Welcome to Yankee in Yorkshire

Featured

This blog is dedicated to my experiences of British culture, my insights into the British character and my explorations of how my own up-bringing as an American makes me profoundly different from those I interact with daily.  I cannot say I prefer one culture or country to another because they are so different.  Both have shaped me into the person I am now.  I hope to separate the Yankee parts and Yorkshire parts to see how each one ticks away inside me and examine what makes us similar and different.  I hope to give fellow Yankees a taste of what life in Britain is like and to give a sample of true American character to British readers. 

Here you will find photographs of my life in the UK, recipes, tourist advice, interviews and regular reports from the field.  Bear in mind I represent no one but myself—experiences of Britain and Yankee opinions may vary.  I welcome all constructive commentary on the topics addressed.

Yankee Diner in Yorkshire

10478940_10152610385453659_2184305803429400924_nAt this time of year in particular, I am always on the look out for anything which can satisfy my summer homesickness.  Front porches and screen doors are in short supply in Yorkshire.  Unfortunately.  But there are opportunities for American food.  Today, after a lovely day at the seaside in Filey, we paid a visit to Hickory’s Roadhouse and Grill on the far side of York.

The decor was frankly overwhelming.  It was a bit like being snogged by Uncle Sam at a Tea Party Convention on the 4th of July.  But in a fun way.

10505358_10152610569738659_7096430288502285512_nMore importantly, they had root beer.  Good root beer.  Root beer with the right kind of foam on top in a glass bottle root beer.  Bliss.  They gave me a deal on a take home four-pack.

The waiters were friendly and yes, just a little bit sexy.  That helped.  The food was not only authentic but yummy and served in Yankee-sized portions.  The chili dog I had was first rate and I got fries and onions rings!  The decadence. After trying out the homemade bbq sauce, I found myself wishing it came in a shot glass.  You can buy bottles of it to take home but I didn’t trust myself.

Apparently, this place is known for Man v Food type eating challenges.  The Wall of Shame and Wall of Excuses kept the kids entertained while we waited for our food.  “Sorry, I have to get home.  My goldfish is drowning” was a particular favourite.

Do I Need a We?

anglo-american-flagA student recently criticised my grammar.

“I resent your use of the collective pronoun, miss,” said the precocious lass, her hand raised high as Hermione.

At first I was quite impressed with her vocabulary and accurate application of grammatical terminology.  But my pride as both teacher and person was short lived once her meaning sank in.  She didn’t like that I said “we.”

We (the class) had been chatting amiably about the World Cup versus the Tour de France.  I (me) expressed mild frustration that sports shops were still festooned with World Cup football paraphernalia even though we (and by “we” I meant England) were out of the competition.  They (the shops), I argued, should be stocking cycling accessories since we (Britain) actually have a fighting chance of winning the Tour de France.  Where upon my student exploded in a tirade of grammatical indignation.

‘You’re not we!’ she protested.  ‘It drives me crazy when you say that.  You aren’t English, you know!’

I didn’t get mad or tell her off.  Maybe I should have.  What she said didn’t make me angry exactly.  She had a valid point.  But I can’t say her valid point didn’t sting.

‘You’re right,’ I said, my voice uncharacteristically soft.  ‘I probably don’t have the right to “we”.  Trouble is,’ I explained to my student, ‘I’m not sure who my “we” is anymore.’

She snorted at me a bit and rolled her eyes which did make me angry though I didn’t press it.  I was thrown too off-guard to be thinking like a teacher.  As far as she was concerned my “we” is totally obvious.  I’m American.  I sound American.  I act American (whatever that means).  America is my “we” not Britain.

Except I don’t feel American.  I haven’t lived there for 15 years.  In fact, I’ve been a resident of Britain for longer than my student has thank you very much, missy.  Not that time spent matters because I don’t feel British either.

So, who is my we?

Geographically speaking, we is Britain.  I’m here in Yorkshire.  I have no plans to live anywhere else.  If World War III breaks out, I’m on this side of the Atlantic.  Eventually I would be buried with the English dead.  You think they’d check my passport first?  Would alien invaders eject me over a cornfield just to maintain accurate categorisation?  Probably not.

Politically speaking, my we is probably American.  I’m not a British citizen.  I can’t vote in this country.  This does not stop me being subject to British laws and policies—a fact that is brought sharply into focus today as I join my union in a nationwide strike over salaries, pensions and working conditions.

Financially, my we is British.  I work for North Yorkshire County Council.  I pay taxes to the crown.  I have no American bank account or income at all.

Historically, my we is American.  When someone mentions “The Civil War” in passing, I automatically think Yankees and Confederates not Roundheads and Royalists.  Although even this is starting to change.  Both concepts camp side by side in my head until I sort through the context.  But I cannot share memories of Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures and I did not grow up with grandparents who could show me their ration cards or tell me where they were when Elizabeth was crowned.  My grandparents remember The Great Depression.  My dad remembers when his Missouri school was de-segregated.  I remember where I was when The Challenger exploded.  When Clinton was elected I appreciated what it meant.  I knew exactly why America freaked out so badly on the 11th of September.  Because we, unlike the British, can count with one hand the number of foreign attacks on American soil—with two fingers really.

Socially and culturally are a bit tricky.  My vocabulary is mostly British.  My accent is odd.  Very few people identify me as American straightaway these days.  But I speak more loudly and with more expression.  Ain’t nothing stiff bout my upper lip (this is totally a true stereotype by the way; the English have a very limited variety of facial expressions compared to Americans).  I code switch quite a bit, making myself sound more Yankee or more Yorkshire depending on circumstance or simply for effect.  My friends on this side of the Atlantic are all British.  The only Americans I’ve met recently have been part of the local military base and (with a few exceptions) I had nothing in common with them except being American and even they didn’t believe me when I told them I was a born Yankee.

