Actors spend a lot of time sitting around waiting. I don’t mean just waiting by the phone for that job to come in. Yes, that, but also waiting around on set once it does. The conversation among the waiting actors rarely has anything to do with acting. Sometimes it’s politics. Sometimes it’s a discussion about various home states. Often it’s about traffic and which are the worst roads to travel in Los Angeles.
The younger actors are invariably glued to their electronic hand held devices. There is a particularly curious fascination with pictures of food. On sites like instagram, also on facebook, the twenty something set regularly post snapshots of edible things. Not what they have prepared in the kitchen, mind you. Which would be perfectly understandable.
Here’s the bread I baked myself.
Here’s the carrot cake recipe I’ve been experimenting with. The cream cheese icing came out great.
Here’s my grandmother’s Kugel.
No, rather, they post photos of whatever happens to be on their plate. Meals they ordered in restaurants. It’s a somewhat bizarre trend. Harmless, thankfully, but puzzling all the same.
Here, look at this dish I’m about to eat. I had absolutely nothing to do with its preparation, nor do I have any knowledge of how it was prepared. Aren’t you thrilled I took the time to share this with you?
On this day, the conversation turned to food. Since it was almost the Fourth of July, the question was posed, “What food is the most American?” (Aside from the obvious Thanksgiving meal of turkey with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.)
Apple pie was suggested immediately. So were the standard BBQ foods many of us would be eating on the Fourth. Hamburgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob, ice cream. However, as much as those foods have come to represent America, they were each borrowed from other places.
There are Dutch and English recipes for apple pie that are centuries old. Germany gave us both Hamburgers and Frankfurters. Corn is unquestionably native to the land, but it pre-dates the United States. Ice cream was brought over from Europe, where it can be found as far back as ancient Rome.
So what foods originated here? I know for a fact that bagels were invented in Brooklyn, and I’d bet the Philly Cheese Steak counts, but my best guess was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My favorite food as a kid.
Sure enough, with a quick search online, I found out that it is indeed one hundred percent purely American. It first appeared as a delicacy among the rich in high society, at the turn of the last century. Peanut butter was expensive, but once people realized they could make it themselves at home (by putting peanuts in the meat grinder!) it grew popular among everyday folks. When it was included among army rations during World War II, it became part of Americana. By the 1950s and 1960s, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was a lunch staple on every kitchen table.
That got me thinking about the countries I’ve visited, and the less obvious dishes that might be identified as part of those cultures. For example, the Lamington in Australia. A simple food, which, like the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, is strongly associated with childhood.
Before moving to Los Angeles, I spent a few months in Sydney. I had never considered leaving New York until then. In fact, I could not imagine why anyone would. Since I had grown up on Long Island, it was not such a big jump to the big city. I had absolutely no experience moving to a new place. Getting settled in a new life. Meeting new people. Setting down new roots. I figured it might be a challenge, so I used my time in Sydney as a practice run.
My idea was to get an apartment, be cast in a show, and live as an actor in Sydney would live. If I could do that in another country, then it should be easier when I got to Los Angeles.
As in most places on the planet, the words New York are magic ones, and can easily open doors. When people learn that you are from that shining city, they are eager to hear about your life there, and are happy to do what they can to help you out. My first week in Sydney, I simply walked into theatres, told them I had just arrived from New York, and asked how to find work. They would usually provide me with helpful information, then offer me a free ticket to see whatever show was playing that night.
In a matter of days, I had found a cozy apartment over a cafe in Rose Bay, and was cast in a play at a black box not far from King’s Cross. It was during rehearsals that one of the actresses presented me with my first Lamington, which is a rectangle of moist yellow cake dipped in chocolate and rolled in shredded coconut. Her mom had made them. Scrumptious. The flavors and textures go perfectly together, and are immediately familiar.
