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.


‘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.


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!


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.


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.

The 4th of July Blues

Newsflash, America: the British do not celebrate Independence Day.

FatGirl-coverThis should be a no-brainer, yet my Yankee friends and family cannot conceive of a world in which the 4th of July does not include a day off, a barbeque and a fireworks display.  My own parents should be accustomed to this since, for most of my childhood, July 4th fell in the middle of Summer Rep season and there was usually a 6:45pm stage call.  Sometimes we might see distant fireworks during intermission.

Today I went to work at the usual time.  I did have a New York Deli sandwich and three Reeces’s Peanut Butter cups from the Co-op for lunch though.  This evening, after school and work, my family and I barbequed some burgers.  And that’s all she wrote.  Maybe I could have snuck over to the American military base outside of town to watch fireworks from across the road but I find the idea frankly depressing.  Like watching a circus through a window.  I have hosted barbeques at our house before.  I make far too much food and put Bruce Springsteen on the stereo.  But that doesn’t really fill the void either.

There are only two days on the calendar which make me feel truly homesick: Thanksgiving and Independence Day.  The British do not celebrate Thanksgiving either.  Another no-brainer that baffles those back home. I have tried to convince North Yorkshire County Council that American is a religion, making the 4th of July and the third Thursday in November High Holy Days which I should, by rights, have off work to celebrate in the manner of my people.  It hasn’t worked.  Yet.macxal-b781003076z.120120914133311000gse18stav.2

As compensation, I get Bonfire Night, aka 5th of November aka Guy Fawkes Night.  It’s a reasonably patriotic occasion, as patriotic as it gets in Britain.  Though it feels strange to celebrate a guy who tried to blow up parliament and over-throw the King.  Yes, I know we are celebrating the fact that he failed, but sometimes that little nuance gets lost in the rebellious North.

There are fireworks.  But it’s in November.  A fireworks display where no one plays God Bless America and during which I dance about to keep warm feels wrong.  Instead you inevitably get the Star Wars theme and sometimes Ride of the Valkyries.  Hot dog and burger barbeques are replaced by sausages and toffee apples around a bonfire.

46___SelectedOh, yes.  There is an enormous bonfire on which we get to burn an effigy.  Traditionally it’s a straw representation of Guy Fawkes, but it could be anyone really.  George Bush was a favourite a few years back and there is even one community in the south which every year petitions Rome for permission to burn an effigy of the pope.  It’s always granted.

Earlier today my brother-in-law asked if we burn effigies of the King on Independence Day.  I think we should definitely start doing this.  I can see it now.  Sunburnt folks gathered in their tank-topped masses and baseball hats as a straw man strapped to a wooden cross gets paraded through the cheering crowd to be ritually incinerated.

On second thought, we should probably stick with hotdogs.

A Tale of Two Teas

piccsP2Y61It 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, the first thing my neighbour did was brew me a cup of tea.  After a challenging, exhausting day of mountain climbing in Wales, my 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 unforgivable.

Tea can cause great controversy in other ways.  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.  I am not sure if there is a regional pattern related to the addition of sugar in tea as there is in the US.  South of the American Mason-Dixon line, sweet tea is the norm while Northern Yankees like myself mostly drink it unsweetened.

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 a Milk-Lastist while my friend Corrie is a Milk-Firstian.  And yet we will speak to each other.  Amazing.  Allow me to explain.

When Milk-Lastists such as myself make a cup of tea, we put the bag in the cup, pour over the boiling (BOILING, mind you!) water and then, only after the tea has steeped to a rich dark russet, do we 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 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 of them 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.

Another, 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 my friend Corrie…despite her deviant ways.

One tea-related issue unites Britain as a nation under leaf: iced tea is a myth.Kitchen-Talks-Iced-Tea-2

Iced tea baffles them more than a poodle smoking a pipe.  They just don’t get it.  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 hot summer day.  They might take a polite sip, but I guarantee you it will only be out of well-bred politeness.  Then they will 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 the Magpie Café in Whitby she ordered: “Iced tea?”  The waitress beamed back: “Of course.”  One can only imagine the panicked conversation which took place amongst the Magpie 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 pot of tea and a glass containing a single ice cube.