Basically, I have no idea who my we is.  America has changed so much in the past fifteen years.  When I go “home” I feel like a tourist.  But I’m not a we here either.

Do I really need a we though?  I mean, really.  Maybe I just need to be content with I.  Can I be a solitary me?

As an only child this is probably easier for me than most people but I think I’m a pack animal.  All humans are.  We gravitate to the tribal.  I had hoped that Tribe Yorkshire might pull me into its fleecy embrace and mostly it has.  But I’ll never be a true member of the tribe and I don’t think I want to be.  I cherish my otherness.  It’s one of the reasons why New York City didn’t suit me.  Too many tribes—so many that if you try and carve yourself some individuality, you’ll find someone else got there first and made a support group for it.  I thought I would like that.  I thought I was tired of feeling like an outsider and that if I could just find the right tribe, I would be happy.  I would belong.

But New York City taught me how wrong I was.  I wasn’t happy but I learned something.  NYC taught me I like being the odd gal out.

As a kid, I used to play D&D in the back room of a comic shop with a tribe of wild boys who let me in their clubhouse.  They mistrusted me at first, but soon accepted me as one of their own.  I joined a Methodist Church for a while in high school so I could sing in their choir.  They baptised me and everything.  In college, I was briefly adopted by a pack of lesbians.  They didn’t really know what to make of me, but they let me come to their Coffee Houses on a regular basis. None of these tribes lasted.  I was a girl and as puberty came along that became more of an issue.  I wasn’t sure about the whole God thing, so church didn’t work out.  I wasn’t a lesbian and, even though they were kind and welcoming, it felt wrong for me to be part of their world.  If I had been them, I would have resented my use of “we”.  I had no right to a lesbian we for complicated political and emotional reasons.

I don’t have a right to a Yorkshire we either really.  But it’s hard to retrain your brain overnight.  Wes come automatically and I think my student is just going to have to be patient with me while I sort out which collective pronouns I can claim. 

Aye-Up, Tour!

10458444_10152532787108659_6439064225440468270_n“The world is watching us,” said the man from Malham in the Yorkshire Dales tourist office.  “We best make a good showing of it.”

Aye.  The world is watching my neighbourhood.  And not just in a creepy googlemaps kind of way.  And not just watching.  Over the next few days the world—or at least the bicycle lovers of the world—will be descending up on us as host to the most prestigious cycling event on the athletic calendar: The Tour de France.

For those of you who are rather confused why Le Tour is coming to Le Nord, allow me to refer you to my blog post of January 2013.  If you can’t be bothered to click on the link, let me sum it up for you: The Grand Depart (start) of the Tour De France (big bike race) will be in Yorkshire (Leeds-Harrogate then York-Sheffield) this week-end.

10513471_10152554109763659_21541252559353369_nI have never been at Ground Zero for a major sporting event.  Being taken unawares once on a Saturday morning during football season in Lincoln, Nebraska was enough to turn me off all sporting events for life. Not that I was ever turned on by them.  If you are not au fait with American College Football, in the mid-late 1990s, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were Kings of the…errr…I want to say “pitch” but I’m not really sure what to call the thing people play football on. For me, that nightmarish football Saturday felt like being caught up in some cult parade: a human tide of red surging in one direction with singular intent.  I dropped my farmers’ market booty, got on my bike and pedalled away at speed just in case the mob needed a virgin (to football) sacrifice.

My bicycle saved my life that day, and it was not the only time.  Children of the 80s lived on bikes and I was no different.  As a teenager I hated my driver’s ed instructor so much that my bicycle became a form of protest.  “I have no need of a car.  My two-wheeled environmentally-responsible rebel vehicle takes me where I need to go in this frankly very small town.  I shall ride it with smug superiority.”  And I did.   Everywhere.

10421206_10152554097403659_260002573400864410_nIn fact, my best memories of getting from point a to point b all involve a bicycle.  Racing a thunderstorm with my cousins in Iowa, the sirens blaring in our ears, rain drowning us and lighting all around.  Riding Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois during my college years on a bright red Trek mountain bike I named Felicia.  I even, one memorable evening, rode it in the dark without a bike light.  But only once.  It was far too scary.  But memorable.  The summer I spent as a girl scout camp counsellor in Wisconsin.  Every day we had two hours off.  Every day I spent those two hours riding around the incredible countryside.  I saw the best sunsets that summer.  And here in Harrogate we are lucky enough to cycle paths like The Nidderdale Greenway, where I experienced my favourite moment as a parent so far: seeing my daughters biking side by side. 10438918_10152487063738659_6333466069554672502_n

I am certainly not alone in my love of the spoke and chain.  Recently, cycling has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the UK.  Great Britain has won The Tour de France two years running and dominated cycling events at the 2012 Olympics.  This has led many to take it up as both exercise and a greener way to travel.  I see more bikes every day.  Maybe in the near future York will be like a second Amsterdam in the sheer number of people cycling everywhere.  Who can say what Le Tour may bring? 10514590_10152554102568659_4902562814346299244_n

Meanwhile, in the present day, Yorkshire is getting her glad rags on for the spotlight.  It’s quite exciting being on stage.  I do love a spotlight and a stage.  The Yorkshire decorating committee has been hard at work for some time dressing up our already beautiful county. In November 2013 the call went out to knitters of all ages and persuasions to deck the streets with boughs of jerseys.  Tiny little knitted t-shirts in colours representing the various winning Tour jerseys have been draped from the lamp posts of every city, town and village in the county. So many tiny knitted t-shirts in fact that local councillors were concerned about the structural soundness of iron posts groaning under the weight of adorably rampant woollyness.  Worry not though, dear readers. No lamp posts have been harmed and the bunting is cute as hell! 10514603_10152554124568659_8960884357956830103_n

On a purely selfish note, I am thrilled that Le Grand Depart is happening the day after American Independence Day.   I never get to celebrate The Fourth of July.  This year not only do I get the day off but I get to ride the Pre-Depart celebratory wave.  Of course, I realise the bunting, streamers are not for my silly little national holiday but If I tilt my head and squint a bit, all the little GB flags look almost like the stars and stripes.  Almost. 10406391_10152556847863659_3159653235933347244_n

Flags, ickle knitty jumpers and bunting draped around anything that holds still long enough are just the beginning of the party atmosphere in Yorkshire.  Yellow bicycles have been appearing in the most amazing places and in some truly creative ways.  Businesses in particular have been going all out for the customers they expect to pour into our area.  A Harrogate restaurant even customized its wine labels to celebrate “a summer of cycling.”

