"It's true," said all the folk of England about the time of Christ, "that for a long time the food of England was atrocious. Unimaginative. Overcooked, and desperately lacking in variety. But since the Romans came all that has changed, and now, sir, we fancy that nowhere in Europe does one eat better than in this island."
The English have always said this, and say it now.
"Ever since the Saxons came . . ."
"Ever since the Danes . . ."
"Ever since the Normans . . ."
"Ever since Waterloo . . ."
"Ever since the Common Market . . ."
The American traveler to England need have no fear that things are changed. It is still the only realm in Christendom in which the roast beef is still thin, still cooked to purple-brown and still inedible, though now it basks beneath vermilion lights until it is carved, and they give the illusion that once the stuff had blood in it. Once on the plate, however, it is the same soft mealy leather that once shod Queen Guinevere.
They have learned to eat avocados recently, and these come from Spain or Africa or some such place, and the English have not yet learned how to get inside them and ruin them before they reach the table. Their ingenuity is great, however, and already they have learned to mash the avocados up with sugar and run them through a baby-food machine to produce the familiar bright-green slime they call "pudding." You squeeze lime juice on top.
So vast have the dietary novelties become that they also now stuff the avocados with shrimps, taking normal care to see to it the shrimps are pale and utterly tasteless and the avocados are on the hard side, and the dish inundated with pink sauce.
The pink sauce is very like the yellow sauce except it is less tenacious. There is something they leave out of the pink, perhaps boiled hooves, so the pink is very like mayonnaise thinned with tap water, but the mayonnaise has no eggs, oil or lemon juice in it.
The yellow, which goes on all fish and chicken dishes, illustrates what happens when the English get hold of a bechamel sauce and try to adapt it to the requirements of an island race. They take three pounds of flour, a quart of water (I approximate their formula but am not far off, since, man and boy, I have eaten for the better part of a century now and am not easily fooled about food) and boil it for an hour or so, then set it aside. When lukewarm they add two ounces of plain gelatin, four ounces of yellow food dye and put it back on the stove to simmer the balance of the day or until it is time to enshroud deeply whatever lies beneath.
They have a way of mounding this sauce up like a melon mold (the sauce will hold any shape if you slap it firmly with wooden paddles) and will hold its heat almost indefinitely. If properly aged in its cooking pot, it becomes almost as chewy as melted cheese, with the great advantage of having no flavor. The English think flavors are vulgar and primitive, maybe even French.
Inside their houses they eat well, in my experience, and I speak only of the ordinary English restaurant of genteel pretension. The only safe dessert, or pudding, in the entire kingdom is fresh fruit imported from sunny places and untouched by an English cook. Beware of anything native that includes gooseberries, currants or pastry. Smile firmly and say your religion requires you to eat only grapes and peaches straight out of the field. Otherwise they will think of something clever to do with them like stewing them in treacle and glopping them daintily with custard and cream.
Now their cream is far better than ours because we do not have cream in America. Instead of Jerseys and cows that produce cream, we have something else, and what comes out of our cows is the main reason sensible people never touch American milk or "cream" once they are weaned.
The English have real cream, and you get it not only in Cornwall and Devon (never make the mistake of calling Cornish cream Devonshire cream; the Cornish do not lightly forgive you if you confuse the two virtually identical creams) but throughout England.
A cream tea consists of two biscuits of gross size, such as they have for breakfast in Nebraska, with a pot of strawberry jam and a pot of tea and plenty of cream that has to be spooned out since it does not pour. This is a very good thing, and has sustained many Americans for weeks on end. They call these tasteless large biscuits scones. Fruit scones, which sound festive and cost a good bit more when acquired from the fashionable purveyor in London, are the same thing, only with dried currants in them, and are a dead loss.
Bacon is what we call Canadian bacon, and the English know how to find it with a wide slab of pure fat on the edge. They cook it limp. The usual breakfast sausage is the banger, and anybody used to Jones or Gwaltney sausage will go to some lengths to avoid bangers after a couple of trials.
They also have tomatoes for breakfast. Sometimes they are oval tomatoes that come in cans. When these appear at breakfast, you lift them to a butter plate and ask for them to be taken away somewhere. It takes about five days for the English to learn you are not going to eat the tomatoes, then they stop bringing them.
They have excellent butter, much of it from Denmark I am told. English toast is like ours, only they serve it in toast racks to ensure it is stone-cold. In that kingdom I always put a dinner roll in my pocket at night and eat it with a glass of hot water in the morning before descending to breakfast. The hard dinner rolls are good and perhaps come from Paris.
They have better coffee in public places than we do. American coffee has not been fit to drink since the Depression, which was the period in which it was learned very few Americans will send the coffee back, no matter how dreadful. The result is that throughout America you can spend half a dollar to a dollar for undrinkable coffee, but it is better in England. This is partly because they have two or three good powdered instant coffees, but it will do you no good to write the manufacturer (we wrote Nestle, for example) since the drinkable instant coffees are not sold in the American market, but only the dismal product known to us all.
Food shops such as that at Harrods have excellent things in the way of cold meat pies. Ideally you rent an apartment in London and buy stuff at Harrods. If you are in a hotel of less than grand luxe you cannot very well feed yourself, and should shop carefully for a good Italian restaurant. The Indian restaurants of London are famous and if you like them, there they are.
They do not comprehend the salad in England. You should order a half-head of lettuce and a bowl, with a vial of olive oil and vinegar. Otherwise they will put a terrible sauce on it. You should carry a small shaker of powdered garlic in your pocket at all times. If you order chicken and they say "salad with it?" and you say yes, you will get two leaves of wilted lettuce, two slices of greenish-rose tomatoes, one radish and two slices of cucumber with a strangely acidulous liquid over it. This is possibly the North Sea oil one hears of nowadays.
The best cheese in England is farm or country cheddar. They like Double Gloucester and Stilton, but if you should want a blue cheese you must ask for Roquefort and make sure it really is Roquefort. Stilton is only good if you pack it in a crock and fill it up with good port and eat it on winter nights with walnuts.
English potatoes are vastly better than ours, which is not saying much, since almost anything is better than the American potato. Since the sun never emerges in England, potato vines do not grow much, and tiny potatoes are always available. Always get them boiled. English french fries are much like our own, only more limp and slightly worse.
The fortunate traveler in England, with dinner roll and garlic powder in his pocket, some meat pies from Harrods, some cheese from France, some cherries from Italy and grapes from Spain, with plenty of olives in jars and an occasional roast of lamb (splendid throughout England), some French beans and plain boiled cauliflower, bread from a carefully chosen bakery -- provisioned thus, the American traveler will survive admirably, hardly aware he is in the Land of the Yellow-Pink Sauce and the Loathsome Bottled Plum.