Nowhere is the difference between the Americans and the British more evident than at the dining table. But it’s not just what we call our food, it’s also how we eat it.
For instance, whilst Americans have a fairly relaxed attitude to the temperature of their food, in the UK, hot food means cooked food that is hot enough to have copious amounts of steam rising from it and, most importantly, food that is hot enough to cause blisters in the mouth. In Britain, blowing on our food to prevent burns is an important part of the entire culinary experience. If food arrives at the table below this searing temperature, it is immediately returned to the kitchen to be ‘warmed up a bit’.
Consequently, serving hot food on cold plates is regarded as a crime against humanity – a crime committed on a daily basis in the United States.1
In the UK, a waiter cannot begin to clear the plates until the last diner has signalled that he has finished by placing his knife and fork perfectly parallel on the side of the plate with the handles on the rim and the business end towards the middle. Unless our utensils are thus arranged, any waiter will know that we intend to pick them up again and he will keep his distance, returning only to top-up wine and water glasses. If however he started to clear plates whilst anyone at the table was still eating, he would be fired. It simply isn’t done.
In the US, the waiters pounce as soon as the first diner has put down his fork (the knife being purely decorative). Obviously, a Brit will always pick up both the knife and the fork because every British child receives a parental smack to the back of the head if he picks up the fork by itself from the moment he graduates from the cradle to the high chair.
In Britain, we traditionally eat a lot of offal. Indeed it is said that where pigs are concerned, the only bit we don’t eat is the squeak. Liver, kidneys, tripe, even intestines – we scoff the lot. By contrast, Americans (unless they are from Mississippi or Louisiana) tend to prefer the leaner and more expensive parts of the animal and save the rest for their chihuahuas. That is why a burger is a very different experience on each side of the Atlantic. In the USA, a burger is likely to consist of nothing but chopped steak. In the UK, it might also be made of ears, lips and testicles, and as we only recently discovered, large amounts of East-European horse.2
That is no doubt why the ubiquitous burger is the most popular meal in the United States whereas in Britain, the most consumed dish is Chicken Tikka Massala. Of course, it used to be fish and chips wrapped in newspaper but you can’t wrap your lunch in the internet and this may have contributed to the Indian import stealing pole position in the information age.
Such cultural diversity has of course generated two very different vocabularies, at the table and in the kitchen. In the paragraphs that follow, if you hover over a term in italics (or click on it on some smartphones) it’s dictionary entry will appear.
In some cases, The Americans have simply chosen to have a different name for the same thing. One example would be Aubergine (UK). This name has a rich heritage and is derived from the Arabic name for the fruit (no, it isn’t a vegetable). Entirely appropriate given the aubergine’s important place in Middle Eastern cuisine. In the USA however, it is known as the Eggplant (US). No heritage here. The name derives from the fact that an eggplant is… well, kind of egg-shaped.
Other examples of name substitutions would be Cilantro (US) for Coriander (UK), Cornstarch (US) for Cornflour (UK), Scallions (US) for Spring Onions (UK), Arugula (US) for Rocket (UK), Canola Oil (US) for Rapeseed Oil (UK), Rutabaga (US) for Swede (UK) and Zucchini (US) for Courgette (UK).
In other cases, we both use the same word – but for different things. An obvious example is steak. The American version is a thing of magnificence – dry-aged, beautifully marbled, mouth-watering… and HUGE. The Brits would call it a joint of beef and feed a family of six with it and have enough left over to make a pie after the weekend. The British version of steak is a pale imitation by comparison. Smaller, thinner and tougher than its American cousin, steak is systematically rationed then ruined the length and breadth of the British Isles.3
But whilst American steak is magnificent, American Coffee (US) is an abomination.
Coffee is named after Kaffa Province, which was the name of the region in ancient Abyssinia, now part of Ethiopia where it was first grown. It was first drunk as we know it today in the Middle East in the 15th century. However, it was in Italy that the art of coffee drinking was perfected. Here the dark, rich, aromatic espresso coffee was born and raised.
