The Bryttans in Britain

Issue 3- 20 November, 1997

In this issue...

English Food

Foreign Country of the Month: New York City

Tube Style

Random Lines

Eating in England

British Food

Food, glorious food ...

Okay, lets do a quick word association: "English Cuisine". What first comes to mind?

Thought so.

Opinions on English food seem to fall into two camps: total ignorance ("Oh, you mean the Brits have a cuisine?"), or disdain (all the food is starchy, mushy and tasteless, and "artful British cookery" is an oxymoron). I'm happy to report that both opinions are wrong.

First, the bad news. Cookery here does seem to suffer a bit from inadequate presentation. If you get a standard "pub lunch" (chips, sausage, eggs and beans - yeah, I know, not exactly haute cuisine, but still...), they'll be served jumbled together on a plate. True, after a pint or two of beer, it doesn't really matter, but it's not until you get to the more expensive (read: French) restaurants that presentation and visual appeal seems to be considered.

Now the good news. You can eat well here. Very well. And not just by going out every night. One of the advantages of living in a large city is that all services are usually a short walk away. Our closest food store is about a four-minute walk, and we affectionately call it "the fridge" (as in, "hey Jane, wanna pop down to the fridge and see what's for diner tonight?"). Now that store may not be as large, square-footage-wise, as some of the super-gigundo-markets in the states, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in quality.

First surprise: we had thought that the price for living in the city was having to forgo fresh in favor of canned or frozen, but nothing could be further from the truth. Fresh fruit, produce, meat and fish is plentiful, always available, and reasonably priced. This is due, in large part, to the ability to import from a number of growing regions: oranges, for example, can come from Spain, Morroco, Greece, or Italy, or, in a pinch, even from Florida and California.

Second surprise: "Prepared meals" - complete single portion meals that you just microwave and eat - are universally available, and are quite nutritious and tasty. Don't think they're just TV dinners - they are about as far removed from the Hungry Man grease-on-a tray as fillet mignon is from Spam. In "the fridge", about one-third of the floor space is dedicated to prepared meals, and the selection is very wide indeed: Indian, Thai, Chinese, English (Shepherd's Pie, Salmon Bake), Mexican, and even "American" (hot dog, hamburger, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and baked beans -- don't think I'll be trying that anytime soon!). You can even get a whole range of vegetarian prepared meals. All told, that makes our microwave the most-used kitchen appliance by far. British Gas bills on an estimated useage system; every two months, I have to call them up and explain that, aside from heating the occasional kettle of tea, we've only used gas to cook five meals on our stove.

When not having prepared meals, there's a wide a range of take-away as would be expected in any large city: Indian, Chinese, uh, Pizza Hut... But our favorite take-away is our local "chippie", or fish-and-chips shop. If there's one typical British food, this is it. Any neighborhood worth its salt must have at least one, and you can smell it a block away. Our local one actually took a while to find - it's tucked away side road, and we had lived here almost a month before our noses led us to it. Basically you have a choice of fish - cod, haddock, plaice; sometimes shrimp (scampi) or sausage - battered and fried, an order or two of chips (thick-cut french fries), and viola! - instant dinner. (Our chippie cooks to order, so it's not really "instant", but more like a seven-minute wait.) If you want some variety, you can get side orders of cole slaw, onions, or mushy peas (which, as the name suggests, is a greenish paste with an occasional spherical pea-sized object floating in it. It actually tastes pretty good, it's just that presentation thing again.) All of this is wrapped up in large sheets of coarse white paper (newspapers have been outlawed for years; apparently the petroleum-based inks would bleed off onto the fish, and could be toxic in large quantities) that serve as conical containers for eating on the run, or double as a tablecloth when you take it home. A fine bottle of French red wine, and you have an ideal meal. (Just kidding - everyone knows that white wine goes with fish!)

When we do go out, there are plenty of restaurants, covering a wide range of cuisines, within a easy walk of our home. And - surprise, surprise - we've actually found one or two good British eateries, that do work on their presentation, and don't overcook everything into oblivion. There's hope for world-class English cookery yet.

