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.