American coffee isn’t even the right colour! The urine-coloured drink of homeopathic dilution served across the USA is not worthy of the name. One decent Italian espresso would create enough Starbucks coffee to serve the entire Upper West Side of New York! The British may share the American love of the Coffee Shop but at least British establishments get through more than one bag of coffee beans a day. Even our instant coffee is infinitely preferable. I spend a lot of time in the USA and without doubt, it is the lack of a decent cup of coffee I find most difficult when in your beautiful country. I have even taken to bringing my own – which is illegal.4
Another example of a shared name but a different food is gravy and here too, I think the Brits have the upper hand. It is true that both are liquids of relatively high viscosity but there the similarity ends. Gravy (UK) is a divine, dark brown sauce made from meat stock, possibly a splash of wine and the cooking juices of roast meats and poured over said meat to keep it moist and succulent. Gravy (US) by contrast is a white goo flavoured by not very much at all5 which is poured over Biscuits (US) – which gives us yet another example.
Custard (UK) is another case where the American version is the poor relation. Proper British custard is heavenly. It is a hot pouring sauce for all manner of desserts and is the default British partner to apple pie (ice cream coming a distant second). It is made from cream, egg yolks (lots of egg yolks), a touch of Cornflour (UK)/Cornstarch (US) and vanilla (ideally, scraped right from the pod). A thinner variety is known as crème anglaise (not Sauce Anglais as I have seen it in the US) and the thicker versions used in cakes is crème pâtissière. Custard (US) is either baked (so nearer to crème pâtissière but often with food colouring to replace the egg yolks – yuk!) or frozen! Yes, frozen, like some weird ice cream.
To balance things up and let the Americans win again, we come to the humble shrimp. The Shrimp (UK) is a pathetic little crustacean and you can usually fit several onto a dessert spoon. They’re just not worth the effort of peeling. A Shrimp (US) by contrast is a monster (and infinitely superior in every way)6. We refer to the bigger ones as Prawns (UK). An average Shrimp (US) would be a Giant Prawn (UK). Both terms actually come from old Middle English and Prawns are supposed to be bigger. On that basis, I am not sure I would like to come across an American Giant Prawn. It would be like a lobster without the claws.
Then there are other shared food names where the difference is more fundamental than just size or quality.
For instance, Biscuits (US) are no relation at all to Biscuits (UK). The American biscuit is in fact a type of Scone (UK) whereas the British biscuit is in fact a Cookie (US). The Cookie (UK) is a subset of Biscuit (UK) (or Cookie (US)), being larger and generally more lumpy than a regular biscuit, usually containing chocolate chips or nuts.
It isn’t just biscuits/cookies though. There are many other issues at the bakery counter. Bread-related words are utterly different. Americans have Bagel (US), Pretzel (US), Pumpernickel (US), Sourdough (US), Cornbread (US) (and its specialist sub-types Cracklin’ Bread (US), Corn Pone (US), Johnnycakes (US) and Hushpuppies (US)), Scali Bread (US), Sopaipilla (US), Kaiser Roll (US) and Bulkie Roll (US). Over here, we have Cob (UK), Stottie (UK), Bap (UK), Muffin (UK) and Barm Cake (UK) not to mention the everyday Roll (UK) and Bun (UK). And that’s ignoring the croissants, baguettes, focaccias, ciabattas, brioches and pittas (or pitas in the US) that we have both imported from mainland Europe.
Then there is what we do with potatoes – or Tatties (UK) or Spuds (UK) as they are also known here. Chips (UK) are the traditional accompaniment to many things – fish (of course), pie (usually ‘steak’ and kidney – more offal),7 and fried eggs8 to name but a few. British chips are fat finger sized sticks of potato deep fried (ideally more than once to create a crispy shell but light, fluffy interior). They are always salted and often sprinkled with malt vinegar. Americans call them Fries (US) but they’re not really the same thing. Pale and skinny, American fries are a little too pale and delicate, like a young lady who hasn’t been out in the fresh air enough.
