Friday 17 August 2018

Trying American Pie in Bismarck, USA

This article from my very first visit to the USA appeared in The Age newspaper in 2010, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by North Dakota Tourism and Virgin Australia.

To visit America for the first time is to encounter the strangely familiar.

Like every Australian, I’ve spent a lifetime immersed in the television and film output of the USA, absorbing the nuances of its culture. I even understand why it’s upsetting to have been cast as Benedict Arnold in the school play (thanks, Brady Bunch).

Which is why it’s mildly disconcerting to find that America is, in fact, much as it appears on screen.

Not that I’m spending quality time in the urban hotspots of Los Angeles or New York. I’m part of a media contingent that’s wending its way across Montana and North Dakota, two states as unknown to Australians as they are big.

When I’m travelling as a travel writer, I pay attention to the sights: Glacier National Park is impressive, as is the Badlands cowboy town of Medora. But I’m personally fascinated by the food culture, and how it matches our preconceptions of Americans and their collective weight problem (a problem, in all fairness, shared by many Australians, including this writer).

After several meals in roadside restaurants in small country towns along the Hi-Line, the east-west highway that runs parallel to the Canadian border, I decide that American food operates on two essential principles: choice and quantity.

“Choice” lies mainly in the micro-management of a dish’s accompaniments. By the time I reach our Bismarck hotel’s restaurant and the waitress rattles off a list of dressings to accompany my salad (“Green Goddess? What’s that?” “I don’t know sir, it comes out of a packet.”), I’m suffering choice fatigue.

The next day, while the rest of the group is riding horses and wranglin’ li’l dogies, I slip away to experience an aspect of American cuisine that’s always fascinated me: the humble diner.

North Dakota, it turns out, is not the obvious place to find one of these fast-vanishing icons, as diners were largely a feature of industrial cities along the east coast. Thus, Kroll’s Diner off the Memorial Highway in Mandan, Bismarck’s twin sister across the Missouri River, is a replica of the streamlined steel diner popular after World War II.

“I was watching a PBS special and they had a program about diners back in the early 1900s,” says owner Keith Glatt when I meet him a day later across town. “And I thought it would be really neat to do something like that. Then I was looking through a restaurant trade journal and they had these prefabricated diners. They’re built in Florida. They ship them to wherever you want them, and there you have a diner.”

Modern or not, it’s a beauty. I’m astounded by the sheer shininess of the building, a long structure of super-reflective metal. It’s easy to curl a lip at the architecture of the modernist era, but occasionally, when I see a building like this, I sense the postwar positivity behind it.

Inside, the nostalgia continues via a wealth of stainless steel, pink patterned laminate tabletops, cushioned booths, and strips of pink neon lighting. Then I take a seat within a booth, and notice a culinary element that’s very Bismarck - the number of dishes based on German cuisine, brought here by 19th century settlers.

For starters I order knoephla soup, an old-fashioned cream of chicken soup dotted with rectangular potato dumplings. It’s tasty and filling, but it’s nothing compared to the weightiness of my main course, fleischkuechle.

There’s no way to describe this dish gracefully: it’s a hamburger patty wrapped in an envelope of pastry which is deep-fried, then served on a skillet with a side of mashed potato and gravy.

The done thing is to squirt a dollop of ketchup into the pastry pocket before consuming. Strangely, the final concoction tastes satisfyingly like an Aussie meat pie.

I finish the meal with pumpkin pie. I’ve never had pumpkin pie before - in fact I don’t much like pumpkin - but it’s such a staple of American TV and movies that I have to give it a go.

The smooth, solid orange-brown filling packed with cinnamon and nutmeg doesn’t look promising, but it tastes great. With a side serve of cream, it’s damn good.

Another dessert Glatt recommends is his rhubarb crisp. “Rhubarb is very popular in this region,” he says. “You can’t kill it. You try to dig it out of your garden and get rid of it, next year it’s back. It handles the extreme climate we have up here.”

And though today is mild, it does become very cold in North Dakota in winter. I imagine the snow and ice piled up outside the Mandan diner, with myself slotted into a cheery booth and looking out at the whiteness while waiting for my hot apple pie to arrive, and somehow that seems just fine.

Kroll's Diner is located at

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