Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

There’s Always Room for Jell-O

September 1, 2009 · 8 Comments

If there is one thing that immediately places you in the mindset of a new country, it’s the food you eat there. From your last meal at home to the first meal abroad (and beyond), food plays an unavoidably large role in how you understand and view your new home (I mean, you’re bound to get hungry at some point). Do not let the title of this post deceive you–I promise not to make this a justification for gluttonous behavior. I plan to explore some of the British dining etiquette I have come to understand after only several days of making observations. It’s something that I find interesting and, more often than not, it’s one of the things that stands out about unfamiliar places such as London

Americans are often criticized about their appetites. Films have been produced and books have been written about the subject, and they will continue to hit the shelves as long dieticians and the media keep it at the forefront of society’s attention. I am not a critic for this recent movement, nor am I against moderation with regard to food. Alas, I think I am digressing; this is a whole different debate to have at another time.

I mention American diets because it certainly has a significant presence in what I see, hear, and do every day. Before coming to London, I suspected things would be very similar in some ways and the complete opposite in others. In my self-conceived notion of London, food ads would show fruit stands – not necessarily McDonald’s. Restaurants would have over-the-top service to accommodate their customers – similar to some/most restaurants in the US. People would make eating a priority in London – e.g. causing a widespread shutdown of business during “tea time” (not unlike a siesta of sorts). These are the things that I predicted. Some were correct. Many were completely wrong.

The British, as I observed walking around in Heathrow once our plane landed, have no different impressions of food than Americans do. The airport is lined with various fast food places, for instance. It took several days later when my initial assumptions would prove incorrect. It was my second or third experience in a London restaurant that gave the British away immediately as defining “food service” on completely different terms.

After taking our seats in the busy restaurant, we sat down to look at our menu. Our waitress asked us what we wanted to order only five minutes after sitting down. She did not oblige our requests for more time – she stood explaining that we had to order our food now, and then we could sit in the restaurant for as long as we wanted. I didn’t want to dismiss her as rude or not friendly. I mean, after all, she did not give us her name, ask us how we were doing, or show any sign of interest in serving us. I did not know this girl too well, so who was I to pass judgement?

This threw me off, but do not get me wrong – I have no hard feelings against the restaurant or its employees. I will admit, however, that a food server would not rush a table of people in the US. You would run the risk of inciting riots, food fights, and a big decline in tip (I should note here that we did tip the server. Generously, if I might add.). This is all part of the experience, I tell myself.

Food has different meaning on the city streets/pavements as well. Often, restaurants or sandwich stands have seating outside. No one walking by on any pavement has food in their hand – no sandwiches, no drinks (except some coffee cups), and no bags of food. It’s because no one eats while walking. In America, people sample their meals (or eat the whole meal) in a sprint to the workplace. There are even American food companies that make this run-by eating, “food-on-the-go” easy (microwavable soup containers, perhaps?). They have no problem eating in the car. The British, thus far, appear starkly different, as far as I can tell. Food should not be rushed nor on-the-go; if you are seen eating on the run, you get strange looks (I have received these looks since arriving here). Even settling down on the curb with some lunch will attract stares. To give you a sense of some table manners, look through an article in the London Evening Standard. It is not comprehensive, but it gives you some sense of how eating your sandwich while rushing to the Tube can seem confusing and downright frustrating to onlookers.

I did try to stay away from “American” cuisine. I quickened my pace past Subway and Pizza Hut and Starbucks. I told myself I would never eat at these places. And yet I gave in to my first British Frappucino at Starbucks the other day. Why would I go against my goal? The answer is simple (to an extent) – food can be a comfort to many people, myself included. Eating something that reminds you of home should not make you feel guilty. I have had my share of fish and chips and other foods, but the occasional dip into American food should not raise any alarms. Or that’s how I see it, anyhow.

This post does connect to our study of what defines London and its various inhabitants, who place themselves in very different regions of the city. In Stepney Green you will find very few, if any, pubs. You can, however, order Thai, Middle Eastern, or Turkish food on just about every block. In Bloomsbury, you can find a multitude of pubs within a ten-minute walk of entering the area. You would be hard-pressed to find as many Thai or other ethnic food available in the area.

What does this mean? Does this reinforce the notion that London is defined by its very separate ethnic groups? Perhaps this strengthens arguments made that London is not a unified city and should not be deemed so. This does have some bearing on the issue, for food represents part of culture and, in turn, what defines certain peoples of London. Can someone from Stepney Green feel comfortable in Bloomsbury, what with the more prominent pub culture (and vice versa)?

The subject of food is easy to observe, but it has some deeper issues you must analyze in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of its role in a culture. Has anyone experienced boundaries set by food or food services? For example, think about the food available at this weekend’s Carnival – how does this tie into London and how Londoners define themselves in the larger region?

