England and the US: No longer ‘gastronomic illiterates’
My college classmate, Angela, introduced me to Marmite, and I thought it was the most awful thing I ever tasted. She laughed at my reaction and relished her toast topped with this brown mash that didn’t even smell good.
I remembered Angela while reading “Eating England” by Hattie Ellis (Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd., 2001), a gem of a book. It was while eating breakfast when Ellis had thought of doing a book on English identity through food. And her breakfast that day—toast with Marmite and marmalade.
That brought to mind “Toast,” a TV film from Britain based on the autobiography of cook and food writer Nigel Slater. Toast was his comfort and survival food because if he couldn’t eat his mother’s cooking, he had toast.
“Nobody else does toast the way we do,” writes Ellis. From that breakfast, her curiosity brought her to many points in England searching for what constitutes national taste, as well as to answer why the English has gained a reputation as “gastronomic illiterates.”
Food was not on top of my list on a visit to England. The British Council brought me there to observe the early attempts at digital publishing during my former life as computer consultant. Theater was second on my list. But I had to eat, and very often I was disappointed in London and actively looked for the famous roast beef. The most memorable were the meals we had in Chinatown, not a good thing for a country that wants a tourist to taste the local cooking.
It was a good thing that a friend who was my co-teacher at Xavier University, a British volunteer, became my food guide, bringing me to the best pubs and to a Sunday lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. On my own I had unimpressive fish and chips, but the toffee shops were astounding.
Of course, it is a different England today. Renowned chefs want to be there to work or open a restaurant. Ellis observes how the country is going the way of its European neighbors—using ingredients on-hand, sponsoring local providers, even eating the fish that are caught in English waters that used to be mostly exported to foreign markets.
“Eating England” is a great resource on the origin of certain food. For instance, Marmite, Ellis tells us, is “a by-product of the brewing industry,” the leftover yeast turned by the German scientist, Justus Liebig, “into a dark, salty paste that was similar in appearance, smell and flavor to an extract of meat.”
American regional food
It is no longer surprising today that to know about a country’s cooking, one has to go to the countryside. Clementine Paddleford decided to write about her country’s regional cuisine in her articles and in her book, “How America Eats.”
But the book I have is about her: “Hometown Appetites,” by Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris (Gotham Books, 2008). It details her path from contributor to public relations writer until she emerged as food editor of New York Herald Tribune. Paddleford should be as famous as James Beard and Julia Child. But she is not, and the book hopes to put her in the minds of readers and foodies as “the first person to truly define ‘regional American food.’” Why she isn’t that known is a circumstance of time. She was food editor for 30 years, from 1936 to 1966, when writing about food was mainly about recipes and the subject was the concern of Home Economics graduates.
Paddleford did include recipes, but she included much more. She wrote: “I hope to get this material from personal interviews with farm women, thus giving hard-boiled copy a human interest slant.”
And so Paddleford did, through her long career as food journalist. The authors of the book describe her as “the getting-aroundest person,” and that describes so many of the television food bodies today, the likes of Bourdain and his ilk. Those of us who do go around to find the food of our nation and “why we eat what we eat” may not have been inspired by Paddleford because we didn’t know her yet, but now that we do, we can assuredly learn from her.