Texas toast in El Paso

It’s not so much the flowers, those bundles of white roses wilting in the Texas sun. Nor the cards with the handwritten messages riddled with a faith that is blind to the futility of it all. “Through the darkness light will prevail.” Indeed.

It is the people. It is the living, breathing souls who stand in quiet reflection before the candles, balloons and 22 crosses all jumbled together.

Whether in Ferguson, Pittsburgh of the countless other scenes of American violence, it is the tributes of the living, that very 21st century communion of souls, that always catches me out, makes me pause, makes me blink back a year.

This time it is across the way from a Hooters restaurant in El Paso. And in the car park of a Walmart. Not much more American than that.

Who comes to a memorial like this early on a Wednesday work day with the temperature way north of 90F? It is work for some. The men in suits come to be interviewed by CNN and the news crews who have set up live points beneath white canopies. Billy Graham’s followers have a truck offering counselling across the way and other church groups are doling out bottles of chilled water.

It is a pilgrimage for others, who walk slowly along the line of pictures and placards. Children stand beside parents, perhaps wondering what the lesson in all of this is supposed to be. That we mustn’t let it happen again? Or that we should honour the dead?

And, by Wednesday, it has become a preaching ground. A microphone and PA system have turned the site into a speakers corner of sorts. There are tributes to the dead and insults for the politicians who are seem powerless or uninterested in trying to halt the violence.

“I am really nervous,” says one man before offering a halting prayer for tolerance.

The sign outside Whataburger

President Trump and his hostility towards Mexican immigrants is a recurring theme in a city that would straddle the border if its other half did not go by a different name, Ciudad Juarez.

I have come because I need a story. When you are starting from scratch, when you arrived in town around midnight, a town where the hotels are full apart from a two-star motel with damp-smelling pillows and where every rental car is rented, when you don’t know the city, then the obvious place to begin is the memorial.

You can find the quiet words of resilience which are expected from well-behaved survivors of violence, some paragraphs of colour, and if you stop one of the men in suits coming and going from the cameras you can include some quotes from a state senator.

The Starbucks you passed on the way here will have free wifi. It will be your media filing centre for the day. Then with your first story written it is time to do the other stuff, get on with some digging. Where is the friend of the Trump supporter, the baseball coach, who was shot as he shielded children from the gunman?

There’s a Whataburger on the way back. It’s a Texas institution, apparently, one of those chains with such strong a strong connection with place — like In-N-Out Burger in California — that it was declared a state treasure in 2001.

Predictably its sign declares “El Paso strong” when I pull into the car park. No-one is allowed to be weak or sad or in despair any more. Within hours of each outrage, even before the dying are dead, the population of San Bernadino or Las Vegas or Dayton is being told to buckle up and get on with it.

Texas toast

I order the patty melt —two burgers inside “Texas toast”, doorsteps of bread grilled up with butter. The melt, in all its greasy unctuousness, distracts from the two fairly average bits of grey meat inside. My fingers will smell of this all day.

The memorial is louder when I return in the late afternoon. It is as if it is taking on first the character of El Paso, its hodge podge of people coming and going, and then latterly it comes to encapsulate all of America’s fuckedupness.

This is who else comes to a memorial: Two women — one Hispanic, one black — begin chanting, “We love Trump.” Withering looks fly their way. Then shouts. “You’re not welcome.”

Half a dozen police officers surround the women and a young black man wearing a Make America Great Again cap, gently trying to ease them away from confrontation.

Police escort away Trump supporters

Do you think it is appropriate to make this sort of protest at a memorial, I ask gently. “Get your fake news camera outta here,” shouts the Latina in my face. “Latinas for Trump,” she chants.

I ask the young man what he is doing here. “I’m trying to keep my mother out of trouble,” he says.

He poses for a photograph and a blonde man dressed in black shorts, T-shirts and protective glasses sidles over. “Do this,” he suggests, joining thumb and index finger in a circle, splaying his other fingers. It’s the new white power salute. The black man follows suit.

The white man’s name is Thomas Bartram. He is 21. He works as a power wash operator and drove the 10 hours down from Houston in a pick-up truck carrying a poster of Trump dressed as Rambo in order to make his point.

Thomas Bartram, jetwash operator

“An event like this is always a political thing,” he says. “There’s no way around that.”

He has, however, made a concession. Normally “I’m an open carry kind of guy,” he says, but left his rifle at home given the tragedy that occurred.

He drives off in his truck soon after, worried that a storm is bearing down on the city.

The next I hear of him is that he has been arrested outside an immigrant centre, reportedly carrying a gun and a knife. Photographs showed him wearing blue, latex gloves. Police found clips of ammunition and a bag of white powder. He was detained briefly and released, a police spokesman said, as he was carrying his firearm legally.

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A win and a bust in Vegas


Ana, who works at a Las Vegas casino, and Leah, who has come from New Orleans, work on getting out the Democratic vote

This is the other Las Vegas. Take the turning off US95 where you see the iHOP sign and keep going past the Olive Garden until you are surrounded by unglitzy bungalows, their front yards filled with yellow, desert rocks (golden if you must) that don’t need watering.

It is the closest thing you’ll find to the city’s suburbia, home to the armies of waiters, cleaners, valets, croupiers, security guards, cooks and bar tenders that keep the fun running 24/7 on the neon-lit party strip downtown.

