British food is better than American food. Deal with it.
There has long been a sibling rivalry between the UK and the US, America being the chubby younger sister with a penchant for the sickly sweet. Being the patient older sibling, we have watched over the years as ideas and innovations have been plagiarized and exploited by our aforementioned, spoilt sister. Today, though, with the onslaught of "American" food trends, the silence needs to be broken and a few points made.
We have both come under scrutiny for our nations’ cuisine, Britain supposedly home to overcooked tasteless food, America for an illustrious love affair with burgers, fries, and donuts.
However, in recent years, America has broken free of these shackles, and has seamlessly rebranded, today basking in the global glory of, well, the same artery-clogging fare; this time without the dodgy clown, and sometimes combining the donuts with the burgers. No one ever said you weren’t good at marketing, America.
But marketing aside, let us first take a look at those areas where Britain’s record of quiet excellence is indisputable. If we talk about appetite, the British have a much bigger one than Americans, which is ironic when you look at global obesity statistics. No other country has created two additional mealtimes in the day: elevenses, helping bridge that gap between breakfast and lunch, and afternoon tea, which is between lunch and dinner.
Whilst we are on the subject of tea, let’s draw our attention to the biscuit tin. Great Britain has created a substantial selection over the years and the roots of some of the worlds’ best-loved biscuits stem from our accomplishments. Don’t come waving one of your chocolate chip cookies, not unless you think it can take on a Jammy Dodger (or the Jammy Dodger cupcakes above -- see, we know how to put things on top of things too). Your confectionary, or "candy", as you insist on calling it, sucks too.
Which brings me to your lackluster snacks. A pork pie, a sausage roll, even a scotch egg tides a body over between mealtimes, and can be eaten easily on the go. We have all these filling, savory snacks; you have the Twinkie. I’m pretty sure you guys would be into a Melton Mowbray pork pie, and I’m amazed you haven’t ripped it off and passed it off as your own. Yet.
In recent years, there’s been a growing number of independent butcher shops in the US, which is admirable. Well done you. The independent butcher has been a mainstay on the British high street for centuries, long before your forefathers were dicking about with a turkey at Thanksgiving. Even today they still do a great job of competing against the supermarkets. The thing is, our meat has always been better, and I think you know it.
It’s not all about our superiority in stuffing ourselves with proteins. Since arriving in America, you guys never really left. It’s telling that only around 30% of Americans own a passport. Your country is as beautiful as it is diverse, but whilst America sat still, searching for lost Pop-Tart wrappers in the folds of her chins, Britain explored the world, incorporating exotic ingredients into her cuisine. The East India Trading Company is responsible not only for our interest in spices, but also America’s. Without us, your racks would be filled with nothing but sugary, pre-baked pastries.
Historically, we clearly have the upper hand, so how did Britain’s modern reputation become so misrepresented? Perhaps we still suffer from lingering perceptions dating back to the years from 1939 to 1955, when we endured wartime food shortages, followed by nine years of rationing. That’s 16 years during which ingredients were limited, recipes were substituted, and thriftiness took precedent. Yet, despite this setback, we continued to develop a powerful food culture that arguably overshadows our American little sister.
Unassailable proof of this can be found in our uninterrupted advancement of the coagulation of milk. Even given almost two decades of strife for Britain’s cheese industry -- at a time when all producers were forced to put out "government cheddar" -- our cheeses tower in comparison to America’s. This is in no small part thanks to Randolph Hodgson, who has saved, and continues to revive, many regional cheeses from the brink of extinction. His Neal’s Yard Dairy shops represent one of the foremost names in cheese across the globe, and are responsible for the huge export of British cheese to America. The FDA is as crooked as it is misinformed and, as such, your own cheese production is quite a way behind -- but hey, those processed slices are, er, pretty handy.
Defenders of American food will be quick to tell us about Alice Waters, and her progressive work (starting in the ‘70s) towards changing the restaurant and food culture. Let’s rewind a bit further. In 1952, at the tail end of Britain’s rationing years, George Perry-Smith opened a restaurant in Bath -- that’s in England -- called The Hole In The Wall. His self-taught approach to cooking embraced the best of local, seasonal produce and revolutionized the way restaurant menus read in the UK. Sound familiar? At this time, Alice was just 8-years-old, but we hear far more about her invention of California cuisine than we do of old George. Let us neither forget that it was our own Lord Northbourne who first coined the term “organic farming” in his book Look to the Land.
If you consider beer to be food, our case is strengthened further still; we invented the term “microbrewery” way back in the 1970s, when men like Bill Urquhart rebelled against mass production by brewing small-batch cask ales for local consumption. In short, we were reacting against the over-industrialization of food production while you were still industrializing.
It’s probably time to stop talking about Britain’s past achievements now, because, well, America doesn’t have many. Instead, we’ll look at the British game changers of today.
When you talk about British food, if you were to pick someone to go forward and represent it, you’d struggle to find a stronger ambassador than Fergus Henderson. Both his "nose to tail" ethos and his stout, gentlemanly approach hugely impacted today’s global dining culture, particularly in the US. It could easily be said that he is responsible for the boom in swine-obsessed eateries that lean toward curious cuts and offal; his renowned roast marrow with parsley and caper salad certainly inspired chefs the world over to cease neglecting the insides of bones.
“It’s only polite,” says Henderson. “Once you’ve knocked it on the head, once you’ve killed the animal, to eat it all.” That quote alone should be reason enough to close this piece, but we’ll continue.
Right now, we have British chefs like Isaac McHale at The Clove Club, alongside James Lowe of Lyle’s, who are at the forefront of food innovation. Not in the molecular gastronomy, balloon animal kind of way -- Lowe has a style that is steadfastly honest and uncomplicated, often using borrowed techniques from around the world, and utilizing them in an ingredient and seasonally driven way -- though of course “molecular gastronomy” sparked into existence when a French chef met a Hungarian physicist at, yes, Oxford University, and it’s likely thanks to the London-born Heston Blumenthal that you’ve heard of it.
Yotam Ottolenghi, champion of the vegetable, is also based in London, where he has honed his style with more of that pioneering British spirit, incorporating flecks of Asian influence into his Middle Eastern background. His book Jerusalem was cited by The New York Times as being as influential as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Stateside, vegetables are rapidly becoming the new pork, not wanting to sound like we got there first, but...
British food is alive, well, and continues to thrive. We are a little humbler in our approach. Unlike our American sibling, we don’t shout quite as loudly about our achievements. After surveying the facts, though, could Britain be responsible for America’s current culinary craze? Probably. It’s ok, you’re welcome, America. Now go do what you do best. Rebrand it all and sell it as your own.
Nick Baines is a food and travel writer who, despite being based in the UK, has somehow managed to become a certified judge for the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Follow him here.