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

I am training my family to be more open-minded about iced tea.  Whilst my husband is a lost cause, my eldest daughter Freya is a devoted fan of both iced tea and English tea (though she shocks her father often by asking for it black with lemon).  During summer visits to America she loves making Sun Tea.  This traditional Yankee method is achieved by placing tea bags and cold water in a sealed glass container then leaving it out in the sunshine to brew naturally with solar heat.  Sun being a rare and precious thing here, Freya and I have devised our own method of making iced tea to enjoy in the summer months.  Try it if you dare…

 Yankee Iced Tea

In a glass jug, pour one pint of boiling water over three black tea bags and two peppermint tea bags.  Allow the brew to cool completely before removing all bags.  In a large pitcher, dilute the pint of concentrated tea with three more pints of cold water.  Top up with a generous amount of ice.  Serve cold.  You could also try experimenting with lemon, chamomile or jasmine tea instead of peppermint.  Enjoy.  Or at least try.

Is British Food Really That Bad? Part One: Adventures in Produce

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?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATherefore, 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.

organic-sausages-english-meatSausages 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.

British-Cheeses_520The 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.

When a Yankee Visits Yorkshire: Part Two

In my last blog post I doled out travelling wisdom to my Auntie Madge, soon to visit Britain for the first time.  Then I spoke of what TO do when travelling in Yorkshire and its environs.  Now, I wish to warn you a little.  Here is what NOT to do when visiting us across the pond.

3650175597_b45d936b0b_zDon’t let the weather stop you.  Spring in Yorkshire is a beautiful time of year: crocuses and daffodils and narcissus everywhere.  My first impression of England from the air was that it looked like a giant golf course.  Grass so green it seemed fake and so many tiny cars zooming about.  But all that floral splendour and greenery comes a cost and the cost is the weather.  It’s unlikely to rain the entire fortnight you are here, Auntie, but at some point (unless the fates of nature or the gods of tourism favour you) you will encounter Weather.  But do not let it stop you.  If the British let Weather cancel their plans, an entire nation would grind to a halt.  So, as comedian Billy Connolly says: “get yourself a sexy rain coat and live a little.”

_791920_towers_300Don’t expect service. If you have never watched Fawlty Towers this will mean nothing to you, but it’s one of my favourite observations of British culture from American comedian Greg Proops.  “I used to think Fawlty Towers was a screwball comedy then I visited England and realised it was actually a hard-hitting documentary.”  Mr Proops’ point is that service is not a priority in Britain the way it is in America.  When I walk into a shop, no sales assistants eagerly descend, wait staff never greet me with beauty pageant grins and ask every ten minutes if all is well, and no exchange of good and/or services concludes with “have a nice day”.  While this may not sound like a big deal, I assure you it does take some getting used to.  In my entire time here I have only witnessed two Brits send food back to a restaurant kitchen, though many more have quietly complained and put up with unsatisfactory food.  I have some theories as to why service is so poor in Britain but I will save that for a later post.

tea-vs-coffeeDon’t drink the coffee.  England is a nation of tea drinkers. We may have embraced coffee culture to a certain extent, but unless you are at a Starbucks or Café Nero I would give your usual cup of Joe a miss in favour of a brew.  Instant coffee.  That’s what you find over here.  Instant coffee.  Oh you can get filter coffee, but unfortunately few people realise that coffee grounds, unlike tea leaves, do not require boiling water to release their full potential.  Therein lies the difficulty in enjoying coffee on this side of the pond.  My advice: when in Yorkshire, drink the bloody tea.  Except when visiting my in-laws because their coffee is caffeinated nectar.

