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.


A Tale of Two Teas (Remix for Submission)


It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British love their tea.  It is their comfort, their panacea, their obligatory social activity. Tea is the answer to every question.  When planes crashed into the Twin Towers, my neighbour brewed me a cup of tea.  After a challenging day of mountain climbing in Wales, my exhausted sister-in-law spied a café in the distance and fervently declared her intention to “make love to that tea shop.”  In our household, the ultimate passive aggressive act is to make a cup of tea for yourself alone.  Such selfishness is unforgiveable.

Tea can cause great controversy in other ways as well.  Serving it with a splash or two of milk is fairly standard in the UK, but by no means obligatory.  Some prefer tea with a slice of lemon (never try to serve it with both as lemon makes milk curdle).  Sugar is completely optional, though there are cultural regulations surrounding its use.  In the US, this variation is almost strictly regional.  South of the Mason-Dixon Line sweet tea is the norm whilst Northern Yankees like myself drink it unsweetened.  As with most things in Britain, the difference between sweetened or unsweetened tea tends to be less regional and more class-based.  “Builders Tea” is a strong brew made with two sugars—hard working man’s tea for hard working men.  Grr!  A middle-class tea drinker from the Home Counties would look disdainfully down her nose at such “common tea behaviour.”  Sniff.

Sugar aside, few issues cause greater debate amongst English tea drinkers than the timing of the milk.  It is an issue which divides families, drives wedges in otherwise happy marriages and brings friendships to an end.  I am definitely an Add-the-Milk-Lastist while my friend Corrie from Lancashire is a Milk-Firstian.  Milk first and her rose is red, yet we will speak to each other.  Amazing.  Allow me to explain.

When I make a cup of tea, I put the bag in the cup, pour over the boiling (boiling, mind you!) water and then, only after my tea has steeped to a rich dark russet, do I remove the bag and add a bit of milk.  The rationale here is that once cold milk is added, the temperature of the water is compromised thus ruining the steep.  This philosophy enjoys the support of many great scientific leaders (namely my husband and his entire family).

On the other hand, Milk-Firstians like Red Corrie place the bag and the milk in the cup first and then add the boiling water.  Whilst I sneer at Milk-Firstians and all they stand for, I believe the theory behind their method is that if the milk is already in they do not have to calculate the space left in the cup for the adding of milk.  Some Firsties do not even bother to rationalise their ways and simply claim this is the “proper way to make a cup of tea”.  Again, I sneer.

A more charitable view of the Milk-Firstian way is to claim that it is an evolutionary throw back to the days when tea was always made in a pot with loose leaf.  In cases such as this, adding milk to the cup as the tea steeps away happily in a separate container makes sense.  Primitive but understandable.  I still love Red Corrie…despite her deviant, Lancastrian ways.

One tea-related issue continues to unite Britain as a nation under leaf.  The firm and shakeable belief that iced tea is a myth.  An unnatural and mystifying myth.


Iced tea.  They just don’t get it.  Iced tea baffles Brits 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 on a hot summer day.  They might take a polite sip, but I guarantee you it will only be out of well-bred politeness.  Watch in wonder then as they fire up the kettle faster than you can say: “What the—

During one of my mother’s early summer visits, she dared to hope.  At a seaside café in Yorkshire she ordered.

“Iced tea?”

“Of course,” the waitress beamed back.

One can only imagine the panicked conversation which took place amongst the café wait staff when faced with an order for iced tea.  If my mother had asked for yak’s milk fermented with monkey piss they would have been less put off than by her request for iced tea.  But, to the eternal credit of their service and manners, the nice young lady served my mother iced tea.  That is to say, she brought out a small boiling hot pot of tea and a glass containing a single ice cube.

Honestly, that’s about the best you can hope for.

“The only iced tea I recognise is of the Long Island variety,” boasted a member of my Harrogate book club when I attempted to introduce them to my beloved summer drink.

“Iced tea does not compute,’ moaned another, shaking her head in bewilderment.

“Unnatural,’ the women agreed.

“It’s just tea poured over ice,” I protested.  “It’s lovely.  Really.”

The ladies of my book club looked suspiciously at my sundrenched pitcher, brows crinkled, lips pursed.  Disapproval, disgust and a bit of disorientation coloured their expressions, as if they were gazing upward at some unsettlingly pornographic new constellation rather than a delightful blend of chilled orange pekoe and mint. They exchanged looks, daring one another to try the alien concoction.

Instead they shrugged, shook their heads and muttered “She’s American.”  As if this both explained and forgave my deviant behaviour.  Then they put the kettle on.


Elle Talent Competition: Draft Two.

I decided to follow through on my initial threat to write about cheesecake.  I would  like to know what you think of this one and which one you prefer.

