friends over to come share my feast.

But everything went wrong. Even though I’ve been flipping pancakes since I was 8 years old, try as I might I couldn’t manage to adjust the stove top to the all-important perfect temperature. The griddle I tried to use had ridges that made the pancakes impossible to turn, and, to make matters worse, my batter recipe was off. I ran out of plain flour and had to substitute self-raising flour halfway through, and my desperate attempts to “fix” it with extra milk and flour were pathetic, to say the least. So not a single pancake turned out well, and I rather embarrassingly had to serve a stack of pancakes with scorched surfaces and slightly runny middles.

Then there was the bacon. I do like English bacon, but those rounds of fried ham are what we call Canadian bacon. I’d been informed that streaky bacon was the closest British equivalent to American bacon, though it’s saltier. So while at Tesco’s, I bought a pack of what I thought was streaky bacon.

When I got it home and opened the package, I was puzzled because, while the strips of meat interlaced with fat looked like bacon, they were cut much too thick. So I took a knife and, with difficulty, shaved it thin into the bacon strips I know and love. I put them in the pan and fried away, hoping they’d magically transform into familiar bacon. Instead, a very un-bacony aroma filled the kitchen.

“This isn’t bacon, it’s just strips of regular pork!” I exclaimed. My housemate David dug the package out of the rubbish bin, and we laughed to read that I’d actually bought “streaky pork,” a fatty cut of pork that, as it turned out, nobody in the room liked.

By this time, though, the guests had assembled and there was no other food, so I set out the plate of dubious pancakes and dish of pork. There was also a large bowl of juicy Clementine oranges. That was it.

“Just pour over lots of maple syrup and it’ll be fine,” I told my friends. Because they are my friends, they assured me that the meal “really wasn’t that bad,” and David reminded me that he can eat anything.

“That’s true,” I said, digging into my plate of pancakes. Covered in syrup, they were passable, mostly cooked cakes, and at least the flavor was tasty. But then I tried the pork. It was disgusting—salty, chewy, fatty and pretty much inedible. Even David couldn’t eat it, and the others didn’t even try.

“These Clementines are so delicious!” one friend valiantly remarked, and we burst into laughter.

“I can’t believe it,” I told them, staring at the food. “This truly is the worst meal I’ve ever served.”

“That’s OK, Steph, we love you, anyway,” they chorused, and I was reminded of a favorite scene in the film Bridget Jones’ Diary, where Bridget serves a disastrous meal to great merriment and her friends toast her personality, if not her cooking skills.

My reputation was restored, however, when I made breakfast for Julia. This time I made sure I had all of the proper ingredients (including real streaky bacon), and I cooked them in a different, much better pan. The pancakes and bacon turned out beautifully, and Julia was charmed.

“So this is what Americans eat?” she asked, reaching for her fourth pancake. “It’s brilliant."

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