Is British food dull?

British food has a reputation for being—sorry, folks, I’m just reporting—somewhere between dull and inedible. Google “British food reputation” and the entries fall into two categories: 1) why British food deserves a bad reputation and 2) why it doesn’t. There’s no 3) why it has a great reputation.

Or none that I found, anyway. Dig deep enough and you can almost always find a contrarian, probably funded by Vladimir Putin or a pair of aging billionaire brothers intent on destroying the world’s sense of taste.

Why do they want to do that? It’s just one of those things you do when you become an aging billionaire, your every whim has already been satisfied, and you’re bored silly. People need challenges. That’s what life’s about.

The people who argue that British food deserves its reputation love making lists of the foods they hate most: baked beans on toast, overboiled vegetables, bangers and mash (that’s sausages plonked on a plate of mashed potatoes). On some lists, fish and chips are part of the problem. On other lists (because the people who defend British food make lists too), they’re the solution. Ditto yorkshire puddings. Ditto a whole bunch of other things. So we’ll skip the details, because if we don’t, we’ll end up arguing over them when we could so easily argue about something more worthwhile.

Although if you want to argue, don’t let me stop you. I’m happy to host (almost) any argument as long as we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

Irrelevant and not-quite-in-season photo: Primroses. They should be in bloom soon. Photo by Ida Swearingen

One word that comes up a lot in this discussion is stodgy. In British English, that means food that’s “heavy, filling, and high in carbohydrates.” (I’ll skip the link; it’s one of those unattributed definitions Lord Voldemort—sorry, Lord Google—likes to supply.) The synonyms are “indigestible, starchy, filling, heavy, solid, substantial, lumpy, and leaden.”

Yum.

As usual, Lord Google offered to translate that into French. It’s lourde or indigeste.

Why French? Why not French? Hell, why offer to translate it at all? I reset the offer to Spanish and got pesado (heavy) and indigesto (indigestible). I had to check my Spanish-English dictionary to be sure of indigesto, because it’s not a word I’ve had any reason to use and although it sounds convincing you can get into all sorts of weird situations relying on words that sound like words you know in your home language.

Do I distrust Google translations? You bet your mistranslated ass I do. Sadly, my dictionary doesn’t include the Spanish for stodgy, so I ended my research there. The dictionary’s a paperback. It’s missing lots of stuff. On the other hand, it doesn’t weigh much.

I’m off the topic, aren’t I? How does that happen?

The word stodgy comes up a lot in connection with British puddings. Before we go on, it you’re American, write your definition of pudding on a slip of paper, crumple it up, and throw it out the window. It’s not helpful here.

Done? Good. Now: In this context, pudding means (I think, but don’t trust me on this) more or less any dessert, although a pudding can also be an unsweetened non-dessert. Dessert also means dessert. So, if you’re still with me, dessert means dessert and pudding means dessert as well as non-dessert, and dessert includes what Americans know as pudding, which (and we’re talking about pudding here) can include non-dessert.

And with that level of confusion, you wonder why British food has a reputation problem, right?

What does stodgy mean in the U.S.? Dull and uninspired. I can’t remember ever hearing it used about food, but if it was it wouldn’t stretch far enough to mean an entire category of food, it’d just be a description of some one thing.

Anyway, all I want to do here is establish that British food has a reputation problem. Whether it’s deserved or not doesn’t matter. At least for the purposes of this post, because we’re not actually going to eat anything. We’re online. The technology that would make eating together possible doesn’t exist yet. What matters here is how British chefs respond to their reputation problem.

Now, by way of (even more) background, I read recipes in the newspaper. They extend the range of my cooking, they amuse the hell out of me, and they’re entirely nonfattening. Plus the recipe section of Saturday’s paper is one place where, reliably, nobody’s being run out of their country or left to freeze in a refugee camp while the world says it’s all someone else’s problem, and no one’s being sent back to the country that ran them out in the first place because they didn’t say, “Mother, may I?”.

It’s not that I don’t read the news, it’s just that I need a place to hide from it now and then.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of British chefs work hard at being interesting. It may keep them from being stodgy and predictable, but their recipes tip over into the strange very easily.

A while back the paper had a series of lasagna recipes, and before I go on, I have to tell you that when I looked for them online Lord Google, for no apparent reason,  offered to define lasagna for me in Hindi. Well, who could resist? It’s spelled लॉसॉन्य (unless I accidentally copied a word from an ad—I’m illiterate in Hindi) and it seems to mean “lasagna.” I say “seems” because neither of the two sites that offered to translate it for me were particularly clear about the whole business, and after two tries I kind of lost interest.

