British Christmas traditions: the brussels sprout

Health and Safety Warning: This post contains exaggerations that may be detrimental to your mental health. Or your credibility if you take them literally when linking to the post. The Druids did not actually worship brussels sprouts. No one knows much about what the Druids did. And with that out of the way, do read on.

 

What is it about the British and brussels sprouts at Christmas? I address this topic because judging from my search engine queries it’s what people want to know. Or at least what one very determined person wants to know. Within a few days, I had at least five variations on the question Why do the British eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? It may have been more. I lost track in there somewhere. Why the person kept coming back if I hadn’t already managed to answer the question I don’t know. Determination shading into obsession?

Anyway, the question matters, and I’ve addressed it before but I don’t feel I did it justice. Because I sidestepped several crucial facts.

Irrelevant photo: gorse (that's the yellow stuff) and heather (that's the purple)

Irrelevant photo: Gorse (that’s the yellow stuff) and heather (that’s the purple). And grass (that’s the green and the tan.)

First, if Google is to be trusted (it’s not) you can spell the vegetable with or without an S: brussel sprouts or brussels sprouts. The first spelling matches our pronunciation (we just can’t make the double S audible unless we say it while standing on our heads and gargling salt water). Besides which, it’s easier to type without the extra S. The second spelling replicates the name of the city where they didn’t originate. According to Brussels Sprouts Info (everything important has its own web site these days), they’re believed to have been grown in Italy as far back as Roman times and began to be grown on a large scale in Belgium as far back as the sixteenth century before spreading outward from there.

The more common spelling seems to keep the extra S.

Second, you can either capitalize the B or not, depending on whether you capitalize the F in french fries. I don’t, but Word does and gives me bad marks every time I go back and un-cap it. It’s easier to use a cap, which is probably why I don’t. It’s a small and pointless way to fight the monopolies that are taking over our spelling. Not to mention our lives, economy, and politics. Take that, monopolies: I’m using a lower case F and a lower case B. That sound you hear? It’s Microsoft crumbling in the face of my defiance.

Third, the world contains more than 110 varieties of brussels sprouts and I bet you can’t tell any one of them from the other more than 109.

You notice how vague they are on the actual number? It’s probably because someone’s out there devising a new variety even as I type.

So far so uncontroversial, but now we come to:

Fourth, the real reason they’re eaten in Britain at Christmas is a tightly held secret and I’m going to reveal it to you and only you because, hey, it’s just us here, right? No one else is listening. I’d get into serious trouble otherwise. So here’s the truth: The Church of England may be the official and established church in this country, but it’s a thin and brittle overlay. Underneath lies the country’s deeper religion, worship of the Great Brussels Sprout. (And here, yes, it’s capitalized. Even by me. It’s a god and all. You want to show a little respect.)

What did the Druids worship? The Great Brussels Sprout. They painted themselves blue and cultivated the sacred plant. And they were nekkid when they did it.

How’d they cultivate it if brussels sprouts didn’t yet grow in the British Isles? I did say Google couldn’t be trusted. Its sources are giving you the official history. You can only find the truth by going into the dark web, where danger lurks behind every pixel, so I don’t dare give you any links. Folks, I’ll take the risk myself but I can’t be responsible for your safety. You’ll have to find it on your own or trust my report: The truth is that the Romans quietly exported the brussels sprout from Britain to Italy, and once it was established there they claimed to have developed all more than 110 varieties themselves.

Back in Britain, the Romans suppressed both the Druids and all outward forms of sprout cultivation and worship, but the belief ran deep in the population, and it survived, waiting from the sprout’s return.

How’d it do that when the pre-Roman British tribes (the Iceni, the Caledones, the Parisi, the Cornovii…) were overrun by the Angles and the Saxons and the Vikings and the Normans, making for a choppy history and a messy but interesting language? Because knowledge of the Great Brussels Sprout is planted deep in the soil. You don’t have to learn it from your community. If you get yourself a shovel and start digging, it works its way into your bloodstream. You feel a compulsion to worship something green and brassican. Rumor has it that they made do with cabbages until the brussels sprout was re-imported and jogged their memories of what the Great God really looked like. These were agricultural people, remember. They had lots of shovels. So when Christianity became the dominant religion, the best it could do was drive sprout worship deep underground, and from there it rises, godlike, every year.

