Our Modest Manifesto
1. The origins of our site.
This site originated out of ongoing discussions among many people over a period of some two decades. Some of us are British, some American, others French and Polish. After dining for years in British homes and restaurants, then beginning tentatively to cook what British recipes we could find in print, some of us began to puzzle over the disdain in which Americans, not to mention the French, hold this food. We hope that attitude changes, and would be pleased if this site made a modest contribution to the process.
2. The decline of British food.
First, however, a concession or disclaimer is in order. We do not dispute the notion that British food suffered a long and steep decline. There has been debate about the inception and causes of decline, and we intend to add our voices to the conversation, but there can be no doubt that the food served in the great majority of restaurants in Britain, no matter what cuisine they attempted, had become dire at least from the onset of rationing in the Second World War and remained dire throughout much of the 1960s. Many British home cooks were not much better; a significant minority was even worse. When we ask older Britons for their favorite things that they remember their mothers cooking (and during that period it always was the mothers or servants who cooked), the most frequent response is ‘nothing:’ So much British domestic cooking was so bad that it fails to elicit any fond memories.
A deeper folk memory, however, never disappeared. Somehow, the robust traditions of British food did survive in isolated outposts, mostly outside of the industrial conurbations, often in farmhouses and through the daughters of farmers even if they left the land. Some of the great urban clubs also maintained their own high if undeniably eccentric standards.
3. The return of good food to Britain.
Whatever the timing and causes of decline, however, a revival in the quality of food cooked in Britain began to take hold during the course of the 1960s. Writers, especially Elizabeth David, but also others including Theodora FitzGibbon, taught the British public to demand better of themselves and of the places where they went out to eat and shop.
It is no exaggeration to maintain that this coterie of dedicated food writers began a revolution that accelerated in the later 1970s to create the lively, even fevered food culture that grips Britain and Ireland today. A similar if less dramatic trend has been discernable in the United States.
The transformation in British foodways occurred on many fronts. Food in the overwhelming majority of British restaurants has until recently excluded the British tradition; bad restaurants cooked what purportedly were the cuisines of other countries, but did not generally attempt to serve anything British, and for good reason. The British culinary heritage, undermined by those generations of incompetent cooks, was as unfashionable to the British as it was to everybody else. This outlook was, ironically, reinforced at first by the earlier, pathbreaking writings of David herself, who reintroduced Britain to the culinary wonders of the Mediterranean rim and provincial France. The quality of the exotic cuisines that she encouraged people to demand seemed only to accentuate the gulf between these dishes and their own. During the initial wave of change, restaurant chefs and domestic cooks alike learned to prepare competent renditions of the foods that David and others championed. These dishes emphatically were not British in origin or technique.
4. The return of British food.
The revolution in attitudes about British cuisine itself started later and took longer to unfold. Even as late as the 1990s, it was rare to find a restaurant in Britain that served British food. The few places in the cities offering British dishes were no more than a curiosity, and most of them catered only to the unwary or overly earnest foreign visitor searching in vain for indigenous authenticity.
Domestic cooks, however, already had begun to experiment with British recipes. Starting with the 1970s, FitzGibbon more than David, and Elisabeth Ayrton and Jane Grigson most of all, encouraged people throughout the United Kingdom to reexamine their own traditional foodways. A number of pioneers started circulating erudite essays on the British tradition, and publishers like Alan Davidson and Tom Jaine began to include articles on British food in their occasional journals and print facsimiles of historical cookery books. Today, British newspapers also are rife with columns extolling British food, and Oxford University and the University of Leeds both hold annual food symposia; the Leeds program is devoted primarily to English cuisine.
The chefs followed British writers and domestic cooks but only after a long delay and in small numbers. As noted, the excellent restaurants serving British food that dot the bigger British cities today started to appear in relative strength only in the 1990s and remain heavily outnumbered by those serving dozens of other cuisines.
5. The absence of British food in the United States.
These latter trends have been notably absent from the United States. In a culture that prizes authenticity, diversity and novelty, British food is not even conspicuous in its absence. British food does not exist as a viable cuisine in the American popular imagination: It remains only a pitfall to avoid and the butt of jokes. Nobody cooks what they understand as British food at home in the United States, although a smattering of regional cooks, notably in the south but also in New England and elsewhere, have, inadvertently or not, preserved some British traditions.
That, too, is ironic, for up until the twentieth century, Americans outside the ethnic communities created by the great waves of immigration during the second half of the 1800s looked primarily to the British tradition, and disproportionately purchased British cookbooks or American ones cribbed from them. That publishing tradition is gone. When, for example, The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman produced his best-selling The Best Recipes in the World in 2005 after "a rather intense five or six years" of research, he did not even include an entry for British food in his index of "Recipes by Cuisine." That omission lies in a book running to some 768 pages that does include recipes from all around the Mediterranean rim, Africa, most of Asia including Hong Kong, continental Europe of course and even Scandinavia.
Some few exceptions prove the rule that Americans discount the notion of a legitimate British cuisine. Some people are aware of television celebrities like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, but their focus is hardly British. The Two Fat Ladies enjoyed a brief run on television and some ephemeral cookbook sales but they were entertaining and eccentric rather than instructional or inspirational. A few British cookbooks, almost exclusively television tie-ins like the Fat Ladies’, appear occasionally on the chain bookstore shelves but their time is typically short-lived. Only one contemporary British cookbook (first published in the 1980s) appears regularly in print in the United States but it is neither comprehensive nor particularly good. It is difficult to find and recently hovered around number 155,000 in sales at Amazon.com.
