One of the many joys of traveling is, of course, the opportunity to sample new food. But sometimes what seems new turns out to be familiar, just masquerading under another name. And sometimes I expect to see something familiar, only to be utterly flummoxed by what looks up at me from my plate.
When I first came to the States, I knew that what I understood to be a “biscuit” was something that Americans call a “cookie”. What I wasn’t prepared for is the fact that Americans have biscuits too. It’s just that they aren’t biscuits.
In fact, it’s worse than that. Not only aren’t they biscuits; Americans often put “gravy” on them. Only it isn’t gravy. It’s some rather forbidding sauce, with a somewhat off-white complexion, that often has lumps in it. I think it’s the sauce world’s equivalent of a long-term invalid who’s had a bad case of mumps and hasn’t seen the sun for weeks.
Thankfully, not all American biscuits get treated so harshly. Some are quite edible without being soaked to the skin. In fact, those served in the Loveless Café, just outside Nashville, Tennessee, are absolutely delightful.
But, even there, they confuse the issue by serving them as something to nibble before they bring your actual order. The problems with that are almost too innumerable to recount. First, they serve them with some sort of spread. Is it “jam”? Or is it “jelly”? (Was it Bill, or was it Ben?) I think it’s jam; jelly to me is something that wobbles when set, whereas this has fruit in it and stays where I put it.
Second, why is something sweet coming before something savory? I have often pondered on this, but yesterday I think I might have found the answer. It was kindly supplied by Kelli, a.k.a. Nana Kay, from Manchester, Vermont. She quotes someone called Ernestine Ulmer, who apparently asserted: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” I suppose it helps to sweeten the prospect of one’s ultimate demise. Although, when I’m sitting down to lunch, I don’t really wish to be reminded of my own mortality.
Third, surely Loveless Café biscuits aren’t biscuits at all. They’re scones. At least, that’s what they’re called in the UK, where you’d enjoy them with jam — definitely not jelly — and cream (preferably clotted). Well, most Brits do it like that. If you’re Zoë, you start with the clotted cream and wonder whether it’s worth adding anything else. To which the answer is, of course, yes: more clotted cream.
As this illustrates, we Brits have our own problems. In the scone world, this consists of a pronunciation dilemma. Is “scone” to be pronounced to rhyme with “stone” or to rhyme with “gone”?
This has caused me major strife in the past. I’m from the south; I think it’s the former. My children were all born in the Midlands; they insist it’s the latter.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would happily have sung about it, I’m sure, instead of that silly line about potatoes. (No-one I know, Brit or American, ever pronounces “potato” as “pot-ah-toe”.) But there are two inconveniences with the word “scone”; neither of the possible pronunciations rhymes with, or has as many syllables as, “tomato”.
Now you might be thinking that these confusions are just part of the misalignment of British and American cultures. I thought so too until a couple of weeks ago. Then Brandi bought me a scone in Te Bella’s in St. Petersburg, and my whole world view changed.
When she texted me to say she’d done this while awaiting my arrival, I did a quick translation. Brandi is American: ergo when she says “scone”, she means “rock cake”, I thought. These are larger pastries, typically triangular in shape — can something be triangular in anything other than shape? — and much heavier in texture: hence the British label for them of “rock” cakes.
When I arrived, Brandi presented me with the scone — and it was actually a scone! Talk about confusion! It took me all I could muster to eat it! (Well, a few minutes anyway.)
So when, the day before leaving for my trip, I met Anna at The Library and she ordered a scone, I exclaimed: “That’s a great idea! I’ll have one too!” But I got a rock cake. It was, admittedly, the best rock cake I’ve eaten in the US. But it was definitely a rock cake and not a scone.
Or was it actually a scone, while whatever Brandi had bought me was a complete impostor: a biscuit in scone’s pastry?
I thought traveling so far away would help clear my head. But the Dorset Union Store in Vermont has simply added to my confusion.
They make and sell something they call the “ultimate cookie”. You can see it above. But it doesn’t look like a cookie to me. It’s more of a scone … or a rock cake … or …