Don’t forget the exchange rate.  Currency will be your first concern when your plane lands.  Most likely you will bring some British money with you but don’t worry if you don’t.  Airports are full of cash machines all happy to eat up your Yankee dollars.  And eat them they will.  As I write this, the exchange rate actually is not too bad for a Yankee visiting the UK: 1.5 dollars to every pound.  In the recent past this has been as high as 2.5 dollars to the pound.  Even so, you need to keep calculating.  It’s all too easy to slip and forget just how much you are spending.  On that trip to Darbar I wrote about in the last post, I tipped the wait staff the equivalent of $20.00.  In my defence I was new in town and slightly drunk.  

969594-queenlaughDon’t be intimidated.  For the first few months I lived here I kept a pretty low profile.  If I was out on my own I spoke as little as possible because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.  Mostly this was due to the fact that every time I opened my mouth it began a thirty minute conversation (see previous post).  It was a waste of time.  Don’t be intimidated.  Speak up, ask questions, bother people.  The British may look a bit scary and I still think they lack a few essential facial muscles, but they’re a bit of all right really.

Safe travels, Auntie.  We cannot wait to introduce you to this country we love.  Stay tuned for the last in this series: Madge’s travels in Yorkshire.

Tea Time?

“Since we are not all ladies of leisure, the idea of taking a cream tea as part of a day out is very important as this really shows that we are having a day off and being hedonistic.”

My first introduction to English Teatime was in—of all places—Lincoln, Nebraska.  In the city’s historic Haymarket District, there was (and still is as far as I know) a charming little store run by a charming little woman: Victoria’s Cousin.  The shop mostly seemed to sell Crabtree & Evelyn, but also offered Afternoon Tea.  About twice a year, the women of University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Graduate Theatre Program would itch for a Gwendolyn and Cecily moment.  We would rummage through our wardrobes looking for the clothes we generally reserved for interviews, steal a pair of gloves from costume stock, top it all off with the only corsage any of us had worn since high school prom and haul our fabulously rose-lotion-scented butts down to Victoria’s Cousin for finger sandwiches, scones and Earl Grey.  In most respects, Victoria’s Cousin was not too far off the mark in terms of authenticity.  Though I have discovered since moving to England that Teatime is relative…and quite confusing.

Raised as I was by BBC imports on PBS, I thought Teatime meant raised pinkies and cakes on doilies.  Imagine my expression when my at-the-time-boyfriend-now-husband suggested at six o’clock at night that we order pizza for tea.  Pizza for tea?  Isn’t this the wrong time for tea?  Where’s my doily?  Where’s my jam pot?  What are you talking about, man?  It was difficult enough living in the Midwest where the dinner versus lunch divide caused me no end of dizziness, now I had to juggle definitions of Lunch, Dinner, Supper and Tea that seemed to be almost random in their usage.  It soon became my linguistic, cultural and culinary mission to figure out what British people mean when they say “Teatime”.

When you move to a completely new country, even one where you allegedly speak the language, you have to accept that you will ask stupid questions and feel like an idiot for at least two years.  It was in this spirit of child-like discovery that I entered into my Quest to Define Teatime.  I was aware of the Victorian model of meal times (also adopted by Hobbits everywhere): Breakfast, Elevenses, Luncheon, Tea, Dinner, Supper; but I set out to investigate what Tea means to Brits in the Twenty-First Century.

At first, I assumed that the variations would be geographically based, as I believe they are in America.  To a certain extent, geography does play a part.  The people I spoke to from the Southern areas of England largely echoed my stereotype of teatime—a light meal served around four o’clock involving some kind of little sandwiches, cake and hot steeped beverage.  The closer these people lived to London, the more consistent this understanding of the word became.  These same people, again, mostly from the South East, defined Lunch as a light mid-day meal and Dinner as the main meal in the evening.

However,  those from the Midlands and the North all divided the eating day in the following manner: Breakfast in the morning (thank goodness something remains fairly universal), Dinner at midday, Tea in the evening and Supper just before bed.  And the differences do not end there: meal size and the level of formality play a big part in how one labels one’s food (or libels one’s food I hear my father jibe).