Categories: Brandon
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8 responses so far ↓

  •   schaefau // Sep 1st 2009 at 15:06

    In reading through your post, I found myself muttering “Yeah, I’ve noticed that too!”. I was expecting fresh food markets and local, family restaurants on every corner where people would daintily dine at very specific times in a very relaxed but proper manner. I never expected to see chains like Cafe Nerro or Pret much less KFC or Pizza Hut and even less likely seemed the on-every-corner-and-sometimes-even-right-next-to-each-other Starbucks. I’ve read how globalization is ‘Americanizing’ other cultures but never did it cross my mind that Britain might be one of those cultures that were so infected with our fast food nation tendencies. That was probably narrow-minded of me but McDonald’s just didn’t fit into the mental image I had of London. You brought up the carnival and the food there and asked how that ties into how Londoners define themselves. It’s an interesting thing to consider. What does the culture that chows down on KFC so often think of themselves as they celebrate the very culture specific food in their carnivals? One might call that a juxtaposition…

  •   allisonmschell5 // Sep 1st 2009 at 17:13

    Brandon, this was such a fun and yet a very thought-provoking post. I have observed too that nobody eats on the Tubes, whereas in NYC (when I have been on the subway) I see people eating on the subway. Coming here I know that Europe is known for its love of good food and the fact that their lives are centered around tea-time, etc. In America, our lives too are centered around food, but I feel like its rushed and we sometimes don’t sit down and enjoy it. I always see people eating outside and taking their time. Also, the fact that in our neighborhood there are at least 6 or more different types of ethnic food restaurants, whereas by my house in Pennsylvania, there is maybe an Italian place and a Chinese place, hardly anything ethnic. I went out to a pasty shop the other day and ended up getting a spicy chicken curry pasty. It seems that as much as England tries to push away the Indian culture, it still manages to ingrain itself into the culture, especially through the food.

  •   buonacos // Sep 1st 2009 at 17:59

    I think that I would disagree with your statement, Alli, that in America our lives too are centered around food. The reason that America is the fast-food capitol of the world is because our lives are centered around work. We get up in the morning at have a bottled yogurt smoothie that we can bring on the train with us or we stop to get a coffee to drink in the car. Our lunch is a microwavable bowl of soup to eat at our desk or a 15 minute maximum trip to Burger King. We might even skip lunch all together because we’re just too busy to eat. Then, we stay for overtime and when we get home we’re too tired to make anything more than a frozen dinner or we might even stop to pick up a pizza. Americans’ unhealthy habits don’t necessarily come from simply focusing on the wrong type of food, but from treating food as an afterthought. The faster, more convenient it is, the better–it lets us get back to work.

  •   Paul // Sep 1st 2009 at 20:16

    I agree mostly with what you say Sarah, but I would like to point out that when Americans do sit down to eat, we expect to get our “proper portion”. It’s true that we expect most food to be prepared within fifteen minutes, naturally causing most meal’s health value and overall quality to decrease. Couple that with the fact that we get upset if everything isn’t in football-sized proportions and it’s no wonder that we’re a country full of land-whales.

  •   Karl // Sep 2nd 2009 at 18:04

    Convenience seems to trump quality in the US, and value trumps everything.

  •   Brandon R. // Sep 2nd 2009 at 19:18

    And yet, you can sit in a restaurant and overhear someone loudly complaining about the service/server/foul-tasting lemon meringue pie they ordered. They go out of their way to inconvenience themselves, for they, too, have been “inconvenienced” by the food industry.

    I cannot deny that value does indeed trump “everything.” Sometimes that includes sensibility and logic.

    To avoid pegging Americans down as settling (and, indeed, wanting nothing but) the most convenient, we can point to the movement preaching organic and healthy living started during the 1970s (I use the word “preached” on purpose, for many thought the movement could be a religion of sorts.) How does this play into the lives of the British? Planet Organic, a store right around the corner from the hotel, sells only organic food and goods (see their history at http://www.planetorganic.com/blog/?page_id=2). This is certainly something to look for – specifically, how long has the health food movement sought quality goods in Britain, who follows it, and what potential impact does it have on the KFCs, McDonalds’, and other fast food places in the country?

  •   Brandon R. // Sep 2nd 2009 at 19:25

    Also, in order to expand your knowledge of the health food movement, I suggest taking a look at an article I read in my Anthropology course by Jill Dubisch. It’s called “You Are What You Eat.” It essentially attempts to give an interesting historical overview and other worldwide impressions of the health food movement. I found a reprinted copy at the following site: http://www.indiajoze.com/dubisch.html

  •   Karl // Sep 4th 2009 at 14:23

    Keep all these ideas in mind as we head to Norwich. There is no shortage of fast food there, but Norfolk in particular has a strong organic/green/locally-sourced mentality. Now if only all could afford it.

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