Foreigners think English food is awful, and I know why. It’s because they don’t know how to eat it.
I served a roast dinner to my outlaws at Christmas a few years ago. They took some potatoes, which sat all lonely and solitary in the middle of their plates. After eating them in dry, disappointed silence they took some turkey and had that, without even pouring the gravy on it. Till that point, I didn’t know it was even physically possible to swallow turkey without using gravy as a throat lubricant.
“Have some veggies with that,” I said. It was an order, actually.
“No no no! I’ll try them after this,” The Godmother (my mother-in-law) insisted.
Why? Why did she want to eat each dismantled part of her meal individually? Why was she refusing to give it a fair chance by eating her meal properly?
After having broccoli in isolation, then some solitary carrots, then a few Brussels sprouts, she was complaining that the meal was tasteless and weird.
“Yours is, mine isn’t,” I told her, shoving a forkful of meat, potato and peas swiped through gravy into my mouth.
I was getting irritated. “You don’t eat spaghetti all alone, then have tomato sauce on a separate plate afterwards. Why eat English food in such a strange way? Should I serve you the pasta like that next time?”
She simply raised one eyebrow.
Who did I think I was kidding? Trying to scare a Sicilian with food!
Sicilians regard fried spleen sandwiches (pane ca meusa) as a delicacy. Their idea of a great barbecue appetiser is a stigghiola, a sheep’s small intestine wound around a spring onion. They eat something called frittola which is everything left over on the slaughterhouse floor after a calf has exhaled its last: this has to be boiled at ultra-high temperatures before consumption to soften up the fragments of bone. It’s then deep fried to make the gristle more appetising. If you think I am exaggerating, go and see this graphically illustrated post about Nine Palermo Street Foods on the excellent blog Secret Sicily… if you dare.
They eat hearts and brains and livers with relish, dammit, and many of them are happy to scoff down fish eyeballs. My husband happily guzzles tripe and he once brought home mysterious ingredients from a butcher which, when cooked, turned into a meal I can only call “The Inside of a Goat.”
He had a trachea, with some bits of lung still attached; a piece of stomach; some flappy tubular intestine trailing off that (“I think the insides slipped out of that sausage,” I told him) and something slobbery which I am unable to name. It was like dissection lessons in the school biology lab, except that I was trying to eat my own dinner at the time.
The only way to maintain our status of marital bliss was to erect a barrier between us. This wall of ketchup bottles, milk cartons, mineral water bottles and a tall vase of flowers meant I could gaze into his eyes romantically whilst being unable to see any of the entrails on his plate.
This is the type of window display Sicilian butchers put up to lure in the customers:
The next Christmas I offered the outlaws a roast dinner again. When it comes to Christmas – and this is British food’s second problem with foreigners – Sicilians have no concept that Christmas dinner is a specific meal: they have any old thing at Christmas. Being someone who genuinely enjoys eating Brussels sprouts in a tissue-paper hat, surrounded by the debris of ripped up crackers, nail clippers and jokes I remember from primary school, I refused to give up trying.
This time I sliced the turkey on a large oval platter, garnished it with potatoes and carrot slices and sloshed the gravy all over it. That way, if they still wanted to eat the meal one ingredient at a time, they would jolly well have to dismantle it themselves. This went slightly better, except for the fact that my husband wanted to contribute something to the menu.
This brings me to the third problem with foreigners and English food. They don’t know what goes with what.
“I could do some fish,” Hubby suggested enthusiastically.
“No,” I said.
“But that’s very English,” he persisted. “I can do it in batter.”
“No,” I said.
“What about some risotto?”
Risotto? With a roast dinner? At Christmas?
“No,” I said.
After about ten more suggestions, none of which could possibly be considered to go with a roast lunch, to my immense relief he gave up.
He skulked about in the living room while I prepared the food. Once I had everything in the oven, he sneaked into the kitchen. I could hear the saucepans banging about, but had no idea what he was up to. When the meal was ready and I proudly placed it on the table, he produced his own contribution.
I was so traumatised by the sight of those whopping great tentacles curling and bouncing across the table towards my roast potatoes and gravy that I have never attempted another roast dinner again.
One day I shall do one, secretly, and eat it all by myself.
And I won’t share the Christmas pudding either.