When overseas students decide to moan about England, gripe number one is always the weather, and gripe number two is the food. The British attitude to food baffles them. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ Anderson from Brazil asked me. ‘Don’t you LIKE eating? And you have such fantastic kitchens as well!’ The ‘fantastic kitchens’ seem to be for show only, if my students are to be believed. The most important items are the fitted cupboards, the halogen lights, the fridge full of Stella, and the freezer full of pizza and ready meals waiting to be bunged into the microwave. Food preparation is definitely not the priority. Food is hidden in the glacial darkness of the freezer, not sitting out in the open, looking tempting and providing inspiration for pleasing, satisfying meals. Eating is seen as a combination of nuisance and relief, like going for a crap.
This is not to say that you cannot eat well here if you make the effort, but many male students from abroad are just not used to making any effort in this direction. I knew mothers in Greece who would regularly courier roast chickens to sons studying in Britain, as though no such animal could be found here. I would not have been surprised to hear that the boys couriered back the washing up, along with their scuzzy socks and underpants. I thought this whole business was bloody ridiculous, and I had no patience with the Greek lad who told me he had lived for two weeks on Snickers bars before he’d allow a forkful of British-made food to pass his lips However, I did excuse the colleague who couriered spinach pies to her daughter at Essex University. Spinach pie is a Greek speciality and Barbara’s spinach pies are peerless; they must have been a real treat. But chickens? Jee-Zus, how mamóthreftos (mollycoddled) can you get?
I tell my students that you can eat well here, but that you must seek out good ingredients and on finding them, probably pay through the nose. Two years ago I shared a house for the summer with an Albanian girl, Lindita, whose visiting Italian boyfriend kindly offered to cook us dinner one evening. Fabrizio sourced his ingredients from the Londis* up the road, innocently trusting that the quality of the bread and cheese would be as reliable here as it is in Italy. O sancta simplicitas! His seafood risotto was unspeakable; leggy, keratinous crustaceans in a soggy mess of patna rice glued together with tomato purée and Dairylea cheese… think acne and teen-boy sock…or rather don’t, that’s horrible, but I’ve said it now anyway. There was a limp pre-packed salad, like a pile of used green snot-rags. Obviously nobody could remark on this, me because I was the guest, and they because they probably supposed this was the kind of shite I was used to, and knew no better. Incidentally, I am surprised I remember the meal as well as I do, because I had been to Londis myself to get in the quantity of wine I regarded as necessary for the evening, three bottles or so. I drank most of them myself. Later in the week, I noticed that Lindita and Fabrizio had bought a lone bottle of wine and managed between the two of them to make it last three evenings. Brits might want to read that last sentence again. I assure you it’s true.
The British indifference to food might well be the result of the period of rationing during and after World War II. Everyone expected food shortages, but nobody expected rationing to last as long as it did. It remained in force until 1954, by which time British cooks were so fed up of improvising and making the best of a bad job that they had simply given up trying. My parents were twenty in 1956, and they and their parents had this weary attitude to food: whatever it was, you ate it, and got the business of eating over with. The British made virtues of stoicism and frugality and anyone who complained about soggy cabbage, grey beef and gluggy gravy was seen as a moaner, or worse, a social climber. There was simply nothing to be said on the subject of food. It was just a tedious necessity, a bore to shop for and to prepare. To be slightly adventurous was to step out of your class a bit. One day in the seventies my father’s mother, known to us kids as Nana, and a friend of hers were shopping in town and they made the decision to push the boat out and lunch more sumptuously than was their custom. They went to a bistro. Nana couldn’t remember the name of the dish they had eaten, but conceded that it was not bad. It was a sort of meat stew, she said, tasty enough, but full of big sheets of fat that you had to pull out and leave, which seemed very wasteful. It turned out they had ordered lasagne and carefully removed and discarded all the pasta. On another occasion she had the same friend to tea, and I took them some bread rolls. ‘They’ve all like seeds or summat on’ she said, examining them suspiciously.
‘Sesame seeds’ I said, probably with intolerable condescension.
‘Well, never mind,’ said the friend, comfortingly, as if something minor had gone wrong but it was up to her to jolly things along. ‘You won’t be able to taste them.’
The class attitude persists: good food is still seen here as the concern of the middle and upper classes, and you can observe this easily enough. The better-off emerge from Waitrose or Marks and Sparks with bags of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh meat, herbs and spices. Come down the scale a bit and people are loading up the car boot outside Sainsbury’s with slightly cheaper versions of the same thing. (Sainsbury’s exists, said Alan Coren, to keep the riff-raff out of Waitrose.) Then at Morrison’s or Aldi they’re trundling across the car park with trolleys full of white bread, tins of Cook-in-Sauce, frozen this and that and huge plastic bottles of sugary pop. Jamie Oliver demonstrated that many British working class kids couldn’t identify a single fresh vegetable: they knew not a carrot from an onion, a leek from a turnip, a beetroot from a cauliflower. They were not sure whether crisps (US: chips) were made from potatoes, apples or eggs, and thought spuds probably grew on trees.
So to Anderson’s question ‘what’s the matter with you? Don’t you like eating?’ the answer has to be that Brits find discussion and open enjoyment of food faintly distasteful. ‘…I find the detailed discussion of tastes and sensations nauseating and very distressing to read. Like a sex scene, I want to get it over with.’ That (to me) jaw-droppingly incomprehensible remark is from Boris Johnson in 2005, quoted in Joanna Blythman’s Bad Food Britain.
When I worked in France, I sat in the staffroom at breaks, listening to teachers argue passionately about cheese, wine, menus, restaurants, coffee. Food mattered to them in a way most Brits cannot get their heads round. Where I work now, none of the teachers mentions food, ever. For lunch we buy sandwiches from the Students' Union shop, where they sit in their triangular cardboard packets in sub-arctic temperatures. (Rule number one about bread: do not put it in the fucking fridge.) It is quite remarkable that all these sandwiches manage to taste exactly the same, whatever the ingredients. 'Crayfish with rocket and lemon and black pepper mayonnaise on wholemeal bread' might sound good, but it will have no more flavour than the sausage rolls at the hot food counter, which are tubes of pastry enclosing a smooth pinkish slurry that tastes of precisely nothing. Not surprising that there is no intense discussion over lunch, then. Shall we comment on how well-saunaed the 'baked' potatoes are, or how the chicken sandwiches are especially cold today? 'This sausage roll tastes of something, better take it back'. Nah.
Wherever they flog this sort of stuff, you will see displayed a little plaque with five stars on it. Do not get your hopes up: the stars are awarded for food hygiene, not for flavour and flair. Where once we saw food as a bore and a chore, we now see it as a carrier of salmonella and e-coli, to be prepared for us in glacial, antiseptic laboratories. So there we have it. Food as dreary necessity, food as health threat, food as expensive hobby for the posh and pretentious. 'Είσαστε παράξενος λαός' one student said to me 'You're a strange race'. Yeah, well. If the cap fits...
Londis - UK chain of convenience stores.