Ana, a casino porter, is my guide. She adjusts her red union cap and pauses before ringing the next doorbell. Her spiel can be a hard thing to sell here.

“Usually these people don’t want to hear it,” she says. “So sometimes what I tell them is that I can that you are blessed, but you know what… I think its important for us to care about our community, the people who have low wages, can’t afford healthcare, decent meals.”

It is the Saturday before the midterms. And Ana is one of the 300 canvassers sent out by Nevada’s most powerful political force, the Culinary Union Local 226, to make sure registered Democrats will vote.

After three months on doorsteps, nothing fazes her. Not the man who says he can’t vote because he’s a felon (“Maybe next time”), barking dogs (“I’ll leave the leaflets just here”) or the shouts to go away (“Not everyone wants to talk”).


Casino workers (mostly – although there’s an international arms dealer at the back there) at the voting centre for the Las Vegas strip

Three days later, the results came in. In a mixed night for both sides the Nevada Senate race was one of the biggest bright spots for Democrats. Jacky Rosen, who built a reputation for quiet efficiency in her two years in the House, defeated the incumbent Republican, Dean Heller, whose tactics of talking up Trump seemed to have won him a bump in eve of election polls.

And in so doing, it suggests a path to a broader victory for Democrats who still seem to be struggling to define who they are – other than as the resistance to Trump.

I spent the week here, watching the work of the culinary union, the bad-tempered television adverts, the last-minute celebrity visitors (Jimmy Kimmel and Eric Trump) and then monitoring the results as they came in at the Republican watch party (at the South Point Casino, some way down the main drag, prompting derision from a union friend – “it’s like they are hiding away.”)

Here’s what the Democrats did right:

1) Their message of health care, minimum wage, social security was carefully tailored on the doorstep to match the needs of working voters in Las Vegas.

2) That was possible because of the huge organisation at their disposal. Along with Ana – who had been working six-day weeks since August – there were volunteers from out of state, swelling the effort to 350 union workers knocking doors on the day. It was slick and well directed, and just one part of the Democratic machine.

3) Nevada was winnable. It featured a Republican incumbent in a state that Hillary won in 2016. So while the party poured millions into a telegenic but unwinnable campaign for Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Nevada was a top target and benefited from a surge in resources, flying canvassers and national attention.

4) Trump’s final immigration push did not resonate here. This is not the Rust Belt where foreigners are blamed for taking scarce jobs. Las Vegas still runs on migrant workers and even in rurual counties, that break for Trump, immigration is not the same issue as it is in say Pennsylvania.

5) This is where the Democrats demographic advantage shines through. Minorities and the young hold the advantage in Las Vegas, the city which dominates the Republican counties around. It was Nevada this time, but other sun states – such as Texas – will follow.

The outcome of all of this was immediately visible on election day. Polling centres uniformly busy. Minimum wait times ran at 20 minutes. The busiest of all was the one closest to the strip, where buses laid on by the big casinos dropped Hispanic maids in brown dresses, chefs in whites and slender dancers looking bleary eyed in the daylight. Wait times here hit the hour mark, and upwards, but did not deter voters who held scraps of card, whatever they could find, over their faces to protect themselves from the strong desert sun.


Burgers on the pass at Gordon’s

It is all a reminder of where real power lies. The Trump name may shine out across the strip from the top of a hotel. The likes of casino magnate Sheldon Alderson may give billions to conservative causes. But they can’t do much when labour gets organised.

Nowhere are the power dynamics, mores and charms of modern America made more visible than Las Vegas – where high rollers throw down hundreds at one end of the strip, while Mexican immigrants hand out flyers for prostitutes (legal) and nickel slots buzz happily at the other.

It is a cheap city with expensive promises. Or a bankrupt one with a chequebook. Where you have to pay $20 for wifi in $300 hotel rooms and $5 for bad coffee at giant glittering entertainment complexes mortgaged to the top of their 60th floor (actually the 45th).

It is exactly the sort of place where you’d expect the humble burger to be dressed up into something more, all doused in star dust.

Which is how I come to be sitting at Gordon Ramsay’s burger place, down towards the seedier part of the strip by a casino that features a “pleasure pit” – which I’ll leave to your imagination.


The Hell’s Kitchen Burger

I have been here long enough to know that the name means nothing. Ramsay is not likely to be cooking the burgers. Indeed the presence of “Dubliner cheese” on the UK Burger suggested he hadn’t even looked at the menu. Had he done a Trump and just flogged his name, brandified his career to a chain decorated with Union Flags and selling bottle openers at $22 a pop?

The Hell’s Kitchen Burger was utterly unmemorable. A thick slice of avocado overpowered the burger – which was grey in both colour and flavour. The aioli was missing in action. And the fries were the sort of chewy texture that keeps you going back for more if only to try to work out how they could have gone so badly wrong.

Still, when you are in this most American of cities, but most inauthentic of places, I guess that’s what you get when you seek out an Englishman’s* idea of a burger.

* As his geographically challenged menu might have it.





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A Brooklyn metaphor in a bun



Money on the table. Dili Dili. Old School football Sunday.

“Where is everyone?”

At 12.40 on a Sunday in September – football season – the bar should have been heaving. The regulars would be a fair way through their half pints of Budweiser. (The smaller glasses ensure it stays cooler, I eventually realised.) And the transplanted Steeler fans should be assembled in front of the choicest screens.