Let me tell you about my first love—my delicious, satisfying, seductive, often illicit and frequently abusive first love.  He has stood by me through good times and bad.  He knows me intimately.  My first love has given me so much pleasure and yet such exquisite pain.  Generous and attentive to a fault.  Unforgettable.  Unbridled.  Undeniable.

When we first met I was too young to know any better.  He slipped into my life when I needed him most.  My mother introduced us because he fulfilled a need she could no longer provide.  When she handed me over to him she believed it was for the best, and I cannot fault her for it.  He had always been good to her; he was good enough for her daughter.  Mother had no idea what she unleashed into my life.

From the moment he touched my lips, I was lost.  I cannot say our first time was pleasant.  I had no clue what I was doing and made a terrible mess of it.  But he didn’t seem to mind.  My first love was patient and persistent.

My first love was Food.

As a girl I fell for his sweet charms and creamy promises.  I can never let him go.  I have had other beaux, but Food’s affection has out-lasted them all.  He had me at “open wide” and I have belonged to him completely ever since.

I am not so naïve to believe myself in a monogamous relationship with Food.  He is a right Cassanova who tries it on with every woman.  Sometimes his conquests remain mere vanilla flirtations.  They strategically and sensibly manage his minefield romance, deleting Food from their contact list when things grow too heavy.

But even women who reject Food never forget him.  In dark hours of loneliness those whom Food has hurt the most will drunk-dial his number seeking comfort or shriek his name whilst writhing between another man’s sheets.

Others, like me, engage in a deeply meaningful BDSM marriage with Food that lasts a lifetime.  Hungrily beating, whipping, scoring, mashing and burning each other’s tenderised flesh until we collapse like soufflés.  I shudder to confess the shameful acts I have committed for my love of Food.  Third helpings of him because I could not get enough.  Sneaking away in the middle of the night just to have him all to myself.  Crawling on my belly begging him for more.

Endless humiliation.  Endless ecstasy.  Endless love.

A lifetime of this exquisite torture has moulded me into a swollen figure of sinful debauchery.  I wear my extra-large disgrace like a scarlet letter F.  Everyone can see what Food and I get up to—publically and behind closed doors.  Like prudish Victorian matrons, society shuns me for brazenly exhibiting my Food lust.  But my body cannot hide its desire.

Such a volatile romance would inevitably lead to heartache.  Like all relationships, my first love and I had many “domestics” which eventually required professional intervention.   Hand in hand, side by side on a therapist’s sofa, Food and I sought help.

‘Abusive co-dependency,’ our Couples Counsellor declared.  ‘Look at how he treats you.  Look at what you have become for him.  He cannot exist without you.  You need him to need you.  Not good.  Perhaps a trial separation is in order.’

‘No!’ I screech in horror.  ‘I cannot live without him.’  I clutched Food possessively, certain this learned professional meant to rip him from my arms forever.

‘Please,’ our Counsellor whispered to Food.  ‘Let me speak with her alone.’

Food met my uncertain gaze.  I lowered my eyes submissively as my lover walked out the door.  Alone at last, the Counsellor turned to me, her face full of compassion.

‘I cannot tell you what to do.  The choice is yours,’ she assured me.  ‘But I must warn you of the consequences.  This relationship is not healthy.’


‘I can see how much you love him,’ the Counsellor admitted with a slight tone of scorn.  ‘But he’s no good for you.  You know that, don’t you?’

For a painfully long moment I said nothing.  The Counsellor waited.  At last I nodded mutely.  ‘What can I do?’ I softly sobbed.

“Run,” she urged me.  “Run before he weighs you down.  Run or he will be the death of you,” my Counsellor advised.

‘I’m not sure I can do that,’ I sniffed.

‘Then start by walking.  Right here.  Right now.  Walk away from him.’

I peeled myself off the couch.  I stood tall.  I walked across the room.  I loped down the hall.  I jogged out the door.  And then I ran.

I ran away from my first love.  My darling Food.  I spend hours every day running off his influence, though I cannot say I never looked back.  There have been tearful reunions, explosive rows and many awkward social occasions. Our break-up hasn’t been easy, but I remain strong.  Despite his temptations.

‘We should be civil,’ I explained to Food over coffee.  ‘We are bound to encounter one another at parties.  Let us try to be friends,’ I vowed sincerely.

But it’s impossible.  No woman can remain friends with Food.  We love him or we hate him.  He is a first love to be cherished or he is an adversary to be defeated.  Food is an obsessive amour not easily dumped, though I try and try again to unchain my heart from his embrace.


Elle Talent Writing Competition 2012

The following essay is an early draft of my submission to the Elle Magazine Talent Competition.  The first sentence was the stimulus for the piece.  I would appreciate feedback and comments.  Cheers!