Do I consider it strange, you ask (or at least you should ask), that people eat the sprout they worship? Isn’t that a bit, um, grotesque? Not at all. The Great Sprout is the essence of all sprouts and is itself inedible. The sprouts people eat at Christmas are merely its representation. And those among us who claim the ones on the plate are also inedible? They’re closest to the holy nature of the Great Brussels Sprout and everybody should back off and stop giving them a hard time.

Fifth (we were counting, remember?), the brussels sprout ripens around Christmas time. How many other vegetables are willing to do that? So of course people eat it.

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And on a marginally sensible note, last week I forgot to link back to Laura, at A PIct in PA, who first used to word tickety boo, giving me a great excuse for another important post. She’s a Scot living and raising her kids in Pennsylvania, and she keeps a fine blog with lots of nifty artwork.

Prohibition and sticky toffee desserts

When I last asked for questions about Britain or the U.S., Dan Antion wrote, “The last night I was in London, I had some kind of gooey toffee desert (sticky something). I wrote my friend in Ipswich and said, ‘why did you send us the Beatles and keep this a secret?’ but he never replied. This makes me think there’s a law against describing that dish. If you choose not to write about this or toffee, I’ll understand (but it will confirm my suspicion).”

Never one to be scared off by sensible considerations or petty legalities, I’ll tell you everything I know on the subject. And more. Much, much more.

Irrelevant photo: a volunteer cyclamen that planted itself by the back door

Irrelevant photo: a volunteer cyclamen that planted itself by the back door

It sounds to me like Dan stumbled into an underground club where sticky toffee pudding was being served on the sly. While he was on the pavement humming “Yellow Submarine” and wondering why colors seemed so vivid suddenly, his friend was whispering a secret word to the tough guy lingering by an unmarked door, who gestured them inside and closed the door behind them. They ate and Dan licked his spoon (desserts here come with a big honkin’ spoon) and wondered why the tastes were as vivid as the colors.

It was something to do with the Beatles.

I can’t promise to reproduce that experience, but through the magic of the internet I have gotten access to several highly encrypted recipes. Being so well hidden, there are, of course, problems.

  1. They’re mostly metric, but if you can decode them, you can make then. And if you can make them, you can eat them. I won’t try to convert them because I tried that once and–well, it was over a year ago and I’m still recovering. So you’ll need a kitchen scale to follow them. Sorry, you American cooks. This involves a smallish investment.
  2. Sticky toffee pudding seems to want self-raising flour, and I never used the stuff in the U.S. It’s sold in the southern states but is rare in the northern states and in Canada—or so the wise old internet informs me. It doesn’t like the cold, I guess, but with global warming its range may be expanding. Even where it’s available, though, it’s apparently formulated differently, so using it could make your recipe go all weird.
  3. British supermarkets sell more kinds of sugar than kinds of baked beans, and they lots of baked beans. Lots and lots of baked beans. Start with granulated, demerara, turbinado, muscovado, then go on for another line or two. Me, I ignore most of this and use either white (that’s called granulated) or brown. I may lose some subtle tastes, but it works. However, I do not now and never have substituted baked beans for sugar in any recipe, nor do I recommend that you try.

In case that isn’t complicated enough, I’m going to give you several recipe links:

Behind door one is one of the rare recipes that doesn’t use self-raising flour. It also doesn’t use dates, which makes me suspicious, because dates seem to be important here.

Behind door two is one that uses both dates and self-raising flour. Don’t rule it out, though, because you can make your own self-raising flour from plain ol’ flour by adding “2 teaspoons of baking powder to each cup (150g) of all-purpose (plain flour).”

Since the recipe calls for 175 grams of flour and since my math is shaky at best, I’d have to double that, then toss the extra—what would it be? 100 grams? 125 grams? a bunch?—over my shoulder and onto the kitchen floor and blame Nigella for the mess since it’s her recipe and her substitution suggestion. Or her team’s. She may no longer exist in person but have been replaced by a team of some sort.

The recipe calls for muscovado sugar. See above. Or see the web site that says, “Sugars like muscovado, demerara, and turbinado have flavor depths and aromatic heights that blow plain ol’ granulated sugar out of the water.” Muscovado has a “very moist texture and a strong molasses flavor.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Me, I wouldn’t put my granulated sugar in the water to start with, so muscovado would have to blow if out of the cupboard. You can get away with brown sugar. Or probably (gasp) white.

