Odds & Ends: The English Food Complex

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.

Scribe Doll

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5 Responses to Odds & Ends: The English Food Complex

  1. Adrian Hallchurch says:

    ….. well, all that stuff about the English not complaining about the food, I can help you here: a meal out at a restaurant, or at someone’s house, isn’t principally about the food, it’s about the company of those you’re with, the great conversation, the warm feeling, the ambience, the joy of sharing a meal with people you like or love. What is on your plate is secondary to that, and no one wants to upset the warm feeling with a complaint – introducing all that negativity ruins the moment, and for what? If the waiter brings you less stodgy risotto, or more tender duck, how good can that possibly taste when you’ve broken the evening’s calm, and you will face the rest of the meal knowing the restaurant staff secretly despise you beneath their fixed smiles. How much fun is that? No, much better to take the hit – you chose a poor restaurant, don’t shift the blame – enjoy everything else, order dessert and a coffee, and preserve the pleasant night you’ve had, and choose better next time! If I think back, there’s only a handful of meals I can remember for what I ate, but plenty for who I was with ……

    • scribedoll says:

      Well, I would suggest that the giving and receiving of food is akin to the giving and receiving of affection. Consequently, I feel strongly that you can form an accurate opinion about a person by the quantity and quality of food s/he offers. Is it plentiful or somehow measured?

      It’s exactly the same about money. It’s the one thing we all – all over the Planet – have in common. My beloved friend Sue taught me, years ago, that you can judge a person by observing his/her relationship with money. Now, I watch carefully how my new acquaintances/dates/colleagues deal with money. Do they put scrunched up banknotes on the counter, or smooth them beforehand? Do they count their change or just glance at the banknotes but shove the coins into their pockets/wallets carelessly? Do they pay for your coffee or go Dutch? Or do they pay for the meal but ask you to provide the tip?

      For me, it? exactly the same with food. If it were just about the company, then why not just invite friends over for a cuppa? It would save on the washing up…

  2. Christine says:

    I think we Americans go to the opposite extreme. Our restaurant portions are huge–enough for two meals. Thirty percent of American adults are obese, and one increasingly sees overweight and even obese children. It’s so sad. Perhaps it’s not just the portions; it’s also the crap that we as a society eat. More people are turning to plant-based diets, but it’s too late for some who need surgery because their knees can no longer hold up their body mass. We have a health care crisis in this country because of “Supersize Me.” There has to be some middle ground between the English feeding one like a rabbit (birds eat twice their own weight every day) and Americans feeding one like a pig ready for the slaughterhouse.

  3. simon roberts says:

    What I don’t get with the English and food is the whispered comments to one another at table, denigrating the quality of the dishes served until mine hoste/hostesse appears to enquire if everything’s alright. ‘Yes, fine/lovely/very nice [ choose suitable bland positive adjective ] thank you’ goes the wimpish reply. Don’t get it. Only yesterday was I out to dinner with some of my family having a not very good meal ( Dad’s duck was tough; sister’s risotto was a stodgy mess ). I advocated the ‘Well, if you think it’s inedible then say something’ line ( while,incidentally,smugly satisfied with the tasty choices I’d made – asparagus with clarified butter; salmon fishcakes since you ask ) to my not normally-shy-of-expressing-themselves pater and older sibling. Not a peep out of them when they were buttonholed by the staff; pater – I earwigged him settling the bill – expressed satisfaction with the meal. Pater and sibling this morning – this youngest family member earwigged his elders and betters muttering,well out of earshot of restaurant staff – openly expressed dissatisfaction with the previous evening’s gastronomic offerings. DUH! Send it back! Don’t sit there setting baby brother an example of the English at their grin-and-bear-it-and-pay-for-it-and-thank-the-people-who-are-conning-you worst! The offending pub/restaurant had ‘Yorkshire’ in the title and was located in Worcestershire. Knew there was something fishy ( apart from the fishcakes ).

  4. Sue says:

    Oh too true, I hang my head in shame!

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