Before last week, I had never ventured across the Atlantic Ocean to the continent from whence my ancestors departed. My impressions of Europeans were formed mostly by Fox News, James Bond movies, and the occasional expatriate I had met while in my cups. As such, when the Columbia Rugby Team scheduled spring break games against top university sides in England, I could not wait for the opportunity to expand my horizons, broaden my cultural experiences, be turned down by women with accents, make an ass of myself on multiple continents, and, of course, sample foreign cuisine.
At this point, let me say that few of my previously held prejudices remain after ten days in Birmingham and London. No longer am I under the impression that every Englishman has rotten teeth (although this one guy named Lain certainly looked as though he could benefit from nationalized dental care), and although smoking is much more prominent, it is not nearly as all pervasive as I once presumed. Unfortunately, my greatest and most strongly held preconceived notion remains untouched, and, in fact, emboldened. English food sucks.
It's not so much the omnipresent grease and fat, although I now sympathize with the once gargantuan Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. It's not so much the slightly downgraded versions of American fast food sold at prices nearly double that of our McDonald's and Burger Kings. It's not so much that a piece of pizza roughly half the size of a Famiglia slice costs two pounds (nearly four dollars) and is presented to the patron fresh out of the microwave. It's not so much that during the entire time I was in England, I saw neither hide nor hair of anything so much as resembling a salad, or any other vegetable for that matter. What really ticked me off about English dining was that when ordering beverages, no restaurant would bring me tap water.
That's right. Nowhere in England will you be able to order simple "water, please." For the college student on a tight budget, the the cheapest drink option at even the cheapest restaurant is a twelve-ounce bottle of spring water for 1.50 pounds. For those of you who care to do the math, this means that in England, a glass of water will run you nearly three dollars.
Calm down, you might say, it's only a couple of bucks. Well, I'm sorry, I won't calm down. Ten days in England, that's approximately thirty meals. I had sausages and French fries (or, as the English so temptingly title them, bangers n' chips) eleven times. One third of my gastronomical intake was pork products so gnarly Jimmy Dean would have stabbed himself, and fried slivers of potato so cold and chewy that the entire state of Idaho would drop dead upon first sight of them. My English hosts told me I wasn't eating them right--"No, lad, no, ya ga' ta lather um oop in mayonaze, and waesh um dawn weth a stawnch pint." When I dared to ask for Ketchup and mustard, they looked at me with a glint in their eyes akin to fear. "Try the brown sauce," they suggested, then quickly retreated and made gestures that I fully believe were intended to ward off the evil eye.
In addition to the bangers, I ate six "all day" breakfasts. All day breakfasts are apparently uniform throughout the island of Great Britain, as every one was identical, no matter where I sat down. Two eggs over easy, two bangers, rubbery as all hell, a slice of ham so chewy I thought it was leather, a ladle full of baked beans, and a tomato. I'm not sure what the tomato was there for, although it certainly added a nice touch of color to an otherwise bland plate. In addition to the uniform components of the breakfasts, they were all uniformly horrendous. Three of the six cause intense abdominal pain, and two others necessitate self-induced vomiting within the hour.
I also had nine sandwiches, all of which were packaged identically. A small triangular plastic package held two halves of a sandwich--sometimes the sandwich was chicken, sometimes ham, sometimes bacon, and sometimes egg salad. Unfortunately, due to the language barrier and poor marketing strategies, I was unable to determine what type of sandwich I was purchasing until first bite (and sometimes, even that was not enough evidence). The saturation of English society by these packaged sandwiches was truly mind boggling--you could buy them at grocery stores, gas stations, bars, hotels, movie theatres, museums, airports, street vendors, and even, I believe, inside Westminster Abbey. While I was eating the last of my nine sandwiches (it might have been bacon), I couldn't help but think, "If these horrible creations were the sustenance upon which the British Empire was founded, no wonder the United Kingdom hasn't fared so well in the past couple centuries."
Thankfully, there is a single oasis in the barren wasteland that is English cuisine: Indian food. While the Brits make no distinction between varieties and regional dishes, and lump all Indian food under the moniker "curry" (or Ruby, in Cockney Rhyming slang--don't even ask), the exceptionally long menus offered by the purveyors provided a much needed respite from the bland monotony of bangers and chips. There are Indian restaurants on nearly every corner, and the prices are not as astronomical as the rest of English fare (although they are still nearly double that of the Indian food we find in NYC). Most restaurants offer pre-theatre specials and prix fix that give the patron the opportunity to sample a range of flavors.
In closing, let me just add that I ate one meal of fish and chips, and was so disgusted by the entire affair that I vowed never again to sully my palate with such filth. Any meal that is served wrapped in newspaper is just not for me, especially when the grease is so saturating that by the time you unfold the copy of the Globe, you can already see through it, thanks to the salty, greasy, putrescence that lay therein. England may have culture and stature, and those accents really kick ass, but they also have the worst food in the world.