A couple of months ago, I flew over an ocean to the United Kingdom to meet and spend time with my boyfriend’s family.
There are a few cultural differences that most Americans would expect: cars drive on the left side of the road, french fries are called chips, and the currency comes in different shapes and sizes. I’m caught more off-guard by the little differences, especially when it comes to what and how we eat.
Some differences are semantic at best. What I think of as a key lime pie is technically a tart, not a pie. We'd already talked about various food names while Jerry was in the United States. Arugula is Rocket. Eggplant is Aubergine. Fries are Chips. Easy enough, right?
I quickly found myself out of my depth when a kind Irishwoman with a small cafe made us breakfast on my very first morning in London. All I wanted was hot and greasy food. It was cold outside and I was desperately tired from the time change, our long flight and an exhausting commute the previous day.
“Do you want it in a bap?” She asks after she fails to convince us to eat in with our eggs and bacon. I look at Jerry, and he laughs and says yes. A bap is just a wide bread bun to make it portable.
“Would you like some tomato sauce on it?” What? Who puts tomato sauce on a breakfast sandwich? I quickly say no, and look at him with confusion. Delighted, he informs me that by tomato sauce, she was asking if I wanted ketchup. Thank you, but I’m good.
That, of course, was just the beginning of my learning experiences.
If I were to ask my family to go shopping for food, I would say “let’s get some groceries”. In the UK, it’s “let’s go to the shop.” Which shop? Who knows. Lately, it’s been whatever shop doesn’t have a line outside.
The interior of the shops aren’t any better. Eggs are stored at room temperature with baking goods. Liquor is sold inside the big part of the store with everything else. Many brands are similar or renamed, while others are completely missing. You wouldn’t think not being able to spot familiar packaging or brand colors would throw you off that much, but it does.
It’s also fun to look for things branded as “American.” American-style burger sauce, anyone? I also spotted some “American-style” deli chicken intended for sandwiches. What was American-style about them, I couldn’t tell you.
Then there’s the shopping carts, or the “trollies.” At some stores, they are locked until you put a pound coin in the handle, which is returned to you when you put the cart away. And they drift. American carts have fixed back wheels so the user can only push or pull. British trollies have four free-spinning wheels, so the cart can move in any direction, even directly sideways.
There is also no shelf underneath for large or heavy items. More than once I found myself leaning on the cart and trying to rest my foot on that shelf, only to be met with disappointing empty air.
At check out, the cashiers have comfortable seats at each station. One store had pneumatic tubes for transporting money when a till was closed up. Reusable bags are more common, which means it’s a race to pack the reusable shopping bags efficiently so that you don’t hold up the next customer.
Jerry and I buy some food for ourselves, but there’s limited shelf and refrigerator space in a four-person household. I’m used to large family meals that are cooked to excess and served buffet-style. Leftovers in the fridge are eaten on a first-come, first-serve basis.
My boyfriend’s dad is named Jody, and he used to cook for a living. He spent the first couple of weeks making distinctly British dishes for me to rate, asking me questions about American cooking, and trying to figure out what I liked.
Jody cooks for one or two people at a time, often with different sides or mains depending on a person’s preferences. If he cooks more than is needed, he knows exactly what that extra bit is for. It might be for his wife to take to work the next day, or an ingredient for a dinner he’s planning two nights from now. I learned to leave leftovers and final portions of things alone.
My boyfriend is happy to help me navigate the shop and his family’s kitchen. There are some American staples I decided to purchase to give myself alternate lunch options, like peanut butter and jelly, and Jerry has taken to picking up healthy snacks and fresh fruit he knows I’ll appreciate.
I’ve found there is lots of inexpensive food available, but if I tried to buy exactly the foods and brands I’m used to, it would be way more expensive than it is at home.
Due to not being able to go out other than to go food-shopping, I’ve been cooking for fun more often. Last week I made a rustic apple pie out of some apples that were going soft. I was surprised that my home-made pastry turned out pretty tasty, as I largely guessed the amounts the American recipe called for.
This week I bought and cooked something called Swoodles solely because the name made me laugh. When times are uncertain and things are different than you’re used to, I find it helps to embrace change and try new things. Cornish pasty, anyone?
I had never heard of swede before I saw this root medley available for £1. It comes with a swede, onion, parsnip and a few carrots.
Apparently the only difference between American bacon and British bacon is which direction the cut of pork is sliced.