I almost didn’t come. Watching a Jets game generally meant relegation to the small TV at the far end of the bar, away from my normal spot at the angle, closer to the door. Yet some of my favourite Sundays have been here, particularly the days with London games, when the fella with the Italian bakery would pass around his lard bread (as good as it sounds) as we tried to make it all the way through to the late game.

This day, Bobby, the Brooklyn barman, who is so old-school he turned down Jimmy Kimmel when his show came looking for old-school Brooklyn barmen to be on TV, looked at me as if I was a cretin. Not for the first time.

I knew the bar was closing next month. I knew the owner was sick and wanted to cash in and enjoy his retirement. But what I had not realised was that this sports bar – the dark, wood-panelled spot that I considered MY bar – had not renewed its NFL TV package. For the first time in a long time it would not be showing every game of the season, just the ones on local cable.

The owner was stationed close to the door so he could explain to the steady stream of (mostly Steeler) fans who entered that the package was all-season or nothing, so it wasn’t worth buying just for a few weeks. They were sent on their way with a recommendation for a place around the corner.

Still, a reasonable crowd of regulars made it in. We joked about Jimmy Times, who said he was so looking forward to seeing Steeler fans being turned away that he had planned to come early and sit outside.

There were other benefits. So many screens were now free that the Mets game was on one TV and the Jets on the next. With the commentary turned on. Unheard of for a football Sunday.

We should have done this long ago, was the gag.

Yet there was a sadness too. This was a slice of old Brooklyn in a long gentrified neighbourhood. While the brownstones were now affordable only by bankers and the coffeeshops had become the preserve of mums with thousand dollar strollers, my bar was a throwback, favoured by construction workers, cops and the occasional journalist.

Of course the clock was ticking. The second hand bookstore had gone a couple of years earlier when the owner was made an offer he would have been dumb to refuse. And the new bookstore went soon after, unable to afford the escalating rent. It was all smart sandwich shops, estate agents and women’s clothes shops these days with just a handful of hold-outs.

I moved away a couple of years ago for cheaper climes. When I returned I was unsurprised to see a food truck selling waffles and sushi. No joke.


This is the story of New York. Where things come and go so fast in a race to the dollar. It should be no surprise.

Yet the bar had hung in there for 30 years. A lifetime in these parts. It felt permanent and with that came a sense of place, of belonging, for its customers.

What happens next? We talked about other bars. Without much gusto. We wondered where the staff – all longserving Brooklyn pros – would move next. Did they have anything lined up?

And then we stopped discussing it. We had arrived from different neighbourhoods. It was the bar that brought us together, a disparate band of football fans and beer enthusiasts. The others, I suspect, knew each other better. But I had never once met any of these people outside our haven. I didn’t really want to think about us all going our separate ways.

My burger arrived. Thick and juicy, from one of the old Italian butchers around the corner. Always the same. Familiar. My regular order. Unadorned other than a slice of cheese. A metaphor in a bun.

I pulled my phone out to snap a picture. Bobby noticed. He raised an eyebrow and maybe the corner of a lip. Old school.

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Live and local in Atlantic City



Hard Rock is adding some rock n roll to Atlantic City as everyone hopes for an upturn

The whole point of being in Atlantic City was to write about the opening of the Hard Rock casino and resort. You know the places, right? Too-loud music and burgers. Guitars on the wall and burgers. Elvis’s roller and burgers.

So what was I doing in Gordon Ramsay’s Steak? The “steakhouse concept” (according to the PR blurb) opened in June, just a week or so before, part of the “trend” I was attempting to write about: Atlantic City reborn, a gambling renaissance on the East Coast etc.

I was worried that I wasn’t dressed right. The blurbs said business casual and I wasn’t sure my jeans and linen jacket would live up to America’s slightly odd definitions of appropriate dress. Sure enough, I walked in behind half a dozen men who looked like they were on dress-down Wednesday, all shorts and sports T-shirts. Oh Gordon, you would not like this, I thought.

That was the least of my worries. After spending 45 minutes finding the right car park during what should have been a 15-minute journey, then another 15 minutes wandering through atmosphere-free slot machine rooms, I discovered that a “steakhouse concept” might very well serve $90 steaks but they won’t sell you a burger. I would have settled for a steak tartare thrown on the grill. But no luck there either.

So I did what I should have did in the first place. Went to the Hard Rock Cafe a night before its official opening. Turned out it had got its licences early, so had thrown open the doors to gamblers and burger lovers ahead of its grand launch.


Some of the memorabilia on display

Nancy, my server, was giddy with excitement. She talked 19 to the dozen, sitting down at one of the spare seats at my table, as she took me through the menu. These are good times for this much blighted city.

On my last visit, in 2014, I arrived on a Grayhound bus packed with half a dozen pensioners who looked like they would grimace their way through a grey weekend of slipping quarters in unforgiving slot machines. Three casinos were closing – following one that had already closed, and another that would soon follow – brought down by market saturation and a city that had none of the fake glitz and Michelin stars of Vegas. A staggering 11,000 jobs were lost. Unemployment hit 20%.

nancyBut it’s all cyclical, as a man who sounded too wise to ever set foot in a casino, told me on the boardwalk. And investors spotted an opportunity, what with the Supreme Court lifting its ban on sport betting and the native American tribe behind the Hard Rock brand seeing a chance to inject some fun back into the city that after all gave us the first Monopoly board, and with the saturation problem having been fixed during that last visit of mine.