Chips (US) are not chips at all but the US version of Crisps (UK). Then you have Home-Fries (US) which are similar to Parmentier Potatoes (UK) but with bits of fried onion (and sometimes pepper) added. The Americans also have Hash Browns (US) which is more or less the same as the Swiss dish, Rösti and, if well cooked, is infinitely superior to Hash Browns (UK) which are frozen, pressed-into-shape bits of reject potato usually deep fried and universally awful.
As if that wasn’t enough confusion, there are words for food that mean something else entirely on the other side of the Atlantic. I hesitate to introduce faggots at this point but they are one such example. In the UK, we eat faggots. No it’s not a bizarre form of homophobic cannibalism. Whilst Faggot (US) may be pejorative slang for a gay man, over here, Faggot (UK) is a type of traditional meatball made with yet more offal (mainly heart), mixed with onions and herbs enclosed in caul (the membrane around the stomach) and baked in the oven. Faggots are usually served with copious amounts of onion Gravy (UK) and a side of mashed potato. My mother used to make them and very good they were too.
Spotted Dick (UK) also springs to mind. This isn’t a sexually transmitted disease but a rather splendid dessert pudding. It’s a little odd (for a dessert) in that its most important ingredient is suet – the hard and very white fat that surrounds the kidneys of cows and sheep – so one of very few desserts of largely animal origin. The suet fat is minced and combined with flour, sugar, currants and citrus peel, bound with milk, to create a sweet, stodgy dough that is steamed for a very long time before being served with Custard (UK) – NEVER with anything else (in other words, no ice cream or double cream as you might see in the US). It is very much a heavy winter dessert and it is normally necessary to have a lie down after eating it, followed perhaps by a couple of days without consuming any food at all.
But if Americans think that animal-derived puddings are strange, imagine our reaction to the Twinkie (US). As it happens, in the USA, Twinkie (or Twink) can also be used to refer to a gay man but its other incarnation is as the devil’s snack. I’ve spent a bit of time in Mississippi and down there, they really love their Twinkies (the edible version anyway). It is a ‘cake’ with a ‘vanilla cream’ filling. Somehow, the Twinkie has developed into a snack that never goes off. It has a shelf life longer than shelves. It is, allegedly, the only food that would survive a nuclear holocaust. Twinkies simply don’t biodegrade – because there is absolutely nothing of nutritional value in them. WALL-E the robot fed them to his pet cockroach 700 years after humans left the earth.
Mind you, there are some pretty disgusting foods that we both eat. Brawn (UK) (known in the USA as Head Cheese (US) or Souse (US) and most eaten, unsurprisingly, in Louisiana and Mississippi) is a British peasant dish from the Middle Ages, later prepared by American slaves when they were given those parts of the animal that their masters refused to consume. My mother used to make brawn too and if you think it is a thing of the past, I ate it in a British Michelin-starred restaurant as recently as last year. Basically, it is a terrine made by boiling a pig’s head (eyes and ears removed but tongue left in place) taking the meat off the bone, then allowing it to set using the natural gelatin from the pig’s skull. In Mississippi, they throw in a pig’s trotter for a bit of extra gelatin. Well obviously, it’s Mississippi. There is, I believe a uniquely American variant of brawn cooked and eaten in Alaska known as Jellied Moose Nose (US). Here the white meat from the nose is layered with the darker meat from the jaw and jowls to make it prettier. Honestly. They must have big pans in Alaska.
Another shared horror is Chitterlings (UK), which is the small intestine of a pig, boiled for several hours (with all the windows open!). Chitterlings are eaten in America in, yes you’ve guessed it, Mississippi, where they do what they always seem to do with every food: They dip the cooked chitterlings in batter and deep fry them, serving them with apple cider vinegar and hot sauce. Soul food they call it. Not my soul thank you all the same.