But—this won’t surprise you, will it?—we’re off topic.

Now I do understand that Italian lasagna (or maybe that should be plural: lasagne; British food writers like the E spelling, even if they’re talking about a single lasagna) varies from region to region. Having grown up with American lasagna, which has a limited range, I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, but the Italians invented the stuff, so I guess they get to do what they want with it and I get to not argue.

The standard British lasagna is also wrong, but since they didn’t invent it, I feel free to complain.

The American version uses tomato sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan, plus either hamburger (that’s mince, if you’re British) or no hamburger (and possibly some veggies) to make it vegetarian. And, of course, lasagna noodles. The British version substitutes lots of thick, tasteless white sauce for the tomato sauce. It’s the perfect example of stodge, now that I think of it. I’m not sure what kind of cheeses they put in there, if any, because the white sauce overpowers everything. It’s basically noodles and glue.

Lasagna’s one of the things British pubs have figured out they can feed vegetarians, so periodically I get stuck eating it. It probably comes to them frozen, from a lasagna factory in Liverpool or some other Italian city. They all taste the same, which is to say, they don’t really taste at all.

But the lasagna recipes I mentioned went beyond the standard British version. That was the point: To be inventive and edgy and out-there and earn five gold stars. To not be stodgy. So what did they add? One had hazelnuts and dill and caraway seeds. Another had fish and coriander and feta cheese.

Is coriander Italian? Slices of Blue Sky quotes the New York Times as saying that it was used in the Roman Empire and foreign-born chefs are bringing it back into use in Italy. So it’s traditional in roughly the same way tattoos are (or may be) traditionally British, which is to say you can make a case for it but you’ll need to do a lot of warm-up exercises first, because it ain’t easy.

I’m working on a piece that makes the case for tattoos. It’s fun and may even be correct, but it’s not a simple argument–or possibly even a convincing one.

Feta cheese is Greek.

Italy is not Greece, something you’ll learn quickly if you go there and try to get by entirely in Greek.

Fish come from the water, and although all countries on this planet have at least some water, that doesn’t mean fish belong in lasagna. Most countries also have at least some grass, but that’s not a good argument for tossing it into lasagna.

The recipes were online and had a comment box, so I thought about offering my own let’s-not-be-stodgy take on lasagna. It involves dark chocolate, mayonnaise, half a cup of Coke, and one finely chopped bicycle tire, but someone with an Italian name had already written, “None of these recipes have anything to do with Italian cuisine,” so I kept it to myself. I didn’t want to make an international incident any worse, but the world is a poorer place because of my silence.

Enough about lasagna. The same thing happens with hamburgers. British chefs approach them as nothing more than a blank slate on which they can write their names.

In the U.S., a good hamburger’s made with ground beef and nothing more. You make it interesting by the way you cook it and what you put on it. And, of course, by using good beef.

In Britain, it’s the rare cook who’s brave enough to do that. One relatively simple recipe I found calls for egg, cracker crumbs, parmesan, and fried onions. You  mix all that together and set it in the refrigerator for two hours while it recovers from the insult. Another one asks you to mix in mustard, ketchup, egg, garlic, onion, and chili. I’m not sure what they mean by chili. Probably a chile pepper, but it could as easily be the sweet, gluey (c’mon, I’m being as neutral as I can manage) chili sauce sauce they sell here, or else that stuff you make with beans and meat (or buy in a can). Who can tell?

A third wants egg, bread crumbs, evaporated milk, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, and garlic.

Evaporated milk? Inspired addition. Would it be okay if I substitute whipped cream?

Someone else adds sun dried tomatoes—along, of course, with a whole bunch of other stuff.

You see what’s happening here? Every one of those recipe writers is screaming, “I’m not boring!”

And they’re right. They’re not. But they’re also doing nothing to redeem the reputation of British cooking.

112 thoughts on “Is British food dull?

  1. I heartily and tastefully recommend you look at the recipes here (https://www.riverford.co.uk/tru/recipes/) instead of the paper so that you may come to understand that even if eating the paper is always tastier than the recipe printed therein, there is much better available.

    “It’s not that I don’t read the news, it’s just that I need a place to hide from it now and then.”
    Oh yes, me too, and you use the hiding place so well.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks. I’m thinking wallpaper might look nice in the hiding place. Want to help hang it? I’m guaranteed to make a mess of the job and wouldn’t blame anyone who does the same.