“Its on the up and long may it last,” said Nancy, above the squall of a band that was soundchecking band and which had clearly got the Hard Rock memo about noise levels.

I ordered the “local legendary”, apparently a Hard Rock thing that is supposed to reflect its environs. This one came stacked with peppers, spicy provolone, a fried egg and something called “pork roll”. Nancy couldn’t explain it other than to say “very Jersey”.

What it is, in fact, is some kind of processed pork slice. A local Spam. It offered only a burned note to an otherwise solid burger, not unwelcome amid the sweetly oozing juices in each chunky bite.


The pork roll is right there

Somehow it seems to fit this funny town of chancers and dreamers, schemers and losers.

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What Anthony Bourdain taught me about food and about a ‘secret’ New York burger joint


The Burger Joint. Not a secret.

It must be the worst-kept secret in New York. But still I can’t find it. First one way and then back the other. In on a door on West 56th Street and out through a bar on West 57th.

Finally I ask the concierge. Behind the curtain, she says, in a manner that suggests I am the umpteenth person to have asked.

Behind the curtain there is a queue made up of those umpteen people. It goes through the doorway (was there an actual door behind the curtain? I don’t remember) past the booths and up to a counter, where four or maybe five cooks are a blur or burger flipping, ketchup-dispensing, cash-taking efficiency.

The decor is CBGB chic. Or rather CBGB toilet chic. Think walls griffitied with names and dates of those paying homage. Tatty posters, Seinfeld, Sex and the City and a Ramones number – wanted “vivo o muerto” – make clear that this may be the swanky Parker Meridien hotel but there was once a different Manhattan, before the bankers and wankers sluiced the streets down and washed the fetid scum to the outer boroughs. Or wherever the hell they all are now. Detroit probably.

The umpteen and me are probably here for the same reason. The Burger Joint, as this place is prosaically and calculatingly named, was named one of the top three burger places in NYC by Anthony Bourdain. So we are here to pay tribute to a man who only ever could have lived in this city and whose initials were probably once written beside those CBGB urinals.


It’s a bit messy and stuff falls out

Except I don’t think for one minute that Bourdain ever would really have named his three favourite burger places in a video for the Travel Channel. Sure Shake Shack, the best of the chains, where a few extra customers ain’t gonna muck things up. But I have a feeling there’s a go-to late night place where the cooks and the drinkers end up, where there’s a secret code to get in and that isn’t mentioned on the tourist blogs, that he is keeping to himself for ever.

I order the cheeseburger (medium), works, fries, diet Coke (it’s one of those weeks). And pay cash. Because that’s the way it should be although it seems they do take credit cards these days. The transaction takes place in front of a stack of bags of Arnold’s Burger Buns, because showing off your buns is a thing. Apparently.

There are other places where you can read about Bourdain’s extraordinary life and work, written by people who knew him and worked with him. And there are even more places where you can read pieces about him by people who never – or barely knew – him. I offer no insider info. I just liked the man’s shows, and that way the first series of A Cook’s Tour was a bit dodgy, filled with insecurity and amateur-hour moments, but that if you stuck with its two seasons, then moved on to No Reservations where his voice – the one from Kitchen Confidential and the New Yorker – starts to come through you can then watch his writing and understanding blossom in Parts Unknown, which becomes almost entirely and naturally about people, like all the very best shows or books about food or places.

He enjoyed food and drink the right way. He talks about the flavours and the techniques when he is with a chef, learning a technique, filing away the knowledge. But when he sits down to eat he talks about politics, history, science, religion and sex. Can you imagine him halting the flow to mention the cherry blossom popping in a Shiraz? No me neither. He removes the idea that somehow good eating and drinking is the preserve of starched linen and maitre d’s. Sure you can have that if you want it. But his rants on the ludicrous, evangelical craft beer movement sum up his attitude to pretension in general, and to consumption in particular. You know his best drink is the cold one put in front of him in the moment, in the place.

My name is called and I return to the serving window to collect my parcel. The burger is wrapped in paper and the fries come in a bag. I take it to my spot on the bench and squirt ketchup in the bag. A suited wage slave has sat down beside me. In front, another suit is alone reading the Wall Street Journal on his iPad. The tourists sit at the tables, speaking Russian or German.

And the place crystallises some other thoughts on New York. For this is the fakest of fake experiences. I had imagined the Burger Joint might be some sort of rent hold-out, protected by an old-fashioned lease they don’t write any more. That it could not be evicted. That there have not been seven generations of patty purveyors doling out their wares from this spot as the evil hotel was built around them, cutting off their water, turning off their heat and draping them all in a curtain to stop customers finding them.

But this was a concept and a marketing plan before there was even so much as a hint of charred beef in the air. An executive chef from the hotel helped create the burger. The curtain serves the same purpose as the closed door of the bullshit “speakeasies” elsewhere in town. It’s a charade.

There’s no fakery in the burger, however. It is pure Black Angus Nebraska beef, from one of the cheaper cuts. A decent fat to lean ratio. And it is ground once, not turned to mush and packed with other gunk to hold it together. It starts to fall into strands as I bite through the bun and the works – tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles, mayo, mustard and ketchup (I think) – drip on to the papers. It is the best burger I have had in New York by some distance.

