Friday, 31 December 2010

#42 And now for something completely different.

Fourteenscore and seven days ago I brought forth upon this website a new blog, conceived in comedy, and dedicated to the proposition that I can write funny.

It's important to remember that that was it. Excusing the odd bit of forgettable political rhetoric, the purpose of this blog was entertainment. Whether I have achieved that purpose is not for me to say - ask one of my ten readers. But the aim was benign, or even benevolent.

I'm making the point for three reasons:

1. Because it has been suggested, reasonably, that my Lettuces From America comes across as anti-American.
2. Because I wish to deviate for this one post from comedy.
3. Because my time in this great nation is coming to an end.

On the last point: I leave in a week. (To wit: I have been offered a job in London that precipitated the difficult and swift decision to move.)

And so, to deviate, what follows in not especially funny, and is aimed at an American, as well as a British, audience.

Why I love America

Over the past ten months, I came to understand patriotism. Or, at least, love for a country. I still think it's slightly silly to be proud of the geographical accident of your birth. But insofar as your nationality leads to your being associated with the values of your nation, I suppose it makes sense.

The problem is that I fell in love with the wrong country. I can claim some allegiance to America - my grandfather and his parents were American citizens, and I have lived here for the best part of a year - but calling myself 'American' would be a stretch. So why am I in love? Why, especially when all appearances were that I scorned the place?

The love is simple: America was founded on the most laudable principles of any nation state - freedom, equality, and an overarching faith in man and his ability to self-govern. Britain still hasn't got there. France took five attempts to get it right. Yet America, a fledgling nation with very little in the way of power or resources, nailed it first time. This was in part the work of a cohort of public-spirited and prescient heroes: George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few. The Continental Congress took a ragged bunch of thirteen British colonies and built the greatest nation in history.

America delivered on this foundation as it accepted the poor and disenfranchised citizens of the world through the 19th and 20th century not as charity cases, but as citizens and equals. Obviously it lost its way from time to time: the xenophobic Immigration Acts of the early 20th century, the slow progress of the Civil Rights movement. But by and large Americans have spent the last two centuries making good on the promises of their Constitution. E pluribus unum.

So why am I so down on it?

The negativity heretofore expressed reflects my feeling that this is a country falling far short of its potential - which, given its power and its principles, its pennies and its people - is surely the greatest of any nation on this earth. When you're good, America, you're very good, but when you're bad you're bloody awful: the armchair fundamentalism and kneejerk conservatism, the callousness of foreign and domestic policy. For a year I have seen a nation wilfully allowing a great many to piss on its proudest principles. And it saddens me.

My polemics were aimed at many Americans, but never America.

So if these blog posts have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That the love is greater here,
Than it did at first appear.
And these weak and idle themes
Were no more than angry scream,
Yankies, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, I will mend.
And, as I am a humble Brit,
If you felt my yarns lacked wit,
If you scorned my serpent's tongue,
Know this blog will close 'ere long.
Else Palin a liar call;
Happy New Year unto you all,
Though I mock Americans,
I sure wish I was one of them.

A round-up of my last few days in New York and Washington DC will follow, but I'm basically done. If you've enjoyed Lettuce From America, check out my new blog in 2011. And to my very small readership: thank you, sincerely, and have a wonderful year. I hope you got even a tenth as much out of reading this blog as I got out of writing it.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

#41 A Kwanzaa cash-in has no place in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life

Below is an unedited version of a note I just sent to the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum's wonderful Milstein Hall of Ocean Life - which forms a major part of probably the best life sciences collection in the world - was almost entirely obstructed on 26th December by temporary stalls coinciding with the Kwanzaa festival. It was the gallery I was most excited about seeing - I don't know if I'll have another chance - so I was fairly upset.

Notably, this closure was not clearly indicated on the Museum's website, nor was it explained at admission.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I attended the Museum on 26th December 2010. Being a biological sciences graduate, I was particularly excited about visiting the Ocean Life room.

