It was Emma who first introduced me to the basics of British life, culture and cuisine. Emma was from Leicester and lived across the hall at my college dorm. Emma got me to put milk in my tea. Emma rhapsodised about the glory of mushy peas and mint sauce. Emma also 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 while it is at optimum temperature).
Emma was not unusual. The British simply love to put things on toast: cheese on toast, beans on toast, egg on toast. 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 not the true staple of a British meal, because—without a doubt—that honour belongs to the potato. If you go out to a pub or restaurant in Britain, the waiter or waitress, when he or she gets around to it eventually (service in Britain can be quite depressing), will invariable ask you: “Chips, mash, roast or potatoes?” by way of assessing which form of the compulsory side dish you would like to accompany whatever it is you have ordered.
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 who knew instinctively that when someone just says “potatoes” s/he means “boiled potatoes”. Which further illustrates my point: an English meal without some form of potato product simply does not exist.
Before moving to the UK, I was aware of different types of potatoes. There are red ones and there are white ones—the red are for boiling, the white are for baking and/or mashing. At least, that is what I remember being taught at some point by someone. In Britain, there are several dozen types of potatoes boasting some truly glamorous names: Maris Piper, Desiree, Charlotte, Vivaldi, Anya, to name a few. Potatoes come in shades of white, red and brown. They can be floury or waxy in texture. Debates over which variety makes the best mash or the definitive method of perfect roasting can supplant the weather as an acceptable topic of a twenty to ninety-minute impassioned conversation.
But you never refer to an attractive individual as “sex on mash” and it may be unwise to try.