Everyone, including myself, found a certain amount of irony in my choice to study abroad in a country hardly known for its gastronomic delights. In fact, when I arrived I assumed that I would starve due to a combination of financial strain and, perhaps even more so, disgust.
I’d rather hoped that the resulting punchline about making an “ass” out of “u” and “me” was implied, but I’ll add that analysis for good measure. Because we’ve all made asses out of ourselves by criticizing British food when American food is most widely recognized as a hamburger and french fries. After all, McDonald’s will be opening next to The Louvre in a new food court, with the fast food chain’s golden arches and fatty, preservative-laden starch-‘n’-meat options representing the American segment of the dining establishment. Ouch. If you still like McDonald’s, please watch this video about a woman who has kept her cheeseburger and fries order for over four years.
But while my criticisms of American food abound, from egregious human rights violations on migrant farms to corn subsidies, I have plenty of nice things to say about British food (and really, I have a lot of nice things to say about the ever-growing localist/fair trade American food movement, too, but you almost certainly already know all about that). For one, the British label all of their produce with the country of origin and the name of the farmer who produced it. How simple, yet innovative–reminding people that there is a face behind everything we consume.
Furthermore, they take the same pride in their food traditions as we do in ours. (I’m thinking specifically of the South since that’s where my heart, and stomach, feel most at home.) There are restaurants devoted to characteristically British foods, like fish & chips, bangers & mash and steak & kidney pie that recognize the importance of maintaining food traditions. My visit to the more-upscale-than-expected Fish Bone restaurant, where I first enjoyed fish & chips, demonstrated that the British, similar to southerners, are contributing to a new appreciation for fried food and, further, revitalizing dishes once considered peasant food. On an unrelated note, European ketchup is amazing.
Most unfair in my assumption, however, was that the aforementioned ampersand meals defined British cuisine. That’s no more accurate than saying that hamburgers and french fries define ours. Just as America truly consists of a melting pot of influences that span the globe, the United Kingdom harbors flavors from all over the world. To limit its culinary contributions to certain, less appealing foods is to do this nation an incredible disservice. When one considers that the U.K. endured two world wars, both significantly cutting off its access to non-native foods and forcing citizens to work with what they had, their relatively swift food recovery is nothing if not remarkable. Look at internationally famous British chefs like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey and Nigella Lawson–all Brits who have greatly contributed to a new food movement.
Frankly, I found the news that Kraft purchased Cadbury last week disheartening. The company had remained distinctly British for so long, and I have always loved eating those creme-filled eggs around Easter. More than anything else, I just hope that Cadbury isn’t drastically altered. The company purchases a lot of their cocoa through fair trade agreements with developing countries, and I struggle to imagine Kraft, home of unnaturally orange cheese products and hydrogenated oil-filled sandwich cookies, being that generous.
Speaking of which, I have yet to find high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils in anything I’ve consumed thus far. I am a devoted label reader, so I would have definitely noticed if either of those ingredients were present.
Yes, I think Michael Pollan would agree that we have a lot of work to do in both countries. But I just wanted to clarify for anyone who was wondering how I’m faring with British fare that the food here, cost aside, is a source of little derision. The curry, the ketchup, the fried fish, the bread… did I mention the chocolate? Because, seriously, it’s divine.