Jellied eels and mash might sound like a medieval torture technique, but in London it’s a traditional dish. Eels used to be so plentiful in the River Thames that they became a popular dinner for the city’s working class. My local eel, mash and pie shop is an east London institution, an island in a sea of gentrified bars and restaurants. I can’t bring myself to try it. Soon it will probably be sold and turned into an artisanal sourdough bakery or a cocktail bar that is also a toddler’s ball pit (adults only).
A nation’s cuisine is often defined by its working people. Forced to get creative with limited ingredients, the poor have given food some of its most flavourful innovations. But in Britain its “peasant food” has a grisly reputation. It is unclear why British grub got into such a state. If you ask a British person they’ll usually get defensive and insist you try something called a “spotted dick” before finally breaking down and blaming the Germans.
The story goes that British food used to be good – think Sunday roasts, Yorkshire pudding, afternoon tea – but that the second World War put its kitchens back by generations. The country had relied on imports from the empire to feed its surging population after the Industrial Revolution. But with supply lines cut off by Germany, resources had to be rationed. From 1940 to 1954 people just got used to stodgy food and dreary condiments.
The excuse doesn't entirely add up. Lots of countries have suffered through tough conditions, but not everyone resorted to bangers and mash. In rural Italy, cucina povera (literally, "poor kitchen") gave the world prosciutto and bruschetta. Were the British just less inventive chefs than other Europeans?
You can go to Greggs, for pies and pasties filled with sloppy, lukewarm meats, or to a delicatessen managed by a girl called Poppy who would rather spit in your eye than serve a jumbo breakfast roll. There's no middle ground
Food plays a more functional role in British society than on the Continent. While other cultures tend to view food and its preparation as points of personal and national pride, the British seem more likely to value simplicity and "making do". The consequences for people's health haven't been good. Research in 2018 found that the UK had the worst diet in Europe. Fast food and ready meals made up more than half of all meals eaten in the average household, five times as many as in Portugal. The study also found that Britain was the most obese country in Europe.
I should mention that the same study found Ireland wasn't far behind. Another study in 2019 revealed that the Irish were the second-fattest people in the EU. Coming second is hardly a reason to jump for joy, though such a feat might be physically impossible for many of us anyway.
Ireland’s reputation for food isn’t any better than Britain’s. Whether you call a fry-up a full Irish or a full English, the heart disease gets you just the same. Still, there are some differences. Irish immigrants in Britain will be all too aware of the scarcity of decent breakfast or chicken-fillet rolls. Traditional musicians ought to be writing agonised, Famine-style ballads about this.
In the place of supermarket delis we have Greggs, a chain selling pies and pasties filled with sloppy, lukewarm meats. At the other end of the spectrum are upmarket delicatessens managed by girls called Poppy who would rather spit in your eye than serve anything resembling a jumbo breakfast roll. There's no middle ground. In England even sandwich bars are organised according to class, and the egalitarianism of the Irish Spar deli is sorely missed.
Let's talk about what British bellies are good at: embracing the spoils of empire. For generations before the second World War their pantries were filled with pepper from India, lamb from New Zealand, sugar from Jamaica and tea from Ceylon. The Chinese have been drinking tea for two millenniums, but it was the English who thought to add milk and sugar.
The flagrant appropriation of other culinary cultures is what sets the UK apart. While Italians are psychologically unable to accept any deviation from their food orthodoxy (asking for a Hawaiian pizza in Naples would be like demanding a Neapolitan pineapple in Hawaii), Britons are enthusiastic consumers of new things, especially when it comes from the old empire. The chicken tikka masala, for example, was invented by Britain’s South Asian community in the 1970s and is now considered a national dish.
Go out in London at night and you'll find the streets aglow with the lights of Lebanese falafel joints, Vietnamese bánh mì counters, Jewish bagel bars, Bangladeshi curry houses, African fusion restaurants and anything else you can imagine. It might not be what you expect "English cuisine" to look like, but eating out in London is a joy. Whatever you're looking for, you'll be able to find it here.
But if the food shortages get really bad this winter and the queen's speech includes the words "Let them eat eels", I'm moving home.
Peter Flanagan left Ireland in 2016 to perform stand-up comedy in London. He has worked as a writer and comedian in Britain and Europe
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