Wed 26 February 2020

Hardeep Singh Kohli kicks off his new column on culture and cuisine with a dish that tells a transatlantic story.

The Wild West and the west of Scotland have what must, on the face of it, seem like an unlikely axis of affinity. There are myriad reasons and explanations for this informal twinning of all things Americana with the gallus groove of Glasgow.

There is the purely geographical; as the second city of Empire, Scotland sent forth to every quarter of the pink-painted globe. While modern day America was fed and funnelled through the port of New York, Scotland sent its sons and daughters out West from the Port city of Glasgow. According to the 2010 American Community Survey, some 3% of the citizens of the land of the brave describe themselves as “Scottish Americans”. There are as many Scots in American – 5.5 million – as there are Scots in Scotland.

In 1930, Donald Trump’s mother, Mary, set sail on the S.S. Transylvania from Glasgow bound for New York. Like so many Highlanders, Mary Anne McLeod had left the tiny fishing village of Tong on the Outer Hebrides, looking for a better life (It’s interesting to note that three-quarters of all the American Presidents have some element of Scottish heritage).

My hometown, Glasgow, feels like a mini America. While our diversity and multiculturalism is on a small scale, it could be construed as a reflection of our port status – inviting, integrating and accepting all. Glasgow owes a debt to differing waves of immigrants. The Irish, the Italians, the Poles and the sub-continental Indians/Pakistanis/Bangladeshis all came to Glasgow, then became Glaswegians.

But the traffic isn’t just one way. Glasgow’s love of country music and cowboys is a thing of legend. In the southside of the city, you’ll find The Grand Ole Opry. Founded by the late Alex Fleming in 1974, this club was inspired some 50 years after the original Opry opened in Nashville. It was, and still is, the largest club of its kind in the UK, if not in Europe.

The links extend even to food. Hot Dogs, that most American of all American meals, was made famous by Phillip Armour of Armour Meats, the grandchild of a Scot. The “Bell” in Taco Bell was one Glen Bell who claimed a similar Scottish ancestry; as did marketing exec Arch West who championed the Dorito, now a billion dollar a year snack.  

All this cultural collision and creation confirms the notion that nothing is truly “American” unless it has some immigrant influence. The altered American reality created by Trump and his toadies seems hell bent on striking senselessly at the very heart of that which defines what it is to be American. Never have immigrants been so disparaged, demeaned and detested.

There is no shortage of irony that some of the most quintessentially American dishes seem to represent the diverse, distinct and disparate influences of a nation built on the very foundation of bringing together the unexpected and the surprising. I mean, what other country combines sweet potato and marshmallow and serves it with the main course? They serve streaky bacon with pancakes doused in maple syrup. And don’t even start me on grits…

While I grew up during the fast-food burger explosion, I always preferred the less glamorous Wimpy to the brash, boorish McDonalds. Then there was the rather questionable provenance of the meat contained within a ‘hamburger’. (Whilst my Sikh father was more laissez faire about the consumption of beef, my more religiously righteous mother would not allow the ingestion of the sacred cow. My dad took us undercover for our burgers).

It wasn’t until my later teenage years that my obsession with American food grew wings. Law school beckoned, as did a part-time job in the not-so-leafy suburbs of north Glasgow. Waiting tables in the hill-top haven known as The Gulistan exposed me to the bizarre and beautiful world of the neighbourhood curry house. (Fear not: these pages will be filled in weeks to come with myriad masala, cornucopia of Kormas and dozens of Dhansaks. But not yet). 

What gripped my imagination, the dish that occupied my every waking restaurant hour, was spice-free. It was no sort of curry. No, this dish was found, incorrectly, in the section of the menu titled “European Dishes”. Nestled somewhere between the sirloin steak, the scampi tails and the omelette, lay a meal that was as intriguing as it was perplexing; as alien as it was familiar. 

Up until that point, my only interface with the word “Maryland” was a delicious, chocolate-studded cookie. But this Chicken Maryland was an altogether more challenging plate of food. Nothing about this dish suggested “America”, not in 1987. But looking back, three decades on, Chicken Maryland is a beautiful microcosm for all that America could be. 

Local chicken, battered and deep-fried is accompanied by half a banana, similarly battered and deep-fried. The holy trinity is completed by a (tinned, it must be tinned) pineapple ring; this is, unsurprisingly, battered and deep-fried.

And, whilst we didn’t sell many Marylands, it was the one dish that I would take with me in life. I wrote a seven-minute routine about it for one of my earlier stand-up shows. It was mentioned in my Channel 4 sitcom Meet the Magoons. My brothers and I still recall the bonkers nature of the dish.


Chicken Maryland

1 whole chicken, about 1.8kg * 2 tbsp paprika * 2 tsp garlic powder * 2 tsp dried oregano * 2 tsp English mustard powder * 1 tsp cayenne * 1 tsp caster sugar * 1 tsp ground black pepper * 1-2 tbsp sunflower oil * 1kg sweet potato * 1 large banana, unpeeled * 50g butter * 100ml milk * Creamed corn & bacon

Today, as I gaze worriedly across the pond to the home of the free and the land of the brave, Chicken Maryland takes on a new status. The local chicken, the African banana and the South American pineapple; the American story on a plate. 

With the xenopbobic wave and the rampant racism of Trump – from the Muslim ban, to the Mexican-funded wall-building, from the kids in cages, to the vilification of American-born and naturalised Congress members – the American Dream is becoming a Supremacist Nightmare.

The Trump-appointed Citizenship and Immigration Services’ acting director, Ken Cuccinelli, quoted Emma Lazarus’ iconic words from the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor…” before adding: “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge?”

I wonder what Cuccinelli’s forebears make of his immigrant abhorrence? They might choke on their pizza. A Brooklyn pizza. Made by the descendants of some tired and poor Italian immigrants.

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