Why hello there, and welcome to our ongoing series, Looking in Abroad’s Pantries, the series that sounds much worse than it is, and sounds even worse out loud! I’m your uncomfortable conductor, Jon O’Guin, and today, we’re going to be inspecting the cuisine of England. What makes English food so distinctive? Why do they love Tea SO MUCH? These questions and more will be glanced at, and maybe answered by a guy who’s spent more of the week fighting his sleep schedule than researching the cuisine of a millennia-spanning empire. That’ll certainly work out.
An World Spanning Cuisine
It’s very difficult to talk about English food as an outsider, because the nuances and divisions can be very narrow and confusing between what is truly “English”, and what isn’t, due to the lasting effects of the British Empire on the nation’s culture and cuisine. It’s worth remembering, for instance, that Tea, the oft-touted lifeblood of the English people, doesn’t grow in England naturally. It’s from China, and later India. England TOOK it, and made it theirs so thoroughly that it cannot be removed, like a culinary pacemaker: it’s both the heart of their cuisine, and a foreign bit lodged in to keep the whole thing running.
Yes, but where exactly does the tea bag go?
Or, as a less gruesome example, I noted a year and a half ago the phenomenon in British “bloke culture” (their version of “bros”, in summary), of the “cheeky Nando’s”, where a group of teenage or early-to-mid-twenties friends would pop out for a quick bite at the local Nando’s (a chicken shop popular in the London area and elsewhere) and laugh, hang out, and have a good time. And while I would love to revisit and CONTINUE unpacking that subject, we haven’t the time. The POINT is that Nando’s, despite its position in British slang, isn’t a British restaurant: it was founded in South Africa, and the chicken is modeled (in part) after the chicken there.
As one last example, an English sociologist had a bit of a laugh when dining at not just an English café, but a National Trust café (a charity organization whose goal to preserve sites of English historical heritage sites or natural beauties is so respected that it has been granted special legal powers by the English government): when talking to the manager, it was noted that, being a National Trust café, it ‘couldn’t make anything foreign’, noting that “I can’t cook Lasagne, or anything like that.” A line the sociologist found humorous since there were several curries on the menu. For a brief physical comparison, Rome is 1,186 miles from London. Mumbai is 4,466 miles away. It’s almost literally 4 times farther away.
A fact poorly illustrated here.
And that’s just with semi-MODERN issues. Consider the classic English dish of Fish and Chips. We’ve already discussed that French Fries are technically Belgian in origin…meaning so are English Chips. And fried, battered Fish was cooked by Jews in Europe long before records indicate anyone did so with any regularity in England. Many English chefs have asserted that England doesn’t truly have a ‘cuisine’, it just as ‘all the parts it liked from other nation’s cuisines’. This is probably influenced in no small part because of things like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a book that was quite popular in Victorian England, to the point that it is REFERENCED in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and also a book that included more recipes from India than from Ireland, Scotland and Wales combined, and also plagiarized recipes from other English cookbooks, American cookbooks, French Cookbooks, AND Italian cookbooks. Consider also the distinction between “English” food and BRITISH food, since, as we covered on Monday, BRITAIN refers to the island that includes both Scotland and Wales, while ENGLAND is the country. So Haggis is British, but not English, and there are foods that are English, but not strictly British, and oh god I’m going cross-eyed again.
So, if I leave out something here that you think defines English food, understand that I probably just drew the line for what to talk about in a different place than you. And that’s fine. Let me know about it in the comments, and we’ll see if we can give that dish the attention it deserves later. Because I don’t know if you know this, but I fucking HATE planning shit, so people feeding me ideas for what to make is my jam.
And that Jam better be on clotted cream, damn it.
But I can think of a few things you can’t discuss British food without mentioning, so let’s tackle those today.
A (not-so)Brief Blurb on “Boring, Bland, and Boiled”
That quoted phrase is the summary of British food that has been touted for the last 30-40 years as conventional wisdom: that the food of the British Isles lacks flavor, culinary imagination, and interest. And I understand if people go there and find that the food is not to their liking. Different nations have different understandings and instincts for how to cook things. Traditional Chinese cooking, for instance, prized deer tendon for its chewiness, and embraces gristle as a point of interest in various dishes. By contrast, I find the texture of gristle so off-putting that I have, on multiple occasions, needed to spend several minutes clenching my throat to prevent what those in competitive eating circles call “a reversal of fortunes”
AKA Ralphing, Upchuck, The Frog Song Gone Wrong, The Roman Diet, and many more.
And there are two primary incentives/reasons behind this idea that shouldn’t be overlooked when thinking about it:
Firstly, as my guest Jacques noted back in January, France was, for some time, seen as the culinary powerhouse of Europe. Indeed, to an extent, it is still highly respected, culinarily. And remember also that France and England HATED each other for quite a long time. There are many nations on this planet whose history is briefer than the centuries England and France spent either in direct or indirect war with each other. The early history of Canada is “The Hundred Years’ War part 2, Now with Beavers!” So if you’re the culinary powerhouse of the continent, and you have a dude you hate, what are you going to CONSTANTLY dunk on him with? “Haha, your food sucks.” It’s bullying 101 here. And maybe a country that eats snails and frogs shouldn’t be too hoity-toity about the beef in the other guy’s pot-pies being a little tough, eh?
