My fascination with the US started as a kid, watching The Banana Splits on Saturday mornings on TV. I went to Disneyland when I was nine or ten. We’d just been through a recession and my Dad took us on the first holiday we’d had in years to Disney World and Florida. I remember how big it all seemed – the roads were big, the sky was big, the hats were big, the buffets were big, even the “small” pancakes were big! And absolutely everything was dusted with icing sugar.
This fascinating place had to have more to offer than fast food, grease and monster portions, so over the last year I set out to get under the skin of America to find out what makes this incredible country tick. The images we all have of America from The Jerry Springer Show, McDonald’s “Golden Arches” and Mr Bush aren’t such positive things. But there are beautiful places and amazing cultures in this country, plus fabulous food.
Jamie on American culture
Really, America is like 50 countries rolled into one. There are really interesting mergers of ways of life in America, with people coming there from all over the world. There are English, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian and hundreds of other peoples living together; there’s an amazing Chinese influx at the moment. It’s very clear that most people there are escaping something. And all these cultures coming together has created a really interesting mix, both culturally and in the food.
You have to get away from the beaten track to see it all. During my trip, every time I saw an opportunity to do this, I took it. And I’m so glad, because what I found amazed me: radically different worlds and food all in this one vast country. There was the gang culture of East LA with its electric Mexican-inspired salsas; the mishmash, flavours and colour of immigrant cooking in New York; the noise, colour and sound of New Orleans; the simple survival food of the Navajo in Arizona; the big beautiful skies of Wyoming, and the warmth and relentless optimism of Georgia’s soul food.
A year ago, I never thought that Barack Obama would be the President of America or that I’d be cooking for him. But earlier this year, I was filming in Morocco when I took a call from Ed Balls to ask if I could do the cooking for the G20 summit in London in April – not an opportunity you turn down!
I wasn’t supposed to meet any of the leaders as I was just staff, working in the kitchen. But one of the waiters came in and said that Michelle Obama had heard about me and wanted to meet me. I said it wasn’t appropriate as I was staff, and he had to ask the lady of the house, Sarah Brown, about it. So Sarah then came and took me out of the kitchen and introduced me to Barack and Michelle.
I think Michelle had heard about me as the work I’ve done in England with Fifteen, School Dinners and Ministry of Food has been talked about in the US. Michelle is working in that kind of area too, so was interested. And we also talked about the organic garden she’d just planted at the White House.
The Obamas are very human, unaffected, charismatic people and it was fantastic to talk to them. We need leaders who have a heart and who can communicate, and I think they are brilliant for America. Michelle goes to primary schools, she hugs people and she constantly shows she’s human, and that is so important.
Having spent so much time in America before and after the election, I really feel that there’s a good energy in the country now with Obama as President, and a great sense of hope. I’ll be really surprised if good things don’t happen in their country in the next ten years. The Obamas have made America cool again.
Jamie’s America, including more than 100 recipes inspired by his recent journey there, is published on 3 September (Michael Joseph, £26). The television series, Jamie’s American Road Trip, starts on Channel 4 this month.