Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

There’s Always Room for Jell-O

September 1st, 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?

Tags: Brandon

Steppin' into Stepney Green

August 21st, 2009 · No Comments




After a half-hour of travel along the Northern and District Lines of the Tube, we arrived at Stepney Green. We walked out onto a pavement lined with various ethnic restaurants and shops geared toward a Middle Eastern population. Trying to better understand the population of the area, we passed restaurants including A’la Pizza, Halal Bite, and Rama Thai restaurant. The women dressed in full or partial hijabs gave some indication of the local population as well. We searched for a literal Stepney Green or park as we walked down the moderately busy street. The locals we asked could not point us in the right direction, so we set off on our own.

On the way, we discovered several interesting aspects of Stepney Green, including several private colleges, residential areas, elementary schools, and unique alleyways opening up to even greater neighbourhoods.



Speaking to a doctor of marketing, we learned more about the Royel College of London and the London Crown, two of many private colleges in the area. These two housed 300 and 400 students, respectively, and provided a liberal arts education. The location of the colleges did not give any prominence to the building itself, though. Rather, each college was tucked in a obscure alleyway marked by graffiti and garbage. The signs blended in so well with the business signs dotting the building facades that we had to take a closer look just to notice them.


Still searching for Stepney Green, we wandered off the main road through a desolate tunnel into a rather lovely residential neighbourhood. We first saw a loading dock and an unglamourous site undergoing renovations. This opened up to two rows of tidy homes and ornate gardens (Amy even befriended a black cat along the way!).

There are many monuments erected in the honor of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. His founding of the organization began in Stepney Green at an Almes House, which opened in 1695. Captain James Cook is also immortalized in a series of plaques in front of his home in Stepney Green (Cook was a famed circumnavigator and explorer during the mid-1700s).


"On this site stood a house occupied for some years by Captain James Cook, R.N., F.R.S. 1728-1779 Circumnavigator and Explorer"
“On this site stood a house occupied for some years by Captain James Cook, R.N., F.R.S. 1728-1779 Circumnavigator and Explorer”

Our trip through the residential areas led us to an elementary school and adjoining playground. The high brick walls and gated backyard gave an impression of safety and comfort. This suburban area directly contrasted with our experience on the main road of town, which seemed more “run-down” and tired. There were no people in these residential areas, whereas people congregated on the main road for lazy conversation and commerce.


So what of the actual Stepney Green? We were ready to board a bus home in defeat when we realized (thanks to a bus map) that the actual Green was behind us the entire time. We wandered toward Stepney Green Road (go figure), which led us to a wide gated entrance to the park. Lined by tall trees, benches, and houses, the park stretched for as long as we could see. We stopped to take a break from our arduous journey (and to celebrate) and headed back home via bus. Walking the rest of the way from Tottenham Court Road, we arrived safely at the Arran House.


We expect to see more of these juxtapositions of poorer, run-down neighbourhoods and more surburban, gated communities. These proved to us how London is truly multi-faceted and cannot be defined by one’s initial  perception.

Tags: Amy · Brandon