My friend Dave offered this helpful commentary on the subject:

Dinner is the main hot meal of the day, usually at about 6pm. Lunch is a lighter meal in the middle of the day. Tea is a lighter meal in the early evening if you’ve had your main hot meal in the middle of the day. Supper is a hot drink and a biscuit at 9pm.  “Lunch” is always a midday meal, “Supper” an evening one, and “Tea” either evening or late afternoon.  “Dinner” is usually the evening meal, but it always means a big meal; so if, on a particular day, you have a big midday meal and only a very light meal in the evening, then the big midday meal is “Dinner”. So usually, your big meal is in the evening and you only have a light meal midday, and this is: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner.  Sometimes, on a day when you have got plenty of time midday, you have a great big meal then, and only a light meal (usually heavy on the salad, but with cake as well) in the evening, and this is: Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner, Tea or Supper.

And, at this point, I pray for death wondering why I ever thought it was a good idea to ask my friends to explain the intricacies of English custom.  Others, including London-based Yorkshire-born Tony, felt that where you ate your meal was just as important as when or what you ate.  “Tea is just your evening meal eaten at home. If you go out it becomes Dinner.  At home, Dinner is eaten around midday, but if you go out it becomes Lunch.”  It is true that I never hear anyone say they are “going out for Tea”, unless they mean tea and scones Tea.  So not only do I now have to take into consideration the size and formality, but also the location.

Claire is an anthropologist—which means talking about things like What is Teatime is pretty much her raison d’etre.  It was Claire who first really opened my eyes to the fact that the definitions of meal times have far more to do with class than they do with what’s on your plate, where you are or what time of day it is.

Whether you have lunch dinner or tea is still seen by some to be a definite indicator of class.  I invited some colleagues around for Tea a few weeks ago.  One of them absolutely assumed that I meant cakes and scones at five when we finished work.  This is ridiculous, as anyone at work cannot take afternoon tea properly, so most people would assume that I meant Dinner, and not Tea.  To all intents and purposes it looked as if she was making the point that the meal is properly called Dinner.  This then made her look a bit like a snob for pointing out, albeit sideways that I was using the wrong term.  The majority use the terms interchangeably, and to make a stand looks silly these days.

Presumably, Claire’s work colleague, if she was not raised by a lady of leisure, was at least raised by someone who wanted to give the appearance of someone who could be a lady of leisure if give the proper opportunity.  And it is that very issue of status or perceived status that is at the heart of what Teatime means. Claire, though she spent most of her young and adult life in the Northern areas of the country, now lives in Kent, which is near enough to be within commuting distance of London.

With all this in mind, it now makes sense that people from the traditionally “working class” North would classify Tea as a meal in the evening and not an afternoon affair.  Someone who can take tea and cake at four o’clock is not someone who has to bring in the sheep, work the mines or live by the factory time clock.  Similarly, the more affluent and status-conscious Southerners are used to thinking of Teatime as the afternoon break before the proper evening Dinner they dress up for—or, at least they do in Downton Abbey.

This brought my attention to the lunch-dinner divide I encountered so often in the Midwest.  Almost invariably, it was people from a rural background who referred to the mid-day meal as Dinner, meaning that the meal was quite substantial and not just the sandwich and bag of chips/crisps, which has come to define lunch in our busy modern world.  Similarly, everyone I interviewed agreed that, regardless of time of day, Dinner is a large meal, while Lunch is a smaller but snobbier way of labelling the midday meal.  Not exactly a strict class division, but still a parallel was drawn in my mind I had not seen before.

So where does this leave me?  How do I negotiate these politically and socially charged definitions of Teatime?  After careful consideration and reviewing my research of interviews, I decided that the common connection was that Tea is a light meal—not something heavy with many courses resulting in a loosening of trousers and a recuperating nap (stay tuned for future posts on the beauty that is Sunday Lunch).  It can be formal or it can be casual, depending on who you are, where you are and how you are, but it is always light.

