Tuesday, November 14, 2006

LONDON CALLING: The Glories of British Cuisine

My grandmother tells the story of being in Munich in 1972, attending the Olympics in the company of my aunt, who was an alternate to the U.S. gymnastics team. (For that reason, I will always hold a grudge against Cathy Rigby.) While there, they met a charming gentleman from England. Since they would be stopping in London on the way home, he offered to take them to dinner in his town.

Anyone out there who has even heard the tales of British dining will know what's coming next. My grandmother, however, had evidently never heard such stories, for she was astonished when the man took them to a Chinese restaurant. Like a perfect straight man, she complained that she expected to sample the local cuisine, and asked why he had chosen to show off a Chinese eatery. Right on cue, he replied, "Well, I certainly don't want to give you British food."

This story stayed in my mind every single time I sat down at a dining table during our London sojourn. British food is bad; everyone knows it. The British know it. It's why everybody recommends you go and get Indian food. The curries are supposed to be sensational.

I don't care for curry, and I grew up with the blandest taste buds within a 90-mile radius, so I figured that I was prepared for whatever London could throw at me.

Pub food is what most people are thinking of when they talk about British food, and we definitely got our share. Roasting is clearly big in pub cooking. We had roast beef one day, roast chicken the next. Along with the familiar fish & chips, you'll find these dishes at practically every pub on the island. But it's not just these items. Every pub seems to have the exact same menu. What is salmon pie? No idea, but it was on every bill of fare. Does every pub serve lasagna? Yes, I think so. It's almost as if there's a commission overseeing the kitchen of every pub in England. The consistency is a little disturbing.

I did discover the glories of Yorkshire pudding this way. I'm not such a stupid American that I thought all pudding should be like Jell-O. But I was sufficiently unfamiliar that I expected it to be more like bread pudding. Or I think that's what I thought. When I was actually served Yorkshire pudding, I was really delighted, and I realized that I had no idea what I thought Yorkshire pudding would be. Clair says it's like a popover, which doesn't actually help me much. It's really like a light, airy dinner roll. It sops up gravy and dissolves in your mouth, and one of the first things I did when I got home was to look up Yorkshire pudding in my copy of How to Cook Everything. I have big plans for myself.

Of course, we weren't confined exclusively to pubs. We worked in some fine dining as well. Usually, we ate depending on where we were when we actually got hungry. Between the racing around and the jet lag, our schedule was completely whacked, so it's not like we had a strict eating rhythm going. But on reflection, that worked to our advantage. If we hadn't been trying (and failing) to find something worth seeing in the West End, we wouldn't have enjoyed the porcini mushroom specials at Galileo's, right across the street from the theatre housing Phantom of the Opera. If I hadn't gotten us lost in the South Bank, then we wouldn't have ended up at an Italian restaurant nestled in the vaults underneath the Waterloo Bridge. The food in these locations was not necessarily the finest I've ever consumed. But they were experiences, unique experiences. Happenstance worked out well.

There's one other experience that has to be noted. Our first hotel was in The City, London's financial district. First thing Monday morning, it was overrun with harried, horribly-dressed business people. Like rats in wrinkly suits and ill-knotted ties, they were. So it's in this environment that we decided to grab breakfast at a place called Fuzzy's Grub, which advertised itself as the home of the only true down-home breakfast in town. For the record, in London, that means a toasted egg sandwich. My father introduced me to the fried egg sandwich, but he never made it with inch-thick toast. Proof of British insanity can be found exclusively in this sandwich. I don't think I ate again for 14 hours, so stuffed was I by this one egg sandwich. Sometimes, you realize you should have just had fruit, and this was one of those times.

But I haven't described the best food in all of London. It's embarrassing, frankly. In an entire country, the finest single thing we consumed... was at McDonald's.

Here in the United States, the Fun Police somehow persuaded the McDonald's Corporation to destroy the two finest things on their menu: greasy, salty French fries, and a hot, scalding, fried apple pie. The fries are mealy now, usually cold, and without flavor. And the pies are a complete joke. They are baked, with a powdery surface and a powdery taste. Two years ago, after seeing Super Size Me, I vowed not to eat at McDonald's again, and the blow was cushioned by the knowledge that the really good food was long gone anyway.

Well, except for England.

McDonald's never felt the pressure overseas to ruin a good thing. So if you decide to throw away your hard-earned pounds at the Golden Arches, you can get yourself a genuine deep-fried apple pie. Clair knew this, and on our first night, somewhere on on the Brompton Road, we beat the rush of inebriated Britons and ordered ourselves a pair of genuine McDonald's apple pies. The crust is crunchy and salty and covered in batter bubbles that crumble in your mouth. The interior is just the right blend of sweet and cinnamon, and is hotter than the hottest, lawsuit-meriting coffee. As soon as you take a bite, your tongue is torched by the scalding juicy apple jelly, and your hands are burned by the same as it bursts out of the crust. It's unavoidably messy, unquestionably bad for you, and potentially permanently disabling. We each had three. A definite highlight of five days in London was the realization that someone still knew how to make it right.

In that respect, I'm glad to be back in America. Now I can go back to avoiding McDonald's all the time.