Saturday, November 16, 2013


Countries often have deep, internal divisions that cleave the society in two. Often the divide is between a poor, religiously conservative rural population, and an urban, middle-class, educated, liberal one. I found this particularly apparent in countries such as Iran, Turkey and China, which are still undergoing transitions towards more industrial economies. In America the transition has occurred but the division still exists to a large degree, and somehow the rural poor have been duped into voting for rich corporate interests. But taking pot-shots at American political dysfunctionality and woeful health provision is too easy and instead I want to look at the quirkier paradoxes and polarisations that exist within the US.

For poorer Americans access to fresh fruit and vegetables is not only severely restricted, but food education is of a very low standard. Whilst wandering the African-American museum in Chicago I stumbled across this educational play aimed at younger children about the benefits of fresh fruit and veg using hip-hop and gospel music. Here the hero (a broccoli) is being led astray by a couple of rashers of bacon. (Though it seemed to me that the bad foods had the best tunes.)

One of the most persistent stereotypes of America and Americans is the prevalence of obesity and general ill health brought about by the abundance of fast food "restaurants" peddling cheap, poor quality food for the apathetic masses. And there is a lot of truth to that. Pick up any food product at an American supermarket and the list of ingredients reads like a short novel, full of unknown, esoteric such as the literary gem below from a small packet of Chick-fil-A sauce. The over-reliance on ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum, mono-sodium glutamate and trans-fats in even the most basic of foodstuffs manages to dent even my, normally robust, appetite. In many poor, disadvantaged neighbourhoods fresh fruit and vegetables are the stuff of fantastical legend. So much so that it has led to the coining of the term food deserts. On the other hand America boasts a profusion of farmers' markets and whole foods stores where the quality of fresh, wholesome produce is second to none. Yet these are not without their problems too. The cult of food is frighteningly dogmatic and faddish, with new "super-foods" appearing with frightening regularity. Of course these foods are all marketed to the moneyed few, and are priced so as to be practically unattainable to the working classes.

Let us just for a moment ignore the tackiness of the name Chick-fil-A and move on to the list of ingredients, which has 28 separate entries ... and this is one of the less extreme examples.

A facet of this gastronomic bipolarism is clearly seen with American beer. It is universally accepted that the United states produces the worst mass-produced beer in the world: Coors, Miller, Bud and Pabst. All are dreadful (and feature prominently in this list) and dominate the domestic beer market. Whilst on the other hand there is a burgeoning craft beer scene where local, small-scale brewing artisans, who joyfully experiment with unusual ingredients, as well as adding unexpected twists to classic beer types. The tiny Alchemist brewery, tucked away in a forgotten corner of Vermont is a perfect example, churning out a measly 2000 litres of their Heady Topper. Nevertheless by many accounts it is considered the best beer in the world. So popular is the brew that people come from hundreds of miles to buy it when it is put on sale every Monday at the brewery (so small is the output that it is only sold in and around the brewery), even though they are limited to a single case each, which has led to something of a black market with tenfold mark-ups for the amber nectar.

For the country that gave the world the assembly line and the constant pursuit of ever-greater efficiencies there are many aspects of American life that seem ridiculously wasteful to me. It seems as if efficiency and responsibility are no match for the sacred American dogma of personal freedom. I suppose the number one culprit is my favourite object of ire, the car. Most vehicles here are driven in single occupancy and, given the penchant for brutish pick-ups for simple, urban commutes, weigh in at well over two tonnes. Or, to put it another way, about 25kg of vehicle for every kg of passenger transported. One person who wasn't so inefficient, despite (sort of) being alone in her car when she picked me up, was my ride from Iowa City to Wisconsin. I met Chandra at a small rest stop off the interstate. I generally don't bother much asking single women for rides because they are usually more fearful to pick up (male) hitchers. But it was so cold so I thought what the hell. The first thing she asked was whether I could be trusted and was respectful. It turns out she wasn't so worried about herself, but more about her cargo. Her uncle Joe was in the back. He had died the week before.

Typical farmhouse of the northern Midwest countryside.

Chandra was a mortician and was driving the casket of her uncle from Kansas to his ancestral town in Wisconsin. She had a Midwestern, no-nonsense personality, and after she made a couple of jokes about me killing her and dumping her body by the side of the road we hit it off famously. The three hours passed by very quickly as the flat Iowan plains gave way to gentle hills on the other side of the Mississippi, and I tried to make myself useful by helping with navigation. However Chandra was not going to Dodgeville, the town where I was aiming for, but instead to a town about an hour to the south. No problem said Chandra, she just needed to drop off Uncle Joe, have some dinner, and then she would drive me to my destination. So I accompanied her as we left the casket at a local funeral parlour (oddly enough Uncle Joe became the very first dead body I have seen in my life), then joined the fifteen-strong family for dinner (they were surprisingly accepting of my presence given the rather unusual circumstances) before she drove me up to Dodgeville to cap off a surprisingly wonderful day. Hitchhiking is not an efficient way of visiting America, and I missed out on a whole host of things I would have liked to have seen, but on the other hand I wouldn't have had such fabulous encounters.

With Chandra at the end of our trip together. I could tell that she was a little disappointed that I hadn't killed her and dumped her body by the side of the road like a proper hitchhiking psychopath.

So; Dodgeville, Wisconsin. The obvious question is why? Ask almost anybody, even in America, and the name will draw a puzzled blank (except, perhaps, to fans of Neil Gaiman). Look it up on a map and few places would more aptly describe the phrase "middle of nowhere". It was precisely due to the region's bucolic idyll that Alex Jordan chose to build a country retreat on a rock outcrop several miles north of Dodgeville following WWII. Jordan was no trained architect, or particularly rich, but he made up for it with imagination, determination and carpentry skills. Soon people came to stop by just to have a look at this eccentric building his strange house on a near-inaccessible rock. Jordan, having a typically American entrepreneurial spirit started charging them a quarter for a tour. Things might have stopped there, but Jordan also had an eclectic and voracious appetite for stuff. Knick-knacks, hand-crafted art, vintage music machines, Oriental statuettes, toy cars, Art Nouveau stained glass, he valued them all equally. High art and low. Not only did he use the admission to fund the construction of his house, but also to fill it with what has turned into the world's largest collection of miscellanea. As more people came to visit he could buy more junk to fill his house and its fame spread ever further. And so was born the House on the Rock. As the years passed several annex buildings had to be built to house this vast, sprawling collection, which is particularly noted for its mechanical musical instruments and the world's largest carousel. What I particularly loved about the House on the Rock was that, to me, it is such a distillation of America. There is an absence of pretence or deference, styles, genres, epochs and tastes are indiscriminately mixed. Persian rug, Japanese plastic manga figurine, Chinese porcelain, Indian carved woodwork, and Indonesian folk masks all share a single display. High art, low art. Who cares? Sometimes it really doesn't work, but then again sometimes it does. It is this willingness to experiment with trends and tastes and mash them up into strange combinations that I find most compelling, whereas in Europe the standard reaction to an unorthodox combination (be it in food, fashion or film) is to dismiss and disregard.

The giant carousel at the House on the Rock is a flamboyant, heartfelt monument to kitsch, with 269 animals, not a single one of which is a horse.

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