Susan Dalgety: America’s diet provides some serious food for thought

A peanut butter and banana sandwich, one of Elvis Presley's favourite snacks, is not for the faint-hearted ' or indeed anyone looking to watch their weight. Picture: Getty
A peanut butter and banana sandwich, one of Elvis Presley's favourite snacks, is not for the faint-hearted ' or indeed anyone looking to watch their weight. Picture: Getty
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The Charlottesville bookshop owner was delighted. “You found Elvis,” she laughed.

“I have indeed, he was hiding in Southern Cooking” I said, handing over the second-hand copy of Are You Hungry Tonight?, a collection of the King’s favourite recipes.

“You have got to try his peanut butter and banana fried sandwich”, she said, carefully wrapping the book. “But I don’t think you should use good bread, it should be the white, squishy bread, you know what I mean?”

I surely do. Food is a national obsession in America, and has been since the first settlers arrived on the eastern shores, hungry.

They would have starved to death if it had not been for Native Americans showing them how to cook the “Three Sisters” – corn, beans and squashes – that grew in wild abundance.

As the immigrant nation grew, so did its repertoire of recipes. The indigenous basics were augmented by wheat and vegetables grown from seeds brought over from Europe, as well as farm animals such as cows and pigs.

African influences began to seep into even the most white of kitchens, and as each new generation of migrants arrived, they brought with them a flavour of their home country.

The American story can be told through the history of its food, from the turkey that was eaten at the first Thanksgiving Dinner in 1621, to the McDonald brothers who, in 1948, brought Henry Ford’s production line techniques to the flipping of hamburgers.

Driving round the South for the first time, we are learning to love soulful collard greens and blackened catfish with a side of mac’n’cheese, each plate large enough to feed a family of four.

We now say “yes please” when our waitress asks if we want to pack our leftovers in a box to take home, if only because everyone else does it, and we don’t want to seem rude.

And when ordering a pudding we know to choose only one to share, and even then we always struggle to finish the mountain of chocolate cheesecake or pecan pie that inevitably arrives.

Our weekly trips to the supermarket to stock our tiny campervan kitchen take twice as long as they should, as we wander, open-mouthed, past aisles packed full of nothing but crisps, sorry, potato chips.

Yesterday I counted twenty different varieties of cranberry juice in a neighbourhood WalMart. Twenty.

I have no idea what Theresa May or Nicola Sturgeon buy in their weekly shop – or even if they can cook, but here Presidents and their wives have influenced the national diet since George Washington first smothered his breakfast pancakes in honey and butter.

Martha Washington’s Great Cake recipe is still a firm favourite, though today it’s made with slightly fewer than the 40 eggs her original recipe recommends.

During the depression, when food was scarce and malnutrition stalked the nation, the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who most definitely did not cook, was the national champion for a very basic diet. Vitamins mattered more than taste.

More recently, Michelle Obama tried, with new rigorous standards for school lunches and her White House vegetable garden, to encourage Americans to ditch Big Macs in favour of their five a day.

Michelle’s horticultural efforts were nothing, however, when compared to those of the third President, Thomas Jefferson, and the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

He grew more than 300 varieties of vegetables at Monticello, his home here in Virginia, including nine different types of peas.

He has been dubbed America’s first foodie, and with good reason. As America’s diplomat to France in the 1780s, he learned how peasants cooked by “looking into their kettles and eating their bread”.

He is credited with introducing macaroni cheese to America, when he first served the dish at a state dinner in 1802.

He was also the country’s leading expert on wine, persuaded sceptical Americans that tomatoes were not poisonous, and, allegedly, invented Baked Alaska.

But arguably the President with most influence on America’s diet was Richard Nixon, the man who used to slather his cottage cheese with tomato ketchup, for “health” reasons.

In the early 1970s, food costs were soaring and Nixon needed to find a way to keep them down, while keeping the farmers’ lobby on board.

He appointed one Earl Butz, an agricultural academic from Indiana, to fix the problem, which he did by encouraging America’s farmers to grow corn on an industrial scale.

American food manufacturers then used a new Japanese technique to mass produce high fructose corn syrup from the surplus maize, which they pumped into anything and everything, from coleslaw to meat. It made food products sweeter, and gave them a longer shelf life.

It also made America fat. And poor Americans, forced to eat processed food because frozen pizza is cheaper than mashed avocado on artisan sourdough, became the fattest of all.

The latest official data show that nearly 40 per cent of American adults are obese, compared to 34 per cent ten years ago. It is surely no coincidence that fast food sales rose by almost a quarter from 2012 to 2017, and processed food by nine per cent.

The corn that saved the earliest settlers from starvation is now helping destroy the health of nearly half the country.

Suddenly the prospect of that Elvis sandwich I was planning to fry up seems a lot less appetising.

But what of the eating habits of today’s President? He is, of course, famous for his love of junk food, preferring taco bowls and chocolate cake to salad and fruit.

Trump’s appetite for burgers seems to be matched by his new BFF “Chairman Kim”, as he has taken to calling the North Korean dictator since their date night in Singapore.

It has been suggested that the rotund “Chairman Kim” is keen for a McDonald’s to open in the capital Pyongyang as a sign of how much his country is changing.

Perhaps he would be better asking for help on how to feed the millions of North Koreans who survive on a starvation diet of rice, beans and corn.

But from Michelle Obama, and not from the junk-food loving, diet coke slurping, ice-cream licking Donald Trump.