Generic food

Food - American food can be very repetitive. That's fine when it comes to sticky buns

There is a shop in west Philadelphia that sells nothing but carrot cake. There's carrot cake with cream-cheese frosting, smeared on with a palette knife as you watch, or carrot cake with no frosting. Carrot cake with pineapple and walnuts, or carrot cake without. Big carrot cakes, or cupcake-sized. Those are the choices. Everything is made fresh and served slowly by a smiling family. There's a homey spicy smell which drifts out into the Gospel church next door. No one seems to mind the limited options. Kids drink vivid green Gatorade (there are no hot drinks, only sodas). Sometimes the cook bakes nutmeggy peach cobbler, and at Christmas there are cartons of egg-nog in the cooler. Otherwise, it's carrot cake all the way.

It's often said that British food is becoming Americanised. But we've got nothing on the States when it comes to generic food. British snackeries still have the grocer-shop mentality, wanting to cram in as many lines as possible. Look at Marks & Spencer. You have to decide between baps or sandwiches, salad, sushi or samosa, before you even begin to consider what flavours are added. At the American subway, by contrast, you are served hundreds of variants on exactly the same pappy snack in a roll. America may be the land of infinite choice, but most of the decisions have been made before you walk through the door.

There are stalls selling nothing but pretzels, and others selling nothing but muffins. Dunkin' donuts piles doughnuts upon doughnuts, iced in numerous fluorescent shades, larded into various crinkly shapes to make them irresistible, all tasting of the same sugar and fat. Baskin Robbins does a similar trick with ice cream. Taco Bell charges you different amounts for the same limp burrito, depending on the size and how much processed cheese you decide to add.

The locus classicus of generic food is, needless to say, McDonald's, where the basic format of hamburger, fries and soft drink is as unshifting as the Holy Trinity. There's something unsparing and austere about it, which us western Europeans find hard to fathom - hence the superfluous salads and lamb-burgers they foist on us every so often to keep us happy. But in Russia, generic American food has been hugely successful. The molochni kokteyl, or milkshake, is big business. So is Baskin Robbins. It's not surprising. These fast-food outlets are cousins of the generic food shops of old Russia: the ones that sell nothing but bread (khleb) or dairy produce. But at McDonald's, you are seldom told: "Big Mac, nyet." American generic food is never-ending.

Cinnabon is a chain that has yet to make it to these shores. In 43 states across America, Cinnabon sells nothing but great, fat, doughy, moist, aromatic cinnamon rolls. "Legendary Makara CinnamonTM" wafts distractingly through the malls. Once they've got you inside the store, you're lost. It's only a question of how many and what size. I knew a beauty queen type who would spend ages deliberating whether she would get more satisfaction from half a large Cinnabon roll or a whole small one, before measuring out her pleasure with a huge black, calorie-free "RubymoonTM" coffee. Then again, you can buy a take-home 6-pack for $14.95. They're like childhood cakes ripped from the oven before they're quite done, stuffed with "rich, brown sugar and cinnamon filling" and covered with a shiny topping. Frighteningly addictive.

You watch them being fashioned from "farm fresh eggs and pure vegetable margarine", and become a latter-day Lotus-eater. If you never leave the shop, you think, you could be eating those cinnamon rolls for the rest of your life. Like Odysseus's men, you know it's a terrible idea; but, oh, for just one more dab of that sweet frosting . . .

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control