In June 1949, I had been in the States for only a few days when I was invited to a party given by the drama and technical students of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
I had left England the previous week in a cool 65 degrees and arrived in Chicago in a steaming heat wave of 103. It was stifling, and I stayed at the YWCA, in a cubicle of a room no larger than a closet.
Having drooled over the glossy women's magazines, such as the Ladies' Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens, I was looking forward to experiencing an American party. It was hot, but I dutifully struggled into my girdle, wriggled into my precious nylons and found the coolest dress I possessed. I decided not to wear my hat or white gloves due to the heat.
I found the address of the party in the basement of an old brownstone; but surely I had made a mistake and come to the wrong place. Everybody seemed to be in their underwear, wearing T-shirts, cut off jeans and bare feet.
They were sitting on the floor, perched on the arms of chairs and they must have thought I looked as weird as I thought they looked. I got hotter and hotter. I wished that I could shed some of my clothes, but it was impossible.
Nobody seemed to have a surname -- there were Hank and Mike, Bob and Joe, Liz and Betty Lou. I would never remember all their names. I found out that it was a cookout but couldn't understand why people would cook out when they had a perfectly good stove in the kitchen to cook in. The food smelled delicious, and we were all handed paper plates -- where were the china ones, I wondered? I had never seen paper plates in England. The barbecued chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs appeared -- all a new experience to me.
There was a long, yellow vegetable with little kernels all over it, and lots of raw vegetables. I waited for my knife and fork -- and waited and waited. Then I saw that everybody was picking up their food and eating it with their fingers. What kind of a country had I come to? I did not know whether to attack the yellow vegetable from east to west or from north to south -- but it was delicious.
The dessert was served and I was glad to be given a plastic fork. I thought I had died and gone to Gourmet Heaven and given ambrosia that was for the Gods. The most delicious creamy, silken cheesecake, which I had never had before, tantalized my taste buds so that I wanted to keep it in my mouth forever. I have never forgotten that heavenly sensation and never have tasted such a delicious cheesecake since. My education had just begun.
I realized I had a new language to learn. I looked for the Underground and found the subway, I went up in an elevator instead of a lift, and when I went into a chemist for some cotton wool and plaster they did not know what I was talking about. I finally found the cotton and Band-Aids I was looking for. I needed a reel of cotton and found out it was a spool of thread. Aubergines and courgettes were eggplants and zucchini and I had never heard of London broil at home, or even English muffins. I knew French fries as chips and chips as crisps; cookies were biscuits, and biscuits were scones -- I was really getting confused, but my education was progressing.
I finally found a job as a home economist with a food stylist who prepared the recipes for a photographer for the glossy magazines. I learned that shaving cream was far more effective to decorate a cake than whipped cream, which melted under the lights. A scoop of cream cheese looked much more like ice cream than the real thing, and all the lovely shine on fruits and food was created by spraying it with oil.
To sum it up, all the lovely pictures in the magazines would be quite a disappointment to taste. But I had now learned a new language and had started to become Americanized.
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