The Problem with England

H. L. Mencken explains:

The badness of English cooking is proverbial all over the world, but no one seems to have investigated its causes. I suggest that it may be due, at least in part, to two things, the first being that the English have a Puritan distrust of whatever is bodily pleasant, and the second that it is practically impossible to grow good food in their country. The first point needs no laboring. Every American who has been in England in winter knows who the whole population shivers and freezes. The simple device of putting in adequate stoves has apparently never occurred to anyone — or, if it has, it has been rejected as unmanly. The English prefer to be uncomfortable, and think of their preferences as heroic.

So at the table. Most Englishmen have been abroad, and know very well what good victuals taste like. But when they are at home they take a gloomy, stubborn, idiotic delight in eating badly. To say that they have a diseased taste and actually enjoy their flabby flavorless, badly cooked dishes, — this is to go beyond plain facts. It takes only a glance to see that they suffer almost as much as visitors to their country. But they can’t get rid of the feeling that it is virtuous to suffer — that eating better stuff would be frenchified, wicked, and against God. So they remain faithful to a cuisine which Nietzsche long ago described as next door to cannibalism.

I have hinted that the native victuals of the English are all bad. An exception, of course should be made of their incomparable mutton, and another, perhaps, of their sole, but beyond that the judgment holds. Their beef, for all their touching veneration of it, is distinctly inferior to ours, as anyone may discover by eating in the form of steaks. Their pork, at best, is only so-so, and their veal is not better. They seldom eat lamb at all. Of the stuff they get out of the sea, not much is really good. Their oysters are vile, and their turbot is flabby and almost tasteless. Their salmon is better, but it is surely not to be mentioned in the same breath with our mackerel, blue-fish and shad. That leaves their excellent sole — usually ruined in the cooking. . . .

What saves England from complete culinary darkness is the mutton. At its best, it is probably the most magnificent red meat to be had in the world. . . . I believe it is one of the great glories of the English people — a greater glory, indeed, than their poetry, their policemen, their hearty complexions, or their gift for moral indignation. It is the product of English grass — unquestionably the best grass on this piebald ball. Ah, that the English nobility and gentry could dine as well as their sheep. (“Note on Victuals,” 1930)

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9 thoughts on “The Problem with England

  1. Enjoyed this post. Delicious, as Jay Nordlinger might say. But for the life of me I can’t figure out how to use loinfruits in my comment.

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  2. To be fair, current English cuisine is much better than it once was. And they make lovely meat pies. I’m thankful I married my husband, who shares my love of meat pies. (That said, my favorite is actually an Australian version — an excellently savory beef and cheddar, topped with plenty of HP sauce.) My dad finds meat pies offensive, as when he was a teen and went to England to learn English, he bit eagerly into a pie expecting something fruity and sweet and was bitterly disappointed to discover meat…

    And of course the English have a wonderful variety of desserts… Who could possibly turn down a sticky toffee pudding?

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  3. As a Lancastrian I found this post sublime and tellingly accurate even for an overseas visitor to our wind swept and damp shores. My guess is that Menchken wrote this very observant piece after the Second World War when Britian had severe food rationing and our diet was quite bland. It is also important to remember that many folk then in Britain were comparatively poor and as much work was very physical a cheap carbohydrate laden diet was the standard daily fare for many with spuds being a staple part of most meals.
    I would like to know what Menchken would say if we could show him what overcooked mush we now consume in large quantities which often consists of a greasy concoction of imported dishes (curries, kekabs, burgers) washed down often with copious quantities of equally cheap alcohol. No wonder we are fast catching up with our American friends in the obesity stakes.
    Menchken was kind enough though to very accurately note our mutton, which is lamb meat from older sheep. It has a lovely and quite unique taste which is best used in a recipe like mutton stew. In the wonderful county formerly known for centuries as Cumberland mutton is once again very popular and promoted passionately by one of the counties frequent visitors, Prince Charles who knows quite a lot about farming.
    I read incidentally about our love for meat pies – so true, especially in the North where a game of scrappy soccer is best watched with a meat pie in hand. In comparison I find the USA truly a meat pie desert, having rooted round for example even the normally excellent Wegmans and not been able to locate a decent steak in ale pie. And indeed we do make up for our often bland over cooked food with scrummy simple puddings (desserts) like sticky toffee pudding which is best served with lashings of double cream.

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  4. Very intersting piece, particularly on mutton. I have been involved in promoting the lost British icon which is mutton for over 20 years, and wrote the first book on the subject – Much Ado About Mutton (2014) (www.aboutmutton.com). As a result, I have now twice visited the States giving talks about the glories of mutton, and advised the US Lamb Board on promoting the meat. As Paul mentioned, WW2 was a bad time for mutton, both sides of the Atlantic, but more so in the US. GIs had been fed on awful Australian tinned mutton during the war, and this just destroyed mutton’s reputation. In fact, several people commented to me after I had mentioned this in my US talks that their returning GI fathers or grandfathers would not allow sheep meat in the house. So it has enetered the public psyche both sides of the Atlantic that mutton is bad. HOWEVER, now we have demonstrated, both in the UK and US, that people may think they don’t like mutton, but once they try it, the vast majority love it! So, seek it out – farmer/retailers in the US, and even more in the UK now sell quality mutton. Choose a good supplier, cook the meat slowly, and you too will be a mutton convert!
    Bob Kennard, Wales (land of the sheep), UK

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  5. Imagine London without “the hour”:

    That’s my view per se – but it’s especially my view when it comes to the City. Because the City has a unique culture which is cherished by many, myself included. The post-work pint is a lovely part of that. To my mind, enjoyed in the alleyways and quiet pubs by customers standing up and shouting the odds about the day’s work, in its small way it is emblematic of all that these people don’t like – of eccentricity, of character, of differentness. They prefer uniformity. Blandness. Their way, not yours – and you can pay for the new rules being administered, too.

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