It is a known fact on a nutritional level that we 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 see into its very soul. Many people sneer at British cooking—even the British in that self-deprecating way they have. The duelling adjectives: bland and boring are frequently batted around in ignorant conversation, and I use “ignorant” here in the true meaning of the word: without direct experience. While preparing for my immigration back in America, 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. What does all this say about Britain’s soul I wondered?
Therefore, one of my first acts as a foreigner planning on settling down for a good long stay, was to visit popular grocery store chain Sainsburys. Here I might be able to satisfy my curiosity over these fear-mongering rumours. In Sainsburys I was greeted by an entire aisle of Indian cooking ingredients, a wondrous pickle section of jars labelled Ploughman’s and Piccalilli (which I thought was a circus); a dizzying array of cheeses boasting local names like Lancashire and Wensleydale and only one kind of cheese was orange! Imagine.
Sausages were made with pork, sage and apple, and the produce was the freshest and most varied I had ever seen outside of a farmer’s market. To be fair, there was also a nauseating array of potted meat products–some actually having the nerve to simply call themselves “potted meat”. Honestly, do these people have no imagination or sense of marketing? Another label sporting Old Glory art work read: “American Style Hot Dogs”, subscript: “in brine” on a large glass jar containing what looked like floating…um…things that look a bit like hot dogs but aren’t. So far the scariest thing I had seen was an attempt at American food.
In typical English fashion, there were many things familiar to me, though they were called by different names. Courgette instead of zucchini, eggplants were labelled aubergine, and when I asked if they carried Butternut squash, the confused assistant led me to an aisle full of what looked like Kool Aid in large plastic bottles. Squash, I learned later that day, is a concentrated fruity liquid you mix with water to make a drink, which—funnily enough—tastes like Kool Aid.
I spent two and a half hours just walking around, ogling the differences. It was better than a museum, and far more informative to a Yankee transplant yearning to blend in. I filled my shopping basket with a wedge of Wensleydale with Cranberries, Cumberland sausages, Cox apples (I could go on for hours about the glory of English apples), Crumpets, a jar of something called Lemon Curd and a copy of BBC’s Good Food magazine—another valuable contributor to my culinary enculturation.
What struck me most deeply about my grocery experience was the variety. In America we have a kind of variety. We go the grocery store and get to choose from twenty different brands and types of peanut butter—Skippy or Jiff, smooth, crunchy, extra crunchy. But in the grocery stores I have visited here, I find a real cornucopia of ingredients and products. At least thirty different varieties of potted meat.
The produce was something else which stood out to me. No Florida oranges here—they all come from Spain. And the strawberries…gods above the strawberries! A longer growing season and shorter distances mean that regional fruits and vegetables are easily available and fresh when they are in season. Hundreds of traditional cheeses with local variations are a highlight, though British cheese is often over-looked in favour of its flashier French neighbour’s. The influence of the nation’s growing plurality is having a very positive impact as well on the culinary variety in the British diet—Indian food in particular now widely recognised as being the country’s favourite meal. More recently, Mexican food has also become common place. When I first moved here, there might have been half a shelf featuring a few Old El Paso items. Now there is a quarter aisle devoted to Tex-Mex ingredients.
What is best about British cooking is the use of fresh, local, if possible seasonal ingredients and a real sense of national identity and pride in food. Unlike other aspects of British culture, affection for their own cuisine is something Brits can get behind. If you want to see a Yorkshire man cry, ask about his mother’s Yorkshire Pudding. If you want to get told off by a Yorkshire granny, suggest that cheese is a really stupid thing to serve with fruitcake. And if you really want to get your ass kicked, bring up the superiority of French cuisine.
Love them or hate them, the likes of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsey have made English food sexy. The British seem to have a real sense of pride and love in their traditional dishes and products. From their mouths…to their hearts, to misquote the old Jewish saying. Because food is not just about eating. Food is family, it is politics, it is history, it is narrative and, no matter what your therapist says, food is love.
In the next blog post, I sample some of those scary British dishes and tell you what exactly what Blood Pudding, Crumpets and Haggis are really like.