Madder things are happening as well.  In the town of Ripley, just off the  aforementioned Nidderdale Greenway, a man is working night and day to complete a stone sculpture of a cyclist biking atop what looks for all the world like a pyramid.  10492303_10152556846068659_3554964477559972465_nArt is happening.  Music is happening.  Drama.  Film.  Food.  And lots and lots and lots of bikes.

Pride.  That is what’s happening in Le Nord.  Folk here take for granted that Yorkshire is the best county in England.  This is not news.  I think these hard northerners are really looking forward to showing off for the rest of the world. 10455316_10152554106893659_8826107814946882365_n

Of course, Brits being Brits, there are many who would make a face at my grandiose claims.  “Oh, dear,” I’ve heard them say when conversations shift to Tour Talk.  “It’ll be awful.  I may have to hide/leave town/immigrate.”  I take these protests with a block of salt.  They said the same thing about the Olympics and we all know how that turned out.  Granted, Le Tour will not garner the same level of attention as the Olympics but now that England is out of the World Cup, I reckon the country is ready to get behind a sporting event we stand a good chance of winning.

Even if Wiggo is awol.

Guest Post: Black Thursday outrage

Guest Blogger: Barb Benesch-Granberg

(November 28 was Thanksgiving in the USA – a holiday with controversies of its own. Held on the fourth Thursday in November and primarily celebrated by feasting with family (the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has been hailed as the “Busiest Travel Day of the Year” in the U.S., though that’s not technically true now, if it ever was). Many employers not only give employees Thursday off, but Friday off as well. As a result, the Friday after Thanksgiving has long been called Black Friday, and for a long time marked the kick-off of the Christmas holiday shopping season. For many years, retailers have marked Black Friday by opening stores very early Friday morning, and offering special bargains for shoppers strong enough to fight off the post-feast lethargy.

In recent decades, retailers have begun bringing out Christmas items and encouraging Christmas shopping earlier and earlier, a phenomenon derided by many as “Christmas creep.” Similarly, Black Friday has begun to creep as well, with many stores now opening Thursday evening, which means that employees of those stores are having to rearrange their holiday or miss it entirely. This has prompted protests in the form of petitions and Facebook groups calling for boycotts on shopping on these days.)

 

It’s late, of course, but I finally put my finger on why I have felt so uneasy about a lot of the anger I’ve seen about Black Friday creeping into Thanksgiving Thursday, and I think it’s that there’s a lot of classism being revealed there.

Not that I’m a big lover of Wal-mart and K-mart and all these other places that pay poverty-level wages and refuse to offer their employees health insurace. But the fact of the matter is, people have been getting their Thanksgivings mucked up by their retail and service-industry jobs for years and years.

I remember one Thanksgiving, my husband had to work until 6 a.m. that morning, and so it was up to me to drive our family to his parents’ house four hours away for Thanksgiving dinner. Finding an open Starbucks where the kids could use a restroom and I could get a gigantic coffee was like an oasis in the desert, and I expect I was embarrassingly effusive in my gratitude to the cheerful folks behind the counter.

I also remember hearing from a friend who worked at Kohl’s for the holidays talking about having her Thanksgiving dictated by being required to go in at like 10p Thanksgiving night to set up for the store’s Black Friday opening at 6 a.m. Her option was to miss Thanksgiving, make her family have Thanksgiving dinner at lunch time, and then sleep, or sleep all day while someone else cooked dinner, and make her whole family eat dinner at like 8p.

There are tons and tons of people who work Thanksgiving at restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, Starbucks, not to mention all the people who work in travel, whose chances at making Thanksgiving dinner are entirely dependent on weather and things like flight delays, bad traffic, etc.

And it’s not like any of those jobs are especially well-paid either. Better than Wal-mart, sure. But with a few exceptions, still not in the realm of nice middle-class sorts of incomes by any stretch.

So what’s the difference? The only difference I can see is in the clientele. People who are shopping at Wal-mart, the people for whom Black Friday may be their only chance at pulling off one of those big-ticket items under the Christmas tree, they generally aren’t the same people who are flying to see family for Thanksgiving. They aren’t the people who blithely stop at Starbucks to fuel their drive to or from the big family dinner. They aren’t the people who can afford to dine out on Thanksgiving.

The message then, as I see it, is that it’s okay for people to work on Thanksgiving, but only if their jobs involve catering to people who are relatively well off. Because those jobs, then, are somehow “important,” and count as part of maintaining our cultural infrastructure or some such. But the People of Wal-mart? Oh no, their needs are not important enough to warrant ruining someone else’s holiday.

And y’know, I’m not saying this because I love Black Friday, or love Christmas Creep, or think that capitalism becoming the dominant religion of the United States is a fab thing. I think all that is garbage and deserves all the scrutiny we can throw at it. But if you’re someone who was signing petitions against Wal-mart or Target for opening Thanksgiving night, but then stayed in a hotel Wednesday or Thursday night, or stopped at a gas station at some point Thursday, or made a last-minute run to the grocery store Thursday morning or really spent any money or used any services on Thursday at all, then I need to know what exactly the difference is. What makes this year so much different than previous years? Because I’m just not seeing it.

