I ought to be up front about something: although my recent travels did, in truth, involve going from London to Omaha–via Chicago, of course, since direct flights to Omaha from anywhere outside the lower 48 seem to be especially rare–Omaha was not my final destination. My final destination was actually just across the river, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a town that makes Omaha look like the Golden Age of Imperial Rome by comparison. The only reason I found myself on that godforsaken stretch of desolate earth in Middle America was for the 2011 National Weightlifting Championships, and in retrospect leaving London for that seems like a hideously bad error in judgment. The only thing that appeared to be going on in Council Bluffs–apart from the National Championships and some serious flooding of the Missouri River–were a handful of sad-looking casinos. Something about casinos in these small towns far from the Vegas strip seems especially depressing. There’s a clear sense that these places have given up entirely on the notion of pulling in revenue via more legitimate or meaningful avenues. It’s as though they’ve grappled with the notion of hard work and intelligent city planning and have waved the white flag in the face of these ideas, content to stay marginally afloat by preying on the hopes of poor suckers who are humping the American Dream playing quarter slots and $5 rounds of blackjack.
How the hell did I end up in this area? I wondered this as I stepped out of the Omaha airport and into the blistering afternoon heat. I was completely unprepared for that sort of meteorological mugging, and immediately began sweating profusely and cursing whatever weather gods lived in that part of the country.
Just 24 hours prior to being in Omaha I had been in London, enjoying mild summer temperatures some truly fantastic meals, the most noteworthy of which took place at St John Bar and Restaurant (http://www.stjohnrestaurant.com/). I was vaguely familiar with the general philosophy of the place and head chef Fergus Henderson–the idea of “nose to tail” eating, an appreciation for all parts of the animal–and was informed by someone far more knowledgeable in these things than myself that I couldn’t go to London and not eat there. And why not? I thought. My first visit to London, four years ago, was devoid of any notable culinary moments, and I was under the (mistaken) impression that one simply could not eat well in England. Checking out one of the city’s best restaurants seemed like the only decent thing to do, in order to really give the place a fair chance to sway my opinion of English dining.
I was worried about securing a table at a restaurant that regularly ranks among the 50 best in the world but luckily they had a reservation open at lunchtime. When I arrived I was surprised at how casual the place felt, not the sort of vibe at all that I expected from a place that’s looked upon so highly. It wasn’t exactly Applebee’s, but it wasn’t white glove formal either, and I didn’t look too out of place in my cargo shorts and weightlifting t-shirt. And even if I did nobody seemed to care. The other nice thing was that you could see into much of the kitchen. Surely some activities took place out of sight, but in general you could watch the cooks at work. I tried considering that sort of scenario in an American restaurant but realized that watching someone drop frozen food into a deep fryer would probably get old pretty quickly.
I took a look at the menu when I was seated but decided to ask for the recommendations of my waitress. Unless you’re familiar what a particular restaurant is known for it’s never a bad idea to trust your servers, since odds are they’ve eaten most of what’s on a menu or at least know which items are well liked. My server didn’t disappoint, since without hesitation she provided her suggestion for a starter.
“The Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad,” she said, pointing at it on the menu. “People fly in and come here for it.”
Flying somewhere just for a meal sounds like a terrible waste of money and resources, but I wasn’t at St John to consider the moral habits of its patrons. “Sounds important,” I said, “I guess I need to try that, then.”
For a main course my server provided a few recommendations, and I eventually settled on the Braised Tripe, Peas & Bacon.
“You know what tripe is, right?” she asked.
“Of course I know what tripe is!” What sort of country rube did she think I was? Perhaps my attire suggested I was from some cultural backwater–like Council Bluffs–where the only thing a cow’s stomach was good for was digesting corn feed.
When my starter arrived–the Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad–I had a brief moment of panic as I wondered how the hell to eat the various pieces. I’d had bone marrow dishes before but they had all been in Italy, where table etiquette is largely limited to things like not throwing food around the room; apart from general guidelines like that–which are, like all rules in Italy, flexible–there’s not much required of your conduct. But this was London, a city built on ceremony, and this was St John, not some pub, and this was a dish whose main item–bone–contained only a core of edible material.
I took a quick look at my silverware and noted that when I had gone to the restroom before the plate arrived a particular instrument had been added to my place setting that looked perfect for scooping out bits of marrow. Which is exactly what I then used it for, scraping out morsels of gelatinous deliciousness, either to eat by itself or to spread on the pieces of toast that came with the dish.
The starter was excellent, but the real thrill was the main course, the Tripe with Peas and Bacon. Tripe–cow stomach–is an example of why it’s sometimes good to give foods more than one chance. When I first tried tripe several years ago I was rather quickly turned off; I had ordered an entire plate of it in a restaurant in Florence and after twenty minutes or so of eating it the spongy, fatty texture became almost gag-inducing. But then I tried it again last summer, on a sandwich this time–again in Florence–and was nearly smitten with how well it worked. The combination of the tripe’s fatty softness with the roll’s firmness seemed a perfect marriage of textures and flavors.
