There’s an old (and terminally unfunny) joke that goes something like this:
In heaven: The chefs are French; the police are English; the lovers are Italian; the mechanics are German, and the whole place is run by the Swiss.
In hell: The chefs are English; the police are German; the lovers are Swiss; the mechanics are French, and the whole place is run by the Italians.
Hahaha. Get it? ‘Cause everyone knows that British food is terrible, right? Right?!
I think I understand how this particular stereotype got started. British food can sometimes sound terrible. Spotted dick, bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, sarnies, butties…no wonder my brother ate nothing but chips for the two weeks we spent here in 1996. Even chips aren’t really chips here; they’re actually fries. Chips are called crisps. As to whether I will ever remember that when ordering…um…
Anyway, regardless of what the food is called, I would like to announce that the international repugnance for British cuisine is pretty much unfounded. With a few notable exceptions which can probably be chalked up to personal taste, I have enjoyed a wide variety of local dishes and national favorites during my four months in the UK. I think my taste buds might even be, dare I say it, evolving.
Let’s start with breakfast. If you order a full, cooked breakfast in the UK, you had better be hungry because you are about to be presented with enough food to fill your stomach until afternoon tea. Protein is the key word in a traditional English breakfast. In America, you are forced to make a decision between bacon and sausage with your eggs (unless you are willing to risk an eyebrow from the IHOP waitress when you splurge on the Breakfast Sampler), but the British don’t make you take sides. In fact, they see your bacon and sausage and raise you a scoop of baked beans. And just to prove that they don’t discriminate against vegetables and grains, they add grilled tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, black pudding (a gag-inducing combination of pig’s blood and oatmeal which my husband eats for me) and all the toast you can cram into your face-hole. Sometimes, they go crazy and add fried potatoes, hash browns or a piece of fried bread, because grease and starch need to be represented, too.
And I love it all. Well, obviously not the black pudding and usually not the tomatoes, but the rest of it…a breakfast lover’s dream come true. By the way, don’t believe what people say about British sausage or ‘bangers.’ Just ask for ketchup and don’t worry about what’s inside the casing.
Of course, this is not an every day breakfast. If you ate that every day, your heart would explode. Especially if you were also routinely downing another of my new favorites, authentic fish and chips. (That is, by the way, a phrase, not individual words, so using ‘chips’ is acceptable and not a sign that I’m turning into Madonna.) You might think you’ve had good fish and chips because you once visited Arthur Treacher’s or had some in a sports bar or even trusted the Gordan’s fisherman, but unless you have had fish and chips in the UK, all you’ve had is fish sticks and fries, my friend.
Real fish and chips are hot out of the fryer, doused with malt vinegar for you and wrapped up so tight that when you unwrap them at home, a whole layer of chips stick to the paper and you have to painstakingly peel them off. I don’t know why you do that because there are plenty (and I mean plenty) that aren’t fused to the paper, but when in Rome… With the possible exception of the flaky layers of cod, there is no part of fish and chips that is actually good for you. However, this is British comfort food and I firmly believe that comfort food shouldn’t ever be healthy.
If British food was to be brought up on any charges, it might possibly be found guilty of being a little bland. Vegetables are boiled, roasts are cooked all the way through and describing a dish as ‘spicy’ might earn you a suspicious look. Don’t, however, mistake this for a hard and fast rule and decide that British cuisine lacks flavor. (Or as they would write, ‘flavour,’ because they stick an extra ‘u’ everywhere they can.) Just like America, the UK is something of a melting pot of cultures. Whereas American food is heavily influenced by our Italian, Mexican and Asian ancestors, British food has been revolutionized by Indian, Middle Eastern and African immigrants. If you like Chicken Tikka Masala, don’t try to order it in New Delhi; it was created in the restaurants of London’s Brick Lane. Which, by the way, is a destination spot for foodies visiting the UK. Just walk the street at night and inhale the various curry scents.
Now let’s talk about my favorite course: dessert. On the whole, while the British love dessert (although they often just call it pudding…which doesn’t mean a gelatinous mass of chocolate or vanilla, but rather a mound of flour, fat and raisins), their dessert dishes tend to be less sweet than what you will find in America. So far, I have only found one British food that is too sweet for my American taste buds and that is the Fourth Doctor’s beloved Jelly Babies. Bigger than gummi bears and coated in sugar, they are a good way to develop diabetes.
I thought my favorite British pudding would be sticky toffee or golden syrup or even chocolate, but by and far, my mother in law’s apple crumble is the best I’ve had. I think it has more to do with how she serves it, namely smothered in hot custard and drizzled with thick cream. Custard is huge here. Again, it’s not overly sugary like its American cousin, vanilla pudding, so it cuts down the sweetness of whatever pudding it covers. I also recently discovered a love for treacle tarts, but it’s a love I can’t indulge too much as a whole tart is only slightly less sweet than a single Jelly Baby.
If you take nothing else away from this post, you should get the feeling that I am being well-fed here in the UK. Yet, I feel compelled to mention that I have actually lost weight since I moved away from America. My skinny jeans hang on me. I attribute this fact to two things.
1) My husband makes me walk. Like, everywhere. Even if there’s parking spaces in front of wherever we’re going, he parks on the other side of the lot. He just doesn’t seem to care about winning the eternal parking-space war that everyone who’s ever lived in L.A. is conditioned to fight. And there are hills here. Big hills.
2) The nearest fast food restaurant is McDonald’s and it’s a fifteen minute drive away and I don’t drive yet. There’s a rumor that our town might be getting a KFC, but I’m not holding my breath. As it is, after McDonald’s, the next nearest chain restaurant is an hour away in England. There are no late night french fry runs.
But why would I want a substandard hamburger when there’s meat pies and sausage rolls, Yorkshire puddings and bacon baps? To those who diss British cuisine, I can only say that sometimes…