And in some ways it is the perfect burger for New York, this least authentic of towns. The food is a confection, served in a non-secret hidden corner that tries to conjure up a lost part of the city. Only less shitty and less scary than this place in the 1970s and 1980s. And with less of a smell of urine.

While huge chunks of modern life seems to be caught up in searches for authenticity, Bourdain’s TV shows seemed to offer an antidote. Or at least clarity. Authenticity is not about sourcing your ingredients from the right place, or using the correct recipe, or grooming your beard in the right direction. If you are spending your time thinking about it, or researching it, or studiously avoiding tourist traps or still venting at the hipster wankers in Brooklyn making their chocolate in the bath, then get over it. Don’t bore on about craft beer. And certainly don’t live in New York.

Authenticity is a hoax. A gimmick at best.

Just do it all. Drink the drinks. And eat it all. Do it with other people, people who won’t talk about the sodding food and drink all night. Argue about religion and politics and sex. The rest takes care of itself.

I lick my fingers. Throw the papers in the bin and walk out through the curtain.







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The Irma burger


There was a point when I wondered whether they were pulling my leg.

I got the bit about their elegant home being built on the highest point of Broward County. And I followed the logic of wanting to be in place to mount rapid damage assessments and make repairs as the night wore on.

It was just that a massive hurricane was roaring in towards Florida and from the Mayors’ first floor balcony I could see and hear the Atlantic Ocean, no more than 100 metres away.

Their home was in a mandatory evacuation zone, just outside Fort Lauderdale. But as I had already learned, “mandatory evacuation” zones did not mean what it sounded like they meant. The Mayors – veterans of two decades of hurricanes were very definitely not evacuating. Unlike me, who was preparing for my first such encounter. (That was a joke for sub-editors.)

The Mayors had readied their home, just as they always do. Storm shutters had been closed over the windows. Garden ornaments had been secured. An inch or two of water had even been let out of the koi pond to allow for flooding.

For sustenance, there was a roast turkey, pots of chicken soup and two types of freshly baked bread.

They were ready to ride out whatever Hurricane Irma could throw at them.  

In 2006 they had survived without power for six weeks. Back then they clubbed together with neighbours, who got a share of the Mayors’ generator in return for taking turns at cooking on the barbecue and dining together in the street.

“Whatever was the next thing to go off, that’s what we ate,” explained Deborah.

I left them to it on the Saturday afternoon – with some kind of idea in my mind of a disaster-themed street party, drinking punch while bandaging up survivors – to return to my hotel, where I was to spend a nervy night, watching the winds pick up through the picture windows which looked far too big to me to have any chance of making it intact through a hurricane.

I thought of their food and plans for a barbecue as I dinnered on cucumber and beef jerky. The wind lashed rain across my door, sending a puddle spilling across the floor.

The lights dimmed and the air-conditioner failed in a classic brown out.

But we survived. The TV failed for a couple of hours, and I heard the tell-tale freight-train noise of a tornado rumbling through. But as the light came up on Sunday morning, the hotel was still standing and we were all in one piece.

The next hours were a blur as I raced around assessing the damage, interviewing residents and finding something to eat. I couldn’t reach the Mayors. The phone network was overloaded. It is fair to say I was worried about their fate. The bridge leading to their ocean-front street on Barrier Island was closed for a chunk of the day.


Ocean Boulevard after it had been cleared

In the late afternoon I gave it another try. This time, as well as offering up my press card, I told police officers that I was going to see friends and was allowed through.

Ocean Boulevard was inundated with sand. A sea surge had deposited part of the beach on the road. But as I turned into the Mayors’ cul-de-sac it was clear they had escaped almost all damage. The driftwood, sand and assorted detritus was deposited only on the beach end of the road, indicating a fairly benign high-water mark.

Craig chuckled as he recalled their night. Their only concern came from an odd grating sound which echoed through the house even when everything should have been locked down.

“Debbie forgot to close the cat flag,” he said.


A long table had been set up in the driveway of the house across the street. With a cold beer in hand I took my seat just as the burgers came off the barbecue.

There was still work to be done. Craig later helped rig up a neighbour’s air conditioning unit to their generator and there were plenty of fallen branches to clear.


But for an hour everyone assembled for a cheeseburger and a plate of salad. It was one of the simplest I’ve had – nothing but minced (ground) steak seasoned up with a little garlic salt and pepper. It was served on a polystyrene plate with plastic knives and forks.

No mucking around. It was that sort of day. And it was perfect.

(This all happened in September. It just took me a while to publish.)




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Hurricane or no hurricane, you can rely on the American Coffee Shop


It was the only place open. Its neon window sign proclaiming invincibility in the face of Hurricane Irma.

The American Coffee Shop was open at 8am. I hadn’t had coffee in more than 36 hours and my body was protesting.

The queue, a day after Irma smashed through Florida, stretched down the counter and out of the door. Three quarters of Broward County – including Fort Lauderdale – had no power and needed to go out for their coffee. Not just any old coffee either.


