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.”


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.