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August 13, 2006

English food, American tourist (Part 1)

[published in "The Flatland Oracles" on July 29, 2006]

* CAVEAT: not designed for foodies.

[1]  The myth.

Years ago, when I was first a bride and was trying to choose a  china pattern for my gift registry, I saw an advertisement in one of those bride-directed magazines that made a tremendous impression on me.  It was an ad for Royal Doulton china.  The ad featured a surpassingly beautiful plate with bits of unappetizing glop on it.  I can't remember what the food looked like, other than that it was mainly brown or brownish; and there may have been some extremely bright green beans or peas as well.  Underneath it said:  WE PUT THE WORLD'S WORST FOOD ON THE WORLD'S BEST CHINA (or perhaps it was "the world's finest" or "most beautiful" china).  The thing that stuck with me was the description of the food.

I spent my life hearing jokes about English food and the poor quality of English dentistry; but whatever was true back when those myths gained currency, it isn't true anymore.  English people have delicious food and perfectly fine teeth.  Americans who want to mock them for something are nowadays in a bit of a jam.  There just isn't anything for me to feel superior about these days.   

I don't know what the food in England was like back in the Seventies.  When I married Don in the Nineties we went to a lot of places that purported to serve English or English-style food.  And most of it, to my surprise, was pretty good.  I didn't try any of the ones with amusing names---I doubt that there are any circumstances in which I could ever bring myself to order any food called "spotted dick"---but I did have other things that according to Don were reasonably authentic and which I quite liked. 

Most of what I had was pretty basic fare---the sort of food, I imagine---that Don had eaten when he lived in England fifteen years before:  yorkshire pudding, bangers and mash, black pudding, those dark brown pickles, digestive biscuits, and similar fare. 

He also used to prepare sandwiches in what I thought were pretty odd combinations:  cheese and pickle, tomato and egg, cheese and onion---that sort of thing.  He bought things from time to time from a grocery store in Kissimmee Florida that carried British food (mostly sweets, but a few things in cans).  A local restaurant which Rumcove while visiting from Southend-on-Sea dubbed "The Fake Limey Pub" served fish and chips with malt vinegar, but both he and Don stated that the fish wasn't really the proper English cod cooked in proper English fashion.  Still, I thought it was okay.

But I believed---because Rumcove and Don seemed to believe---that whatever our deficiencies in history or comedy, we at least had better food than the average English person can buy at the local supermarket.  Furthermore, Americans have many more reasonably priced restaurants serving decent fare.  This was an article of faith for both of them. 

As it turns out, food in England is indeed expensive.  And we do have more restaurants that are reasonably priced.   Dining out there is very expensive. 

Everything else you can forget.  Walking through the English supermarkets I visited---and during my trips, I visited Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Morrison's,  I saw a much greater variety of different foods.  Whereas here you can look in the frozen food display and see eight different brands of frozen pizza, in England your basic supermarket offers a variety of  Indian, West Indian, Thai, French, Italian, and Chinese foods.  The supermarkets are generally larger. They have a much greater variety of wines, fresh meat, and fresh fish. 

I haven't a clue what the average English person eats, but I must say I had a variety of foods while I was there that I've never seen or heard of over here---and almost all of it was good.  It certainly was not as I'd always imagined (bad American food in scanty portions or else stuff made of or cooked in lard). 

And I need a whole separate posting to talk about the candy. 

[2]  Dining out in England for the truly average American.

Rumcove went with me once to our local (beloved) Publix Grocery store, but we didn't stay long, and he didn't really spend much time assessing the items on offer.  Whenever he visited, he wanted to eat out as much as possible because of what he considered the absurd cheapness of restaurant meals, and certainly he developed an appreciation for the variety of (relatively) inexpensive "dining experiences" available in various Florida towns.

As to restaurant dining, an American visiting England will find a dearth of the inexpensive chain restaurants of which we are wont to say "at least you know what you're getting when you eat there" and a large number of places offering food of very---as far as I could ascertain---unpredictable quality.  There were a lot of pubs, small cafes, and little restaurants---even supermarkets have cafeterias in them---but you aren't necessarily going to get the sort of smiling service and predictable quality you get here.  You sort of have to know in advance which places are good.  Nick's parents live in a tiny village called Hempton, near the town of Banbury.  "We don't eat out much," they said when we inquired.  We just had to wing it.  Since my mother-in-law is an expert in both French and English cookery, and since the meals she prepared were relentlessly five-star, we had little incentive to eat out at all.  We did it anyway because I was curious about what the restaurants there were like. 

Nick and I have gone through phases of eating out a lot here.  It isn't cheap; it adds up; but a single meal isn't that expensive.  We did experience a bit of sticker shock if we let ourselves do the math necessary to calculate the exchange rate.  And we spent a lot more money than we had intended.  We aren't wealthy;  and neither of us can distinguish really good food from fine food, so we weren't tempted to try anything prestigious.  We just aimed for middle of the road places with decent fare.  And finding good food wasn't hard at all.

We generally had pretty good luck finding places to eat that were pretty good, once we got past the price differential.  We found a wonderful Italian place in Banbury called Fabio's where we had an anniversary party for our family and where we ate several times. 

There was also a delightful Greek place in Edgeware (London) where we went to celebrate Nick's birthday where we had a lovely meal that unfortunately I can't remember at all (except that it was lovely) due to having imbibed a bit too much wine with my dinner.  I don't remember the name, but it was on Station Road in Edgeware. 