      I’ll check out the recipes when I get a moment, but I don’t promise to be impressed.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I’ve never thought of food as being stodgy, but I’ve never thought of the food served by the UK-ish side of my family to be anything close to good. It wasn’t so much the food, it was the people cooking the food. Over-boiled things that should have never been boiled at all and meat cooked well beyond the point of every cell giving up. That, coupled with a profound lack of alcohol was a recipe for disaster.

    I should point out that the only homemade meal I ever had in England was quite good and included alcohol, so maybe it’s just my family. The recipes were lost on the way over…who knows.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’m sceptical about voice-operated, run-your-life machines. In large part because I don’t have the recommended accent, so I’m not at all sure what they’ll hear, but also because–I dunno. I just have a feeling my life’s being run by a machine. It probably already is, but not quite so obviously.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I’m pretty sure they do. WordPress reports the terms of some searches and not others. I have no idea why that is, but I seem to remember hearing once that Google searches were among the ones that don’t register. Which is another way of saying that I’m being careless when I talk about Lord Google. The brand name, I think, went generic when we began using it as a verb.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, the world would indeed be a poorer place because of your silence. Please, never rob the world this way. Liverpool and other Italian towns got the biggest chuckle.

    I was only in the UK twice for a few days. I guess I was eating but I don’t remember a single thing I ate, other than that Chinese broth that saved my life when I had flu. Oh, my host once brought fish and chips with her from work. I thought they only eat this in films. It was greasy and quite yum.

    As one surrounded by the Italians and their traditionalism in recipes, I can only imagine what an eye-roll the lasagne you write about would get. For the proper lasagna you need the proper ragu! Now that is a fully another topic all together. (In some places they don’t even put tomatos in it!)

    But I love it how my father makes lasagna that is completely off Italian topic (it might be a bit on the stodgy side) but it’s soooo good all the same that even amore must admit it.

    I follow Nigella on Fabecook (I just invented this word, trying to write Facebook). She is British, right? Do you like her?

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Friday chuckle finished. Thanks Ellen. What I’d really like to know, as a Scot living in France, via a year-long stopover in Miami is this: when will someone invent the technology to allow us to eat together online? I would enjoy that.
    I agree that British food USED to be yucky. But Jamie Oliver has changed all that. Long live King James!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I don’t know about the tooth thing. The last British friend who asked me why Americans thought the British have bad teeth has beautiful straight, white teeth. I don’t. I had no idea what to tell her. I still don’t.

      Pass me a piece of that apple pie, would you?

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I haven’t been to England in a while (at least not to eat), but we were in Wales and Scotland this past summer and we found the food to be very good. Certainly different from our first trip to the UK over 20 years ago, when everything was very bland and “stodgy”. I think the food has improved vastly–the reputation just needs to catch up!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I have eaten amazing food and absolutely lousy food in multiple regions and countries. I think what makes the difference is the aptitude of the person cooking it and the quality of the ingredients. I wonder if we Brits gained our reputation for bogging food simply because crap cooks were passing on their “techniques” through the generations until people decided to start educating themselves rather than just using Great-Gran’s recipe for warm grey mulch. The tendency to boil vegetables to mush, for instance, is a skill set problem rather than a food culture problem. I also suspect British food improved in quality when it began to assimilate ingredients, techniques, and recipes from other countries (it may well be the only side effect of Imperialism I approve of). As a family who are fond of spice, many traditional recipes just taste too bland for us. That blandness may have contributed to the reputation too.

    Italy has a stellar culinary reputation and I have certainly eaten some wonderful food there but I have also eaten one of the worst meals ever there too. Likewise France is pretty much regarded as the touchstone for wonderful food and cooking and yet I would say I have probably eaten a higher proportion of crappy food in France than any other country I have visited. I am not really forming any sort of argument here, merely sharing some observations based on personal experiences. Possibly I am just very unlucky and some of that lack of good fortune may be that I am limited to the vegetarian section of a menu.

    I think you are onto something with the stodginess. When I think of traditional British meals (as opposed to ones we have stolen from other cultures) they do tend to be very carb heavy and meat-centric. Lots of pies. Lots of potatoes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I just dug this out of the spam folder. Sorry–I wasn’t ignoring you, WordPress was.

      I agree about it being possible–maybe even easy–to find terrible food the world over. But I do think British food leans toward the bland. Unless there’s a not-British-food restaurant around, I’m just not excited about eating out. I can do as well at home.