Let me tell you about my first love. Like many of my relationships, first love was an imagined affair—a will’o the wisp romance with nothing of substance to offer save self-inflicted heartache. She was no good for me, this first love of mine: My Second Soprano Blonde.

At sixteen I was chosen for Illinois All-State Choir, Second Altos. If you are unfamiliar with choral hierarchy, let me break it down for you. First Sopranos nearly always carry the melody. Divas of the choral world warbling high G sharps or (after a good breakfast) D flats. Meanwhile the remaining choir members strive to make First Sopranos sound like more than helium-sucking melody-hogging finches. We flesh them out like ass pads or stuffed bras on supermodels. For richer harmony, Treble Choirs split into First/Second Soprano and First/Second Alto. That’s me: Second Alto on the Left.

Second Altos are the butches of the choral world. We occupy the bottom line of the treble clef. My voice was low even at sixteen, hence Altoville.

And I hated it.

Sixteen, in the High School Choir Room, I scanned my fellow Second Altos and cringed. We were the Fat Girls, Goth Girls, Sluts, Roughs and Tomboys—nothing like the cutely coiffed Sopranos with their pretty melodies and perky tits. High note hitting bitches.
I wanted so badly to be one at sixteen. I resented harmonising beneath them. I wanted my voice to float, sparkle and frill like a designer prom dress. I wanted to shine musically because nothing else about me did. I wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t girly. I was too dark, too big, too loud, too aggressive and I walked like a pig farmer. I was classic Second Alto material and I begrudged every note of it.

Once a year, the choir director indulged my Soprano aspiration. It never lasted more than one rehearsal. I simply couldn’t cut it musically, emotionally or aesthetically as a Soprano. Another wrong turn on my adolescent Pinocchio quest to become a “real girl”. Because that’s what I really wanted. Being a Soprano meant not being “one of the guys”. I cursed my secret admirer who declared unsung love for me because I was not like “all the other girls who only care about make-up and boys.” He confirmed my worst fear about myself: I wasn’t a proper girl. Sixteen-year-old me destroyed his letter and his heart.

All State Choir helped. I met Second Altos from every corner of Illinois, and we were not all socio-fashion misfits. The one I sat next to even had a pretty name: Gaia. But Gaia was nothing compared to My Second Soprano Blonde.

Our song was A Prairie Woman Sings. The Second Sopranos were struggling. While the Altos held a low note on “fresh loaves are baked” before the Sopranos took over with “and one has time to gather dreams of lovely things,” the Second Sopranos wobbled, stiletto-heeled, around tricky intervals of “the milk has cooled.” The director made them sing it over and over. I glared at the useless, second string divas.

First sight of My Second Soprano Blonde gut punched and blinded me. She was no high-flying melody hog. She was an English Rose—or a Midwestern equivalent. She was a Prairie Rose. Fair hair wisped angelically around her pale face and flushed cheeks. Rosy lips puckered flirtatiously against her sustained notes of “cooled”. Blue eyes gazed uncertainly at the director above her delicate spectacles. I read hope and yearning and desire in those eyes trying so hard to please and get it right.

I was smitten. My Second Soprano Blonde was sweet and fragile and precise as the close-woven harmony she stumbled through. I had never seen anyone so feminine, though she wore the barest lick of make-up. She didn’t have to. Femininity was hers by nature. My unreliable narrator of memory dresses her in Laura Ashley with powder blue flowers and a pussy bow but even a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt could not have minimised her girlish beauty.

‘She is so beautiful,’ I whispered to Gaia, my voice reverent. Gaia regarded Second Soprano Blonde with vague interest then studied me speculatively, possibly searching for lesbian insignia.

“Pretty eyes,” admitted Gaia with a shrug.

Throughout rehearsal I stared at Second Soprano Blonde, numbly singing harmonius bottom treble lines of Second Alto. “Day has been good with wind and cloud…” How does her hair cloud so prettily around her? “Then rain…” Should I talk to her? “The warm wet earth smells very clean tonight…” Bet she smell of honeysuckle. “And low-flung stars…” And say what? “Are soft as candlelight…” Why does her skin glow like candlelight? “Upon the fields and grass of rolling plain…” What do you say to walking dream?

I didn’t talk to her. I’d love to claim that I didn’t want to shatter my illusions, but truthfully she confused and terrified me. Did I want her or want to be her? Narcissus drowned in vain to kiss his reflection. Is that what she was? A watery vision of the girl I longed to be?

First love reflected an adolescent obsession with femininity and my perceived lack of femaleness. Other women followed Second Soprano Blonde but none matched her. She is a toxic habit I cannot shake, though her poison corrodes my heart. But if love means finding the missing part of yourself, perhaps she was my soul mate.