Behind door three lurks something scary: the possibility that we’re not looking for sticky toffee pudding at all but sticky toffee cake. But let’s be reckless and yank the thing open it anyway. I didn’t get where I am today by being cautious.

Remind me, would you? Where am I exactly?

Most of the recipes I found for this call for golden syrup, which as far as I know isn’t sold in the U.S. supermarkets, but one doesn’t. For reasons I can’t explain, it pops up behind a box that wants to divert you someplace else entirely, but if you work at it you can still read the recipe.

And then there’s this one that not only doesn’t use golden syrup, it’s measured in cups and baked in Fahrenheit, which makes me think it’s from the U.S.

Sorry, Dan. I’d make this simple if I could but it wouldn’t be half as much fun to write about.

*

For those of you who are following the pet saga at our house, the Big Guy seems to moved on. He went out on Thursday night and hasn’t come back. I’ve put a notice on the village Facebook page, so people are keeping an eye out for him, but as J. wrote, he seems to have a touch of the wanderer in him. It’s been rainy and cold, but he’s good at letting people know what he needs–that’s how he came to us–so I hope he’s found himself a new home.

The fluid ounce and the British passport

A friend in the U.S., L., recently sent me an American measuring cup. I’d asked for it because early in my blogging career I read on an expat blog that the British pint contains one more fluid ounce than the American pint. I tucked that information away in the back of my screaming brain to ponder at some time in the future when I suddenly become competent with numbers.

That’s another way of saying, I ignored the information. Even when I’m working with imperial measures, I don’t measure things by the pint, I measure them by the cup or the fluid ounce. But it nagged at me. What, I couldn’t help wondering at 3 a.m. when my brain was fizzing and the kitten had noticed I was awake and decided to see if he couldn’t sleep inside my nostril, if the ounce itself is different?

Nah, I told myself once morning came, my brain settled down, and the kitten had wandered off to play with the dog. They couldn’t do that to me. I’m a citizen.

Irrelevant photo: Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

Irrelevant photo: Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

I had good evidence for this. Not only a British passport, which they don’t hand out to non-citizens, but the fact that my American recipes work, even though I made every last one of them using British measuring cups.

Except cornbread. That doesn’t work. I’ve tried two or three recipes since I moved here, using cornmeal I brought from the U.S., and none of the results were worth eating. But okay, cornbread’s an American dish and doesn’t cross borders. I accepted that. Everything else was fine.

Except, irrelevantly, tomato sauce, but I don’t measure that, I just kind of combine it. Besides, it’s edible, just not the same as I made in the U.S. The canned tomatoes are British. Even the ones that claim to be Italian. That’s the only way I can account for it.

But back to ounces. I’ve been blogging since—oh, since whenever I started. A year ago? More a year ago? Have I explained that I don’t do numbers? Counting to one is beyond me. So it’s been something vaguely related to a year. Although the British year may be longer than the American one, so what does any of this mean, really, in the great scheme of things? The minute itself may be longer. I’m not about to split hairs.

However long it’s been, that’s how long it’s taken me to think, Y’know, maybe I should check on this fluid ounce thing. And so I asked if L. would send me an American measuring cup, and when she did I poured some water back and forth from hers to a British one and it didn’t come to the same marks.

I poured the water out, put both measuring cups in the drying rack, and refused to believe what, between them, they were telling me. I repeat: I’m a citizen. They can’t do this to me.

I tried again a couple of days later and got the same result, and I responded the same way, except that this time I thought, Maybe if I tried it with milk it would be different. Because milk’s white. It’s easier to read. It would give me the answer I wanted.

Finally I emailed L., explaining some of this (I hadn’t thanked her yet, so it was high time), although I made an effort to sound marginally saner than I do here, and she sent me a link. It turns out the British fluid ounce is 0.9607599ths of a U.S. fluid ounce. That just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s exactly the kind of number the average home cook can work with.

This information, I decided, must explain the difference between the number of ounces in the British and U.S. pints—someone added the extra ounce so the pints come out even—and off I trotted to Google to confirm my insight.

Nope. The British pint equals 570 ml and the U.S. one equals 470.

