IF WE WERE paying $2.26 a pound for bacon, $1.60 a dozen for eggs, $2.08 a pound for ground beef and $1.05 a pound for chickens we'd probably be out picketing. If just about every packaged food manufactured contained artificial coloring, the Center for Science in the Public Interest would have long since sued the government to have them removed. But not the Brits.
Whether it is apathy or the wellknown British ability to "muddle through," the country's reaction to incredibly high food prices, lack of information about the content of when they eat and shortage of nutrition information is in sharp contrast to the sound and fury of their American cousins.
Or is it, as one cynical American speculated, the English lack of interest in how food tastes that makes them care so little about it in general?
They do not seem to engage in the same kind of confrontation politics of which Americans are so fond. They don't sue their government at the drop of a comma; it's against the law. They do not engage in adversary relationships with their equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Newspapers and magazines are not full of articles on how to turn a three pound chicken into a meal for 10 with leftovers, or 65 ways to prepare beans.
While many Americans have turned coping with the high food prices into an art, it was impossible to find anyone in London, in two days of visiting street markets and supermarkets, who was even using a shopping list, much less complaining bitterly about their sacrifices. Yet they were all coping.
Perhaps the greatest change the English have had to make in their eating habits involves their revered institution, the traditional English Sunday dinner, roast beef or lamb, what they call a "joint." "We used to have a joint but now it's chicken," was heard over and over again. The joint has gone the way of sirloin steak in many American homes. The home of roast beef and yorkshire pudding is without its beef.
The English, who never got entirely out of the habit of stopping at several markets on a shopping trip, are going back to it again. Supermarkets had never taken over the way they had in America. They are much smaller and offer much less variety than ours. There are still many street vendors selling fruits and vegetables. "I go around from shop to shop," said one woman in a large north London supermarket. "I've cut down on sweets and ready-made puddings and biscuits [small cakes], all the things the children like. We don't have the best cuts of meat. We never used to have mince [ground beef] or sausage, but now we do. I can't remember when we had steak."
We call it cutting back and trading down, though there is no indication that Americans cut back on their consumption of sweets in the process.
"I've been a young working mother and an old working mother," said one woman who was out shopping with her pregnant daughter and small granddaughter. "Women used to go to work for luxuries, a car or vacation," but, her daughter added, "it takes about six years after you are married just to catch up."
"you cut back on biscuits, meat, sandwich meats, bacon," her mother added. "A lot of people don't even have bacon, only on Sunday morning. It's a sheer luxury. We have meat once or twice a week and on Sunday. We eat beef burgers, meat pies or meat pudding. We use mince to make shepherd's pies." Once shepherd's pies were made with what we call stew beef. s
All that is not so different from what working-class Americans have done in the last few years, except that it is more extreme. It's harder for Americans to give up their meat than for the English. And many Americans are using bacon as a substitute.
"You Americans have been spoiled," said an English woman who has lived in this country for years. "Your food has never been as expensive as ours." As expensive as food is in this country today, the disparity between prices in London and those in Washington is startling. The English must import 50 percent of what they eat which accounts for part of the high cost.The cost of oil also has had a significant impact, and for some things the high tax rate has added another burden. But food isn't the only thing that Americans find expensive in England, once a shopping paradise for cashmere and shetland sweaters, woolen fabrics, china. Today it's cheaper for Americans to buy these things at home. The American dollar doesn't buy as much as it used to abroad.
On the other hand, people from the continent, particularly the French, find it worth their while to take the hydrofoil across the Channel and spend the day shopping on the English coast.
The tax burden on the English gives them even less take-home pay than they used to have, but the older generation in England is used to making do. First the Depression, then World War II when just about everything was rationed, then the postwar austerity years. There were only a couple of years during which the English enjoyed the kind of prosperity Americans had been used to for more than a decade. They never got used to it. Consequently it hasn't been as difficult for them to reduce their standard of living. "You are talking about people who have been frugal for a long time," said one shopper.
One of London's best known street markets in Brick Lane market, where they sell everything from used tools and parakeets (the English equivalent of the Humane Society was out protesting mistreatment of animals sold at the market) to coats and food. The market, in East London, is in one of the city's poorer sections, where many pensioners live.
Here the distinctly English phenomenon of men doing the shopping at the outdoor markets is evident. They are considered better shoppers. "The men are the meanies," one stall owner explained. "When it's tight they are tougher shoppers. The last two hours of the day we auction what we have left. Invariably women will pay a few coppers [pennies] more. The men will wait until the price is down."
Americans don't have street markets like these British institutions, where prices are cheaper. At Brick Lane the stall doing the greatest volume was selling frozen meat from a large truck. Some people must have questioned the quality of the merchandise, because the seller was defending his products. "No way we would be selling every week if we were selling rubbish," he said. He offered money-back guarantees and he had pleny of takers. There was a crowd of about 100 snapping up meat and fish sold in bulk (6 pounds of sausage -- all British sausage seems to contain filler as well as meat -- at 90 cents a pound instead of $1.35 to $1.58; 3 pounds of bacon at $1.49 a pound instead of $2.26). There were no authorities assuring the wholesomeness of the meat.
A daily trip to the corner pub -- and there is one on just about every corner -- is another English tradition that is fading. That's the equivalent of an American giving up his beer with his Sunday afternoon footbal game. "Have you been to a pub, lately?" asked a retired pensioner, who lived in nearby council housing, similar to American public housing. "They're empty. I used to go every day. Now I only go on weekends and then stay only one hour." It is not only because everything costs so much, but because the Thatcher government put an additional tax on beer. "You also cut back on the amount of clothes you buy," another stall owner said. "A lot of people got cars, but they travel less." Travel will be reduced even further if the government's 20-pence-a-gallon tax goes into effect.
"Basically, people are still eating," said the stall owner. "The blokes selling dresses are the ones in trouble. The food game is the only game that hasn't been affected."
A woman visiting London from North Wales, where conditions are much worse than in London and southeastern England, said it used to take her half an hour to shop; now it takes two hours. "We can't afford to have the roast. We eat loads and loads of eggs, chips [french fries], sausage and bacon" . . . a cardiologist's nightmare.
But concern about the amount of fat in the diet or sweets is not on the minds of most Britons.
According to the manager of a chain of cooperative markets in London shoppers have changed their eating habits because of prices. "Definitely less meat than a year ago, and they are buying meat they normally wouldn't eat. There's been a 25 percent drop in meat purchases. They eat more lamb.
"Convenience foods were never that big to begin with," Brian Geen explained. But what has caught on in his country is fast food, and take-away food is very big -- McDonald's and Burger King.
"In the last five years we've been eating far more Continental food. Once a week the average English family will eat spaghetti bolognese.
"We are selling more fresh fruit than tinned fruit, because it's less expensive because of the Common Market.
"Cheese consumption is down because the Common Market put up prices even in domestic dairy products. A lot of people have gone off butter for the same reason. They are using better quality margarine. Not as a health consious measure.
"There's a definite drop in the sale of wines and cigarettes because of the new taxes."
Geen says there hasn't been a drop in the consumption of sweets because the manufacturers are turning out smaller packages of candies for the same price.
"Oh, it's a terrible place to live," said Geen. "The problem with this country is terrible apathy. Maybe we need another war. We don't get too boiled up over things, the way you do," he said.