All the World's a Story

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A London Story, pt ii: I Go to the Theatre

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Food in the United Kingdom is a much maligned and much discussed prospect.  For many years I have been hearing from everyone and their mother that “England is wonderful.  I just wish the food wasn’t so bad.”  In considering that statement, it was hard for me isolate an English food tradition.  Of course, after researching it, there is mountains of information, but coming from a background ignorant of this, I was basically visiting blind.  Of course, the Irish have their blood sausage, their oatmeal; the Scottish their haggus; yet England remained a gastronomic mystery.  John Cleese, of Monty Python fame and the writer and star of “A Fish Called Wanda” states in that film by way of the character of Otto that, “The English contribution to world cuisine – the chip.”  For those of us unfamiliar with a chip, it is a french-fry cut thick, fried crispy and normally served with any manner of dish; though for my part is best served next to a piece of fried haddock doused in malt vinegar.

This is certainly, if anything, an excellent contribution to world cuisine and the English know how to do it.  In Australia, a place known for its seafood, this dish became a regular staple of our household.  My parents would sometimes go out for dinner parties and leave my brother and I home with $20.  We would walk to the local fish and chips stand, get two enormous portions and sit at home trying to decipher a game of cricket as it was broadcast live from halfway round the world to our small TV in East Melbourne.  I still don’t know what a googly is, but I enjoyed the meal.

Fish and Chips

Being in the place of its inception, I sought out fish and chips for one of our dinners.  We had a lovely example of it at The George Tavern in Belsize Park, a 20-minute walk from my girlfriend’s place in Swiss Cottage (see the previous post) and thoroughly enjoyed two ginger beers along with it.  But what amazed me, after hearing the derision spouted by my friends and family toward English cuisine, was how much more like food food tasted in England.  Michael Pollan, nutritionist and food guru of our generation, writes in his book In Defense of Food that people should not be eating food there grandmother wouldn’t recognize.  My grandparents would have loved English food.  It is a country with a rich tradition in plain, simple fare.  It certainly flies under the wing of its more illustrious neighbor, France and does not have the exotic pull of Indian or Thai food, but this is the country where the English fry-up began.

The English Fry-Up

The traditional English fry-up comes in many forms and many sizes, but at its heart includes:

  • Bacon – Not American bacon, from the belly, but more like ham, much meatier and fried very slightly.
  • Eggs – Scrambled, fried, over-easy, however you order them.  I prefer it fried.
  • Sausage – Pretty self-explanatory.
  • Blood pudding – Blood that is cooked down with a filler (generally oatmeal) enough to congeal and be fried.  It sounds terrible, but it is delicious.
  • Mushrooms – Typical baby Bella that are fried in oil.
  • Hash browns – Some variations also come with chips, but the hash brown is more distinctly breakfast.
  • Beans – Full on baked beans.
  • Half-tomato – Fried and served hot.
  • Toast – Butter and plenty of it.

Put all this on a plate together, and you have a traditional feast.  But do any of these ingredients sound familiar?  To me this speaks of a traditional farm breakfast I know my grandparents and their parents were eating in their childhood.  I enjoyed it thoroughly and even made it for myself when at home this past week.  It’s easy and the hearty nature is such a comfort on a cool morning.  During this lovely breakfast, however, a great example of the stereotype of bad English food revealed itself.  A bloke sat down next to us with his morning paper and promptly ordered “cheese on toast.”  About five minutes later my curiosity was satisfied when an enormous plate with two huge pieces of bread smothered in what looked like cheddar cheese came out.  He wasted no time in pouring large amounts of ketchup on this and consuming it greedily.  I was amazed.  What struck me more than anything else, aside from the caloric content of his ham-sized bread, was the fact he went to a restaurant to order this.  Here is a dish that is simple to make even for the most cooking-deficient.  Even someone who has never seen a kitchen before, or food for that matter, would probably think this up pretty quickly.  But he went out for it.  And more power to him.  Next time, I’m quite tempted to do the same myself and heck, maybe it just tastes better when you pay for it.

The National Theatre

Tackling English cuisine was a pleasuree.  Equally as fantastic is the English theatre tradition.  London is full of theatres, with major commercial and non-commercial venues wracking up at over 100.  Combine this with limited runs of 5-6 weeks for each show, and hundreds, even thousands of plays could be performed every year.  What’s amazing too, is the sense of accessibility one has to the theatre.  The Royal National Theatre, for example, is an organization that receives about 30% of its funding from ACE (Arts Council Exchange) grants.  It is, in effect, 1/3 funded by the government of the United Kingdom.  This also means that tickets are drastically reduced in price, and because the show only runs for five to six weeks, most of the time the house is full.  We showed up on a Saturday morning around 9:30 and were able to purchase £10 tickets that got us first-row seats for that night’s performance.  Coming from the consumer-driven market of New York, this is an amazing deal.  I’m not  saying that shows don’t exist where profit drives the ticket prices up.  The entire West End is becoming a clone to Broadway’s musical-driven economy.  But there are alternatives and the difference is, that £10 ticket is not to another Off-Off Broadway production of “Dog Sees God,” it is a ticket to an original script deemed good enough for a Broadway-size house and the full production treatment.

We saw a show called “Blood and Gifts,” a thinly-veiled critique of the American response to Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, circa 1981 on.  What struck me after seeing it was that a show like this could not be put up in New York.  It was too provocative, too “close to home.”  Without ruining the ending, the show gave you a reason why a jihad could develop and what motivates men to do terrible things to each other.  It is, in a sense, always personal.  I loved it, not only because it was so thought-provoking, but because they found very fine actors to portray these characters.  The accents, especially to an American ear, were mostly good, with a few exceptions here and there.

Aside from the quality of the performance, the space itself was beautiful to behold.  We did find out at the interval (intermission) that it was exceptionally hard to procure an espresso at around 9:30, but this one detraction did not take away from the sense of history one feels being in the theatre.  Walking around the south bank of the Thames, a place where in Shakespeare’s day most of the theatres and consequently whorehouses, markets, etc were located, you get the feeling you are part of something bigger.  This is the place where English drama reached its pinnacle when that mysterious genius, the son of a glovemaker, came to town and wrote plays that in many eyes, have never been equalled.  It is a place of reverence for those with any love for the theatrical tradition.

Central London Skyline

I loved London.  There is a vague sense of an undercurrent there, a sense of history and grounding that is not present in New York.  In New York, I feel like an ant scurrying around the pavement, trying my best to keep up with everyone else, trying to bring back the biggest piece of the pie for myself, trying to carry 3 times my weight home with me every night.  Perhaps it is different living there, but in London I felt someone had already done that, as though I had nothing left to prove and could live my life free from this responsibility.  There are busy parts of London, but no one is rushing anywhere.  There seems to be more time to take care of it all there.

I plan, if possible, to live in London in the near future and examine this hypothesis more closely.  For now, London is a city unpretentiously itself and I was charmed.

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Written by Seth James

November 15, 2010 at 5:42 pm

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