Mushy Peas and Clotted Cream

Two years ago this week I was getting ready to go on a study abroad program in London. It simultaneously feels like a lifetime ago and like it was just yesterday. That summer, I knew if I didn't go abroad that I would never have a chance like that again. I thought (rightly so, it turns out) that upon finishing graduate school I would get a job and a car payment and all of a sudden become a lot more tied down. It was exhilarating. It was the trip of a lifetime, and it certainly was an adventure (for better or worse).
The problem was I hated the food. I will say that I have read defenses of English food online, and most of these have the qualification that if you spend a lot of money there is good food in London. Well, I will counter that with saying in NYC some of the best food is inexpensive, and that definitely a person who is not wealthy can acquire tasty food there. Here were some causes of my misery: mushy peas, lack of seasoning (even salt and pepper), limp bacon, soft fish and chips, lack of fresh vegetables, and (with the exchange rate) incredibly high prices. Take what you think something should cost and double it, and then things cost more than that. Also, think of a chicken pie with overly boiled leeks, rubbery onions, imagine that you hated it and could barely finish it off, and then imagine coming back to your dorm room and looking at your credit card receipt and realizing it cost you $40. Very depressing. I lost my appetite, stopped eating, lost a lot of weight, and had no energy. Anything is hard to enjoy when you are not eating. I know that English food being awful is a stereotype, but that was my personal opinion and I am allowed to feel that way. To me, it felt like a general enthusiasm or passion for food was just lacking everywhere.

Now, let's talk about the coffee. I should mention I am the type of person who drinks black coffee all day every day. I love it. But in London there was pretty much just espresso available everywhere. This was fine, except for a weird interaction I had in front of the British Museum. On their sign it said "coffee", simply. So I got very excited and said "so you actually have just drip coffee?" "Yes", said the employee. Then the guy went on to clearly make me an Americano (I know drip coffee is not made from espresso), meanwhile outright laughing at me! So I said "This is drip coffee?" and the other employees laughed at me. I should have said something I guess, but I wanted caffeine so much I didn't care. Anyways, yes let us all laugh at the American who wants drip coffee, funniest thing ever - so worthy of ridicule!  I also had friends who walked into restaurants where the waitresses would hear their accents and just turn right around and refuse to wait on them. This is also funny considering one bartender thought I was Irish, and some group of guys we met in another pub thought we were Canadian. I have heard though that Canadians get mad at being called American, but not the other way around, so people in the UK just ask if people are Canadian either way if they sound like they are from North America. Anyways, we had some pretty interesting interactions with waitstaff.
However, I will absolutely defend the tradition of afternoon tea. Scones, pastries, good tea, cucumber sandwiches, smoked salmon and cream cheese on pumpernickel, and of course clotted cream. So civilized, and such a great ritual! Something wrong? Have a cup of tea! English doctor tells you you have cancer? Offers you a cup of tea! Keep calm carry on - nothing a cup of tea can't fix! Sure, the weather is crap, and the food is awful - but there is tasty tea and that is worth a lot. (They do get points for Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Lily Allen, and Princess Beatrice's Hat too.)

In retrospect, it was sort of my last hurrah before becoming much more settled down. Somehow things never feel the way you expect them too. Sure I got a job, a house, a car, and a husband, but my life never stopped feeling interesting to me. After returning to the states there were new cities to discover, houses to decorate, friends to make, weddings to plan, and cuisines to master. Giving up restless impulses was something I did happily and openly. There was, however, something magical about that summer. We made our way through the summer just across the ocean, went behind the scenes at some of the finest museums in the world, laughed at all the teasing at a Parliament session, felt the wind in our hair on a boat on the Thames en route to Greenwich, and created a community out of people from cities scattered all over the U.S. That summer enriched who I am in a deep and meaningful way, and besides, like all important moments in life - it is not about the food.

Comments

  1. Loved everything about this post. I remember eating mostly in pubs, so I always found something decent to eat (even one of the best veggie burgers I've ever had). I didn't try a lot of the traditional English fare, and now I'm glad - I know my limits. But you're so right about afternoon tea - I still fantasize about clotted cream!

    My favorite paragraph is the last, though. So well said, and exactly how I feel. And I wish I had spent a little more time with you (and many others) there!

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  2. Afternoon tea is all around a great thing! I do think a lot of the traditional English foods are that way because of the history of England in the 20th century as far as rationing, lack of access to fresh ingredients, and people getting used to those things and not expecting anything else.

    Aw thanks! Maybe we can get a reunion trip together! :)

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