      On the other hand, the best American food is the food that came with immigrants: Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, Jewish–I could go on endlessly. The only difference, I think, is that it’s been incorporated a bit more deeply.

      I think. I’ll be interested to hear if that strikes you as true.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Certainly I’d agree that very traditional British food leans towards the bland and I have never liked the whole “meat and potatoes” basis to most traditional British meals. I actually concur about the “I can do as well as home” thing too. I often find that we eat out and I end up feeling confident that I could have cooked just as good a meal at home. I think assimilation from different cultures – whether recipes, ingredients, or methods of cooking – is key.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Ah, Ellen, it is rough that most of the truly interesting/satisfying British foods that aren’t sweets are meat or fish based, like rare roast beef or haggis (which I like) or cock-a-leekie soup (the name is classic, no?) or Cullen Skink.. I spent many wasted years as a professional cook and wine-and-food critic trying to figure out what a truly national cuisine would be and I give up–they’ve all borrowed so much (tomatoes in Italy, potatoes in Germany, etc)! Maybe fish and sea mammals for the Greenland Inuits? Now I just think there are infinite varieties of local concoctions which people think are traditional because their mother made them.

    I’ve had lovely home cooking in Britain and a goodly amount of it vegetarian. Do you like Quorn? It works pretty well in some Italian-derived things like lasagne…again thanks for your blog–I miss Britain.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Quorn. Hmmm. I don’t dislike it, and I use it now and then, but I’m not bowled over by it. I wouldn’t design a national cuisine around it, but it’s coming on the scene a little late to make a convincing case for that anyway–especially if you’re going to rule out borrowings, which I assume also rules out innovations. My rule is accept all borrowings and reserve the right to make fun of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Stodgy. Hmm… my favourite pudding (and I mean pudding, not dessert, though it was dessert, as you know…) at school… in fact the only food I liked at school, was Spotted Dick ( recipe here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/spotteddickandcustar_87835), with custard. Yellow custard, not the vile pink custard that we were also offered. But despite liking it – it was stodgy. And in this case, ‘stodgy’ means you could probably use it to cement bricks together.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m sure you’re right. And China’s the wrong place to order a full English breakfast. And let’s not even get started on what the Unites States does to tea.

      I’m not sure where this argument I’m putting together is taking me, but I’m getting pretty passionate about it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The US is not alone in what it does to tea. I had to stop drinking tea in Italy. It came a different way each day in the same hotel.

        I think we just lost confidence in our own food, although that includes potatoes which don’t even come from this continent, let alone this country. Everyone else’s food seemed a bit more sophisticated and, when some of the necessary ingredients started to be imported in the 60s, we had a go at creating it ourselves. Now we know that you can’t have an Italian meal in the UK that tastes the same as one made in Italy because the ingredients don’t travel that well and we’re going all out with making it more ‘made in the UK’ in our own exccentric and tasteless way.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Institutional mass cooking probably bears some responsibility for the reputation…cabbage boiled until the cooks were sure that it was dead, thus the aroma lingering in nooks and crannies of the buildings, ready to leap out on the unsuspecting….packet blancmange, usually coloured a sort of sticking plaster pink…..artificial cream, fried whiting on Fridays, their tails pinned within their mouths, to name but a few of the horrors…

    But where you have, as once you had if you had some money, fresh ingredients of good quality then the view seemed to be ‘why spoil them with sauces and suchlike?’.

    As to puddings, I am wondering when those who bleat piteously about a long gone colonialism will demand that they are removed from the British diet as it was only when the sugar of the West Indies plantations hit the home market from the seventeenth century onward that sweet puddings took off as evidenced by the otherwise gloomy Henri Misson
    ‘Flower, milk, eggs, butter, sugar, suet, marow, raisons, etc., are the most common ingredients of a pudding. They bake them in an oven, they boil them with meat, they make them fifty several ways.
    Blessed be he that invented pudding for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people.
    Ah, what an excellent thing is an English pudding. To come in pudding time, is as much to say, is to come in the most lucky moment in the world…’

    Made properly such puddings are far from stodgy…try a Sussex Pond Pudding, or a Black Cap Pudding where the cook has a light hand. It is as far as possible from the slime covered leaden lump of suet duff which would turn up at school dinners, accompanied by plum and apple jam which was suspected to be army surplus from the Great War to make a dish known to us all as dead baby.

    And pudding and dumpling figured in the terms of service of the sailors in the Newcastle collier fleets, bringing coal to London down the East Coast.
    ‘Duff out, dumpling home, poop in the cabin foul weather.’

