If it's still a widely accepted truism that the British and the Americans are two nations divided by a common language, nowhere is that more evident than at table. Simple, everyday foods and eating habits frequently leave North American visitors scratching their heads in puzzlement or disappointed that the exotic sounding specialty they asked for is just a basic dish traveling under an assumed name.
Let's be clear, I'm not talking about fine dining or experimenting with ethnic cuisines here. Modern Continental, European and Fusion cuisines, Chinese and Indian foods have their own international languages that you either understand or you don't - wherever you happen to be. Ditto global fast food. If you know what a Whopper or a Happy Meal is in Paducah, Illinois, you'll know what it is in Perranporth, Cornwall.
I'm talking about the everyday foods and customs you might come across at -
- an independent café in a market, a station or near the shops on a high street
- a restaurant in a garden center, a National Trust property or a stately home
- a pub
- a buffet at a party, a christening or a wedding
- the chiller cabinet of a supermarket
- a village fete
- the convenience coffee shop/café in a supermarket
- someone's home.
Setting the Table
Spoons British dessert spoons are gargantuan - bigger than American soup spoons and far bigger than what might be called a tablespoon in North America. The sweet at the end of a meal is usually served with one of these big spoons and a fork as well. A plate of ice cream might be served with one of these giant spoons and a fork, a piece of cake or a slice of tart with a spoon on its own. By the way, the only thing about a British sweets that is called "dessert" is the spoon; most of the time this course is called "pudding".
Forks Lots of British people use forks and knives to eat pizza and other finger foods - like burgers. In fact, some will avoid nice sticky goodies, like Chinese spare ribs and fried chicken because they are so hard to eat with a fork and knife. This isn't universal, by the way, so it's a good idea to look around to see what others in your group are doing before you wrap your mitts around that slice.
Serviettes are paper napkins. It's a sort of downmarket expression that is fading out but you might find the cashier at the roadside rest directing you to the knives, forks and serviettes - just so you know.
Chopsticks No the British don't eat with chopsticks as a matter of course. But in the larger cities, a surprising number of people can handle them very well. So in Chinese restaurants, the tables will be set with them and you'll have to ask for forks if you need them.
There's more to the breakfast table than the famous the Full English or Full Scottish breakfasts.
- Jelly There's jam and there's marmalade but there's never jelly. Jelly is gelatine dessert - ie Jello.
- Baked beans are part of breakfast
- Spuds Forget it. Breakfast is the one meal where potatoes are hardly ever served.
- Eggy bread is French toast - but it's more likely to turn up on a children's teatime (supper time) menu than at breakfast.
- Bacon The bacon often has an inedible rind that you have to trim - though that's disappearing these days. It can be saltier and meatier than you might expect and the fat will often be inedible.
- Soft boiled egg and soldiers That's an egg with a firm white and a runny yolk served with strips of buttered toast (the soldiers) for dipping.
- Oh yes, cold toast…but the butter will likely be at room temperature
- Brown sauce This is a very sour and slightly fruity sauce served like ketchup at breakfast or spread on a bacon butty.
Light Meals and SnacksWhen confronting some of the odder things you could be served at lunchtime, keep in mind that a lot of English tastes were shaped in a period of austerity, after WWII. Rationing of foodstuffs lasted more than 50 years and people were forced to use their imaginations to create nourishing meals from almost nothing. Some of these became favorites, including:
- Jacket potato Baked potatoes are served as light meals rather than side dishes. These are widely served at lunch time and available for take out (called takeaway). The potato is usually slathered with butter and then topped with a choice of toppings - grated cheddar, tuna and sweetcorn with mayonnaise (a popular sandwich filling as well), chili con carne or Italian-style red meat sauce usually called Bolognaise. If someone invites you round for a Spag Bol they're offering you spaghetti and meat sauce.
- Things on toast Baked beans, canned Spaghetti-Os (honest). Yes these are children's meals but many an adult indulges for a quick meal or late night snack.
- Strange combinations on pizza Pineapple chunks and corn kernels make their way to the tops of some British pizzas. So do jalapenos - on a pepperoni pizza known as an American Hot.
- Coronation Chicken In 1952, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was imminent and food rationing still had a year to go. Two principals at London's Cordon Bleu cookery school, Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume came up with a dish for the Coronation banquet made of ingredients that were inexpensive and readily available to everyone. All over the country, at street parties and village fetes, the Coronation was celebrated with this salad of chicken, mayonnaise, curry powder, a touch of tomato paste and raisins or chopped dried apricots.
It has been around ever since - as a sandwich filling, piled on jacket potatoes, or, with the addition of cream, fresh fruit and sliced almonds, as part of many a wedding breakfast buffet. If you put together a sandwich picnic from Marks & Spencer, you are bound to find some.
- Chips or Crisps sandwiches Slather a couple of slices of cheap white bread with ketchup, mayo or brown sauce, then pile on the French fried potatoes ("chips" in Brit speak) and you have a chip butty - one of those treats you have to be born to love. A variation is the potato chip ("crisps" in Brit speak) sandwich - same bread and sauces but potato chips instead of fries. Well, I guess every culture has its guilty culinary pleasures.
In Britain, by the way, crisps come in a range of strange flavors - cheese & onion, bbq beef, salt&vinegar and more.