A Brit acclimates to American cuisine (with a recipe for baked beans)

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: Twenty years ago my husband, Joe Lewis (who was born in Poole, Dorset, England) became an American citizen. This seemed like a good opportunity for him to reflect on the culinary changes he encountered as part of the Americanization process. (To read more about our nation of immigrants, you’ll enjoy this series by Michigan State University’s Joe Grimm.)


On the Fourth of July 20 years ago I joined more than 100 people born in dozens of countries as we became citizens of the United States. The sunny summer day was perfect for a joyful but serious ceremony at Hart Plaza on the riverfront in downtown Detroit.

This was 22 years after I’d arrived in the United States, and while I chafed at being taxed without representation, I was perfectly happy being a “resident alien” in possession of a green card that enabled me to study and work here.

But I heard that the price of the green card was going to go up to more than the price of a passport. When my card was up for renewal, I applied for citizenship.

It didn’t take much to transfer my gastronomic allegiance to the U.S. British food was not a heritage to cling to. We British long ceded culinary expertise to the French, even though (in our opinion) they smelled of garlic and couldn’t make a proper cup of tea.

British food: at least it fills you up

British food could be satisfying. Baked beans on toast makes a filling breakfast. Or spaghetti on toast—not the Italian kind of spaghetti that requires boiling pasta in water but the kind that comes out of a can. For a bold international experience, we might use an American condiment like ketchup, good for ketchup sandwiches! Our food may not have been chic, like French food, nor tasty, nor nourishing, nor sophisticated, but if you ate enough you could fill yourself up.

My father was the family cook. My mother never felt confident as a cook after a setback in elementary school. She was given the opportunity to cook the cabbage for school lunch—imagine the smell!—and despite all her careful cutting and rinsing and stirring, the cabbage never cooked. Finally, the teacher realized that nobody had turned on the heat. Of course, the child shouldered the blame.

My father, on the other hand, had been a cook in the British army and developed a fine reputation, because he knew how to make tea drinkable, which put him a full step above the finest French gourmet cook. At four o’clock in the afternoon, he’d run a tea towel up a pole to indicate a fresh pot of tea was available, and the soldiers would come running. His secret was simple: he cleaned out the pot; if need be, he’d use some sand to remove the tannic residue.

A nasty introduction to American cuisine

I arrived in the U.S. in August of 1972, hot and thirsty in 90-degree heat and 90-percent humidity. “Oooh, you have to try root beer, it’s a real American drink,” said my beloved as we reached the New York Port Authority from JFK Airport, sweating and woozy with jetlag. I took one sip from the frosty can and almost gagged. How could anyone drink such stuff? I have never drunk it since.

I spent my first weeks in America living with my in-laws in Philadelphia. Shortly after we arrived they took us out for a real treat: a trip to Greenwood Dairies, in then-rural Bucks County, for ice cream. I like American ice cream—British ice cream rarely rose above the gustatory level of a Klondike bar with the metal wrapper that sets your teeth on edge—but quantity sometimes seems to be more important than quality.

At Greenwood Dairies, the scoops were the size of softballs. On one of my first visits there I was horrified to see a young child, his scoop only half-eaten, puking in the parking lot. Suddenly, my appetite for ice cream disappeared.

Greenwood Dairies had a concoction called the Pig’s Dinner, similar to the well known Pig’s Trough at Farrell’s. It was five gigantic scoops of ice cream with a banana, a half-dozen flavored syrups and whipped cream. If you ate one unassisted you received a button that said, “I was a pig at Greenwood Dairies.” I never sought to qualify, but my beloved has one of the buttons in her vast button collection, picked up at a flea market.

After my swearing-in ceremony as an American citizen, we held a backyard barbecue for our friends. We served those all-American favorites: hot dogs and apple pie. (I’ve always liked soft, bouncy sausages with apples. When I was a child, occasionally the family cook would treat us to boiled viennas from a can, which we could dip in applesauce. However, as the American poet Walt Whitman might have said, I hear America retching.)

We also served home-made baked beans, which are different from Heinz (but would go very well on buttered toast and a decent cup of tea). The beans used for baking are native to North America, and the idea of baking them in sauce probably originated in New England, which is why they’re often called Boston baked beans and why Boston is often called Beantown.

This recipe came from Robert Wright, who ran the graduate program in religion at Temple University, where my wife worked the first year after we married.

