by Dean Lenane
Yes, everything you have heard is true, and although I may be accused of plodding well-worn ground, the subject is simply too good to pass by. England without a doubt, offers the most execrable collection of edible dreck you are likely to encounter anywhere in the world.
The names of English dishes alone can be useful in offering the uninitiated an introductory warning list. Baps, Bangers, Bubble & Squeak, Black Pudding, Toad-in-the-Hole, Faggots and Peas, Spotted Dick, Jellied Eels and Jugged Hare are all real life names of various island delicacies. The basic rule is that if the dish sounds repulsive, then it generally is. I have personally observed the most adventurous and hardened eaters defeated by the mysteries of the English kitchen. For example, I have watched my pal Mike consume an astonishing array of revolting concoctions. On differing occasions I have sat horrified as he consumed fish heads (with eyes), brain meat tacos, dog, snake, and canned caterpillars. Mike once won a one-dollar bet by swallowing a tablespoon of crushed red pepper with no liquid assistance. Last year I watched Mike reduced to picking at his food by a Steak & Kidney pie in a pub in Stamford, England.
Pubs generally represent the ninth circle of hell in the Hades that is English food. Avoid pub food at all costs; if it is not immediately and terminally toxic, vicious side effects may cause protracted and painful digestive irregularities. This perhaps explains why all of England is preoccupied with bathroom humor.
Even relatively simple and innocuous dishes may well contain hidden snares. An English breakfast sausage looks and smells delicious, it even rivals its German cousin in odor and appearance. One's mouth waters. One's nose twitches. One bites in expecting a more or less pork-oriented meaty flavor. Lo, the trap is sprung and there is no way to delicately extricate yourself from the situation. The shock and surprise are horrible. What you expected was meat. What you got was pig-flavored oatmeal.
If this were not bad enough, one instinctively lunges for the coffee one has been served in a vain attempt to wash the taste out of one's mouth. Out of the frying pan, and into the fire. I always drink tea in England, for I have tried the coffee.
No aspect of native cuisine is immune. Snack machines offer potato chips with singular flavors. Never before had I seen shrimp flavored chips, nor beef flavor, nor for that matter hedgehog flavored chips. This last item I assume was a joke of some sort, but in the immortal words of Thomas "Fats" Waller, "One never knows, do one."
If, at lunchtime, you are clever enough to escape the tender mercies of the pub, you are, as likely as not, going to have to face an English restaurant. English restaurants generally fall into two categories; the carvery, which is a cafeteria type affair, a kind of Sveden house with beer, or an English sitdown restaurant. Sitdowners feature grease; carveries, desiccation. In both however, it seems as if the worst aspects of American institutional cuisine have been imported and adopted with relish (no pun intended) by the English.
I believe that the restaurants are grim because the recipes and raw materials with which they work challenge explanation. As most of us know, England is an island nation. Logic might cause you to assume that people who live on an island would, through the workings of the environment alone, become experts at preparing fish. England has a wonderful knack for defying logic. Fish is deep-fried, greasy and invariably comes in a shape that clearly indicates industrial processing. To reassure or perhaps to confuse the customer however, the mold has been constructed in such a manner so as to roughly duplicate the appearance of a genuine filet. Discerning consumers are not fooled but are rather alarmed by such rude attempts at deception. The fact that it apparently works does not speak well of the number of discerning consumers among this merry band of brothers.
Other agonies include Gammon, a sort of a ham steak, and the aforementioned Steak and Kidney pie. The English seem to have a weakness for assorted biological pumps and filters (ie. hearts, livers, kidneys) not shared to any great extent by us colonials. As if such gastronomic perversities were not enough, there is something yet more hideous and disgusting. The most repulsive item, which I have encountered, has to be Black Pudding. Black Pudding is cooked blood that is combined with some percentage of vegetable matter. This revolting concoction is stuffed into a length of animal intestine and fried in grease. I cannot even bring myself to watch someone eat it. It always puts me in mind of eating those items that regularly adorned my knees and elbows during my rough and tumble youth.
All of these atrocities are generally accompanied by the ubiquitous chip (french fry to you and me). The distinguishing features of the English chip vis-a-vis its colonial cousin are size,(it is bigger) fat content,(it is greasier), and temperature (it is normally served chilled). If you are not lucky enough to get English "chips" as a side order, you may well become a victim of something even more grotesque, mushy peas. These are another common insult, and are truly something that could have only been devised by the demented. Mushy peas are exactly what the name implies, peas boiled to the verge of dissolution and served at room temperature; a sort of tepid pea compote, a pea jam if you will. Its paste-like texture is provided a limited degree of variation by the pea skins distributed throughout.
One English restaurant chain has taken the bull by the horns and has made confession to the inadequacies of the English kitchen a part of its marketing campaign. "The Happy Eater" group of restaurants all feature a sign that prominently displays the company's logo. This logo shows the stylized profile of a man sticking his index finger down his throat. One stop at a "Happy Eater" and you will know why.
