I consider myself very lucky to have friends from all around the world, but there are admittedly one or two downsides. There’s the struggle to communicate across time zones. There’s the pain of knowing how rarely you might see each other. But perhaps the worst part of it is the indignity of the constant jokes at the expense of your nationality. For me, as a Brit, this means unoriginal cracks about my oral health (our teeth are good, actually), snarky references to Brexit, and an insistence that I must come from a town called “Plumpton-on-the-Lea” or “Bobbleton-upon-Rockinghamshire.”
But the favorite jab of my international friends is to go for the obvious, and insult British food.
It doesn't matter where you go in the world — the reputation of my national cuisine precedes itself. "I miss Sunday lunch with my family,'' I once told a very polite Japanese man I was tutoring. "Mm", he nodded. "But, I think maybe...British food is quite...terrible?" When pressed on the subject, people will generally describe their impression of British food as bland, soggy, overcooked, and visually unappealing.
british food looks so fucking depressing. look at this shit i wanna cry pic.twitter.com/Nx9Lq0FbVA— Slimy 🔜 G7 (@SlimyQuagsire) November 23, 2019
Yet I can't help but feel that the critics are missing out on a country with a lot of culinary potential. After all, there's no problem with the produce. The United Kingdom invented, and continues to produce, some of the world's most popular cheeses, high-quality meat such as Angus beef, heavenly strawberries, punchy rhubarb, and beautifully balanced chocolate. (Give a Brit a piece of Hersheys and watch their reaction to the weirdly acrid aftertaste that Americans are used to, which tastes like an acid reflux burp to anyone raised on Cadburys). I have never been to a country where the milk and cream tastes as rich and delicately sweet as it does in the UK. An English breakfast is a far better hangover cure than whatever stupid tomato-juice-egg-white concoction Gwyneth Paltrow is trying to sell you right now. And we also created Marmite, which is delicious, and frankly only has such a bad reputation overseas because everyone who tries it does so without proper instruction. (You’re supposed to butter the bread first, and then scrape the Marmite into the butter so that it blends. Declaring Marmite “bad” because you slapped it onto raw unbuttered bread is like declaring mustard “bad” because you downed it like a shot of whiskey.)
Nor is there an issue with our other gastronomic traditions: We can brew beer that tastes like caramel, coffee, banana, or a bouquet of fresh flowers, and apple cider with a 10-percent alcohol content that somehow still tastes like juice. Our snack foods are unparalleled in their creativity. We are also innovators in the realm of kitchen technology, as we are the only country that has figured out that, instead of spending fifteen minutes boiling water on the stove, you can use this mysterious invention called the electric kettle, which costs twenty bucks, will make itself useful at least twice a day, and yet is inexplicably absent from the vast majority of non-British homes.
At its best, British food is more than a match for its continental cousins; think of crisp golden pies, herby sausages, sweet yellow custard, heavenly Sunday roasts. So with all the right ingredients at hand, why does British food have such a bad reputation?
Plenty of other countries have been through food shortages, yet still maintained strong culinary traditions.
There have been a couple of academic explanations given for the supposed poor quality of British food. There is an oft-referenced hypothesis that British culinary traditions were actually quite strong, and the reputation of British food much more positive, until the early-to-mid 20th century, when wartime austerity forced British households into decades of food rationing. From 1940 to 1954, the priority for British cooks was not pleasure, but survival, and so an entire generation adapted to powdered eggs, canned food, and one single type of gross bread which was only bearable with the assistance of condiments. Not only did several generations of cooks grow up without access to their rich culinary heritage, but heavy restrictions on trade and travel meant that they could not discover the rest of the world’s bounty either. All sense of taste was wiped out in the space of a few decades, leaving our parents’ generation adrift in a sea of meat jelly, cauliflower cheese, and whatever Satanic creation this is supposed to be.
However, this hypothesis does not quite explain everything. After all, plenty of other countries have been through food shortages, yet still maintained strong culinary traditions. In fact, many cultures have countered lack of access to good-quality ingredients by producing even more flavorful and innovative dishes — the whole concept of “peasant cooking” revolves around the idea that working-class cultures use clever techniques and delicious seasoning to cover up having to use the crappiest cuts of meat.
I have an alternative theory that has much more explanatory power than historical or material explanations: British food is bad because British people are too repressed to cook food correctly.