Can you hear me screaming? One of the things I’m screaming is that you have to translate this mess into metric in order to compare it. Without the metric system, we couldn’t even discuss it, because in imperial measures it falls off the edge of the English language. We’d be reduced to pouring water on the floor and comparing the size of the spills.

So thank you for the measuring cup, L. I appreciate it and as soon as the medications and the meditation restore my equilibrium I’m going to make another batch of cornbread. My cornmeal’s only eight years old. It should be fine. And if not, what the hell, I got a blog post out of it.

And since we’re not discussing this, I should ask if you’ve noticed that expat is nothing but a fancy word for immigrant. 

Serving Texas hamburgers in Cornwall, part 2: the definitive recipe

I already told you that the only ingredient in a Texas hamburger is beef, and that’s true but I may have oversimplified things. So I’m going to give you the full, formal recipe. Don’t leave here without it.

Before we get down to business, though, I need to explain that the difference between a Texas hamburger and any other kind of American hamburger.

Cornwall; Madron Holy Well

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Tree at Madron Holy Well, near Penzance. The tradition of tying cloth to the tree goes back to pre-Christian times, when it was believed to cure illness. Exactly why people do it today is anyone’s guess. Maybe to cure an illness; maybe to brush shoulders with something ancient or add their bit of cloth to something compelling. I was tempted, because it is compelling, even though I don’t believe it can cure and wasn’t sick to begin with.

People don’t notice regional differences in countries that aren’t theirs, but if you live there, they matter. A California burger comes with lettuce and tomato, and if you live in California it’s just called a hamburger. It’s the rest of the country that calls it a California burger. And a Texas burger? It has one ingredient no one else can match and it has its own cooking method.

The ingredient is attitude. A Texas hamburger has it, and much as I love other parts of the country we just can’t rival Texas for its outright and usually charming bullshit. Without the good ol’ Texas bullshit, what you have is a plain ol’ American hamburger. That’s not bad, but it isn’t from Texas.

If you’re not from Texas can you do Texas bullshit? Probably not. Many and many a year ago in a queendom surrounded by the sea, we were trapped across a table in a broken-down train with an Englishman who lived in Texas and thought he’d learned the trick. What he’d learned to be was loud, self-important, and obnoxious. What he hadn’t learned was charm. It was a very long wait for that train to get moving again.

What do I recommend, then? A) Invite a Texan and turn her or him loose, B) offer your burgers to a group of people who don’t know about the secret ingredient and won’t miss it, or C) call it an American hamburger. Do not, under any circumstances, try to substitute a low-cost bluster for Texas bullshit. You’re better off without it.

And the cooking method? You cook the burgers outdoors, on a hot grill, and you cook them, at most, medium rare. When the burger’s almost done, put the top half of the bun on it. This spreads the grease on it. Wild Thing assures me that’s good.

The grill has to be hot, so the outside gets seared and dark. If you’re using charcoal, Wild Thing tells me you have to let the coals get white hot. Tossing a bit of water on them will release some steam and heat everything up. It’ll also bring a little drama to the process. She uses a gas grill, and she buys hardwood chips, soaks them, and tosses them into the grill to give the meat a smoky flavor. Oak is good, but any hardwood will do. Pine won’t.

What about the folks who can’t bring themselves to eat their burgers rare? We-e-ll, it’s up to you, of course. I suspect Wild Thing’s becoming a bit of a missionary about this, but the fact is that she did re-grill the hamburgers that were brought back to her. Whether she can bring herself to do it a second time is anyone’s guess.

So here’s the recipe. Be sure to get the proportions right:

Texas Hamburgers

Good ground beef

That’s it. Nothing else. Not even salt and pepper. No eggs, no bread crumbs, no shoelaces. Don’t (as I’m sometimes tempted to do) buy cheap ground beef, telling yourself the fat will cook out. Get the good (for which you can read more expensive) stuff, divide it up, pat it into shape, and grill the hell out of it. Put it on a bun, put some ketchup on it, and eat it.

And remember, you got the recipe from a vegetarian.