Otherwise, we took most of our meals in London at a pleasantly informal Greek-owned place where we had quite good (relatively) cheap meals in London.  Furthermore, the service was exemplary. 

What these places had in common, of course, was that they weren't owned or operated or staffed by English people.

I've often heard English tourists exclaim over---and sometimes mock---the happy, smiley, "hello-my-name-is-Daniel-I'll-be-your-server-tonight" service that Americans are used to.  It's quite true that you don't get that in English places that are staffed by English people.  You don't even get it in places that are run by English people who have immigrated here.  By American standards, English service can seem unfriendly and---say it---insufficiently servile. They definitely aren't as bothered about making you feel welcome or at home. 

I had several experiences when I went into perfectly beautiful pubs in the sort of towns you don't dare imagine still exist and ended up with the distinct impression that the landlords/managers would have much rather not have had my custom.  I don't think this was so, mind you; it's just that I am used to having restaurant staff make a fuss over me, and English restaurant staff aren't so much about making the customer feel wanted.

As for the food we got in pubs, cafeterias, and cafes ("caffs"), it was quite a bit more variable.  I was a bit at a loss, not being able to find my favorite sort of restaurant meal:  a dinner salad containing exotic ingredients you wouldn't put in at home.  A salad in most casual dining places is what I call a 1960's salad here:  a bowl of pallid lettuce with a tomato in it and a cold white preparation called "salad cream" on.  Maybe we just didn't find the places that serve lavish dinner salads, but I'm thinking this is because that isn't a big feature at English restaurants.

But don't get me wrong; the food even in tiny places was usually passable to very good.  Nick, who hates salads or vegetables of any kind, was as happy as a sandboy (I don't know what a sandboy is, but this is something the English say) eating the sort of food you get if you eat in an English restaurant serving English food:  roast beef and yorkshire pudding, steak and kidney pie; sausage rolls; veal and ham pie.  The English have a lot of foods that consist of savory meats nestled in pastry.  All of them are good.  So are their [french fried potato] chips.  With malt vinegar, they are outstanding. 

The presentation in those places was what I'd call "homecooked."  In other words, it wasn't generally as pretty as the food you're used to seeing here.  On the plus side, it usually tasted like food as opposed to airplane food;  the meat in particular sometimes seemed overcooked and tough, but it wasn't rubbery the way some of the microwaved concoctions on offer at some places here always are.  There just wasn't a lot of emphasis on presentation. It was just, you know, food plopped down on a plate.  Like your Mum would have made if she'd been English.  That sort of thing. And some places give you chutney (mmm, chutney) and mustard and other condiments with your food, which dresses it up considerably, I must say.

I did have one really amazing meal in what I'm told is a traditional English restaurant in a perfectly beautiful setting.  It was called The Dun Cow and it was located in Dunchurch at the edge of the Cotswolds.  It was a lovely place with lovely food.   I had something called a vegetable tartlet (another pastry-shell-containing-savory-food food) that was absolutely delicious.

A meal that would cost you $20-$30 here is likely to cost you the equivalent of $60 or $70 there.  Compared to American restaurants, the portions are blessedly manageable---it's the college-boy-sized portions they serve at restaurants, and the choice between overeating or wasting food, that has put me off eating out here---but really hungry American tourists might not feel that they've had their money's worth.  As I said, I really don't like the sickeningly large portions that we get here (except for salads!).  There was enough and just a little more; but you didn't end up with leftover portions that made you feel wasteful if you didn't take it home.

[3]  Random recommendations.

I rarely drink, and I don't like beer, but English cider is fantasticL.  Try some.  Just bear in mind that it is much more potent than American beer; otherwise, you might end up passed out in the car the way I did when I first had cider.  It was in an English bar in Orlando; and Don convinced me---because he thought the outcome would be amusing---that it was perfectly harmless, hardly alcoholic at all.  Since a friend of mine who was a health food freak had ordered a bottle, I fell for it.  Over the course of a long, hot July 4 afternoon I had three pints.

Do not have three pints of English apple cider on a hot July afternoon unless you're actually English.

English lemonade is fizzy and they mix it with beer.  I prefer it without.

English tea is nothing like what you're used to and is seriously addictive.  If Americans were given enough properly prepared English tea, Starbucks would soon be out of business.  The water must be boiling.  It must be real tea.  You can have it with lemon, but you really shouldn't pollute it with sugar substitutes.

Cream teas are scones with cream and jam.  Do not be fooled by their innocuous appearance.  They are not large; and they are delicious, but they are lethal.  If you have one at teatime, you will not want your dinner or your breakfast either. 

English candy is so much better than American candy that I need a whole separate posting to deal with it.  At first I didn't know why, but now I do.  "American candy is too sweet," said my sister-in-law, Sarah.  "All you taste is sugar."  To be honest, this had never occurred to me---but since she said this, it's really all I can taste when I try to eat American candy.  In fact, all American sweets.  There is really a huge difference and that's what it is.  I'm quite sure that it's the reason why Americans tend to overeat candy:  trying to get the taste of the thing you wanted (chocolate or fruit flavor or whatever) you eat much more than you want or need because it's masked by the sugar.

I thought of Sarah the other day when I bought a brownie from a grocery store bakery and the entire bottom of this frosted chocolate concoction was coated with sugar crystals.  I had to cut it off to eat it.

More later about the joy of English candy, especially Topics, and about Nick's distressing encounter with American Christmas nougat.

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