If it survives, that is. Indian food, or "curry" is fast becoming the national cuisine. Indian restaurants can be found everywhere, are an inexpensive way to eat in or take away, and are run by extended families. If this arrangement sounds vaguely familiar, it's just like Chinese restaurants in the States (India, remember, was part of the Empire until recently, and a lot of immigrants have settled in London. Chinese food, by the way, is much more exotic - and expensive - in Britain.) Indian dishes can range all the way from the very mild, to the very hot, and come in varieties to please both vegetarians and carnivoures. Main courses (which, if not vegetarian, are usually lamb or chicken based) can be supplemented by a wide variety of rice dishes and breads. My favorite among these is garlic naan - a flat, almost unleavened bread that, when properly made, has half a head's worth of fresh garlic chunks floating in it. Delicious - and it keeps vampires away for weeks!

Even in its native state, British food is hearty and filling -- excellent "comfort food". After a particularly rough day, there's nothing quite like a big plate of bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes in an onion gravy), and a pint or two of bitters of course, to set the world right again.

Foreign Country of the Month:

New York City

New York City skyline with Statue of Liberty

In September, Jane had to fly back for training in North Carolina, and I joined her to use up frequent-flyer points that were due to expire. On the weekend, we did the "Grand Parental Tour" -- Carolina to Washington for Jane's mom, on to New York for mine, then the reverse on return. While in New York, we decided to play tourist one day:

"Yeah, yeah, yeah ... New York City ain't no foreign country -- what are you, some sort of wise guy?"

New York stereotypes come to life while waiting for the Liberty Island ferry. The disorderly wait for the boat makes an ideal captive audience for all manner of street performer and salesman. While the contortionist and the guitarist each vie for the attention of the crowd, box-toting hawkers work the front lines selling sunglasses, Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirts, keyrings, and yes, even knock-off Rolex watches ("hey, fifteen bucks here! keeps great time!").

The poor out-of-towners quickly fall prey to acerbic New York wit: the ticket taker collects the entire stub on boarding for the trip out. When asked about the trip back, without skipping a beat he said, "yeah, well there's subway stop in the basement of the statue...".

Brits everywhere. Higher percentage of people from the UK here than in some places in London. You can spot the English a mile away: they know how to queue properly. The locals (New Yorkers) try to weasel their way to the front of the line; people from warmer climes spread out into amorphous blobs; and folks from Eastern Europe are just befuddled by the whole procedure. But the Brits, they're cool. They keep a tidy and orderly line, they won't sneak ahead of you, and they'll even save your place if you want to pop out for a soda. Of course, we return the favor also.

Most of the folks were lining up to climb up to the crown of the Statue of Liberty - a 2 1/2 hour wait. Since we had just spent an hour waiting for the ferry, and another hour waiting to get into the statue, we decided to forego the crown for the view from the top of the pedestal. No wait there, and probably just as good a view. It is an island, after all, and you don't have to get high up to see for miles. Plus, you get to look up Lady Liberty's dress.

Line up for the boat again - an hour and a half wait this time. Hop off at Ellis Island. Very interesting - that alone makes the entire trip worth it. Many people can trace their ancestry back through the rooms on this island. Unfortunately, neither of us have a direct connection -- Jane's lineage has been in the same burgh in Maryland for centuries, way before Ellis was built (a doctor, concerned about inbreeding, once pleaded with the locals to look further afield when choosing mates, or they'd soon "wind up with a townful of morons"). My folks arrived in the US after Ellis was closed down. They just walked off the plane at Kennedy Airport and there they were. Still, to see the experiences that those folks went through, to see their belongings, the traditions they brought, all their hopes and dreams, was very moving, and gave us a bit of national pride. There were also a statistics exhibit, with three-dimensional bar charts and displays on the waves of immigration, and current distributions in the US by nationality. That last item was fascinating - you type in the number of your nationality, and it illuminates fifty digital displays indicating how many people in each state claim a particular ancestry. Watched the visitors play with this for a while - for some odd reason, every other nationality kept coming up Italian...

Back on the boat. Fairly short queue this time - one boat loaded up, we should be on the next one. Only the next one never came. It's a circular route for the ferries - Battery Park, Liberty Island, Ellis Island, start over - and we watched as two ferries went directly from Liberty to Battery Park. Brits are visibly perturbed now. New Yorkers are all at the head of the line. And the Eastern Europeans are still confused. Finally, an (empty) boat arrives, the crowd cheers, and we're on our way home.

