Of course, not all the English are like this.
“Is this all right, my dear, or is it too much?” The hostess looks in earnest.
You stare at the minuscule mound before you, and resist the temptation of lifting your plate to check if there is more food hiding underneath. You refrain from asking if it is served with a magnifying glass.
In England, there is no need to fight off repeated and insistent offers of third and fourth helpings. When the hostess asks if you would like a second helping, her tone is one of intellectual curiosity, rather than encouragement. In fact, all you need to do, is glance at the remaining contents in the serving dish to realise that the cook did not build in the possibility of all the guests having second helpings.
The English pride themselves with abhorring waste. Hence, there is no wild and carefree scooping of food onto guests’ plates. The menu is implemented with minute precision. Eight people for dinner, eight cutlets, eight bread rolls, sixteen new potatoes (two each), eight individual trifles (here’s hoping one glass doesn’t slip off the tray), and four avocados (half each – no need for extravagance).
Ours is the only country in the world where you are asked if you would like “a” biscuit with your tea.
Some say this frugality is a leftover trauma from the privations of the Second World War, but we were not the only European country to suffer from it.
Others would venture that the English have a naturally small appetite. Interestingly, though, the same people who offer you a single, lonely biscuit, will nonchalantly wolf down the entire contents of the tin if you tell them to help themselves, or if you keep proffering the tin. Of course, there always is the possibility that they are too polite to refuse, and are causing themselves great intestinal discomfort just so as not to offend.
In England, food is not an everyday right or legitimate need. It is a luxury. Hence, much fuss is made over the offering and accepting of it.
“Would you like a little bit more?” (note the “little” and “bit”)
“Oh… I shouldn’t… That’s so naughty… Oh, well… All right… You’ve twisted my arm – just a tiny, tiny bit more… Oh, dear, I’m being greedy…”
It is not a gift of 50% shares in an oil company. It is food. Just take it.
Sometimes, they will invite you over for a meal, only to apologise profusely for either the insufficiency or poor quality of the food.
“Oh, I’m afraid there’s only a small piece left…”
Then why didn’t you buy more before inviting me?
“I’m afraid it’s only cheap and nasty white bread from the supermarket…”
I am more than happy to eat it but since you’re clearly so embarrassed by the cheap and nasty white bread from the supermarket, why didn’t you buy the crusty multigrain from the Farmers’ Market, and save yourself the guilt trip?
I have long been trying to understand the psycho-socio-politico-historical reasons behind the English complex relationship with food. Is it Protestant austerity and shunning of physical pleasures? Is the giving of food linked with emotional openness (or lack thereof)? I am still at a loss. In the meantime, when invited for a meal by a traditional English family, I take the precaution of eating a hearty, guilt-free meal beforehand. This way, I can be as ladylike as a Mammy-admonished Scarlett O’Hara, pick at my food with the delicacy of a blue-tit and, when offered a second helping, reply, “Oh, no – I couldn’t possibly” with the sincerity of a full stomach.