The Founding Fathers versus Henry VIII

393413_10150521073198659_1104260466_nEvery year my daughter’s North Yorkshire primary school performs a Nativity Play. Shepherds with towels on their heads herding cotton-wool-costumed sheep; Wise Kings bearing gold tissue paper gifts; flocks of tinsel-draped angels; Mary picking her nose because she has been sat too long by a painted cardboard manger: proper old-school Nativity Play.  This happens annually at schools all over Britain.  I never questioned it nor gave it a second thought—save the disappointment that my child, a drama teacher’s daughter, couldn’t cope with a bit of donkey choreography.

My mother questioned it.

‘What if there’s a Jewish child?’

‘Err…’  I struggled.

Do we have Jews in England?  I haven’t met any.  This struck me as odd considering how many I know in America.  But Rabbi Lionel Blue has a regular spot on Thought for the Day and there’s a good bagel deli in North Leeds which never opens on Saturday.  Britain must have at least a few Jews.

‘Hindus, Muslims, Atheists?’ persisted my mother.

‘Oh, we have plenty of those,’ I replied brightly, pleased I could show some cultural awareness of my adopted nation.

‘Don’t they complain?’

‘About what?’ I asked.

‘The Nativity Play!’ exclaimed Mom.

‘Why?’

‘Because,’ my mother sighed in frustration, ‘the play is Christian.  It’s religious.’

‘It is?’  I gave my mother a puzzled look.  ‘But no one here seems to think a Nativity Play is religious,’ I protested.

I didn’t need my mother’s raised eyebrow to realise how ridiculous this sounded.  Of course—of course a Nativity Play is religious. Nativity Plays date back to the ninth century, a time-honoured religious tradition.   Of course the birth of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith.  And of course any self-respecting, First Amendment loving American should recoil in horror from the very idea of a public school hosting such an obviously Christian event.

Oh my God!  My daughter’s school has been breaking the law every year.  And no one has ever turned them in.  Was the whole community in on the secret?  Have there been underground meetings?  Have pacts been made?  Signed in blood?  Where does the conspiracy end?

My mind raced.  What about Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day?  The BBC is state funded.  Good Friday and Easter Monday are recognised Bank Holidays.  Religious Education is part of the National Curriculum.  My students have been led in prayer by our Assistant Head teacher.  He hands out Bibles.  In school!

Holy Mary!  Why has no one sued Britain for Religious Persecution or Human Rights violations?  Someone call the ACLU!

Of course they don’t have the ACLU in England.  More importantly, England has no separation of church and state.  Thanks to Henry VIII, the Church of England and the English Nation are one—inextricably linked.   This was the whole point of America—to escape the persecution of a national church unwilling to embrace diverse faiths.

The impact of a State Church does not end with school Nativity Plays.  Aside from the reigning sovereign being head of The Church of England, Parliament includes church leaders.  The House of Lords, vaguely equitable to America’s Senate, is made up of two unelected branches.  The Lords Temporal consists of the aristocracy, those with inherited or sometimes earned titles.  The Lords Spiritual is a body of religious leaders: the Bishops of Durham, Winchester, London and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury.  Church leadership plays a direct role in the government.  Astounding!  Like all true American souls mine is certain—absolutely certain—that church and state should be separate.  In England they are joined at the highest legal, judicial and executive levels.

Yet American currency declares “In God We Trust”.  The Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation Under God.”  Presidents end every sentence with “God Bless America.”  Clearly we’re kidding ourselves with this whole separation thing.

But that’s not the punchline.  England, with her state religion, head of the church monarch and primary school Nativities, is a far more secular nation than America could ever hope to be.  While America clings to God, England keeps God at a respectful and perhaps mistrustful arm’s length.

In 2011 the UK census reported 25% as “Having No Religion”.  In the same year only 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation.  72% of Americans identified as Christian while in the UK the number was only 59%.  Church attendance numbers are far lower than that.  It’s a bizarre reversal—though perhaps not that bizarre considering our histories.

America was founded by Puritans (religious zealots England cheerfully transported in their version of events).  Our churches have been centre stage of many great accomplishments: the Anti-Slavery movement, Labour Reform, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights.  England has been battered by its history with religion: Crusades, Catholic versus Protestant, The Hundred Years’ War, Irish Troubles, more Witch hunts than Salem could shake a stake at.  This is, naturally, a sweeping generalisation.  Of course it is.  It’s a thousand year trend.  But my point is valid.

970814_10151670015783659_876120044_nEngland has assimilated religion to the point where Nativity plays, Christening ceremonies, church holidays and even the buildings themselves—so many beautiful and ancient hymns of architecture— have been all but drained of spiritual meaning.  59% of the British identify Christian, but almost every parent I know Christens their child.  They might need Sat Nav to find the church, but they get there.  At the same time, a part of England’s racial memory recoils from religious fervour.  Like an alcoholic whose past traumas prevent her from drinking too deeply.

On the opposite shore, America tries to keep religion out of politics.  But we can’t help ourselves.  We fight to embrace it, we fight to reject it.

I wonder if America will grow ambivalent over time as Britain has?  If the differences between faiths continually rip apart the fabric of our country, we will someday look back at our Bible-bashing past and cringe?  Will Britain swing back the other direction?  Perhaps the current recession, the need for meaning and community support will draw her people back to the pulpits?  God knows.

For the Bangers and the Blood: a Yankee’s adventures with British food

The following is a story compiled from various previous YiY posts with some new material which I plan to submit for a food writing competition.  feedback welcome.  My deadline is monday, so this is a tight turnaround.