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not sure it was only institutional cooking, because I remember the stairways in a lot of the buildings where I grew up smelling of cabbage. As for colonialism, I could do some bleating myself–I’m far from convinced that it’s long gone, or that the past is really over–but that doesn’t make the products any less appealing. The problem is the price other people paid for, say, sugar. I’m not going to gloss over the complexities.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes indeed they did pay a price…not only slaves but indentured servants too.
        And you are quite right, colonialism has not disappeared…it has become global business and its practices bolstered by supine or corrupt governments and I would have a lot more time for those claiming redress for injuries to their ancestors if they would put their energy into preventing others…now…, from suffering a similar fate.

        Liked by 2 people

  10. Fish in lasagne? I can’t even get it together in order to gag. Who thought that was a good idea?

    British food is fine as long as someone else cooks it, it would take a lot to dampen my gratitude enough to complain. Deep frying improves pretty much everything including old boots. Deep fried Mars Bars definitively establish the genius of the Scottish culinary sensibility.

    Although Heston Blumenthal really needs to rein it in.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I’m not nearly as humorous as you, Ellen, or many of your other correspondents, but I hope neither you nor British cuisine goes the Minnesota State Fair direction of “if you can put it on a stick and deep fry it, people will overpay ridiculously for it”. They haven’t yet figured out how to do “water on a stick”, but probably will–maybe ice cubes? I mean, there is Baked Alaska and in the movie “Comfort and Joy” (I can’t do italics here, sorry) they solve a war between Italian family mobs by creating deep-fried ice cream. In fact, I don’t see why Italy can’t do fish-and-chips when it was Italian immigrants to Britain who created the industry–think of the deep-fried artichokes of the old Jewish Quarter in Rome? And I do like deep-fried cheese curds (once a year at the Fair).

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know some people love fish and chips. For all I know, I’d love it if I ate fish. But it’s equally possible that the immigrants who invented it may have thought, hey, the British’ll eat anything, and sold the stuff to them while not eating it themselves.

      We’ll never know.

      And, for the record, you can create italics almost anywhere online by typing (and I’m going to insert spaces so that the coding doesn’t work) before the words you want italicized and after them.

      I do like the idea of selling water on a stick. It’ll be a challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Ellen, but–typing what? If there is a command I don’t know it–I am a Luddite with an old Mac—I know there was a way on PCs but please tell me more! And I don’t know what the GBBO might be either….

        Liked by 2 people

        • It should be the same on a Mac or a PC. What you do is type the marks I put in above (only without the spaces between them) before and after the word(s) you want to italicize. They won’t show up in the comment–they just tell the magic little brain of the internet that it should italicize that chunk of text.

          Did that make any sense?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Not sure–I saw parentheses, nothing else—but Flo thinks she can show me how to do it. I do want to, as I think it is proper style to italicize major works (books, plays, movies, symphonies) while leaving quotation marks for short stories, poems, brief quotes—right?

            Liked by 2 people

            • Yes. The coding is only relevant when you’re on the internet and can’t italicize in the usual way (I’m not sure what that is on a Mac). In a Word document, it’s irrelevant. Sorry if I’ve misled you.

              Liked by 1 person

  12. I fondly remember your post about making hamburgers American-style there. I think of it often, actually. More like meatloaf there, I spose.
    Smoked sausage and mashed potatoes is a rare and deeply comforting meal for me now and again, so I’ll not complain about bangers and mash, but I do not want baked beans on toast, which is saying a lot because I like almost everything on toast.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Stodgy. Haven’t heard that word in a while, but now thinking of the British food I’ve heard of and the ones you’ve named, it does seem fitting a word. When I was growing up in Singapore and Malaysia, one of the most popular canteen dishes was crumbed chicken piece and mashed potato, and fish and chips.

    A sauce can make or break a meal. If you have bad sauce or sauce that you don’t like, it can ruin it completely.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Ellen–I’m guessing “Great British Bake Off”, which is one thing they do well–I’d say originating in the early days of Empire when flour and sugar were cheap products from the colonies, and eggs and dairy were still high quality local products. Affordable luxuries?

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I enjoyed your comments on food. Yes, pudding originally meant a dessert that might be savory or sweet and originally called for meats and suet. It was boiled till done because it needed to last. Over time, it has shifted to the sweet thing. Later in the week I’ve a column set to publish on plum pudding, so I learned a bit about the history of puddings.
    I love the shortbread, cheeses, and tea I get over there when I visit.

    Liked by 2 people

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