A possible rival for deep fried pig intestines is the nightmarish Rocky Mountain Oyster (US). This one the Brits do not eat. It might be called an oyster but this one has never been in the sea. A Rocky Mountain Oyster is in fact deep fried bull’s testicle! The folks from Mississippi are apparently innocent this time. These oysters are particularly popular in Texas, I hear, but Eagle, Idaho, claims to have the “World’s Largest Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed” during its Eagle ‘Fun’ Days. Not my idea of fun I have to say. Clinton, Montana, Deerfield, Michigan, Huntley, Illinois, Olean, Missouri, Severance, Colorado, and Tiro, Ohio also hold testicle festivals. Yes, there really are festivals dedicated to eating testicles. It gives a whole new meaning to “soup to nuts”!
Americans do not generally eat Haggis (UK) though. Haggis is a savoury dish containing sheep’s pluck (the heart, liver, and lungs) minced with onion, oatmeal, suet (again) spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and cooked encased in the stomach of the animal. It is of course Scottish and has been around since the 15thC. It is traditionally served with tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips, both boiled and mashed). It has been illegal to import haggis into the United States since 1971 (God only knows why) so it is unlikely to catch on. Contrary to popular fairy tales, the haggis is not an animal with legs longer on one side than the other , the better to handle the steep slopes of the Scottish mountains.
Last of all, my favourite (or favorite) is Black Pudding (UK). Most of the Americans I have met have not had the courage to try this wonderful and genuinely tasty food. (To be honest, nor have most of the Brits I know either). In common with the French Boudin Noir, black pudding is a blood sausage made from pig’s blood and pork fat and is rich in protein and iron. It can be fried or grilled and is an essential component of the Traditional Full English Breakfast (UK). I also eat it with slow roast belly pork, fried with slices of apple. Delicious! There is an Italian-American version of blood sausage made in the San Francisco Bay area known as Biroldo (US) and has pine nuts, raisins, spices and pig snouts added so it’s not really the same thing at all.
If you can think of any uniquely British or American foods that deserve a mention here and a dictionary entry, please add a comment below. Thank you.
Once, in a very famous New York hotel, I asked for a hot plate so as to be able to transport some scrambled egg fifteen feet from the servery to my table without it going cold. After studying me as if I had gone stark raving mad, the member of kitchen staff put a huge pan of water on a gas ring to boil and, once it began to bubble, gently lowered a dinner plate into the hot liquid for a minute before extricating it with an enormous set of wooden tongs. By the time I had my hot plate, my family had finished their breakfast and had gone sightseeing. True story, Honestly. ↩
The ‘Horsemeat Scandal’ broke in 2013 after the UK Food Standards Agency carried out DNA tests on the ‘beef’ contained in burgers and ready meals only to find that much of it whinnied instead of mooed. Burgers were promptly withdrawn from sale by all the major British food retailers. The French didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. ↩
I’m exaggerating of course. It is perfectly possible to find excellent – and large – superbly cooked steaks in the UK. However, there are too many examples of of poor quality meat, in tiny portions which are terribly cooked. ↩
Bringing animal or plant products from foreign countries is restricted according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulation unless those goods are declared and inspected. We Brits spend quite long enough in US Immigration without declaring our secret stashes of coffee. One day, that cute Cocker-Spaniel sniffer dog in Immigration is going to lie down next to my bag and tell its handler that I’ve got a potential case of foot and mouth disease in my suitcase. Or cannabis, as real coffee is also used to mask the smell of weed ↩
Americans tend to assert that their Gran has the best recipe for gravy. How it is even possible to have a best recipe for what is basically flour and milk is beyond me ↩
at least it was until British Petroleum spilled a billion tons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Sorry about that. Really. ↩
… or perhaps horse ↩
We only do sunny side up. No-one this side of the pond has yet mastered how to turn over an egg during cooking ↩