I will start with a couple of caveats here. Obviously, there are some great restaurants in the UK, and many great home cooks as well. It’s also worth pointing out that the term “British” cuisine obscures a whole bunch of complex intercultural exchange both inside and outside the UK — some of the most popular dishes now seen as quintessentially British, such as balti, are the product of migrant communities adapting their home cuisines to local tastes. Lots of British people have heritage from outside the UK, and as such, have learned from their families a basic understanding of such complex techniques as “using spices.” Most of the UK’s major cities are home to some fantastic restaurants, though they can be hard to find and are increasingly struggling to cope with astronomical rents.
So clearly, it is not the case that all food and all cooks from this strange, rainy set of islands are uniquely deficient. However, my anecdotal experiences, and the experiences of well-travelled people I know, suggest to me that the average restaurant in the UK, especially outside the big cities, is worse than the average restaurant in the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, or the Mediterranean. (It’s not as bad as the food in the Netherlands, though. Trust me, if you think British food is bad, just wait til you see what passes for food in the Netherlands.) There is good food to be found if you make an effort to seek it out, but if you try your luck with a random restaurant, pub, or home cook, you will usually get served something edible but utterly forgettable. This is, in my view, not because there is something wrong with the ingredients, or because of some unique culinary trauma in our history, but because our culture simply does not prepare us emotionally to provide others with lovingly prepared food.
We are also, let’s be real, too sexually repressed to enjoy the sensuality of food preparation.
All the places with the best culinary traditions view food as an act of love. If you read a cookbook by a chef from Japan, Italy, or India, or you watch any of the countless Netflix food documentaries called something like Dirty Eats or Hot Stuff or Nasty Salt, one overarching theme you will notice is the presence of love, care, and generosity. These books and shows are always filled with stories of extended family gatherings, kids helping out and learning recipes as soon as they’re tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, huge handfuls of fat and herbs being thrown into everything, tables cluttered with side dishes, grandmothers serving up portion after portion until everyone's stuffed. Passion for food and drink is inextricably linked to memories of family and friends and good times. In countries with great culinary traditions, food is important because it's a way of showing you care, and that extends both to home cooking and cooking for profit.
This attitude is, on the whole… not terribly present in mainstream white Anglo culture. We don't like spending time with our extended families, we hate it when kids get in our way, and we don't like being too effusive about the fact that we love each other (except, of course, when we are drunk). A friend of mine with a young son once commented to me that she felt so much more welcomed in the Mediterranean than in England, where entering any space not explicitly designed for children results in wary looks and rolled eyes, as people wait for her child to start “fussing.” Families in public are not treated as a joy, but as an inconvenience. Loudness and enthusiasm is embarrassing. Affection is to be given sparingly, and being too kind to anyone outside your immediate bubble is to be met with suspicion.
We are also, let’s be real, too sexually repressed to enjoy the sensuality of food preparation (see: the fact that we go insane over Nigella Lawson telling us she is going to pound some bread dough). Cooking involves enjoying yourself, using all your senses, getting your hands wet and sticky and enclosed by the crevices of assorted game birds, and such decadence is uncomfortable for those of us raised with the notion that any kind of sensuality is embarrassing. (Once you understand that being neurotic and repressed impedes your ability to cook properly, this gives you the key to understanding not only British restaurants, but so much else about the current culinary and political landscape. Why do conservatives and alt-right types always have such sad-looking meals? Because if you're so mean and psychosexually weird that you become obsessed with an ethnostate, you're probably too mean and psychosexually weird to baste a chicken with the correct amount of butter. There, mystery solved.)
As a result, Britain — and in particular, white suburban Britain — has ended up with a culture in which, outside of haute cuisine or the most important holidays, serving your guests anything more lavish than lasagna and garlic bread is considered eccentric at best, and downright suspicious at worst. This applies not only to home cooking, but also the restaurant business. The average restaurant you walk into is likely to be extremely mediocre, making it plainly obvious that it is a business, first and foremost, and treats your hunger as a pragmatic opportunity to exchange money for satiation, rather than providing you with happiness. Any attempts to provide a “fresh” or “innovative” menu will inevitably involve some soulless copy of a trend that peaked in the U.S. six or seven years ago, cynically recycled for an audience who would turn their nose up at anything truly different. If you want happiness with your dinner, you’re expected to get that from the alcohol you purchase with the meal, not the meal itself. And why are you trying to experience happiness in a public place, anyway? Pull yourself together. We’re not French.
It’s not that all our food is bad, or that we are completely lacking in gastronomic traditions. On the contrary, our food and drink really does have a lot to offer. We have plenty of potential, and if you give us a chance to loosen up a little, we could provide you with culinary experiences that could surprise and delight you. We just need your help becoming a little less uptight first. And if that fails, well, we still have salt and vinegar crisps.