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Cheap Eats in the USA

Cheap Eats in the USA

story by: Anna Sarjeant

What do you know about North American cuisine? As diverse as its 50 distinct states, the USA’s culinary signature has been sculpted by indigenous ethnicities, European arrival and shared borders with both South America and Canada, so it’s an eclectic old fanfare. From the infamous New York hot dog to edible sourdough bowls and hearty southern gumbos passed from generation to generation, there’s a taste sensation from every state.

There isn’t enough space to list all the edible splendours here, but we’ve narrowed it down to four major culinary pleasures. Four of the most cheap, cheerful and overall, the most deliciously American. Bet you can’t make it to the end without salivating… 

Burgers n’ baps at the B-Ball

When it comes to eating at an all-American baseball match, your stomach will need as much training as the players. Time to stretch your gut muscles, because the ball park doesn’t believe in small portions. With an illustrious history, baseball’s an old man in the world of sport and his culinary counterpart (with just as many years under his belt) is the humble hot dog. A century-old classic, many stadiums still offer the traditional sausage combo, in a long white bun, complete with fried onions, ketchup and the token yellow mustard, served in its signature mustard squiggle.

In the arena of baseball cuisine, if it’s not processed and/or neon coloured then you’re erring dangerously close to healthy. The mustard should be yellow, the cheese orange and everything should be dripping with ‘special sauce’. We’re not sure what makes its special, but we doubt it’s because it’s low in fat. 

For years now, the creators of baseball snacks have gone all-out in super-sizing original stadium cuisine, from 18-inch corn dogs to 8000 calorie burgers and meat nachos served in a 64-ounce plastic helmet. There’s even a burger that substitutes two doughnuts for its baps. Glazed and deep fried, between the sugar-coated doughnut rings, you’ll find a weighty Angus beef patty, loaded with cheese, bacon and lashings of sauce (special sauce, obviously). But for the ultimate in glutinous indulgence, seek out a Sausage Sundae. Bursting at its Bratwurst rim with two colossal sausages, it’s filled with mashed potato, macaroni cheese and chopped brisket. Plus parsley and pepper garnish – because large is one thing, but looking good is paramount.

Mac n’ cheese, yes please!

We don’t have the exact stats, but we bet every kid in America was brought up on mac n’ cheese, and likely still is. In the USA, the faultless combination of simple pasta and gooey cheese is synonymous with home-cooked comfort food. Undoubtedly Italian in origin, it was on his return trip from Europe that future American president, Thomas Jefferson, declared that macaroni and cheese should be on every dinner plate of every American across the nation. Or words to that effect. The story goes that his daughter, Mary, whipped up a cracker of a macaroni casserole in the presidential kitchen, with Thomas later serving "a pie called macaroni" at a state dinner. The parmesan was dropped for cheddar and one shake of the salt grinder later, mac n’ cheese became resolutely North American; the epitome of good ole US comfort food.

Rock up to any highway diner and you’ll find mac on the menu. In fact, you could shimmy up to one of the USA’s more prestigious restaurants and you’ll still find it on the entrée list - albeit with the added razzle dazzle of haute cuisine. Thanks to its national popularity, the most acclaimed chefs strive to serve the next best mac variation, there's even a tequila infused creation. Not solely for dining establishments, Mac n’ cheds is a home-made favourite too. Kraft Mac and Cheese has been sitting on supermarket shelves since 1937; a country wide best-seller, never has one box of dry pasta provided such undisputed national happiness.  

What exactly IS a ‘smore’?

Firstly, it’s believed the original smore was invented by a gaggle of American Girl Scouts as a campfire treat. Not content with simply learning knots, flags, first-aid hacks and every needle stitch under the sun, members of the 1927 scout brigade also wanted to invent one of the country’s most-loved sweet treats. Consisting of toasted marshmallows and a gloopy layer of chocolate layered between two baked biscuits, it’s believed the word ‘smore’ derives from ‘some more’. Because if there’s one thing we know about little girls, it’s that their teeth are the sweetest thing about them. There’s no way the girl scouts of yesteryear stopped at one. Or five for that matter. Almost a century later and the smore is an essential component of any American trip. Whether you’re camping, road tripping or just in dire need of something sinfully sweet, boy will you be glad the girl scouts were sitting around a camp fire all those moons ago.  

How do you like your eggs?

Hoist your legs over a red pleather stool, slap your hands on the counter and ask the waitress in a pinafore for fried eggs and a side of bacon. A little over easy, sunny side up and swimming in oil. Why? Because you’re in the all-American roadside diner – the original greasy café – and you expect to be fed like a hardworking trucker.

As much as America has Jefferson to thank for mac and cheese, they have a far less prestigious man named Walter Scott to thank for their classic cheap-eat diner. It was 1872 when Walts first decided to sell sandwiches from a small basket to night workers in the Rhode Island region. Little did he know centuries later diners up and down the country would still be imitating his original ‘cheap eat’ format. Granted, the baskets are now buildings and the price of a pancakes has peaked but you’ll still get fair grub for fair prices. For the most part, food is grilled or fried, with club sandwiches, grits, biscuits and burgers bursting with juicy patties and every condiment imaginable slopped over the top. For the quintessential roadside treat, order yourself a stack of American pancakes. Thick, fluffy and dripping with syrup, they’ll be piled so high you’ll lose sight of your lorry in the parking lot (or more likely a rental car, but let’s pretend it’s a juggernaut). And the best part about breakfast? Bottomless coffee. Served by a waitress with a perpetual jug of steaming hot caffeine in her hand. You’ll feel compelled to drink a gallon of the stuff; with every mug you get better value for money.

Now, get out your wallet, give in to your second slice of key lime pie and throw a quarter in the jukebox. We can’t help but feel a Dolly singalong coming on... 

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