“Says ‘I’m moving to America / You won’t see me for a while’ / If I get the ferry over, will the fairies follow me? / Will they throw me to the sea? / We’ll see”

Grian Chatten’s lyrics pour into my ears and rattle around my brain as New York’s skyline comes into sight. Hazy. Distant but tangible. Where dreams are made. 

But all hopes and dreams evaporate when, at JFK Airport, I’m informed that my bags haven’t arrived with me. They never left Manchester. When travelling the world in 80 days, Michael Palin said that “challenges help to make an adventure”. It’s difficult to buy into that philosophy, Michael, when you’re in a different country with no luggage. To top it off, customs confiscated the crisp Pink Lady in my hand luggage. Asked if I had any fruit, vegetables or meat in my possession, there was no option but to hand the apple over. However, I’d be damned if I’d part with the corned beef sandwiches my Mum packed for the journey. That’s right, I smuggled tinned meat into the United States of America.

The next morning, waking up in JFK’s Comfort Inn wasn’t as comfortable as you might expect. I switched on the TV and flicked through the channels until Valerie’s Home Cooking greeted me on the screen. “You know how you make something better? Stick it in batter and fry it.” So said Valerie while dunking mini corn dogs into a vat of tempting grease. At Valerie’s house, spicy fried pickles, chipotle burgers and “Mom’s famous onion rings” are all on the menu. She refers to sausages as “little guys” and her excitement is palpable as she dunks her “puppies in the oil”. I am instantly in love with Valerie.

Cajoled by Val and cooking, I venture to the metropolis that is Walmart (imagine Home Bargains and Asda had a love child) and ashamedly resorted to stopping at a McDonald’s on the way. Biting into my burger, the shame soon vanished – Maccy D’s is so much better here. This is the birthplace of the Big Mac but what are they feeding the cows? Rainbows and donuts? 

Food, glorious food

In the following weeks, food consumed included a burrito the size of a guinea pig from the Mexican grill chain, Chipotle. I thought this was an American thing but there’s 15 of them in London. A transatlantic burrito-eating buddy of mine called Trace (the most American name ever) told me he goes to Chipotle twice a week. It’s his church where he says prayer to the powers of meat wrapped in tortilla. 

The puppy that arrived on my plate was so big I could hardly get my chops round it. It was splitting at the seams like a too-tight shorts. A mix of chicken and beef with all the trimmings chucked in including guacamole, lettuce, salsa and sauce. Due to the split, there was an overflow of meaty residue that led to serious spillage down my front.

Oh, and a trip to Pepper Palace proved eventful – a veritable library for hot sauce with bottles of every shape, size and spice neatly ordered from shelf to shelf. I was greeted by a woman called Val (not Val from Valerie’s Home Cooking, a different Val) who tempted me to a hot sauce tasting session. How could I refuse? Val was kind and cuddly, the Queen of this hot sauce kingdom. It was time to get the taste buds tingling. A safe start comprised a Mango Habanero, a fruity number which would be perfect at a summer barbeque. It went from mild to wild as Val served up a spoonful of What A Jerk, an ominous green liquid produced from the pulp of Scotch bonnet peppers. Moving up the spicy scale some more, Val surprised me with the telling of a classic joke. 

“Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Due to the Scotch bonnet sauce, I struggled to reply.

“Because the Rooster Reaper was after her.”

My face screwed into a state of confused alarm as Val produced a bottle inscribed with Fermented Rooster Reaper Hot Sauce. She dished it out on a spoon like a demented dinner lady serving another of her victims the sauce that would finally finish them off. Oddly, this was actually the best sauce of the bunch, suitable to slather on anything and everything.

It was like I’d been put under some sort of hot sauce spell. I walked out of the Pepper Palace with a bottle of each sauce I’d tried and a jar of, according to Val, “kinda sweet, kinda hot” Pepper Pickles. Meanwhile a bottle at the counter called The End: Flatline Hot Sauce caught my eye, but you needed to sign a waiver in order to try it. A little rich for my blood, even with Val giving me the eye.

Armed with enough hot sauce to sink a battleship, my mind wandered to the food adventure ahead of me. What more did America have to behold? Whatever it was, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth in.

Words and Images by Henry Liston