And if you chance to visit Harrogate in North Yorkshire, Teatime is Betty’s!

Do the Trans-Atlantic Trifle

If all this talk about Jubilees and Diamonds and Union Jacks spilling all over the place has you Yanks feeling left out, why not indulge a bit of Anglo culture in a way Brits understand best: add liberal amounts of alcohol.  And if you are in the UK feeling bloody sick of all the bunting, flag waving and endless hats parading across your telly, why not smother your bitterness in the American fashion by using your last day off to stuff your face with sugar?  Better yet, why not achieve both objectives in a trans-Atlantic, special relationship, shoulder to shoulder bonding activity?  Let’s all make trifle!

Trifle is my favourite pudding/dessert to make because it skips all the boring parts of cooking and gets straight to the fun bit.  You can make the cake and custard and even the jam from scratch if you feel you have something to prove, but it’s entirely unnecessary.  Trifle also has the creative benefit of being infinitely diverse so you can let your creativity go mad.  I have never made trifle the same way twice but I have never made a bad trifle.  That’s the third and most important benefit to this dish: it is pretty much un-f**k-up-able.

So, how do you actually make a trifle?

  1. The Cake.  The cake element for trifle needs a dense texture because of what you have to do to it.  It has to be a cake which can take some serious gastronomic punishment and still come out swinging.  Angel or sponge will not do the trick.  In the US this generally means pound cake or something else with a brick of butter in it.  In the UK we call it Madeira.  I have also made Trifle with brownies, Jamaican ginger cake, my Granny’s ginger cake recipe and my mother’s Pumpkin Bread recipe (I had something to prove on both those occasions).
  2. The Jam.  Once you have selected your cake, you need to cut it into small cubes.  Small is the only description you’re going to get from me there because it doesn’t really matter.  Once you have your cubes, slice each cube in half, smear each end with jam and sandwich the halves back together.  The choice of jam depends very much on your choice of cake.  I have used strawberry, apricot, rhubarb and ginger, raspberry and even apple butter.  After jamming your cake, jam the pieces in the bottom of a large, pretty glass bowl which has been greased lightly with butter (yes, butter—man up for god’s sake).  Glass is crucial so everyone can be impressed with the layers.
  3. The booze.  Aha!  The fun bit!  After placing your jammed-up cake bits in the bottom of your best, buttered, glass bowl, use a lightly buttered spoon to press the layer down slightly.  Then sprinkle about two or three (four might make it too soggy but it depends on how big a trifle you are making) shots of alcohol over the cake.  Traditionally it should be sherry but I don’t actually like sherry so I have used pretty much everything else possible: brandy, whiskey, mulled wine (that was at Christmas), amaretto, rum…whatever you got basically.  I would not recommend Bailey’s because there are two creamy layers to go and that might be over-kill.  If you are making this for a young audience, you can use juice, depending on how difficult your children are at bedtime.  Just kidding social services—I would never…illegal…immoral.  Moving on.
  4. Fruit and or Jelly.  The next layer is controversial, but since the cake needs to soak you have time to ponder.  The first several times I made trifle, I topped my boozy cake layer with a sloppy fruit layer.  Soft fruits such as raspberries, strawberries or otherberries stewed in some kind of (preferably alcoholic) liquid are most common, but it is open to interpretation.  I have used roasted rhubarb, baked apple and even cherry pie filling straight from the can.  After about the third time I made trifle, my husband whined about the lack of jelly/gelatine/Jello.  So you can mix your fruit with a pack of gelatine, pour that over the cake layer and let the whole thing sit in the fridge until its set.
  5. Custard.  This layer is not up for compromise…much.  After your fruit has cooled and/or gelatine set, cover your creation with a generous layer of custard.  In the UK they sell pre-made custard in every form and size imaginable.  In the US you basically just need to get your hands on some vanilla pudding.  Or do you…  I have made trifle successfully with chocolate custard, so presumably chocolate pudding would work too.  Or butterscotch or white chocolate or cheesecake or possibly even pistachio.  It’s risky though.  Custard in the UK has a slightly thicker consistency than American pudding, if I am remembering accurately.  I have it on good authority that Anglophilia in the US has led to wider availability of British products.  You might be able to find Bird’s Custard Powder or pre-made Ambrosia Custard.  Again, if you have something to prove you can make it yourself.  I have never attempted this but I am told it’s simple.
  6. Cream.  Your fabulous creation is nearly complete.  The second to the last layer is whipped cream.  This can be tricky because custard lacks a firm stable base for cream smearing, so if you are whipping your cream from scratch (which I always do) be sure not to make it too stiff.  I generally add a bit of whatever alcohol I poured over the cake layer to the cream before whipping, but it’s not necessary.  You could pipe the whipped cream on or use whipped cream from a spray can if you are in a rush or just can be bothered.
  7. Big Finish.  Decorating the top of your trifle is essential for your final statement of artistic gluttony.  Also, if your whipped cream layer went on badly the topping can cover your smearing sins.  Toasted almonds, sliced fruit, crumbled shortbread, crushed amoretti biscuits, mini chocolate chips…it’s all good.

