Last week, the Great British Bake-Off returned to the BBC and I sat down with my mother-in-law to watch twelve amateur bakers take on the weekly challenges of cookies, cakes and breads. Their tests are just getting started, but mine began over nine months ago, on the day of my first shopping trip in the UK.
Before my arrival, during the lengthy visa application process, my husband, knowing that I like to cook and wanted to be in charge of our meals, went out of his way to create a nice little kitchen space for me. The only thing he didn’t do was stock the pantry or fridge. Well, unless you count milk, tea, sugar and Monster Munch (Cheetos-esque snack food, Americans). When I asked him if he had any rice or beans or spices, he just kind of stared at me blankly. Suffice it to say, he is not a cook.
So, we went grocery shopping at Tesco, one of the big supermarket chains here. Later, I’d learn that Morrisons was better and Lidl was cheaper, but at the time, I knew no differences. I just knew that none of them were going to be Publix. Nothing is ever as good as Publix. (BTW, whoever can figure out how to get me a Publix cake for my next birthday, I will name my first child after you).
But just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply start shopping in a foreign country. Sure, you might wander into a store during your European vacation and pick up some milk, fruit and exotic-looking cookies, but if you have a list in hand and a specific menu in mind, it’s a whole different story. Because, as you will quickly learn, most key ingredients that you don’t even think about because they’re always just there either have a different name entirely or don’t exist at all on this side of the pond.
Do you need sour cream? Well, soured cream will have to do, and try not to think too hard about how the addition of one letter makes the whole thing sound unappetizing. Planning to bake and therefore need baking soda? Bicarbonate of soda is your scientific best friend. Don’t ever think cornflour is the same thing as cornmeal (which you will never find); just buy a box and write “cornstarch” on it so you never actually use it as flour. Want navy beans? I wish you better luck than I had, even if you call them northern beans. Tomato sauce? Try tomato passata…it sounds prettier, anyway. Ham? Gammon. Cilantro? Coriander. (Although why you’d want to pollute your food with it is between you and your god.)
Note that I was fine with all of this. I could adapt and learn new names. I might never use the word “cornflour” in the privacy of my own home, but I wouldn’t confuse any Tesco stock boys by asking for cornstarch. But then Thanksgiving rolled around. Thanksgiving. My family’s favorite holiday. A menu that has been chiseled into the stone foundation of my parents’ house. Nine dishes and three pies that haven’t changed since Nixon was in office. I couldn’t wait to cook the whole thing for my new British family. Their first Thanksgiving dinner ever!
There were cracks in the plan right away. Pumpkins, for one, are popular here during October, yet all but disappear during November. I would only find canned pumpkin much later (in March) in a candy store that sells random American food. Turkeys are available year-round, but don’t really get big enough to feed a Thanksgiving-sized brood until Christmas. Summer squash for my father’s famous Harvest Bake? Not in late fall, missy. Poultry seasoning? Never heard of it. An inquiry about french-fried onions for the green bean casserole sparked a bi-county search the likes of which hasn’t been undertaken since Jack the Ripper. (Too soon?)
Eventually, I scraped together everything I needed to make the essential dishes (sorry, Harvest Bake, but you know I never liked you anyway), and the meal was a hit with my in-laws, but in a trial by fire I had learned that doing my kind of cooking in Wales wasn’t going to be easy.
So, what is a girl who needs cornmeal and Cool Whip and Jell-O instant pudding and Lipton onion soup mix and key lime juice and Crisco in her life to do?
Number one: Amazon.com. Good for non-perishable food stuffs like canned pumpkin, canisters of cornmeal, and spices you’ve taken for granted your whole life.
Number two: British products that are close enough. Dream Whip will never be Cool Whip because it hasn’t come from heaven in a nice, reusable tub, but once you add some icing (powdered) sugar to the mix, it can pass.
Number three: Mommy care packages. Because moms are awesome and know how much you want to make Grandma cookies and how you can’t do that without Crisco. I’m just sayin’…
Number four: DIY. There are recipes out there for everything from enchilada sauce to ranch dressing. It might strain the limits of your culinary knowledge and give you some funny dinner party stories (“you should have seen me trying to make my own marshmallow fluff!”), but it’s probably healthier in the long run and could even give you the vague sense of superiority that most professional chefs seem to possess.
Number five: Novelty stores. Just like we go nuts for foreign food, so do they here for American food. Candy stores are the best for finding things like way-overpriced Twinkies, chocolate syrup and beef jerky, although some larger grocery stores in cities with big universities are also helpful.
Number six: Let it go. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives, and there is no point in wasting any of your fleeting time on this earth scouring a UK grocery store for buffalo sauce. They don’t have it. They’re never going to have it. Have some Reggae-Reggae sauce instead.
There is always that. Because wine is the same in every country.