British Cuisine: In Defense of the Indefensible?
posted by Neil Richards
British food is terrible. Bland food, over-cooked vegetables – if you’re there, stick to the Indian restaurants, right? Well, not exactly. British food (usually referred to as “English food”) has a terrible reputation, especially in America, but this reputation is just not deserved. As a Briton living in America, I’ve become tired of this misconception. So, even though I realize that I’m perhaps unlikely to convince many people on this side of the Atlantic, I thought I’d share a few thoughts in the spirit of the last part of this blog’s motto of “Law, the Universe and Everything.”
1. Familiarity breeds contempt. I think a lot of the problems that Americans have with British food is that it is similar enough that it’s not exotic, yet not similar enough to be comforting. The basic techniques and ingredients between British and American cuisines are almost identical, so that Americans in Britain order things they think are familiar and are disappointed that things are not as they expected them at home. Yet while things are different, they are not so different as to have the novelty of, say, having sushi for the first time. The peculiar thing is that Irish food doesn’t have the same terrible reputation as food from the UK, even though the two are even more similar than US and UK food.
2. Restaurant food isn’t always representative of a cuisine. Britain has long had some really bad restaurants, especially in the tourist areas of London. But unlike America, where dining out has been in integral part of the culture for many for a long time, Britain’s restaurants have not occupied a similar cultural position. The real power of British cuisine has lain not in its chefs, but in its homes – in everyday food, particularly the institution of the Sunday roast. (Of course, there are thousands of bad restaurants in America that serve poor processed food as well).
3. Chef culture and the new British food scene. The restaurant scene in Britain has changed in recent years. Industrially processed convenience foods may have weakened the home cooking culture, but at the same time a fantastic variety of restaurants have emerged in the capital and elsewhere, taking traditional recipes in new and exciting directions. Britain is obsessed with its celebrity chefs – people like Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Delia Smith. And the culinary renaissance is such that London is now a foodie city that can stand on a par with New York or even Paris.
4. Supermarkets. But the real advantage of British cuisine (at least compared to American) is in its supermarkets. Go into a British supermarket today, and you’ll find that the quality of the produce – especially the fish and fresh vegatables – is on average far superior to its American counterpart. Often, you’ll find the produce labeled not only with the country of origin (increasingly Britain, where possible), but also the county. You can still find strawberries that taste like potatoes, but not as often as you can in America, where many children grow up thinking that strawberries should be white and crunchy inside.
5. Glass houses. A final point about American disdain for British food is one of caution. British cuisine is not perfect, but it is (and has been) far better than Americans give it credit for. But before Americans cast the first stone (or rotten tomato, or black pudding), think about the American crimes against food. McDonald’s (especially if you’ve read Fast Food Nation or seen Super-Size Me), Agri-Business and industrialized food production generally, rubbery cheese, spongy bread, corn syrup-based beverages, and gigantic portions of often mediocre food.
For what it’s worth, I think the Wikipedia entries on English and Scottish Cuisine are quite fair, and take a balanced view on an issue that rarely receives reflection. Comments, as always, are open for discussion (and in this case, possible lazy cheap shots).