Glossy food magazines like Food & Wine and Saveur run the occasional feature on a British region or London restaurants, but the percentage of copy devoted to these subjects is de minimis. Even serious journals, ranging from The New Yorker to food specialists like the Art of Eating and Gastronomica, tend to neglect British food except to marginalize or disparage it. There are lots of ersatz Irish and even a few putatively English and Scottish ‘pubs’ in the United States but their food is a joke in terms of authenticity and, usually, quality. Similarly, bigger supermarkets may include an ‘Irish’ section but never feature a British one. British specialty food shops are proverbially few and far between; Manhattan has one.
Today in New York, a mere handful of restaurants offers what they describe as British food, and by our count only two of them are serious establishments with aspirations to quality. Both of them opened only recently and only the most casual of the two hews exclusively to the British tradition.
Our admittedly unscientific, anecdotal experience cements the notion that British food in America is a near nullity. Over the summer, an advertising campaign aired on television by Legal Seafood, the New England restaurant chain, capitalized on this attitude in a funny cartoon spot featuring a fictitious competitor, Buckingham Fish Palace, where a feckless stage Englishman ("blimey!") in grubby clothes carelessly tossed woeful food at his customers in contrast to the delicacies offered at honest, American Legal.
When the manager of a prestigious investment fund learned that one of us was compiling British recipes for a cookbook, he retorted that it could only be a pamphlet. A New York area museum director insists that there is neither a British cuisine nor any decent food in Britain. A worldly, well-traveled doctor of our acquaintance reacted with disbelief at the gentle suggestion that there not only is a discernable British style of cooking but also that practitioners of it exist in London restaurants. Most people merely snort in derision at the term ‘British food.’
Less uninformed people, including journalists, are not much better. The same writers who applaud innovation in Chicago and Spain (‘better living through chemistry?’) decry the “corruption” of an imaginary ancient ‘Indian’ cuisine by the British who, in fact, largely created one along with their own variations of it, both in the Raj and in Britain itself. A restaurant critic for The New York Times has treated British food as a recurring joke in his columns; other journalists abhor traditional British foodways without conducting even rudimentary research about them.
British writers have been equally dismissive. Elizabeth David, who wrote a book about the British culinary tradition, could be most cruel about it. As late as 1999, the esteemed Alan Davidson found, in his Oxford Companion to Food, "truth in this view" and added that the English tradition is "lacking in variety, finesse, imagination and innovation; in short, to be somewhat dull and conservative." Our aim is to prove him and his fellow travelers wrong.
6. Our perspective on British food.
If we are beleaguered, however, we are not defensive, and have nothing but admiration for the various other cuisines of the world. It is simply that we believe British food should be included among them. This is not an exercise in pride or a yearning for prestige; instead, it is an effort to reacquaint people with a food they can enjoy. This is supposed to be fun, and the food should be accessible. We therefore hope not to take ourselves too seriously or cloak our efforts in the uncompromising solemnity characteristic of many food journals and blogs. We think shortcuts are worthy if they allow harried people to cook on weeknights instead of ordering pizza on a regular basis (we like it too), and do not consider it necessary to purchase groceries exclusively from the greenmarket or organic farmstand (although they can be nice).
7. The organization of our site.
The britishfoodinamerica site is organized in three broad, interlocking sections.
The critical includes reviews of writing about British food and related (but sometimes distant) subjects, interpretation of historical figures and their impact, occasional reviews of restaurants in both the United States and Britain, and our assessments of various ingredients and other products. We are only occasionally topical in our reviews; with three centuries of neglected culinary history to draw from, a great deal of uncharted terrain exists to explore and explain.
The lyrical includes portraits of significant figures in the history of British food, essays on selected historical and current events, quotations that we consider appealing or appalling, columns by our Rural Correspondent and other occasional contributors, and whatever musings do not fit elsewhere on the site.
The practical includes our annotated recipes, Things We Like, capsule reviews of disparate subjects in FAST Food and whatever else comes to mind that may encourage people to try British dishes.
New items will appear fortnightly on a staggered basis throughout the site and as frequently as a muse visits our occasional contributors.
We have decided not to include a blog at britishfoodinamerica in an effort to prevent engaging in the trivial, misguided or pompous. Too many postings at websites are superficial, intolerant, illiterate or uninformed, and in any event we would not find it possible to respond on a consistent basis to a deluge of random ranting.
Please keep us honest (and relevant), however, by sending comments to FeedbaG, our letters department. The submission of articles or recipes also is welcome; we do not presume to set any maximum or minimum length, or otherwise seek to limit any author brave and generous enough to share thoughts with our readers. Each writer will receive credit for any contribution and bfia will publish each submission with its indigenous usage; British writings appear in British English (“favour”... and the like), American writings in the American style (like “favor...”). One other note on language: The usage of “Britain” or British, and “English”, “Irish”, “Scottish” or “Welsh” is deliberate. Some traditions are common to the archipelago while others are tied to the distinctive nations within it.
Finally, we admit that we are new to this business and anticipate that the site will evolve based upon the preferences of our readers, the stamina of our staff and the continued evolution of British foodways on both sides of the Atlantic.