It was like the first time I tasted a Napoleon. One of the girls in my high school French class brought them in to share. Her mom, who was from France, made them. They were tiny portions of heaven, and even when I was in Paris scouting the pastry shops, I never found their equal.
Even so, I loved Paris. It was my plan to spend a week there before heading up to Brittany to research my family name. Le Crenn is my mother’s maiden name, which I took as a stage name before traveling to Sydney. I was testing it out there, and people seemed to like it. So I thought I should do some research into my ancestry while I was in France.
It took only a few moments in Paris to know there was no way I was going to leave after just one week. I stayed for a month, using my two magic words to gain entrance into theatres, where I could make friends.
That led to an audition for an acting school. One new friend invited me to audit a class where he was studying. He told me the state paid for his tuition and his living expenses. The idea of spending a year studying theatre in Paris was tantalizing. My poor French would not be an obstacle, as the classes were taught in English. The charming lady who ran the school was British, and the professor whose class I audited was from New York.
It was only after I was accepted that I learned American students had to pay their own way. It was a fun fantasy while it lasted, but the reality was out of the question financially.
My attention turned to my journey into the distant past, and I was ready to use the few days I had set aside for that. I bought a train ticket to Quimper, in Brittany, which is the town where I knew my grandfather had lived. It is also where I had read that Crepes were invented.
The quaint streets were lined with beautiful chestnut trees, so I was excited to try the Crepes with Creme de Marron. Chestnut creme filling. Absolutely delicious, and the cafe which served them had the most delectable hot chocolate. The ingredients arrived in separate little pots, the waitress assembled the drink at the table. So rich.
My grandfather was a chef. He was born in France. He didn’t speak English. I never met him, he died when I was little. Everywhere I went in France, tourists asked if they could take my photo. They all assumed I was a local, but it was while sitting at that little cafe in my grandfather’s old town, eating the native dish, that I felt the most like a true Frenchman.
That’s one of the best things about traveling. Being able to step out of the role of American tourist, and blend into life as the locals do. As much as possible, naturally. Although, you might be surprised how much is possible. Something I learned for myself while traveling six weeks through Egypt. Dressed as a peasant farmer.
I was there to do a show that was performing for one week at the American College in Maadi, about twenty minutes South of Cairo. While there, I decided to dress up like an Arab, send my American things back with the cast, and travel around to see the country from the inside.
Fortunately for me, there are men with light colored eyes in Northern Egypt, owing to French occupation over the years. After being in the sun for a few days, my tan was dark enough for me to pull off the Galabeya which would serve as my disguise. Being skinny helped. So did being a vegetarian. I learned enough Arabic to get through a polite exchange without revealing my nationality. If I was silent, everyone assumed I was a peasant. If I spoke, they were unable to place my accent. If I needed their help, I would reveal that I was from New York, which never failed to impress. Otherwise, I let them think whatever they liked.
The most wonderful place I visited was Siwa, a tiny oasis town, two day’s journey into the desert. It was there that I discovered the extraordinary drink called Tamar Hindi. It came in a tall glass, with shaved ice on top, and tiny seeds floating in the honey colored liquid.
It was cool and refreshing and, in the overpowering heat, seemed to quench thirst better than water. I had never tasted anything like it. No exaggeration, the flavor was unique. When pressed, the waiter explained it was fig juice, but I have since learned it is made from the juice of the Tamarind. I was, and am, astonished that this delicious beverage has not made its way to America. Although, if it ever does, it will most probably be pumped full of high fructose corn syrup, and will not resemble at all the unusual flavor I recall when I think of Egypt.
I hope that people visiting the United States will take home with them fond memories of some of our treasured foods. Apple pie, corn on the cob, and yes, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Rather than those ubiquitous, forgettable fast foods and junk foods people often associate with the American diet. In the simplest way, it’s the homemade comfort foods we use to connect with our heritage. To define ourselves.
(According to the automated word count, this story was just over 1776 words long, so I did a little editing to make it an even, and appropriate, 1776.)