Trifle is best if made the night before up until step five or six.  The cream should ideally be added just before serving.  Above all, be creative and have fun because with these ingredients it’s hard to go wrong.

Is Patriotism on the Rampage?

Two of my previous posts have addressed the issue of British Patriotism.  The British do not self-promote, the British do not rejoice in their sovereign, the British carry with them a sense of shame.  These have been my words…or at least a summary of their sentiment.  These days I am not so confident this is true.  British Patriotism seems to be on the rampage lately.

Next week-end we will be celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee: sixty years on the throne.  If she survives three more she will equal Queen Victoria.  If she carries on four more she will be the longest reigning English monarch and the longest reigning Queen in history (if Wikipedia can be believed). In honour of this blessed event us working stiffs get any extra day off.  (Although I am rather bitter that these two days have been cleverly woven into the week-long half-term holiday that, as a teacher, I always get so it’s actually more like only having three days off instead of five but I digress.)  Everywhere I look there is evidence of enthusiasm for the Jubilee.

Public art decorating a Harrogate roundabout near The Crown Hotel (fittingly enough).

Harrogate’s world famous Betty’s Tea Shop has created special Diamond Jubilee Cookies in the shape of HRH’s beloved Corgis and chocolate Queen’s Horse Guard Bears.  By the way, you are reading those prices right: five bucks for a cookie, around sixty for the cake and forty for the chocolate bear.  This in itself might betray a rather tongue in cheek sense of respect for the occasion.  Surely crowns or sceptres or Her Majesty’s profile might be more appropriate.  But no.  Posh As Betty’s is giving us dogs and bears.

Elsewhere, the major grocery chains are practically shoving Jubilee products in our faces, forcing us to get excited about it.  I’m honestly not sure whether this is in response to consumer demand or a case of product placement trying to convince us that, bloody hell, we really are jolly thrilled for the old girl. Everywhere are displays of Union Jack picnic accessories, clothing, bunting, commemorative magazine editions and event-specific packaging on everything from tea bags (which I understand) to Cocoa Pops (which makes no sense).  Tellingly these displays do not seem to run out of supplies, implying that no one is actually buying any of it in any sense of the word. I admit I bought a box of Jubilee Cocoa Pops.  How could I not?

My daughter’s primary school, much to my husband’s disgust, is hosting a Jubilee Party.  Students may dress up as Queens or Princesses (which makes me really wish for the first time that I had a son) and sit down for a nice little tea party.  My own high school is, of course, far too adult and working class for that sort of thing.  In fact, no one seems remotely aware of the Jubilee.  Then again, some might not be aware we have a Queen.