I was twenty-seven when I decided my long-distance, trans-Atlantic internet romance with a stormy-eyed Englishman could no longer continue. So I boxed my Yankee self up and sent myself over-land delivery to him in Yorkshire.  From New York to Old York.

Americans who have visited England will recognise there are few major differences between US and them—just lots of little ones.  These tiny discrepancies in culture, so curiously amusing at first, multiplied and divided exponentially the more time I spent in this foreign environment.  The pressure of having to adapt, the constant feeling of social clumsiness and isolation came to head one afternoon as I attempted to pump gas—sorry, petrol—and could not get the nozzle to work.  I was convinced this was one of those now seeming immense cultural differences no one had told me about because any idiot knows you have to stand on your head and sing Jerusalem to get the gas—sorry, petrol—to pump and I do not know the words to Jerusalem.   If I ask everyone will look at me with that pitying expression I have come to hate so much and be tutting in their head and whispering “Colonial” under their breath then I will have to kill them and start an international incident just because I could not pump gas.  Oh, I am sorry—it’s bloody petrol!  I forgot because I am a stupid American.  WHY don’t YOU Take your petrol and shove it where the sun don’t shine, you limey DOOFUSES!

The British government has since removed me from their list of “Worrying Individuals” and I have lived peacefully in Yorkshire for twelve years now.  While my cultural faux pas have lessened over the years, I am always conscience of my status as an outsider.  Homesickness sets in occasionally, and it usually begins with food.

Many people sneer at British food—even the British, in their adorably self-deprecating way.  But wherever you are you gotta eat (words of wisdom from some mother no doubt).  This can be quite a worrying fact of human life when one is in a foreign country.  There are, of course, inevitable universals: grilled cheese sandwiches (in the UK, a cheese toastie or simply “cheese on toast”) and apple pie (here they call it “apple pie” but you get it smothered in warm custard rather than with a scoop of ice cream).  Hot cheese on bread and apples in crust aside, there are aspects of English cuisine that seem strange, exotic and downright terrifying—right up until the time you actually eat them.  Back in America, whilst preparing for my British immigration, I heard sinisterly whispered stories about blood pudding, crumpets, bangers and mash—food that sounded like it belonged in a horror film rather than on a plate.  Who could blame me for culinary homesickness?

Instead of retreating into a world of familiar American food, I decided to acculturate my taste buds in an effort to better understand my adopted country.  On a nutritional level we, as individuals, are what we eat.  There is a great deal of truth in that statement on a wider scale as well.  By microscoping what a nation puts on its table, you can see into its very soul.  What might Britain’s plates tell me about Britain’s people?

My school friend Emma first introduced me to the basics of British culture.  Emma was from Leicester and lived across the hall at my university dorm.  Emma got me to put milk in my tea.  Emma rhapsodised about the glory of mushy peas and mint sauce.  Emma piled everything she ate on toast.  I used to tease Emma about it regularly, much to her annoyance, though of course she smiled at me in that way English people do when they really want to shove a fork through your nose but are too polite or don’t wish to miss drinking their cup of tea whilst it is at optimum temperature.

Emma was not unusual in her obsession with toast.  The British simply love to put things on toast: cheese on toast, beans on toast, eggs, spaghetti hoops, chips.  In fact, the love of toast goes so deep, that you often hear people saying: “pwarah, I’ll have her on toast,” or “He is absolute sex on toast.”  But twice-cooked bread is simply one member of the British Triumvirate of obligatory food: toast, potatoes and beans.  That’s what it’s all about.

If you go out to a pub or restaurant in Britain, the waiter or waitress, when he or she gets around to it, will ask: “Chips, mash, roast or potatoes?” by way of assessing which form of compulsory side dish you prefer.  The first time this happened I actually dared attempt to humorously point out: “Aren’t those all potatoes?”  I got a hard stare from everyone present. They knew instinctively that “potatoes” means “boiled potatoes”.  Which further illustrates my point: an English meal without some form of potato product simply does not exist.

This was nothing to the confusion I experienced at my first breakfast.  As an American, I have high standards for a cooked breakfast. I grew up with diners. Diners, people!  The average Yankee diner breakfast is not just an “All Day Breakfast,” it’s pretty much your salt, fat and sugar allocation for a week.  Eggs scrambled, poached or sunny-side up, sausage links and bacon, hash browns covered in cheese, smothered in onion, drowning in country gravy and a “short stack” of pancakes tall as your thigh served with three types of syrup.  There’s a reason why Americans are fat.  That reason is diners.

But my husband remained confident that a traditional English Breakfast could impress me, which it did…after a fashion.  The grilled tomato first drew my attention followed quickly by the mushrooms.  Vegetables at breakfast?  It went against everything diners had taught me.  Then I saw the beans: a generous pile of haricots spreading tomato saucy influence to every corner of my breakfast plate.

‘What the hell?’ I leapt from the café table and pointed a maledictory finger at the baked beans seeping along the edges of my runny egg.  ‘Witchcraft!’ I screamed.  ‘Heresy!’ Fearfully, I shrank back to the exit.  What was wrong with these people? Baked beans didn’t belong at breakfast.  They belonged in my mother’s enormous crock pot to be served with hot dogs at the family picnic. What mad, wonderland tea party have I stumbled into?

The other diners, including my husband, gave my hysteria a passing glance before returning to their meals and their tea, but I felt the weight of their non-attention press me.  It’s a British thing I instantly labelled: “aggressively ignoring,” which refers to the unique ability of the British to ignore anything/one odd or disturbing with such force that eventually the odd or disturbing thing/person physically compresses out of existence.

I dragged my lump of coal self back to the café table across from my husband, who poured me a fresh cup of tea from our shared pot. After a fortifying sip, I felt calm enough to look down at my Full English.  It was definitely different from diner breakfasts, but perhaps it wasn’t evil.