Secondly, you have to remember the context of English food in the last century. Because Britain is not nearly the lush and fertile land that southern Europe can boast about having. Glasgow is on the same latitude line as Moscow and Copenhagen. Scotland, in general, is further North than Denmark. Thus, when not one but two World Wars raged across Europe, it’s worth noting that England had less to rely on, agriculturally speaking, than say, France and Italy did. And it took them longer to recover. Rationing in England didn’t end until 9 years after World War 2 did. For 14 years, England had to ration its foods, and that left a mark on the culinary scene: right after the rationing, it was more colorful foreign foods that saw a bigger spike in consumption, as people who’d spent years having bad meat pies and hard bread ran to find color and spices, and…kind of forgot to go back to making the meat pies and bread good again.
The slogan “Make Pies Great Again” got shut down by professional golfing lawyers.
And trust me, Golf has a LOT of lawyers it can get on its side.
Further, and this isn’t for nothing, let’s not forget that the 50’s and 60’s weren’t really a great time for ANYONE’S cuisine. America was getting all those freeze-dried and mass-produced goods the corporations had made for the army, and TV dinners and jello salads were the name of the game. It makes sense that, if you delayed Britain’s food culture by a decade, then they’d still be into that shit a decade after we were.
Shit, I have taken WAY too much time on these first two points. I don’t have the time to tackle specific dishes, or the complicated legacy of Tea in England today. Let’s tackle one last big topic, and call it a day, alright?
The Spice Must Flow
The other important thing to think about in regards to English cuisine and spices is to remember just how fucking INTO spices the English were. Like, people joke about British food being somewhat bland, but name me all the culinary herbs and spices that were indigenous to Great Britain, why don’t you? Didn’t think of any? The culinary powerhouses of “spignel” and “wood avens” didn’t leap to mind? Of course they didn’t. I’m not fully certain spignel isn’t some obscure slur that the Scots are lying about to get people to say in polite conversation.
“Ach, I see ya found a patch of…mickweed, there. chuckle Aye, it’s a feisty little sucker. Packs a mean punch, packs itself into cracks, and is generally a bit of a nuisance.”
But few countries were as dedicated to GETTING herbs and spices as the English were, for a couple centuries there. The East India Company had an army TWICE THE SIZE of the British army, and had a revenue stream of over 1.3 Trillion (2018) dollars annually at one point. By comparison, the GDP of the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland combined is 1.25 Trillion. However, what’s interesting is how those spices were regimented in the English home. During the 1700’s and early 1800’s, spices from the Tropics were incorporated into everything. Nutmeg appears EVERYWHERE in 1810’s cooking. And curries were in popular restaurants and coffee houses in England as far back as 1733. But by the mid-to-late 1800’s, a somewhat violent revolt in India led to a censure of Anglo-Indian cuisine, as it came to be known.
You can see this in the modern ‘Cheeky Nando’s’: Peri-peri chicken is, normally, quite a spicy dish, and it’s a popular snack in the afternoon. But it’s not like the British are dumping Peri-Peri sauce on their steak-and-kidney pies, in the same way that few Americans would add salsa to their chicken pot pies. The fact is that England loves its spices, but the classic English dishes tend to be ones that don’t intuitively mesh with spices all that well. Meat pies, bangers and mash, Shepard’s pie, fish and chips…they’re all “encased protein and starch side” which makes them trickier, mentally, to mess with. Compare to France’s Roast Chicken: if you want to experiment with spices there, just rub the chicken with something different before it goes in the oven. With bangers and mash, you’ve got to be making your own sausages if you want to change how they taste. English dishes are a little too closed-off to incorporate new flavors easily, without changing the whole dish. And that’s where some of their reputation as being “boring” comes from: if it’s classic, it’s not adventurous. But that’s like eating only at 24 hour diners in America, and deciding “Man, these guys must really love their breakfasts.”
Which is true, sure, but not like, unreasonably. For instance, here’s a perfectly ordinary American diner breakfast…except not, because, as the butter container gives away, this is actually Canadian. (It’s the use of English and French on the container that gives it away.)
AND THAT’S ALL THE TIME WE HAVE. Everyone get out, I need to go to bed. I wasn’t fucking around with that sleep schedule bit. Join us next week, when stuff will happen.
MONDAY: HOLY CRAP IT’S ALMOST ST PADDY’S DAY, I HAVEN’T STARTED CORNING MY BEEF YET. I HOPE I CAN GET IT DONE BY THEN.
THURSDAY: HOLY CRAP, IT’S PI DAY, I DIDN’T PLAN FOR THIS AT ALL. I AM INCREDIBLY UNDER-PREPARED.