Before I dive into the meat of the matter here – a very brief celebration of Colman Andrews’s newest book, The British Table (2016), the impetus that brought me to the page this morning – I’m going to share a few words about how I perceive British food vis-a-vis the United States.
Perhaps you’ve thought that I’d given up on my so-called “half-baked,” politically-incorrect, hare-brained notion of British/English food being the backbone of American cooking. Or at least the spine that holds it together. But you’d be wrong. Far more well-known writers than I – Nancy Carter Crump, Stephen Schmidt and Adrian Miller among them – have pointed out the uncanny resemblances between what is considered to be “Southern”* cooking in the Unted States and British cooking. Now this should be obvious to just about anyone who spends any time at all wading through the millions of words about food swirling out there on the Internet.
But you see, that’s the catch – yes, there are scads of words. But here’s the thing: very few people waste their time on British food. Because it’s so bad, right? Because it’s bland and nasty. Because it was the food that fueled colonialism in America (among other places). Because, geez, Southern food owes everything to enslaved cooks. Maybe not everything, some things, yes. Because the French, the Germans, the Italians, and on and on, all those immigrants added their ingredients to the so-called melting pot.
And so British food melted into the stew, unrecognizable.
Now I know that my point of view – and I am entitled to it, don’t forget – is unpopular. I have been called all sorts of names and vilified by people who never even read what I have written about the subject of British food and its historical influence on American cooking. No, what happened once upon a time in 2016 was that a few people took great offense at my words and carried out a blistering attack on me and my credentials and my character. They bore false witness via social media – funny how that happens. It’s like holding a lit match to dry tinder, that social media stuff, and then watch out. The fire spreads and spreads until no one remembers what started the resulting Inferno.
First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I have never said that enslaved cooks or immigrant cooks had no influence in the kitchens of America. Never did I say that. What I DID say was that that influence is likely not as grand as some would like to believe. Until we have better DOCUMENTED information, this will remain the truth. And, for me, that demands that people writing on this subject spend more time looking at the documented record of British cookery, in the form of cookbooks, diaries, supply lists, ledgers, letters, arachaeological evidence, etc., etc. Oral history, too, but with the caveat that memory is fallible. Fallbility of memory.
Only then, I believe, will it become clearer just how much British foodways made inroads in America and remained that way for much of the country until, say, the 1960s. In the American South, those foodways jelled and remained predominant, preserved by cooks and by geography and by tradition.
If you think about it, you really do know a lot of British food.
As my Danish father-in-law used to say, “Now we can eat,” once one of his six children invariably spilled their milk at the supper table. Now we can get down to the business of this post, which is to praise Colman Andrews’s The British Table.
Big, hefty, solid, and gorgeous. That’s what I think when I first pick up the book and begin paging through it. Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton lent their considerable photographic skills to the text, so much time is going to be wasted as you drool or sigh over idyllic scenes and hearty dishes. Here you will find dishes that will remind you of many things you may have eaten in your life. But there’s a twist to them, as Mr. Andrews appears to have sought out truly British dishes dating back to earlier times (pre-war, etc.), with ample spicing to remind you that myth creation is not solely restricted to American cooking. Take, for example:
Saucermeat Bronies (a sort of spiced hamburger/meat cake)
Pickled Red Cabbage
Pork Chops with Cinnamon and Apples
Braised Brisket with Pickled Walnuts
In other words, Mr. Andrews dashes on the rocks the myth of bad, nasty, blah British cooking. His recipes bring to mind Mary Randolph’s book of 1824, The Virginia Housewife. There she compiled recipes with a decided British (and global, actually) emphasis. Her African slave cooks did cook these foods, perhaps adding a few pinches of this and that to the recipes. But many of the dishes were already amply spiced and savory, the recipes the backbone. the spine of it all.
To claim that the spicing of American food only came through the provenance of certain groups of cooks, such as enslaved African cooks and immigrants, is to miss a very vital point. By the time that the Jamestown settlers arrived in 1607, the world had been enjoying a revolution in taste that began with thriving global trade. The English, with their seafaring skills, joined the Portuguese and the Spanish in seeking wealth and spices and power. They did not arrive on the shores of Cape Henry with palates limited to blancmange or boiled salt beef.
It says a lot about the food-writing world today that Mr. Andrews’s book has received only two reviews on Amazon.com versus 134 for Ina Garten’s Cooking for Jeffrey, published a mere two weeks prior to Mr. Andrews. In an interview for The Daily Meal, he remarked that “British cooking has never been sexy in the way that Thai or Italian or Cajun cooking has, and it never will be — but what I hope this book suggests is that it eloquently expresses the virtues of culinary honesty, simplicity, and — perhaps surprisingly to some — variety … .”
I for one cherish this book, because to condemn a cuisine – or anything else – based on false witness is untenable.
I hope to see other reviews of this book – it deserves it. In the meantime, my kitchen will smell heavenly as I cook the precursors to the food that fueled America. And still does, in many ways.
*”Southern” is a generic term without much meaning when it comes right down to it, for there are many regions in the American South, each with its special culinary profile. FWIW: I am writing a novel about the English, their food in America, and recipes/herbals in healing.
© 2016 C. Bertelsen