In Australia we think we know what American food is – we’ve all had hamburgers at McDonalds or Burger King. But these standardised fast food chains offer only a toned down version of American food suitable for an international eatership. They spare us the full sweet and fatty glory of American food. As with any national cuisine, the truly authentic taste can only be found in the land itself. A lovely example from the US is Verna’s Drive In in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Hawai’i is a very distinct part of the United States. The traditional Polynesian culture of the islands still lives on in many ways, especially in more rural areas. This is probably because Hawai’i is so far away from the American mainland and because it has only relatively recently been incorporated into the US. Direct US government influence was first felt only in 1893, when the Hawai’ian monarchy was overthrown with the support of US government agents (Bill Clinton officially apologised for this in 1993). Over the next fifty years or so Hawai’i was gradually integrated into the US until it ultimately became a US state in 1959.
Despite being a geographical and cultural outlier in the US, Hawai’i has taken on the essentials of mainland American culinary culture. Drive ins, which can be found all over Hawai’i, typify this culture. They are generally operated out of free-standing buildings that stand on or near major roads. They are surrounded by plenty of marked-up asphalt so that the customers have somewhere to park their pick-up trucks. The focus of the menu is hamburgers – listed in order of size from 4 oz. to 16 oz. – in ‘regular’ or ‘cheeseburger’ form. The menu is completed by a variety of other meaty and/or deep-fried delights. In Hawai’i spam also features prominently, although I think there’s a certain element of tongue-in-cheek here.
At Verna’s I had the ‘meatloaf with mash’, with extra gravy on the mash. I ordered and paid at the window on the left and then a few minutes later my meatloaf came at me from the right window like a bat outta hell.
A lady waiting for her own order to appear commented, ‘That’s a lot of meatloaf.’ It came with super smooth mashed potato (Deb consistency) and pasta salad and was smothered in lovely gravy. I sat down at the seating area and dug in. I was finished some time later. I threw out my styrofoam plate and plastic knife and fork and the meal was complete.
I have tried several of these drive ins in the time I have been here. All of them exhibit the same salient characteristics as Verna’s, but Verna’s does it best. It is the ideal American fast food store. It is this ideal that has been tamed to give us the international hamburger chains.
Ratings (out of 5 snorts)