Eating your way across North Cornwall’s landscape

Spring is what people used to call the hungry gap–the time of year when the food they’d by for the winter was running low and the crops were nowhere near ready to pick. So–I’ve been told–people around here turned to the hedgerows and picked what they could.

flowers, haze 018

 

These are nettles–horrible itchy things but they loose their itchiness and are edible as soon as you steam or boil them. You can use them pretty much like spinach, but you have to be careful how you pick them.

flowers, haze 012

 

The grassy-looking things are three-cornered leeks. They smell more oniony than garlicky, but all the same I can’t walk past them without wanting a pizza. Good in a salad, or tossed into a pasta sauce at the last minute.

flowers, haze 007

G. tells me this is the ancestor of celery–alexanders. They were brought over by the Romans (or so I’m told; I haven’t been able to confirm that). I’ve never cooked with them but G. has, and he lived to say they’re good. The seed, root, and flower are all edible.

flowers, haze 008

And finally, one not to eat. This is dog’s mercury. M.’s dog eats it, if she can, every spring. She eats it, then she throws up. That’s a dog’s idea of a fun day out. It’s toxic in large doses. The “dog” in the name means the plant isn’t useful. Except to M.’s dog.

Looking American: On culture, nationality, and immigration

A few months ago, M. told me, “You’re looking very”—and here you have to imagine a short pause— “American today.”

When I stopped laughing, I asked what American looked like, and you can insert another, somewhat longer pause before you go on, because he had to think about it. Or else he was looking for a gentle way to say it.

“You walk as if the sun always shines on you and you own the world,” he said. Not unkindly, I should add, although from someone else it might have sounded like a complaint.

Semi-relevant photo: The sun shining on a herd of cows. (Actually, they were making sure we left their field, and I can't remember if the sun was shining on them or not--it looks like diffuse sunlight. Does that count?)

Semi-relevant photo: The sun shining on a herd of cattle. Actually, they were making sure we left their field, and I can’t remember if the sun was shining on them or not–it looks like diffuse sunlight. That may or may not count.

The sun wasn’t shining on me that day. I’ll skip the details, because they’ll take me off in a whole ‘nother direction, but I’d been shaken by some bad news a few hours earlier, and I was still feeling it.

What does it mean to be so American that I look like I own the world, even (or particularly) when I’m don’t feel that way? Well, what does it mean to belong to any nationality?

The question’s been rattling around in my head lately, at least in part because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that seeps into so much of British politics these days. And into American politics, while we’re at it. You could probably drop any other more or less solvent nation into that sentence, because trouble drives people to immigrate, and the world’s a troubled place these days.

Part of the anti-immigrant feeling is about jobs: If immigrants come over here (wherever here is), they’ll work for less and wages will drop. There’s some logic to this, although what’s really undermining wages is that jobs, and whole industries, have moved overseas, where wages are ruinously cheaper. On top of that, unions don’t have the clout they once did (those two aren’t unrelated), and they were a major force driving wages up.

But another, more emotional, strand of complaint is that immigrants don’t blend in. Basically, the problem with immigrants is that we’re foreigners, and couldn’t we please stop that? Stop talking our languages in public. Stop eating funny foods. Stop dressing differently. Stop running around with different-color skin. Stop cheering for foreign sports teams or holding to foreign religions or using all those alphabets that no decent person knows how to read. I mean, who knows what we’re writing in them?

But once you grow up in a culture, you don’t get to leave it behind—not entirely, even if you want to. No matter how much you work at blending into another one, you carry some part of the original. I walk, apparently, like an American, and I know I sound like one. I even eat like one. The American way of eating involves juggling the fork from the left hand, where we hold it if we need to cut something with knife and fork, to the right hand, which we use to bring the food to the mouth. The British way leaves the fork where it started, in the left hand. This is great, because it lets you use the knife to push food onto your fork—and it’s perfectly good manners when you do. That solves a problem built into the American approach: How do you get the last bits of non-spearable food onto the fork without sneaking a finger onto the plate and hoping no one’s looking? Although it doesn’t solve another problem, which is how to keep the food on your fork, because the British hold the damned thing with the back—the hump—facing up, so that you can’t use the fork’s valley to cradle your food. I haven’t a clue why they do this, but it may explain why mashed potatoes are so popular: you can use them as mortar to hold the rest of your food on your fork.

So I’m a partial fan of the British method, and periodically I try to eat that way—usually with the curved part of the fork facing up, but never mind, I’m compromising here and I want some credit, damn it. All you anti-immigrant campaigners, are you listening? I’m making an effort.

What happens, though? The minute my mind wanders—and it doesn’t take long—my fork’s magically moved itself back to my right hand and I’m eating like an American again. And the sun shines on me.