Every person in front of me wanted a cappuccino or a cafe con leche. Surely in a time of crisis you’d all pull together and just get the drip, rather than asking for a sodding almond milk crapuccino with sprinkles. Oh and while I’m here maybe give me five frothy nothings, with arse shavings. But not in the coffee, mind. On the side. And can I pay with a card?

I took my coffee black. Paid cash. It seemed like the decent thing to do.

By this time, I’d already pulled a pretty full day. I’d tracked down a trailer park and interviewed a handful of residents who – for reasons that remain no clearer to me  –decided to stay in their mobile homes rather than run for a shelter.

Coffee restored my balance, enough to try and fail to reach the beach (turned back by the Law) and then get back to my hotel to file.

My journalist’s emergency snack pack was depleted. I had finished the jerky and was half way through my pack of mini-cucumbers. I would have to venture back out for lunch.

As I drove towards the American Coffee Shop I passed a McDonald’s with a drive-thru. The queue backed up for half a mile. Irma had sparked the great pattie panic of 2017.

The American Coffee Shop was no quieter. The counter and all the tables were full. Orders were shouted back and forth, sometimes in English, more often in Spanish

“It has been like this since 6.30,” said the grillman and owner Nelson, as he manipulated three omelettes at a time. “It hasn’t stopped.”

They were out of bacon and low on everything else. The bin at his feet told the story of the day in eggshells.


My cheeseburger order (medium, American cheese) went up on the order rack, written out on a piece of paper that gradually became more transparent every time it was moved and another fingerprint of grease applied.

Only it didn’t move at first.

I watched eggs crack and Cuban sandwiches pressed on to the griddle. Grits and oatmeal were mixed and slopped into bowls. Someone ordered bacon and then unordered 15 minutes later when the mistake was spotted.

A British family sat in the window. They were veterans of these storms and had weathered it like everyone else.

While they waited for their meal, the father said it was one of the rare occasions when South Floridians pulled together. He had checked on his neighbours first, then his friends and then his business.

“It is not normal for people here to come together like this,” he said.

This was my first hurricane. The power at my hotel had stayed on (albeit at reduced voltage in a brown out). My coffee cup was being refilled in short order and I had a burger on order (although my ticket had yet to move). This was not how I expected it to be.

Yet, I could sense impatience all around. The queue at McDonald’s. The drivers ignoring police warnings to stay off the roads. Worse, those that were on the roads were speeding through junctions where the traffic lights were out – rather than treating them like four-way stops (and if you’ve never navigated a multi-lane four-way stop then you have no idea of the sheer terror they hold).


And at the American Coffee Shop, Nelson senses the tension. “Almost there,” he says as he flips out another set of pancakes and my ticket moves a step towards the front of the queue. He later tells me a couple of customers walked out, impatient at the wait – a day after a deadly hurricane ripped through the city, keeping businesses closed, taking down powerlines and prompting food and water shortages…. sheesh.

I had spotted the shop on Saturday, as Irma roared in. While other coffee shops were closing early, they kept going as late as possible. Nelson told me there was no question of not opening the day after Irma blasted through.

Finally my burger was on the flatplate grill. It was flipped twice and then the slice of yellow cheese was plonked on top. It was all served on top of a toasted bun, with lettuce, tomato and onion.

The fries were cold. But I had got the very last batch. With a dollop of ketchup, I felt myself a lucky man. A hurricane survivor with a juicy burger in my hand.

“Summer, lock the door,” Nelson called to the waitress.

He threw four battered chicken breasts on the hot plate. Staff lunch.

They were done for the day and with one last refill of coffee I was on my way.


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Baseball blow-out


There have been changes at Citi Field, home of the Mets, this season. The inter-innings entertainment has switched from a four-car running race – fire truck, yellow cab, police car and er was it a limo? – to a three-car pedal race – with corporate branding. And Keith’s Grill, purveyor of some of the finest burgers in New York, has moved from behind left field to somewhere in the right-hand corner.

The menu has been modified as well. Last time I visited the was either the Gold Glove burger – basically your standard 6oz burger – or the Mex burger – with avocado and bacon. Both were thick enough that the juice ran down to your elbows.

Now you can get the 108 burger* billed as a taste of the Big Apple. It comes with Havarti cheese, Deli mustard (ie mild as you like), all topped by a huge mound of pastrami inside a pretzel bun and served with a Titanic-sized pickle.

burger.jpgJust like older versions, the burger was thick and juicy and the bun had the sort of solid consistency needed to hold the whole thing together. The pastrami was incredible, caramalised and chewy in just the right places. It rather overpowered the rest of the ingredients, and just the sort of thing – you imagine – favoured by a muscular first baseman.

It still comes with the bag of crisps (potato chips, if you must) and the lollipop.

Last Friday’s blow-out against the Dodgers was the second part in my sporting doubleheader. Earlier in the day Nottingham Forest started their latest Championship campaign with a nervy 1-0 win over Millwall.

I don’t think I have ever bought food at the City Ground. Why would you? You don’t go to English football grounds to eat. My routine is generally to buy haddock and chips from Carrington’s Fish Bar and scoff them on the way to the ground. Beer is drunk at a pub en route. The whole point is to arrive a few minutes before the game and leave at the final whistle.

The culture surrounding English football could not be further removed from that surrounding baseball, where fans arrive early to eat and stay late to watch fireworks (after Saturday home games) or run the bases (with Mr Met on Sundays).