My attempt to introduce British friends and family to Boston style baked beans was met with extreme scepticism and polite sampling of a single spoonful.  I served it on toast with chips but they weren’t convinced.  Even more resistance and suspicion greeted a pitcher of iced tea which I lovingly sun-brewed in the manner of my people.

The British just don’t get iced tea.  It baffles them more than a poodle smoking a pipe.  You can explain how refreshing it is.  You can draw them a picture of it.  You can hand them a dewy glass of it on a summer day.  They might take a polite sip, then they will fire up the kettle faster than you can say: “What the—

But I had not moved across an ocean to push my Americanisms on others.  I came to learn, to spread my trans-Atlantic wings and be one with the decedents of Camelot.  It was time I moved past the security of toast, tatties and tinned beans.  Time for bangers. Time for ploughmen. Time for blood!

Bangers and Mash disappointed me at first.  It is, after all, a rather sexy name for a frankly vanilla meal.  I had been led by my husband to understand that “bangers” was slang for breasts, which inspired my imagination to come up with all sorts of odd ideas about what “bangers and mash” could mean.  Note to tourists, if you order this dish in a pub you will not get a bodacious waitress inviting you to eat potato from her cleavage.  If you order it from a good pub, it will be one of the most satisfying meals of your life.

Spotted Dick was next on my list of innuendo foods.  Why do so many traditional British dishes sound like euphemisms for sex?  Ploughman’s Lunch (wink-wink).  Crumpet (nudge-nudge).  Bangers and Mash doesn’t even require imagination to make it sound naughty.  Cream Tea anyone?  I ask you!  These people are so rude.  Even the Brits admit Spotted Dick sounds like a sexually transmitted disease.  It is, in fact, one of the many delicious varieties of steamed sponge pudding.  I have no idea where the “dick” part comes into it, but the “spots” are raisins.  I drenched mine in warm, vanilla custard then giggled and blushed like an adolescent over every mouthful.

When Yankees visit England they look forward to tea and crumpets, but they usually find it a bit disappointing.  Crumpets are difficult to describe to Americans because we really have no equivalent.  They are generally served like English Muffins, which here are just called “muffins”, but the texture of a crumpet defies category: they are sort of chewy but not really, kind of crispy but only slightly and a bit flaky in a way.

For years I avoided Ploughman’s Lunches out of fear and confusion.  I worried I might have to produce some kind of farmer’s identification.  Would they refuse to serve it to me otherwise?  It might be like Purim Festival all over again when the nice Brooklyn girl masquerading as Esther skipped giving me a kreplach dumpling because I didn’t look Jewish.  I wasn’t sure I could take that kind of food rejection again.  Eventually I convinced my Dad, with his permanent famer tan from gardening, to order one: a cold plate of cheeses, meats salad and a roll served with some kind of pickle or chutney.  It became Dad’s lunch of choice in the UK.

Yorkshire Pudding confused me even more.  It’s not a dessert.  My British family and friends drilled me into calling “dessert” “pudding” then this curve ball came at me.  Yorkshires, I soon learned, were savoury with a texture and cooking method unlike anything else.  A crispy, chewy, slightly fluffy, fried pancake.  My husband, eldest daughter and mother are utterly devoted.  Personally, I can take it or leave it but I usually keep my ambivalence quiet because folk in my neck of the moors get very passionate about their Yorkshires.  If you want to see a Yorkshire man cry, ask about his mother’s puds (ooh, err).

Having sampled Yorkshire Pudding and lived, I decided to really challenge my gag reflex.  Black Pudding, also known as blood sausage, often takes a starring role in people’s nightmares about English food.  Of course, England is not the only country which has black/blood pudding on its menu.  Most European as well as many Asian countries produce a sausage whose primary ingredient is blood with grain fillers.  In the UK, Black Pudding commonly comes in a log and is sliced and fried as part of a cooked breakfast (next to the beans, tomatoes and mushrooms).  Unsurprisingly, blood sausage tastes pretty much like a rich, meaty textured sausage.  Nothing scary at all really.  I wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed.

So, what have I learned, now that I have dipped my tongue into Britain’s gastronomic soul, about the people who have cautiously embraced me?

I know the British are practical.  This is the culture which realised that miners working in’t pits needed a lunch that could handle filthy fingers, so they invented the pasty.  Why serve everything on toast or with potatoes? Because they soak up sauce or gravy left on the plate. Why include beans?  To ensure you always have something which moistens anything on your plate.

The British love ceremony and tradition: cream teas formally presented on regal, three-layered trays, the etiquette of adding milk before straining boiled leaves to make a perfect cup of tea.  The question “why do it that way?” has one answer here: “because that’s the way it’s always been done.”

The British know what they do well.  It’s an inherited, bone-deep confidence born of a two-thousand-plus-year history.  They know who they are and have nothing to prove.  Why serve potato with everything?  Because they grow lots of damned good potatoes.  Why put everything on bread? Because baked grain has kept Britain going through duelling monarchs, violent revolutions and cultural evolutions.

The British have a real sense of pride in and love for their traditional dishes.  It’s what makes them who they are.  For them, as for all people everywhere, food is not just about eating.  Food is our families, our politics, our history and narrative. Food is our blood.

The Milk of Human Pretense

As a child, like many children before and after me, I hated sprouts.  Sprouts.  Blech!  Just thinking the word made me shudder.  They looked, smelled and tasted of concentrated ogre excrement (or what my active juvenile mind imagined ogre excrement might look, smell and taste like).  My mother also hated sprouts, but she made me eat them at least a few times a year.  Why?  Because her mother made her eat sprouts and her mother before her and so on and so on back to the mother-effing Stone Age.  She called it character building.  I call it revenge.

