I love my country. Not in a weeping, slightly creepy Glenn Beck way, but in a sincere but emotionally reserved way. I’ve had people comment that I don’t often write about England, so this is going to be the first in a series of love letters/handy guides to English culture. In this first one I’m going to discuss our oft maligned cuisine, because that’s the tangent I ended up going on…
It was about eight in the morning, I was in line at Starbucks somewhere in San Francisco. I was in charge of bringing breakfast back to the Grant Plaza hotel, a hotel in Chinatown that looks fancy on the outside but somewhat cheap and sleazy inside.
Eating in San Francisco had been rather disappointing. Due to fifty per cent of the family being a little ill during our stay restaurant visits were forsaken and instead my father and I dined at Subway for the first three nights. Somehow we never went to the same branch again; there were so many Subways in the vicinity of the hotel that even had we wanted to, we wouldn’t have been able to find the same one twice. At least, we wouldn’t be sure if it was the same one. It was kind of like the fast food outlets in the PS2 game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
I digress. Breakfast each morning would be a Styrofoam cup of tea and a large fluffy croissant. For a French food product it was lacking in joie de vivre. Normally I don’t like getting tea from coffee shops, but one thing I dislike more than tea from coffee shops is no tea at all. I love tea— I’m English, of course I love tea.
In this country obtaining tea is easy and simple. You say ”Hello, yes, I’d like a cup of tea please” and a short time later a cup of tea will appear before you. You pay, you sit down, you enjoy your warm beverage. In Starbucks it isn’t that simple; it’s almost as complicated as ordering a coffee, or purchasing a Subway sandwich. Or dismantling a nuclear armament.
If the ‘barista’ had asked if I wanted Earl Grey I wouldn’t have made a bumbling fool of myself. However, he asked me if I wanted ”an English Breakfast.”
My brother still makes fun of my response— ”no thank you, just the croissants and the four teas.”
He looked at me like I was a moron.
To me an English Breakfast isn’t a type of tea, it’s something you drink tea with. An English Breakfast is a pile of greasy fried meat covered in baked beans and brown sauce and congealed cow blood… eggs…bacon… sausages… black pudding (the aforementioned congealed cow blood)… THAT is an English Breakfast.
And since I conceived this piece I’ve been craving one. It’s been ages since I indulged in that rare treat— and it has to be a rare treat, otherwise your heart will eventually replace all the blood in your body with sausage grease. My grandfather died of a heart attack when I was about two years old. Apparently I really liked him, and he would have liked me now. He had sideburns— one white, one ginger. His last meal was an English Breakfast. It’s a macabre thought, but there are worst last meals— Jesus only pretended to consume blood before he died.
It’s amazing how utterly unhealthy an English Breakfast is, and yet whenever I go to America I start the day with waffles. Waffles are unequivocally a pudding. America has pudding for breakfast, and yet it’s healthier than our grand tradition.
I like English food… British cuisine. Did you know tikka masala is British? Do you even know what tikka masala is?! It was invented in Scotland, and was at one point the most popular dish in Britain (it is really quite nice)… The Scots are famous for food even more unhealthy than our traditional breakfast. I’m still not entirely sure what haggis is. I think it’s animal innards ground up inside it’s own stomach, which of course itself used to be an innard before it was the protective exterior of the gastronomic equivalent of a pagan sacrifice. They (the Scots) are also well know for frying things. Anything. The most recent incarnation of The Doctor in Doctor Who says to a young Scottish girl l’you’re Scottish, fry me something.” Never has casual racism been funnier, or more truthful. My old science teacher once told our class about a deep-fried fried pie he’d purchased: a pie that had been fried, and then fried again. Fried pizzas… chocolate bars… sandwiches… and fish of course. Good old fish and chips; nothing says ‘Britain’ like steaming fish and chips by the sea…
I had the worst fish and chips I’ve ever had on holiday in Cornwall last year. It was all wrong. For a start there was no pier, just stunningly beautiful rugged coastline. Then there was the weather… it was warm and pleasant, the sun was setting nicely and the sky was a beautiful glowing amber, with a few stray clouds stuck on the horizon caught like flies in… well, amber. The fish and chips themselves were alright, but nothing to write home about.