It takes some advance planning, because you need to soak the beans overnight, then boil them, then cook them in a slow oven for eight hours. If you don’t want to have your oven on that long in the summer, use a slow cooker, or just sit outside all day, instead of in the hot house, and enjoy the warm weather. If you’re not kosher, halal  or vegetarian, you can throw in a hunk of salt pork when you put the beans in the oven..

(Recipe photo by Sonia, via Flickr Creative Commons)


Blessings of growing your own: from lettuce to rhubarb crisp

In Judaism, there’s a blessing for everything, including the eating of food from plants: “Blessed are you, God, ruler of the universe, who creates food of the earth.” It seems especially appropriate when eating food you pick from your own garden because you can see the direct connection between the food and the earth.

There is something spiritual, almost magical, about growing your own food. You throw some tiny seeds onto the soil, and a few weeks later you can pick something delicious and nutritious.

Today, I’m giving you a delicious—and easy—recipe for rhubarb crisp. But, first, take a moment just to consider the joys of gardening. Do you share our passion? (Please, add a comment below.)

Do You Love Gardening This Much?

I never had a vegetable garden growing up. My mother hopefully planted a few blueberry and bush cherry shrubs, as well as a dwarf apple tree, but we never got any fruit from them. My first home as a married woman was in a ticky-tacky graduate student apartment building at Temple University in Philadelphia.

We lived on the ground floor of the mid-1960s era building. Our two windows looked out on the back of the building, a parking lot—and a small strip of lawn outlined by a cast iron fence. Someone on the resident activities committee had the bright idea to turn that little strip of grass into garden plots, and we eagerly signed up for one.

But, the apartment building had been constructed on the site of demolished Philadelphia row houses, and the little garden plots were full of broken bricks and hunks of concrete. We spent many hours digging and screening the soil. One hapless neighbor pulled an entire marble doorstep from her plot. Finally the soil was deemed suitably rock-free, and in went the tomato and pepper plants and the lettuce and cucumber seeds.

One night a few weeks later we were just getting to sleep when we were awakened by the gleam of a flashlight and cries of glee outside our window. “Oooh, look at that!” one neighbor called out. “Wow, is that a carrot?” marveled her roommate.

We had to ask the resident activities committee to decree that gardening be done in the daylight hours only. Since then, we’ve always had some sort of vegetable garden, even if it was only a few potted tomatoes on the windowsill of our second apartment, which was on the second floor.

The Long Odyssey
of the Prized Rhubarb Plant

In our garden, we now grow tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, beans, zucchini, eggplant and more. A few years ago we bought a rhubarb plant, and this year, for the first time, it produced enough rhubarb to eat.

Rhubarb developed in Asia, where for millennia it was valued for medicinal purposes. As an import to Europe, it was more valuable than cinnamon, opium and saffron. Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, a Castilian diplomat, wrote in the early 1400s of his stay in Samarkand, “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand (in Uzbekistan) was from China, especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls and rhubarb…”

Rhubarb had become very popular as a tasty dish by the 1700s. By the early 20th century, Americans were consuming 30 tons of it every year. But I had never even heard of rhubarb until I was at least 10, maybe older, and then it was something in stories about early American life, not something people I knew actually ate. I recently read a convincing theory that rhubarb fell out of favor in the latter part of the 20th century because of sugar rationing during World War II. Rhubarb is inedible without a lot of sweetener. With sugar in short supply, practical cooks in the 1940s turned to fruit, such as apples, for their pies and crumbles.

The edible part of rhubarb is the stalk; in fact, the leaves are toxic. The stalks, which resemble celery stalks, can be green tinged with pink or bright red, depending on the variety. Don’t try to eat them raw; they need to be stewed or baked. A surfeit of rhubarb can be easily frozen, either in whole stalks or cut in pieces. You can cook it directly from the freezer, without defrosting it first. Here is a simple recipe for Rhubarb Crisp that we made with the first batch we picked. I adapted it from a recipe I found on food.com, contributed by “Selfie,” a cook who proudly declared: “Mom’s recipe! Easy to make and easy to eat.”

Do you have a great rhubarb recipe to share? Or a comment about some other old-fashioned but newly discovered food? Are you looking forward to cooking with produce you’re growing yourself? Let us hear from you!

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