At some point, one of my female ancestors—possibly my grandmother—decided milk was the key to enduring Sprout Torture: take a small bite of sprout, drown it with a gulp of milk and repeat until the sprout, at last, is conquered enough to allow a well-earned dessert.  With respect Granny, the milk doesn’t work.  It doesn’t change the essential nature of a sprout.  It’s nothing but a futile attempt to dilute the impact on my digestive system.  I still tasted every mouthful of vile, green horribleness and now I don’t like milk very much either.

As an adult I am still not a huge fan of sprouts, but I recognise that they are good for me and an inescapable part of any British Christmas meal.  Resistance to the sprout is futile.  In a mature version of my learned childhood pattern, I now attempt to douse each mouthful of sprouts with a generous swallow of Pinot Grigio.  It doesn’t work any better than the milk did, but by the time I’m finished I could care less about sprouts or pudding or much of anything really.  Strangely, my own children like sprouts.  I blame their father who has never met a brassica he didn’t like.

I have been thinking a lot about sprouts lately, and about milk and about futile attempts to dilute the essentially distasteful.  I have also, like many on both sides of the Atlantic, been thinking a lot about Syria and chemical weapons and Martin Luther King’s dream.  Putting all of these disparate thoughts together, I am starting to wonder about war crimes.

By and large I consider myself a pacifist.  I live by the immortal words of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and the whole world will soon be blind and toothless.”  I find war unethical on a personal, social, political, spiritual and universal level.  Perhaps this is the attitude of a privileged Western woman who has never lived under true tyranny, never experienced violent subjugation, never been at risk of being called to arms.  Maybe I would have fought to defend my homeland against European settlers alongside my (admittedly distant and questionable) Native American ancestors.  Maybe I would have taken up arms against the oppressive English with my even more distant but less questionable Irish ancestors.  In an alternative, Steam Punk world I might have machine gunned my way to suffrage with my feminist sisters.

But I like to think that no matter where or when I lived, I would share the beliefs of Ghandi and Dr King.  The idea that a victory achieved through bloodshed is no victory.  Both leaders worked hard for change, but refused to be part of a new order achieved through violence.  Such a world would be one not worth living in, they argued.

And yet, when I hear peacemakers flap on about the Geneva Convention and the ethics of modern warfare I get a bad taste in my mouth reminiscent of sprouts.  The idea that there is a right and wrong way to conduct war seems laughable to me.  Even if we accept that warfare is an inevitable part of human nature (which I do not accept), the concept of creating regulations which govern human behaviour in times of war…

Well, it tastes of milk and sprouts to me.

The Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention and all the accompanying articles were born of witness.  A writer witnessed a battle first hand and it left a bad taste in his mouth.  War is brutal, the writer realised.  What a truly startling revelation.  And so a movement began to make warfare more palatable.

But war is war and sprouts are sprouts.  No amount of kindness or milk changes their essential nature.  War demands we reject the concept at the core of ethical and legal philosophy: killing people is wrong.  Once you force someone to throw out this basic moral tenet, all bets are off really.  How can limiting regulations or dilutions have any impact on an institution which turns over such an essential block of our psychological DNA?

I don’t think I am suggesting we burn the Geneva Articles, but there is a part of me that feels like the entire concept of war crimes is milk to the sprouts.  I resented my mother for enforcing this pointless act of making something gastronomically intolerable allegedly easier to swallow.  I felt betrayed for believing in the slim hope that perhaps I could handle the sprout under these parameters.

But it was lie.  Sprouts are bad.  War is wrong.  Period.

When I hear the justifications for intervention in Syria on the basis of the government’s use of chemical weapons, it seems childishly ludicrous.  Why should that be the moral issue which forces our hand?  It’s war.  War is brutal, violent and inherently amoral.  That is its nature and, like sprouts, it’s not going to taste better for a bit of milky kindness.

If we aren’t willing to swallow all that war brings with it, we need to think about whether war has any place on our plates at all.

Over the Tall Grass Prairie

prairie1In the early 1970s my parents moved from Iowa to Seagate in Brooklyn, New York City.  At this time Seagate was nearly exclusively populated by Jews, so much so that I believed menorahs were Christmas decorations and didn’t understand why our house didn’t have one.

Women often tried to speak Yiddish to my dark haired, dark complected father, while my freckled WASP mother fielded questions about whether folk in Iowa still had problems with the Indians.

prairie2Problems with the Indians.  In 1973.  Bear in mind most residents of Seagate have been no further west than Staten Island, but still…

prairie3

The Midwest of America has a rather poor reputation, when it has any reputation at all.  Most people in the UK when I tell them where I am from say “Oh, right…that’s one of those middle ones,” in a disappointed voice because I am not from New York, Florida or California which are the only states most of them recognise.

Presidential election coverage gives the Midwest a different reputation as being that swath of Republican red which streaks through the country like a bloody wound (my two states Iowa and Illinois are nearly always the solitary splotches of blue on that map by the way).

prairie4Even our fellow Americans seem to look down on us as being that enormous thing which prevents them from enjoying a shorter LA-NYC Red Eye flight.

prairie5I used to feel the same way.  I would look around the endless miles of cornfields broken up only by endless miles of soybeans and just feel depressed.  Flat, boring, stupid Midwest.  Then a friend of mine told me to shut up and look up.  “Just look at that sky,” he told me.  “There aren’t very many places where you can so that much sky.”

prairie6I looked up.  He was right.  Midwestern sky is overwhelming.  It’s dizzying.  How could anyone not realise the world is round after looking up at that enormous bright blue dome?

prairie7My next revelation of the beauty all around me came when I began regularly biking along Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.  In the early 1990s, an effort was made to encourage native prairie grasses and flowers to grow along the edges of the trail making a beautiful path for walkers, runners and bikers.

prairie8Signs were posted at regular intervals informing bikers, runners and walkers not to disturb the natural growth of the prairie.