If meat flavored cereal products, desiccated embryos, and deep fried bodily fluids have not killed your appetite after lunchtime, you can look forward to an English dinner. Many of the "better" English dinner restaurants are formal, and formality in an emulsion of incompetence can make for an amusing evening. My last visit to such an establishment involved a touch of that stubborn bovine illogic for which the English are justly famous. I was nattily turned out in black trousers, a black crew necked sweater and my favorite black and white hounds tooth checked blazer. I was advised by the Headwaiter that my attire was unacceptable due to the lack of a tie. I replied that even if I were wearing such an item, the neck of my sweater would render it invisible to all save Superman. Nonetheless, quoth my adversary with an arm raised to end all discussion, it was the policy of this establishment that all male guests should be attired in conformance to the sartorial guidelines of the English gentry. This mandated a tie, be it visible or invisible.
I took this rebuff like a gentleman. I returned to my rooms, removed my sweater, removed my shirt, and removed my undershirt. I then tied a tie about my naked neck, reapplied my sweater and blazer only, and returned to the restaurant. " I am now wearing a tie, might I now be seated for dinner" I asked. " But of course sir, and thank you very much for your understanding and cooperation" came his response. Well I thought, such is life at court. This incident should have warned me off, but I was by now blinded with hunger and feeling as if I had pulled off a fast one. I proceeded to my table. They were to have the last laugh.
The menu of course, was in French, a language that not one in 500 English people can speak.
I number myself among the 500. Thankfully, my two years of prep school Latin generally enables me to partially decipher such Gallic encryption to a more or less satisfactory degree.
I was able to determine that roast pheasant was on the menu. I simply adore pheasant. It is the one animal that I will gleefully murder at any opportunity, only because I love to eat it so. I ordered my pheasant with a nice; medium bodied chardonnay and sat in rapt anticipation.
My pheasant arrived presently, and I dived in greedily. After the first bite I knew that there was something decidedly different about this pheasant in comparison to the thousand or so that I had previously consumed. I summoned the waiter and asked him why the flavor was so, well, unique. He explained that the pheasant had been "hung" and that it was therefore "high". To an American of my generation, being "hung" and being "high" have quite specific meanings both of which are totally unrelated to a cooked bird. I pressed my inquiries further.
"Hung" it seems, is similar to "hanged", only in this case the victim is already quite dead. A bird being thus hung is permitted to remain in this position until the feathers will come out with the merest of tugs. This is roughly analogous to telling if a pineapple is ripe by pulling out one of the leaves in a similar fashion. When the feathers come out easily, the bird is pronounced "high" and ready for preparation in this manner. " How long does this usually take" I asked innocently. "Seven to ten days, sir" came the reply. "In other words, high means rotten?" I asked. "Oh, we prefer to phrase it differently sir". "Uh huh" I grunted, "Okay, thank you". With that the waiter turned on his heels and repaired to the kitchen where I was undoubtedly the subject of several humorous anecdotes.
Needless to say, this was the one pheasant that I have, in my entire benighted existence, been unable to finish. It was not for lack of trying however. I consumed enough of this foul fowl to require the lavish application of cognac in the bar after the meal to successfully remove the taste from my mouth.
If there is any victual hope or glory to be found in the blessed plot, it is that which is provided by former British Crown Colonies. Happily, Britain's imperial past has provided an alternative to indigenous horrors in the form of Indian and Chinese restaurants. Indian restaurants provide an excellent substitute for those of us who miss the spicy Mexican food widely available in the U.S. If you lack regular exposure to Indian food, you should not be too adventurous your first time out. Immoderate indulgence in the Madras or Vindaloo levels of spiciness can result in a two-phase process of indisposition. Four or five hours after overindulging, you may experience heartburn, indigestive tremors and acute borborygmus. This is commonly known as "Delhi Belly", and will keep you from enjoying a sound night's sleep. The second phase will occur the next morning, and although decorum prohibits a detailed description, the title of this phase makes it plain enough. It is called "The Ring Burner." Chinese restaurants are Chinese restaurants and are similar worldwide. Only in China are Chinese restaurants different. Either of these alternatives will give you decent food and relatively good value for money.
There is something good to be said about eating and drinking in England, as long as it does not involve eating. English pubs offer a range of excellent real ales. It is true that they are relatively warm. However, anyone familiar with the quality levels of manufactured goods from the United Kingdom will realize that this has to do with British refrigerators and is unavoidable. English beer, and by that I mean real ale, is widely varied in style and is generally quite good. It is true that the English do have a tendency to add strange brewing adjuncts to their beer such as molasses, coal tar, etc., in an attempt to vary the flavor, but this shows initiative and the results of such bizarre experiments are more often than not highly successful. When in England, try an "Ruddles County"; it is balm for injured taste buds. Drink deeply, smile and reflect on the fact that, however bad English cooking may be, just around the corner are Scotland and Ireland, with their respective cuisines. They are infinitely worse.
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