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Hungering for a Taste of Homemade American Cooking In Great Britain

October 12, 1989|JAMES MOORE | Moore is free-lance writer in Cambridge, England

CAMBRIDGE, England — You can't get Miracle Whip in Britain.

Harrods Pantry told us so, and told us the ingredients in Miracle Whip "contravened EEC regulations."

We didn't want to know how.

Since you can't get sweet pickle relish either, so much for authentic American tuna sandwiches (no white-meat tuna anyhow), authentic American ham salad or coleslaw. Without sweet pickle relish, no authentic potato salad or macaroni salad.

Not our version of authentic, anyhow.

Though Baskin-Robbins arrived here in July and there are more outlets for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and McDonald's than we really need, eating homemade American food (allowing for an American definition of "American") is hard to do.

What is American food, anyhow?

The Humblest Stuff

To nobody's surprise, it's not only steak and apple pie but specific candy bars and kosher, Miracle Whip and just-add-water and CalMex and things made out of corn. To our surprise, we missed a lot of the humblest stuff.

Three years here, we still miss most of it.

The British advertise candy bars for snack breaks in a way that calorie-conscious Yanks would find shameful. But try to find Butterfingers. Nobody eats more biscuits (cookies) than the British. Maybe someday Harrods will get around to stocking Oreos.

Or maybe not. When queried recently about sales of foods particularly popular among Americans, the pantry manager was serene: Harrods did not keep track of the nationality of their customers and the most popular pantry items were "biscuits, jams and teas."

It took a bit to track down pickles from Poland, but their proportions are picayune. Not at all kosher. "Salt beef" is not corned beef, no matter what the British-American dictionaries tell you. (But even with only the canned variety at hand, we forged some delicious Reubens. Polish sauerkraut is splendid.)

Bagels have traveled to London, thence north, but none of them have onion or seeds in them. With real perseverance we have located rye bread, realizing in the process that what we are used to is American rye, no matter what back-home delicatessen and bakeries call the alleged varieties.

This is a multicultural society, but not America's cultures.

Longed for Tacos

For more than two years we longed to make tacos and tostadas, burritos and tortilla stacks. The problem: no tortillas.

This frustration fitted a long-standing British pattern: the pros are allowed things that the amateurs are forbidden. We could order these dishes at the local Mexican restaurant but we couldn't get enough raw ingredients. (We are still stalled on making our favorite chocolate concoctions: baking chocolate squares are few and far between; Cadbury's syrup is much thicker than Hershey's.)

Not long ago at the Co-Op, I spied a small flat circular tin: corn mini-tortillas. They aren't fresh and they're from Louisiana, but now we think that smothered in Red Leicester and white Cheddar they taste exactly right. Fortunately, in a land where chiles are easily available, so are salsas.

Bearing in mind that corn is generic here (any sort of grain), sweet corn is only now emerging from its British status as an exotic. You can still see it planted as an ornamental in civic gardens, its tassels gently waving.

But kernels of sweet corn in sandwiches? Loose in salads? Lurking in Cantonese take-out? We may never get used to that. Creamed corn is simply not done. When we lived in London, Harrods was our only sources for Fritos and Doritos (at double the price) but at least the Doritos have caught up with us here.

We were horrified to find ourselves missing Rice-a-Roni and Stove Top dressing mixes. There were no crunchy noodles, La Choy or Chung King or Brand X, and we simply had to have them on occasion. Believe it or not, it took a year to wean ourselves from Chef Boy-ar-Dee pizza mix, which had become a Friday-night favorite.

Nostalgic for California Dip

We have taken to imploring friends and relatives to ship us Lipton onion-soup mix. How could we have become nostalgic for California dip?

The marvelous aroma of frying onions announces the British version of an outdoor frankfurter stand. But the "dogs" are sturdy and "bready," like all the other British sausages. When we found the appropriately skinny pink type at Marks and Spencer, we snatched them away, boiled them up and feasted.

Today in the Observer, our favorite Sunday newspaper, one of our favorite Washington correspondents summed up our feelings about American food.

Digging happily into barbecued burgers and ribs and mouth glued by brownies almost straight from the Betty Crocker package (you can get that here) and chicken fried steak and long-necked beer, confessing, "I like American food, a lot," he concluded: "American haute cuisine is like French military glory--it's not what they're best at."

Amen. We too have returned to barbecuing. Meantime, we still need Miracle Whip.

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