However, most of the area was blocked off by temporary erections for Kwanzaa. This would have been acceptable, except that these erections weren't exhibits - rather, they were commercial stalls. No warning was given at the front desk when purchasing tickets that a whole hall of biosciences exhibits were closed off. And would the African Peoples gallery not have been a better location for Kwanzaa-related stalls?

I love the museum dearly, and think the collections are wonderfully curated. To close them off for commercial purposes is an affront to the educational purpose of the Museum.

I am copying this note to my blog, at

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Yours sincerely,

Samuel Palin

Why have I copied this here? Partly to publicise what I believe to be a very poor curatorial decision, and partly to highlight a distinctly British form of complaint: the strongly-worded letter.

Anyway, if you're with me, please tell the AMNH through their online email system.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

#40 Thanks: given.

Tryptophan doesn't kill you, spectacular overindulgence does.

An oft-heard gem at this time of year is the assertion that the high levels of tryptophan in turkey - which actually aren't any higher than other meats - are responsible for the post-prandial miasma that falls on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The theory has gained traction, perhaps, because it allows Middle America (which I finally found, incidentally -see below) to blame their subconscious stupor not on their colossal calorie intake - which leads to all sorts of nasty thoughts about diets and jean sizes - but on biology beyond their control.

It's sort of like when people blame their irritating personalities on lack of sleep. "Sorry, woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning!" she opined with a winning smile. "Nope, you're just a poisonous, undersexed little bitch!" I replied sweetly.

Anyway, I did Thanksgiving- my first Thanksgiving - in Ohio this year. Ohio can be characterised as 'middle America' for all sorts of reasons. Politically, it is the 'barometer of the nation' - a key swing state where traditional, modern, rural and urban mix. There are huge state colleges and windswept corn fields, small towns and big cities. Stars and stripes billow elegantly in the cold wind, and SUVs doze on driveways.

The whole notion of 'middle America' seems elusive and vacuous, until you go to Ohio. Bill Bryson, in his 'Notes from a Big Country' (or 'I'm a Stranger here Myself', as published in America), searched for Amalgum, USA - his ideal small American town. I don't know whether I'd call it ideal, but Amalgum would be a good surrogate name for Dover, Ohio.

The meal

Brits and Americans have a long and colourful history of antipathy on the subject of food. Americans decry bad British food, despite many of their staples originating there, and despite the fact that Britain is home for far more restaurants of international note than America, a country with five times the population and forty times the land area.

In turn, Brits mock, misrepresent and out-of-hand dismiss a variety of US delicacies, from the Turducken to the Krispy Kreme burger.

It was within this shroud of skepticism that I arrived for Thanksgiving, armed with British seasonal delicacies - flapjack (the British oat tray bake, not the American pancakes) and parkin. My hosts steeled themselves. In turn, I hunkered down to take on deep-fried turkey, baked corn, noodles and pumpkin.

Deep-fried turkey is to dining what Brasseye is to comedy: very out there, but unquestionably brilliant. 45 minutes in hot oil rendered our 12lb turkey crisp-skinned, tender and moist - the best turkey I've ever had, in fact. I heartily recommend it. Do be careful, though - it's terrible dangerous.

Every other constituent of Thanksgiving food is a variation on a basic theme: sweet carbohydrate. There are all, to a dish, glorious. This includes the desserts: pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream, key lime pie, key lime ice cream - almost anything in pie or ice cream form.

My foods, for what it's worth, went down modestly well. Flapjack was misinterpreted as a breakfast food, because it sort of resembles a granola/cereal bar...except that it's far more sugary and buttery. Which says a lot about the American palette.

There I went, being a mocking Brit again. Really, I have nothing but praise for the gastronomic genius of the country that brought us both the Krispy Kreme burger and sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows.

And the rest

It's just a lovely idea, isn't it? A nice, secular holiday that is just about being thankful for the people around us, our wealth, the fat of the land.

I was. We were. Fuck Boxing Day.