Bad Astronomy

On eating in the UK

I travel a lot. Talks, meetings, family events… whatever the reason, I know the drive between my house and the airport as well as I know the walk from my office to the freezer where I keep ice cream sandwiches. That is to say, very well indeed.

I used to love flying, but of course the airline companies have crushed all the fun of flying into dust, so it’s more of a burden now. But while I don’t like going to other places, I like being in other places, if you see the difference.

And one of the reasons I love it so is because I love to eat. Love love love to eat. I have a suspicion that my hypernosmia superpower also lends itself to gustatory sensitivity, making eating an especially rich and sensual experience for me.

Or maybe I just love to eat. And I love trying new things when I eat, so travel is a perfect excuse. Sure, I love giving talks and spreading the joy and wonder of science blah blah blah, but I really enjoy going to different places and seeing what the local cuisine is. In St. Louis it’s definitely toasted ravioli. NYC? Pizza. New Orleans? Red beans and rice. Australia? Meat pies (and Minties! Mmmmm, Minties).

So I was excited to get to England for TAM London. I was in the UK last year on my way to visit the LHC, and I ate pretty well, so going back was making my tummy rumbly.

Man. I was right. Somehow, on my last visit, I missed getting bangers and mash. How did that happen? It’s the official Royal Food, like hamburgers here in the States. For those non-anglophiles out there, bangers are sausages, usually fried in pan, and mash is mashed potatoes. I do on occasion partake of sausages at home; we usually grill them. We also usually get a low fat version*. In England, though, the sausages are full-fat, full-figured cylinders of prolate goodness. The mash, too, was loaded with butter, making them a heavenly, um, mash. That first night in London at the pub I was stuffed myself by the time I was done eating.

Over the next few days I had bangers and mash perhaps five more times, including once in Avebury (a town outside Bristol about which I’ll write at a later date) where they were smothered in a brown onion sauce that took about three years off my life, but made my taste buds almost pass out in ecstasy.

And that brings me to two points about English food. One is that everything in it contains fat. Everything. The sausages, of course. The mash did too; at home we use a bit of butter but not a lot because we like the flavor of the potatoes themselves. But in the UK, it’s a butterrific butterama of buttertude. Even, I swear, the sodas had 15% of the RDA of fat.

Second, veg, what we in America take the time to spell out as “vegetables”. Or I should say the lack of them. Finding anything green in our meals was as difficult as finding anything low fat. Veggies just aren’t served in England where we went. Oh, I did get something advertised as broccoli at a pub in London, but it was so overcooked I think it was partially ionized. And it was closer to yellow than green on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Some restaurants said they had salads, but these were generally a leaf or two of greens (arugula, which they charmingly refer to as “rocket”) with meat piled on top, including bacon. Many had an accompanying mayonnaise dressing. Some just came with a stick of butter popping out the top, and a complimentary pair of defibrillation paddles.

Not that getting good veg is impossible, of course. Along with Mrs. BA and our friends Brian and Gia, we had a magnificent dinner at the house of friends of Gia’s, Jane and Jonathan. Jane is a fantastic cook (as well as engaging and, like her husband, hilarious), and made some sort of steamed broccoli that was a sight for sore tongues. Of course, she also served an out of this world trifle which counteracted the health benefits of the broccoli nicely… but both were absolutely delicious. I regret nothing.

Which brings me to another small problem of mine: my sweet tooth. We bought biscuits (“cookies”) every day: McVitties, Maryland, and five or six other brands. They were all odd to my American taste, and all delicious. I also ate Galaxy chocolate, Welsh chocolate, Belgian chocolate, Cadbury chocolate, and probably other kinds by accident without even knowing it. I’m surprised I didn’t lose a finger in my haste to try every bit of chocolate I could find. Had we stayed any longer in England I suspect I would’ve single-handedly caused a nation-wide shortage of chocolate.

Oh, another thing: we spent a lovely though rainy day in Wales, visiting a ruined castle in Caerphilly (more about that at a later date as well). Afterwards, we wandered the small town adjacent looking for food. We found a great small restaurant, and I got a sub sandwich (or hero or grinder or whatever) that was ham, English mustard, and apple chutney along with a bag of roasted chicken flavor crisps. It was a very scrumptious meal indeed. My two complaints? They don’t have ice in the restaurant. Ever. They just don’t have it. I’ve been told it’s an American thing to want ice with drinks, and to be fair I generally drink my water warm. But Coke? My colonial tastes decree that Coke needs to be cold.

My other complaint is more of an observation. Local food is local food, and what you like is usually what you grew up with, or a variant thereof. And as much as I loved the time I spent in Wales, this sign for a local deli was, um, a bit of a shock:

And no, it’s not because of the use of a word that here in the States is a slur against homosexuals – though that turns out to be a mixture of onions, liver, and bread crumbs that did make me a little queasy to think about (and it apparently is a corruption of the word fegato, Italian for liver)– it’s just that I’m not used to seeing such an eclectic assortment of body parts on a menu. I am quite sure that much of the food I eat would make people from other countries uneasy as well (heated chicken ova placed on yeast-infected ground-up and cooked wheat tips with violently mixed squeezings from a bovine mammary gland – yum!), so if you want to color me provincial, feel free. Given my tastes, I’m sure that if I grew up with that food I’d love it. I bet I could still enjoy gefilte fish… if there was enough horseradish on it.

So anyway, as to the point I think I’ve made, eating in the UK was amazingly delicious, but liable to induce a coronary after a few meals. It’ll be some time before I can work off the extra kilos I put on. And it was worth every single chew, every heavenly swallow, and every single bloated fat cell lining my middle.

And the real issue is, I can still taste some of it in my brain. A part of me still senses the presence of bangers, somewhere to the east, just a nine-hour flight and 6000 kilometers away.


* Although there is one brand of Italian sausage we get that are not only full fat, but basically crammed full of it. They are incredibly good, but eat up a week’s worth of my fat intake from candy bars for me. The first time we cooked them on the grill, the fat inside the sausage liquefied, and pressure built up. The skin of the sausage split open – note that this all happened inside the grill and out of sight while we were inside the house prepping the side dishes – and the fat must have shot out at high speed into the grill bottom. Fat, as it happens, is somewhat flammable. For my part, I looked out the kitchen window and saw flames erupting from every conceivable orifice of the grill, like the thermostat was set to “gamma-ray burst”. I ran outside… and then stopped. When your grill looks like it’s the part of the superhero movie when the mild-mannered scientist undergoes some horrific accident, only to be transformed into Flaming Sausage Man, it gives you pause. Eventually I figured out how to open the lid without conflagrating myself, and doused the fire. I’ll note that the sausages were incredibly tasty.