That’s not how fish and chips are supposed to be consumed. It should be cold, and preferably raining. You should be huddled up in a Victorian shelter and inhaling the strong, warm, heady scent of vinegar in the cold air and feeling the slightly soggy paper in one hand as, with the other hand, you pick out mouthfuls with a little wooden fork. I say mouthfuls because the fish and chips should be so stodgy that the fish and potato should be almost indistinguishable from each other.
People, mostly French people, dismiss English food as stodge. It’s an accurate description, but it’s usually applied negatively, like a plate of suet, gravy and bits of cow are a bad thing. You can’t beat a bit of stodge; stodge won us the war anyway. Whilst the French rolled over at the first faint sight of an angry German in a red armband and carried on with their noveau cuisine and fantastique pastries we were focusing our energy on putting up a fight, and stretching every penny as far as it could go. Stodge is not a healthy option, but give a man a portion of cheap suet and he’ll be full in no time. You can’t beat a nice stodgy pudding either— I’m a sticky toffee pudding man myself. Spotted Dick is popular, but you can’t have it any more because ‘spotted dick’ sounds too much like a sexually transmitted disease. Now it’s called sponge and currant pudding or something non-hilarious.
Stodge also plays a part in the Sunday Roast. Good lord how I love a Sunday Roast… I can actually taste my Dad’s roast potatoes as I type this. My Dad is quite simply awesome when it comes to roasting food on God’s day of rest. The first image that comes to mind when I think about my Dad is that of him in the kitchen surrounded by plates and trays and other utensils, an ever emptying bottle of whisky or wine and several strewn albums over the top of a stereo.
I suppose it has something to do with the fact that my interest in music, alcohol and my relationship with my Dad all formed around Sunday nights in the kitchen. The Sunday Roast is a British tradition, but we had our own traditions that went with it. No matter where we were living, from the ages of about fifteen until I left home for university Dad and I would go to the supermarket to buy the weeks shopping and choose a bottle of ale we’d never tried before. Then in the evening we’d drink half a pint each, listen to Dad’s albums (which would gradually also become my albums) and I’d offer minimal assistance in cooking the roast. Sometimes he’d let me drink whisky too, which was always a treat. Looking back at those Sundays it occurs to me that I was basically becoming who I am… largely an ale guzzling classic rock fan with a penchant for potatoes roasted in goose fat (seriously, it’s the best kind of fat.)
The Sunday Roast doesn’t really differ from Christmas dinner, or Thanksgiving dinner, except that it’s a weekly tradition, not an annual one. A lot of our traditional cuisine comes from long, far reaching tradition. Even tikka masala, the Indian food invented in Scotland… The fact we even eat Indian food comes from the old Empire.
Going back to the beginning, back to Subway— to any sandwich store or deli where the sandwich is something grand and overpriced and overcomplicated. These are sandwiches which fail to meet their original purpose: to let a lazy Earl eat and play cards at the same time. It should be so simple— a slice of cheese wedged between two bits of bread in one hand… chomp chomp chomp… and hand of poker in the other. Imagine trying to play Texas Hold ‘Em AND eat a deli sandwich at the same time. A deli sandwich is like clapping: it’s a two hand job. That leaves no free hand to hold your cards, and that means you have to stop gambling for up to five minutes!
That’s why English cuisine is great; what it lacks in flavour it more than makes up for in practicality and tradition. The French have delicate pastries, herbs, bouillabaisse and a history of Nazi occupancy. We have stodge, gravy, animal innards, defeated the Nazis— and have a hand free to play cards.
I forgot to mention scones. Scones are amazing. Moist cake with lashings of jam and cream, washed down with a nice cup of tea… What’s not to love about that?! It beats dainty little crepes and fancy ‘pain au chocolat’ any day of the week.
Stay tuned for next time, when we’ll be taking a look at the British obsession with sport, the mysteries of cricket and why it’s far superior to baseball.
Unless this piece proves to be woefully unsuccessful, in which case I’m deleting this and writing another thousand words on why I think California is pretty great…