Of course, that was before I had the tripe dish at St John, which was a marriage of flavor and texture so perfect it suddenly made the sandwich thing look like casual dating. I’m not a food critic or food writer so details of my experience are probably unnecessary; suffice it to say this was a damn good meal, and all of its parts–the chicken broth infused tripe, the slightly mealy peas, the salty and fatty bacon–worked together perfectly.
This was a meal that was so good it made me think of Johnny Depp’s character Agent Sands in the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a guy who kills any cook who makes the dish puerco pibil too well in order to maintain balance in the country. It was extraordinary, and the length at which I praised this dish to both my server and the maître d’ was enough to make them both look at me somewhat suspiciously. (Had they tried this, I wondered. Did they understand??)
Given the fact that I was only a couple days out of a weightlifting competition, for which I would have to make weight, dessert was probably a poor choice on my part but I felt that the meal needed a proper conclusion. I again took the advice of my server and had the Eccles Cake & Lancashire Cheese dish, which was excellent (though no match for my main course), and a cup of coffee, which was decent (but confirmed my belief that no one north of the Alps really knows anything about coffee). When the bill had to be settled the whole meal–a starter, a main, a dessert, a glass of wine, and a coffee–came to just over 40 GBP, or about $67. Not bad for what might be the best meal I’ve ever had.
But all this isn’t to say London was a one-trick-pony. The St John meal–while obscenely good–was only the acme of a series of excellent dining experiences, including some damn fine Indian and Korean food. Clearly my initial impressions of London some four years ago had been a bit hasty.
So perhaps I’m being a bit hasty judging Omaha on one meal alone, but I couldn’t help comparing my mediocre meal in that city with my extraordinary lunch at St John in London. After spending the day after Nationals wandering around the Omaha downtown and Old Market area–not the best idea, given the 116 degree heat index and my propensity for sweating–I wandered into the city’s steakhouse, Omaha Prime, looking for a decent meal.
The special of the day was a 17-ounce bone-in ribeye, which is perhaps my favorite cut of beef. I ordered it, rare of course, along with half a side of asparagus.
But when I took my first few bites of the ribeye I was disappointed. It was cooked right, but it lacked any real flavor. The thing hadn’t even been seasoned, although the addition of some salt and pepper didn’t do much to improve things. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting from a place that bills itself as “America’s Greatest Steakhouse.” I’ve made far better steaks in my own kitchen. The asparagus was about on par with the steak. The total for this thoroughly underwhelming meal–which was just steak, side, wine, and watery coffee–was about $67.
What sort of strange cosmic coincidence made these two meals–so different in quality and execution–almost identical in price? And what the hell warranted a single cut of not-very-good steak costing almost as much as an entire meal in one of the best restaurants in the world?
Of course we’re dealing with two very different philosophies, and two very different approaches to food. At St John the idea is to use quality ingredients and prepare them well, without much pretension or complication. Nothing in the tripe dish I had was something unavailable in a place like Omaha; in a country like the US there are literally millions of cow stomachs available at any given moment, although I doubt very many of them end up on our plates. No, here the idea is to make a cut of meat as expensive as possible by claiming it’s ‘prime’ grade beef, which means little more than how much intramuscular fat a piece of meat has and how old the corn-fed cow was at slaughter.
You can get a sense of some of the underpinnings of the extraordinary blandness of so much American food by driving around the middle of the country, the great breadbasket. It is literally mile after mile after terrible, seemingly endless mile of corn. Hundreds of miles of road flanked by corn, all of it growing so tightly packed together that it completely nullifies any romantic notions of a farmer walking through his cornfields. You’d have to be made of ether to squeeze through the stalks. And much of this goes to either animal feed or ethanol production.
It’s a total triumph of science and engineering, and of course of lawsuits and big corporations. Millions of acres of land and it’s filled with one crop. The point was driven home by a friend of mine who lives in Illinois as we talked over brunch in Chicago, which served as a stopping point on the trek back to NJ.
“I live in one of the most fertile areas of the country,” he told me, “and I’m buying vegetables that are shipped in from California.”
Is it another coincidence that Omaha, the site of my bland and overpriced steak dinner, is home to food giant ConAgra? I found this fact particularly amusing as I wandered past their corporate headquarters, although it may have been the result of impending heatstroke.
The unfortunate thing here is that the sort of appreciation for good food which is laughably written out on the ConAgra monument is anathema to the corporate philosophy of a place like ConAgra. And this is not about food snobbery or expensive eating. The ingredients of my St John meal were simple and straightforward, and their roots are in the traditions of people who had to make do with the leftover bits of animals. In the States, thanks to factory farming and corn subsidies and the might of corporations, most people don’t have to worry about how to cook the supposedly less attractive pieces of an animal, since they can easily purchase 99-cent cheeseburgers.
But as anyone who’s eaten real food that’s well prepared with quality ingredients can attest, that sort of thing is as unsatisfying as it is unhealthy. The triumph of science without regard for the human or animal condition has stamped out the beauty of variety and resourcefulness in cooking, and left us with a culinary landscape that is as dull and monotonous as our agricultural landscape. Hundreds of miles of American highway illustrate this point well, as the only things that dot the landscape with a regularity similar to that of the cornfields are the fast food places and chain restaurants, all serving food that tastes more or less the same, a bland and soulless salute to the triumph of science and industry.