At this point, while the sun’s shining on me alone, I have to interrupt myself, because I read this post to my writers group and they told me that holding the fork with the hump facing up is posh, presumably because it makes you eat more slowly. Holding it valley-side up is working class. Who’d have thunk? I swear, you have to be born here to figure this stuff out. On the evidence of that alone, though, I ask you: Who should be running the country?

Because of my (sometimes absurd) efforts to publicize both my book and this blog, I’ve written a lot of bios lately (I will post just about anywhere, about almost anything, as long as I get a bio and a link), and I keep describing myself as an American living in Cornwall. That reflects the reality of who I am culturally, but it ignores the fact that I’m a British citizen as well as an American one.

For me, becoming a British citizen was about security, not love or allegiance or culture. I do love the country, but I’m not romantic about citizenship. I wanted to be a citizen because it’s harder to get rid of a citizen than a resident alien. Since the U.K. government had already changed the rules once before Wild Thing and I got the right to stay in the country for the long term,and since we just about got kicked out of the country because of it, we were touchy on the subject. It may be crass, but we wanted the safety that comes with citizenship. We’re grateful for it, but it hasn’t, and can’t, change who we are.

So when I hear someone say that the problem with immigrants is that we don’t acculturate, I can only suggest moving abroad and seeing what happens.

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A final note: Before my writers group before we fell down the conversational rabbit hole of what it means to have a constitution that isn’t a written document, I learned something else about forks and nationality: More and more of the British are acting like Americans and shuffling their forks from hand to hand as they eat.

And we’re not even the immigrant group anyone’s upset about.

If you want to blame someone, you can blame movies or television, because there aren’t enough Americans here to have that big an impact.

How do foreigners change a culture? Sometimes it’s from a distance.

Planning Thanksgiving in Cornwall

We’ve started planning our Thanksgiving party. The guest list is limited by the size of our house, which is a shame because we’d love to add more people. And since there’s no competition—no one says, sorry, but I have to go to my brother’s this year—almost everyone we invite is available. And it’s an American holiday, which gives it an element of cool here.

Our tradition, both here and back in Minnesota, is that we cook the turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie (usually; back in Minnesota, as D. got older he became a very good cook and he brought the pies), and we ask everyone to bring something. Which is where it gets interesting.

Pumpkin pie--with a neater crust than I make. Photo by the Culinary Geek from Chicago, courtesy of WikiMedia

Pumpkin pie–with a neater crust than I make. Photo by the Culinary Geek from Chicago, courtesy of WikiMedia

The first time we invited we invited M. and J. to our Thanksgiving in Minnesota, was the first time I understood how rigid the traditions are. J. isn’t from the U.S. but she was the cook in the family, and as they told the tale later, M. said “No, you can’t bring that” to everything J. suggested. Macaroni and cheese? No, you can’t bring that. Chocolate cake? No, etc.

So this year, a different J.—an American—told me she’d have to explain to P. that just because root beer floats are American doesn’t mean you can have them at Thanksgiving. I looked at the list of what people were bringing: leek gratin, cauliflower cheese, quiche. Don’t bother, I said. We’ve given up the battle.

The only traditional elements of the meal are the ones we make—turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. And baking powder biscuits, which weren’t traditional in my family, but Wild Thing’s from Texas and will never say no to biscuits. The rest is all stuff that would get us all deported if we tried it in the U.S.

So we’ve evolved our own traditions, one of which is the meal isn’t traditional. A second involves me, the vegetarian, cooking a dead bird. Which hardly even strikes me as strange anymore. A third—one we’re trying to break—is that I make cranberry sauce and forget to set it out. A fourth is that we have to have at least one dessert that isn’t pumpkin pie, because although pumpkins grow here they’re considered a squash and people are, um, let’s say hesitant about eating it as a sweet. But we do have to have it. That’s tradition for you. Besides, a few of us like it.

British Brownies and U.S. Scones

My last post included a traditional British scone recipe, and American readers immediately wrote in (on the blog and on Facebook) and said, That sounds great. Can I add cranberries, chocolate chips, and marshmallows? The answer is, of course you can, and it may taste great, but it won’t be a British scone, it’ll be more like a British brownie.

Why is a brownie like a scone? Because once it crosses international boundaries you can’t recognize it.