On the other hand I was truly moved by BBC2’s virgin airing of the Jubilee Song entitled Sing.  It was created by the unlikely duo of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gary Barlow (of Take That fame for the Yankees…look him up).  The song features a choir of Army Wives and…wait for it: Prince Harry on the tambourine.  While that sounds like a particularly ridiculous joke, I thought the song was beautiful.

So I am left with a sense of confusion: is Britain generally and genuinely enthused about Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee or, like last year’s Royal Wedding, are we just bloody grateful for a four-day weekend which has some chance of providing good weather?


A Right Royal Fall-Out

One year ago today Prince William married Catherine Middleton while the world watched on their televisions.  I didn’t have a television to watch it on because I was there.  Yes.  That’s right.  I was there as crowds of people flocked along The Mall and flashed their phones at the procession of history.  Of course I was there!

When I was ten-years old I woke at the crack of dawn to watch Charles and Diana’s wedding.  I repeated this ritual five years later with Andrew and Sarah.  I even watched Edward and Sophie’s modest little affair.  All my life I watched royal events from afar.  I was not about to let this one go by without being part of it.  So I found two friends who wanted to go (both American) and we made our plans in eager anticipation.  But there was one thing I did not plan on: my own British royal family.

I genuinely adore my in-laws.  My Mother-in-law is a former science teacher, avid gardener, legendary cook, aspiring photographer and fiercely committed Labour supporter, which means she is somewhere left of Michael Moore in her political affiliations.  She finds the Royal Family at best an embarrassment and at worst an inappropriate addition to a free Democratic Society.  And she is not alone.

When I proudly boasted about travelling to London for the Royal Wedding, my American friends and family were universally jealous and anxious to see photos and hear stories of the day.  My British friends and family thought I was joking.  When they realised I was in earnest, they turned…not exactly hostile but their disgust was clear.  Several rolled their eyes and mumbled “She’s American” by way of explanation.  One commented in shock: “I had no idea you were royalist!”  The horrified tone of voice meant to indicate he had learned I was a closet puppy torturer or secret collector of Nazi memorabilia.

From my in-laws there was a lot of tense silence.  No one wanted to talk to me about it and went ominously quiet if I introduced the subject, like it was something embarrassingly private, not suitable table conversation.  When I spoke to my husband about the travel arrangements he gave a heavy sigh of resignation, as if we were discussing my preparations to undergo life-altering surgery.  I found the whole situation thoroughly confusing.

It’s your Royal Family not mine!  This is your history and your culture.  What is your problem?

Intellectually I understand why the Royal Family might be a source of shame.  I agree completely that power and title inherited by virtue of familial connections is out of step with democracy, equality and freedom.  I appreciate how the mere existence of the Queen encourages a culture of class-conscious elitism which trickles down through society.

Unfortunately Britain, no one gets to choose their family—especially not their Royal Family.  Not without revolutions and chopped off heads, which did not work out so well for the country last time (*cough* Cromwell *cough*).  Like it or not, Britain needs the Royals and they are a part of you.  The Queen, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard: these are the images the world associates with Britain.  Tourism would crash and burn without the fairytale appeal of the Royals.  They might cost in pride and taxes but they make up for it when hoards of overseas visitors flock to UK shores lured by this ancient, majestic institution.

But the Royals are also an inescapable part of Britain’s national life story, and the British are not known for giving up history easily.

The British understand history…they have long memories and an appreciation of time which most Americans lack.  The first flat my husband and I lived in was a converted Gothic church.  The congregation faded away but the building remained.  In America that church would have been torn down and replaced by a modern high rise without a backward glance or a batted eyelash.  The Foss Way built in Roman times, now known as the A46, is still a regularly used road.  A ROMAN ROAD!  We got rid of Route 66 after less than 60 years.

I understand why the Queen is controversial, particularly for my left-leaning family and friends.  We have an auntie in my family we never talk about either.  But like all families, the Royals are a part of the British character.  They may not be a part every Brit wants to boast about or invite over for Christmas dinner, but the Royals say something about who Britain is and where Britain came from.

They also throw an awesome wedding!