Here are some of the difference I have noted in the past three years with the Mets…

  1. Tear down season – the most depressing aspect of the 2017 Mets. With no relegation or promotion and the play-offs out of reach, this season is effectively over. The team is done, being broken up with an eye on 2018. Lucas Duda and Addison Reed have been shipped out and any numbers of others would have followed if they were wanted by other teams making a late season push. There is no notion of mid-table security in this game, which kind of tells you all you need to know about American sport
  2. Punditry – the TV commentary makes no attempt at neutrality. Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez (the burger maker) are fans. Cheerleaders. Their channel SNY is jointly owned by the Mets. So last season, they made no mention of the fact that David Wright clearly couldn’t throw the ball from third to first, and made only fleeting reference to the tabloid scandal that clearly derailed one of Bartolo Colon’s outings 
  3. Corporatisation – everything is sponsored to within an inch of its life. When sponsorship changed from Pepsi to Coke the Pepsi Porch seating area became the rather clumsy Coca Cola Corner. Banner boards proudly proclaim Cheez Doodles to be the official cheese puff of the New York Mets. And – of interest to readers of this blog – all the burgers in the stadium are made from beef supplied by Pat LaFrieda. A million miles from Forest who not so long ago played with their owner’s name emblazoned on their shirts for lack of other sponsors.
  4. Entertainment – I dimly recall the Hooters girls performing during half time at the City Ground when football was trying to go glam. Everyone was too busy going to the loo and getting a cup of Bovril to pay any attention. It never really worked out Baseball entertainment takes things to a whole other level. Look what the Braves got going on…

What does it all mean? Two different sports, two countries. America has the better burgers. And the Freeze.

* (If anyone knows why it is called the 108 burger then please do let me know. Is it behind section 108? Is it related to a Keith stat? If so, I can’t find it…)

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Bakers and burgers in Trump country


Frank DeViva, owner of the Bakehouse Bakery and Café


Sit down at the table under the television at the far end of the Bakehouse Bakery and Café and you know immediately where you are. Not just Kingston, Pennsylvania, but Trump country.

“I’m pro-America, pro-gun, pro-God,” is how John Sorber, a retired lineman, introduces himself (And anti-Obama, anti-Stalin and anti-government meddling in healthcare).

It is just after ten o’clock and the informal breakfast club is winding down. There’s just time enough for one last cup of coffee and a chance to take the pulse of a county that voted Obama in 2008 and 2012 before plumping for Donald Trump last year.

Because despite what the pollsters and pundits are saying about a stalled legislative agenda, a gaffe-prone White House and a string of broken promises, there is no buyer’s remorse here.

Mention Saturday’s 100-day milestone and the response is a weary smile.

“I never liked the 100 days thing,” says Gordon Price, who worked in the telephone industry before retiring. “I’m still behind him.”

His administration is not yet fully staffed, runs the thinking here, and the same pundit class that dismissed Mr Trump’s chances in the election is now declaring the presidency a failure.

The view in Kingston is different. These are the people who took Mr Trump seriously but not literally. They don’t see flip-flopping or commitments broken.

They see a president who has begun the process of dragging America into a new age, reasserting itself in global affairs and undoing the damage of the Obama years.

“We had eight years of Obama. He damaged the country. He made this country a laughing stock,” says Mr Price, folding away that morning’s Wilkes Barre Times Leader newspaper.

“I’m not going to say much,” says Kathy, a retired teacher, “but I agree with that.”

The missile strikes on Syria are an illustration of a president who means business, she adds.

This part of America doesn’t care that he has not released his taxes. They shrug at the defeat of a healthcare bill, as if to say that’s Washington business, not their business. They have other issues that they care about.

That’s why Hillary Clinton missed the trend in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the other states she took for granted.

Kathy and Gordon are both former Democrat voters who backed Trump this time around.

“We used to be the silent majority,” says Gordon echoing a Trump refrain, “but these are desperate times.

Kingston and its bigger neighbour Wilkes Barre have long known desperate times. The region’s economy was once based on anthracite mines that produced a hard coal with a high carbon content. When that disappeared in the second half of the Twentieth Century it was replaced by manufacturing industry in general and women’s clothing factories in particular. In time those factories disappeared as well, to be replaced by a mix of small-scale service industries leaving an unemployment rate that tracks a point plus change above the national average.

The high street has more than its fair share of empty stores, making for a sorry sight when the town’s residential roads fill with bursts of cherry blossom at this time of year.

If I were better at this there would be some kind of metaphor in Biggie Burger, a joint that closed down recently before re-opening inside the Bakehouse, bringing owner Frank DeViva’s businesses under the same roof.

Rebirth, renaissance or some such.


The point of this trip was to get a different view of America, a different view of Trump. I didn’t bargain on finding a different view of the great American burger.

Yet that’s what happened when I ordered a cheeseburger with pickles and grilled onions after the breakfast club had drifted home. The burger was great. The Angus beef made it all a substantial mouthful, thick and juicy.

But the star of the show was the bun. It was crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. It soaked up the juice of the burger but held its shape. This was more than mere delivery system it was part of a greater whole.

Having already heard Frank’s story I should have known what was going on. He describes himself as a bagel baker from Queens NY. His bun includes malt and olive oil, and is baked only after 36 hours of fermentation. You get the picture.