Many other city planners and conservationists have worked hard to preserve the Midwest’s ecological heritage.  As my father explained to his granddaughters, in pioneer days there would have been tall grass prairie as far as the eye could see across most of Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.  West-ward expanding nineteenth century Americans on horseback would have waded through it up to their chests.  The idea astounds them.prairie9

In the twenty-first century, nature reserves throughout the Midwest,including the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, offer visitors an opportunity to see, smell and hear the history of the land.

prairie10

Look up, look down, look out on the beauty of the prairie.  An “alien” landscape to English gardeners (according to my Mother-in-Law), but as much a part of the Midwest as big sky and rolling cornfields.

All photographs taken at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge by Paul and Freya Elmer.

You Can Get It on a Stick

fairYesterday I introduced my dear English husband to a beloved American institution: The State Fair.  And not just any State Fair, folks…the biggest, the greatest, the bestest State Fair in the land.  Yes, I am talking about the one, the only IOWA STATE FAIR! Cue brass band as the audience goes wild.

He wasn’t terribly impressed.

‘Well, it’s just like the Great Yorkshire Show isn’t it?’

‘NO!’ I protested, horrified.  ‘The Iowa State Fair is much bigger.’

‘I doubt it,’ scoffed he.

In fact, the Iowa State Fair is twice as big covering a space of 445 acres to the Yorkshire Show’s 250.  In 2011 1,080,959 people attended the Iowa State Fair as opposed to the Great Yorkshire Show’s near record attendance in the same year of 135,086.  The comparison is not fair however (pardon the pun) as the State Fair goes for two weeks and the Yorkshire Show lasts three days.

‘And there’s a Goosey Fair near where I grew up,’ he continued dismissively.

‘Sorry?  Goosey Fair?’

6217744545_5335979a08_zSo named because it began as a festive trade event for geese, the Nottingham Goose Fair is now known for its amusement rides and games.  It has been running nearly continuously for over seven-hundred years, cancelled only due to Bubonic Plague and two World Wars.  The Iowa State Fair has been operating since 1854—the oldest State Fair in America.  Unsurprisingly, The Great Yorkshire Show is older, but only by seventeen years.  Both also closed during World War Two.  Sadly, the famous Scarborough Fair no longer exists.

dragon riderWhat The Iowa State Fair lacks in sixteenth century plague anecdotes, it makes up for in sheer size, scope and variety.  The Midway alone covers ten acres—ten dizzying acres of puke-inducing rides and cash-gobbling carnival games.  Several stages host everything from historical recreation performances, a National Anthem singing competition a strong woman demonstration, circus acts, both traditional and contemporary music.  We just missed a women’s rubber chicken throwing contest.  I was devastated.

2013 Butter Cow and CalfWhat we did not miss, what no one should miss is the world famous Butter Cow.  It’s a cow…made of butter!  First sculpted in 1911 to promote the dairy industry, the Butter Cow is an Iowa State Fair institution.  Over the years the Butter Cow has been joined by various butter farm scenes, a butter replica of American Gothic and (my personal favourite) a Butter Last Supper.

‘But, but…how?’ sputter folk when I attempt to spread the word.

Simple: refrigerated display case.

corndog sign‘OK fine,’ I admit to my Englishman, ‘You have things like a State Fair.  But they will not—definitely not—have corndogs on a stick.’

‘No,’ he smirks.  ‘We have no corndogs on sticks.  You’re far more likely to find Real Pie Company stands made with fresh, local ingredients,’ he boasts, trying to take the high road in a sea of deep-fried wonderment.

I found evidence to the contrary.  The Great Yorkshire Show may celebrate the joys of Wensleydale and fifty different ways to stuff a sausage casing, but fair grub pretty much means hot dogs and burgers on both sides of the Atlantic.  So there, ha!

heartattackalley

It is impossible to escape Fair Food at the Iowa State Fair.  It’s everywhere.  It’s invariably deep fried and you can get it on a stick.  Fried chicken on a stick, deep-fried cake on a stick, deep-fried pickle on a stick—all with an added bacon option.  Apparently you can get salad on a stick at the fair, but I’ve never seen it.  I suspect it might be rumour.

dipdog

Nothing says Iowa State Fair like a hand-dipped, deep-fried corndog.

For my British readers, corndogs require explanation.  Cornbread is a staple Yankee dish made of cornmeal (which is a bit like polenta), milk and eggs.  Southern recipes add sugar to the cornbread, but this Yankee prefers a more savoury taste.  Cornbread can be baked but traditionally should be fried in a cast iron skillet.

dunk dog

To make a corndog, the hot dog is skewered, dipped in cornbread batter then deep fried to golden perfection.

iowa-state-fair-corn-dog-from-iowastatefair-orgI like to drizzle ketchup on one side and mustard on the other.  My daughter thinks they are the greatest invention since bacon.  Wait a minute…bacon corn dog?  There’s a bacon corn dog stand!  And you can get it on a stick!

Serve generously with Lemon Shake-Up on a stick followed closely by antacid on a stick.

Guest Post on our visit to the Mississippi River by Freya Elmer aged nine

river and flagsOn Wednesday  the 31st  July  my Mum, my annoying  sister Juliet , my grandma, my grandpa and I went  to the Mississippi river.  First we came from the Chicago airport from Brussels and Manchester.  We went on an airplane two times.  Then my mum’s friend Lisa drove us to a hotel which took four hours!  Then we drove to the Mississippi River with grandma and grandpa.

miss and missesMy annoying sister Juliet and I threw stones into the Mississippi River.  Juliet threw one of the stones into my head “accidentally” she said.  I went along the dock and almost gave grandma a heart attack. The Mississippi River is so big and the current is so strong that it could take me away in two secs to the open ocean.

freya riverThe Mississippi River is epic!