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Have you ever found yourself with a squagel in one hand and a glass of kombucha in the other? Not sure what either a squagel or kombucha are? Good, join the club. I found myself in just such a situation on a recent trip back to my motherland, the United States of America. From a culinary perspective, I might as well have been visiting another planet. Though an American born and bred, I’ve lived, since 2002, in Europe. I am a particular hybrid of lazy and cheap, which means that I usually only return to the US if someone is paying me to do so. As a writer and professor, this happens only every eighteen to twenty-four months, which means that some time passes between trips. And a lot can change on the foodie landscape in eighteen to twenty-four months.
I was just back while on a book tour, and found myself staring, like a deer in headlights, at the beverage section of a fairly normal corner deli in New York City. A vast array of glistening, dayglow drinks shone out of the cooler, beckoning to me. And I barely recognized one of them. Sure, there was iced tea, orange juice, and something that at least resembled a bottle of milk. But there was also kombucha (more on that later), cold brewed coffee in what looked like a beer bottle, beer in what looked like a can of soda, assorted aloe vera and coconut water concoctions, obnoxious-looking oversized cans of something called Monster, and the bottle of milk turned out to be labeled “cereal milk,” whatever that might mean. I was reminded of the scene from the movie Crocodile Dundee, when our hero is taken from the outback of Australia to New York for the first time. But I grew up here, and have only been away for a few years. What happened?
Not the usual burger
Europe is a continent of tradition, where looking backward and carrying on the past, with gentle updates, is the norm. America is a land of revolution, innovation, and fads. This is perhaps best exemplified in the corner deli, that supermarket in miniature, and which tends to favor the faddish, the most heavily publicized instant-gratification products. Especially in New York. You’ll find reindeer beef jerky alongside hipster locavore pickles and all manner of healthy-looking, not very tasty-looking energy bars that are probably neither healthy nor particularly tasty, so at least they satisfy half of one’s expectations. New York is at the forefront of foodie trends, setting the bar, but also riding sine waves of what’s in and what may very quickly be out. Back in Europe, where I live, the concept of gourmet burgers, every restaurant offering their own “signature” burger, has only just arrived in the last year or so. It’s been in New York for nearly a decade, though 2009 might be a more official launch date, when Minetta Tavern’s $26 “Black Label Burger” made enough headlines to launch the trend in pricy but delicious specialty-of-the-house burgers. We’re inevitably a few years behind. So it may be that kombucha will wash up on our shores around 2020, but for now, I was thoroughly lost. Not only had I never even heard of kombucha, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce it.
Turns out it’s a fermented, lightly bubbly type of tea. It’s supposed to have health benefits. Something like it has been consumed for a good 5000 years, so it’s hard to call it a fad, though it only recently washed up on these shores. Given my hectic schedule of daily flights and talks and book signings, I couldn’t afford to suffer any gastrointestinal misadventures, so I refrained from trying what I’m sure is a delightful beverage. Tea plus fungal bacteria? Maybe next time.
But it’s everywhere. I walked into coffee shops, each one hipper than the last, and saw what I took to be beer taps. Turned out to be kombucha on draft. While I was busy deciding which of the forty-seven brewing methods I wanted for my coffee, the beans of which I could choose from scores of Fairtrade single origin batches, I could have ordered a pint of fungus tea. I was a stranger in a strange land: my homeland.
The squagel: beyond cronut and cruffin
And don’t even get me started on the squagel. Well, maybe you can get me started on it. You see, I read the New York Times, and the food section has kept me abreast of what I’m missing while in Europe. I heard of some intriguing, possibly weird mutant hybrid baked goods, like the cronut and the cruffin (half croissant, and half either donut or muffin), and I was frankly intrigued. At one of many airports, alongside my intrepid publicist, I downed half a cronut. I was underwhelmed. It tasted like a donut. But it was from Dunkin Donuts, which I admit is not the legendary place of origin, which is of course in Manhattan and which requires waking at 4am and standing on line for at least seven hours to buy one. Not all of the innovation was more weird than good.
At a bagel shop, I was browsing and calculating what to order (raison, onion, garlic?) when my eyes fell upon a radiant item that I thought might be a mirage. “Do you really have something called a French Toast Bagel?” I asked, like a bleary-eyed aboriginal fresh from a wilderness walkabout. Oh yes, my friends, it was good. Especially with apple-cinnamon cream cheese. At a different airport, still with the same publicist, I was in need of a quick breakfast, and was offered the aforementioned squagel. “Huh?” I replied eloquently. Turns out it’s a square bagel. I’m not sure what marketing genius invented this, nor am I sure that it will become a “thing,” but it tasted fine. It was a vaguely square-shaped bagel. No less, no more. I was thinking I should start a company that will sell the “pentagel” or even “dodecahagel,” but that was just because the caffeine from my single origin Fairtrade Rwanda Rift Valley coffee, brewed in a Clover system machine with Innovative Vacuum-Press technology, had not kicked in yet. Then I was offered chia seeds in my orange juice, and I realized that I had fallen through the looking glass.
Overwhelmed by the sea of trendy new food and drink options that glowed their siren song from the coolers and menus of major American cities, I was quite happy to return to the simple traditions of my European home. I may not be able to get a squagel or cronut, washed down with kombucha and chia seeds, but sometimes a cappuccino and a normal, non-mutant croissant is all a guy could ask for.