He described it as European style, and I was too polite to say that I’d never had anything that good in Europe.

Business at the Bakehouse looked brisk. And after lunch I find another local businessman who says things are looking up.

Chuck Molinari sells exercise equipment from a shop crowded with static bikes, elliptical machines and weights benches. And in the two days before we met he had delivered two $4000 treadmills to buyers – not the sort of purchases made when times are tight, making him something of an economic bellwether.


Chuck Molinari

Last year was his worst on record. This is year is better already, something he puts down to Mr Trump’s plans to energise the economy.

“People that do the kind of thing like I do – sole proprietors, small businesses – we are all on the same page,” he says, sitting in his shorts on a bench.

There is a lesson here among the Trump voters of Kingston, a two and half hour drive in a rented Nissan from the media bubble of New York. Their mood is upbeat.

And mood matters in American political life of 2017.

Just as the election turned out to be less about facts, programmes and political philosophy, and more about emotion, feeling and tribe, so too this presidency will be judged in part on atmosphere.

Who is hurting?

Having learned this lesson when an election shock took shape on the night of November 8, too many commentators have reverted to their conventional yardsticks and the verdicts of an entrenched establishment.

What happened to all their post-mortem self-flagellation?

Did we get around to reading the rash of books that sought to explain the other America, you know, those ones with titles a bit like Redneck Lament?

The views that matter lie not in the political saloons of Washington DC or the newsrooms of New York, but all around the country at tables just like the eight-seater beneath the TV screen at the Bakehouse Bakery and Cafe.


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Terminal burger


“Welcome to the Central Diner,” reads the sign. “24 hours of food and fun.”

Inside the atmosphere might be better described as subdued. Table come and go in a low hubbub. Customers have planes to catch.

This is terminal four of JFK Airport, one of the shinier terminals at a run-down airport, one that fits neatly into my theory that airport naming committees will always find you out. (Benazir Bhutto might be revered around the world but her reign coincided with one of the most corrupt periods in Pakistani history, her father pioneered the country’s lurch into the hands of armed Islamist proxies and her ministers embraced the Taliban with gusto. Her airport in Islamabad is rubbish. And in New York, when they changed the name of Idlewild Airport to JFK they surely were sniggering at the fact that Kennedy’s myth was bigger than anything the man achieved.)

To my right is a classic diner counter lined with stools.

Waitresses with East European names and accents dispense coffee refills and NY attitude.

What makes the Central Diner different is its location at the heart of the fight against Donald Trump’s Muslim-ban-that-isn’t-a-ban. It is all down to quirk of scheduling. Terminal four finds itself on the frontline because twice a day Emirates flights arrive from Dubai, carrying passengers whose journeys start all across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

It was where Hameed Khalid Darweesh stepped off his flight last Friday and was promptly detained, even though he had arrived on a special visa designed to protect the life of a man who had worked for US armed forces in Iraq. A weekend of protests followed.

Rabina Taj, an immigration attorney who lives in East Harlem, was in Vermont on a skiing trip when she heard the news. By the time she and her friends began the journey back to New York on Sunday they had set up a website to help co-ordinate the efforts of volunteer lawyers and get information to worried travellers.

Since then she has taken time off her job to pull long hours in the pop-up legal centre that has taken root in the seating area beside the diner.

The night before we meet she was working until 2am.


Volunteers have fanned out through the airport trying to track down travellers who have got caught in a tightened net. Without access to areas beyond the arrival hall it is a tough business.

They look out for relatives who have been waiting hours for arrivals who never arrive, or they simply hold up banners offering assistance to anyone in need.

Although several courts have pushed back against the ban and the White House has dropped its requirement to include green card holders on the blacklist, the problems aren’t over.

There is nothing to stop border officials taking anyone out of line for secondary questioning which can last for up to seven hours, about the time lawyers would file a Habeus Corpus writ demanding the prisoner be presented in court, says Nabila.

People snared include naturalised American citizens, those from countries other than the seven seven affected countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen) and some with green cards and the legal right to permanent residence in the US.

The result is that even with the chaos of that first weekend easing, lawyers like Nabila say they will be sticking around for as long as they are needed.

That means lots of Central Diner coffee.

“They’ve been incredible, serving us food and letting us come in to talk and so on,” says Nabila.

“We had more of their space. It’s cordoned off now but at one time we had all their dining area.

“We really appreciate them letting us have our headquarters here.”

As well as giving up their staff for volunteer work, a number of law firms have chipped in to pay off the tab.

People coming off planes have made donations, including one passenger who handed over $90. That went straight into the diner tip jar.

And a gofundme page has raised more than $5000 for tips and diner gift cards to go to other airport staff who have gone out of their way to support (or turn a blind eye) to the legal effort sprawling across the terminal.

Nabila thanks me for the coffee but says she won’t stay for a burger.

I don’t blame her. Although the burger is nicely packed with lettuce, tomato and red onion, the patty is a let down. Grey with a dubious hum of freezer taint. It’s the sort of thing I might have eaten at a British regional airport in the 1980s, but doesn’t really fit this distant outpost of Camelot.

After a couple of bites the red onion is too much. Eye wateringly too much.

The fries are nothing to write home about (unless, that is, your address is Underwhelming French Fry House, Chipping Awful, Worst Chipshire or some such).

I leave a big tip anyway.




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