Irrelevant Photo #2. Dorset. Photographer, Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo #2. Dorset. Photographer, Ida Swearingen

Let’s start with the American scone. It’s great, but it’s got only the faintest relationship to the original. Which is British, and a cousin to the American baking powder biscuit—plain, round, workaday, and delicious. Usually. If it comes in cellophane, be suspicious. It’s usually a little sweeter than a baking powder biscuit, and sometimes comes with raisins, which for reasons I don’t expect to ever understand are called fruit. I mean, yes, they are fruit, in a dried-up sort of way, but the world’s full of fruit. We don’t insist on calling a carrot “vegetable” instead of “carrot,” do we?

Never mind. The fruit scone has raisins. The cheese scone has cheese. The plain scone doesn’t have either one. And the scone with ginger and lemon and blueberries and chocolate chips and deep-fried Mars bars? It doesn’t exist. But the cream tea does exist. It’s tea with two plain scones, jam, and clotted cream, which is cream that’s been beatified. If you see one and you’re not in (a) a highway café or (b) a railroad café, try it.

The American scone is a British scone on steroids. Triple the sugar, double the shortening, quadruple the size, and add every kind of fruit and candy you can think of. Exactly when every American turned into a Texan (you know: Everything we have is bigger, and everything bigger is better) I don’t know, but somehow we did. Or it looks that way from here.

What about the brownie? The British call anything dark, slab-shaped, and sweetened a brownie. Mind you, I’ve had a few over here that were delicious, but if I see them advertised I approach the display case with extreme caution. Wild Thing ordered one in London once. It looked pretty reasonable in the display case but turned up at the table decked out with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and a blood-pressure monitor. The theory must be that if it’s American and you go over the top with it, it must be authentic. I mean, look what the bloody Americans do to the scone.

Tea

Americans think tea’s something you drink with your little finger in the air, as if you’d broken it and put it in a splint. We think it’s something you put on a funny accent to ask for. And America’s tea snobs reinforce that. You can’t just drink tea, you need tea made from leaves that were picked while the morning dew was  still fresh on the plant and which were then individually dried and sung to the whole time—by a tenor, thanks; a soprano might crisp the edges and a bass would leave them open to mold. And you need to pay lots o’ money for the resulting tea. I’ve been to restaurants, when I still lived in the U.S., where asking for a cup of tea meant the waiter had to haul out a wooden chest left from the time when restaurants kept a set of dueling pistols on hand in case, you know, a customer needed them. Only now it holds a complete set of hermetically sealed packets, each entombing one lonely teabag. And after all that, they bring you water that isn’t hot enough to lift any flavor out of the tea so you end up with, basically, a cup of bath water.

Irrelevant Photo: Launceston Castle

Irrelevant Photo: Launceston Castle

An English friend was so traumatized by her visit to the U.S. that she still talks about “that gray stuff you call tea.”

I hate restaurants like that. Not because of the tea. And not because everyone who works there is dressed better than I am. I’m used to that: I’ve always been dyslexic about style and have now gone entirely post-fashion. It’s because I keep thinking I’ve wandered into some private club and the butler’s going to throw me out any minute.

Are there still butlers loose in the world?

Anyway, tea: In Britain, it’s just a drink. If someone comes to fix the leak under your sink, you ask if they want a cup of tea. If you want to know why three guys are digging a hole in the middle of your street, you wander over and ask if they want a cup of tea. Add a biscuit—which is a cookie, and it doesn’t even have to be homemade—and they’ll tell you anything you want to know. Tea is the kind of drink you put in your thermos to take to work, if you happen to take a thermos to work. People talk about ordinary tea, or breakfast tea, to distinguish it from the fancy teas—Earl Grey, say, of green, or herbal (they pronounce the H). A. calls it builder’s tea, and sometimes builder’s butt tea. Her husband’s a builder, so she gets to say stuff like that.

A builder, by the way, builds buildings. Or fixes them. And a joiner’s a carpenter, not someone who belongs to a lot of organizations. All of them will drink tea. And so should you if you visit, because Wild Thing, who was once a dedicated and not at all fussy coffee drinker, tells me the coffee’s terrible. I gave up coffee long before I moved here, so I can only take her word for it.

A cup of tea is also a measure of time. If I drop by someone’s house and they offer me a cup of tea, they want me to stay long enough to drink it. Friendship is a highly caffeinated undertaking.