LESSONS LEARNED / TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS: If you go on a nice weekend day (ours was beautiful) plan to spend at least three hours standing in lines. Dress properly and take sunscreen, because all those lines are out-of-doors. You may want to take in the attractions in the reverse order (stay on the boat for Ellis Island first, then stay on again past the Battery for Liberty Island). Ask the boat operators if you can do this (with as much chutzpah as you can muster, and be prepared for a wiseacre response). That way, you'll miss the crowds of people following the proscribed path in both places. (True New Yorkers delight in, er, creatively bending the rules to their advantage.) Don't get in the queue to the top of the Statue of Liberty right away - once you join the line, you're locked in. Better to go to the base of the statue, take in the museum, then decide if the wait is worth it.

And, fer cryin' out loud, the Rolexes are FAKE.

Tube Style

Way Out sign

Anorak alert! Anorak alert!
This article contains opinions which, to those who do not share
my passion for transportation and design, may seem unduly boring.
Such folk are hereby notified, and advised to turn elsewhere
for their stimulation.

The London Underground is truly a marvel. Most other public transportation systems focus simply on the business of moving people from point A to point B; London Transport has a coherent design strategy to do so with a style and flair that is uniquely theirs.

Take the case of their lettering. In 1916, LT commissioned Edward Johnston, a noted artist, to design a display typeface for station signs and displays. That font family was updated in the 1980s to to allow for computer typesetting, and now the New Johnston typeface is used on almost all signs and publications. To the casual observer, it's just sans-serif lettering, but font freaks can readily identify it by diamond dots over the lowercase j and i, a tail on the lowercase l, and a perfectly round o. This typeface is unique to London Transport, and is jealously guarded as an element of their corporate identity.

There's the electronic signs. Many stations have LED dot-matrix signs that indicate the destinations of the next two trains and when they're due to arrive. (They really work well - keep the passengers from leaning over and staring down the tracks, and are very reassuring - even if it says 7 minutes 'till the next train, you know what you're up against.) With these sort of things, one normally uses the minimum number of LED rows you can get away with to communicate the message. Not in the Underground. The matrix is denser, reminding one of typeset print, and allows for the capitals to be slightly subscripted, giving the signs a very unique feel.

And there's the route map. Designed by Harry Beck in 1931 and much imitated since then, it still stands as outstanding example of clear and purposeful graphics. As a geographic map it's useless - the location of the stations on the map bear little resemblence to their locations in reality - but it serves its puropse admirably: routes, stations and transfer points are shown with remarkable clarity. Using a consistent color scheme (that is repeated in station signs, route indications, and even subtly incorporated into the decor of the cars themselves) and line segments that are only horizontal, vertical and diagonal, it manages to make the most complex subway system in the world understandable even to tourists who can't speak English.

But the most amazing thing about all these efforts in the Underground is their understatedness. There are no proclamations glorifying the artists or the design. Indeed, at first, it seems like a bunch of happy coincidences, until you realize that there's far too much consistency -- there's an intelligence behind these coincidences. And then you begin to notice even more, like the color keys worked into the station platforms, or the special upholstery in the train cars. And you realize, that after one hundred thirty years of moving people, it's all been carefully thought through, and is being done better all the time.

This article was inspired by a visit to the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.
Additional information is from the book, "Designed for London", by Oliver Green and Jeremy Rewse-Davies

Random Lines

Observations on life in Britain.

Tourist Stories

Transport hubs are good places to people-watch, and Heathrow and Gatwick top the list. The vast numbers of foreigners and mixes of cultures make for some very interesting incidents indeed:

I had just passed through immigration and stepped into the bathroom when I came face-to-face with a half-dozen very confused African women trying to figure out how to work the plumbing. I politely pointed out the urinals on the wall; they stared blankly back. I showed them the stick-figure on the door; apparently that didn't seem to mean much either. I finally shepherded the whole bunch across the hall to the correct toilet, and returned back to my side. Upon opening the door, I found a dozen more African women, and decided that, well, I really didn't have to go that badly after all.

Then there was the African family who apparently was having great difficulty grasping the concept of an "up" escalator. Children at the top were cheering on Mom, Dad and Grandma, who couldn't quite take that first step. After several minutes of almost feral whimpers and screams from the elders, one of the children came back down and encouraged Mom and Dad to take a flying leap onto the moving tread; on the second pass, Grandma closed her eyes tightly and let herself get pushed.

And finally there's an image from my last trip, of a Middle Eastern woman yelling at a security guard in her native tongue, while he patiently tried to explain to her, in English, that even if he did let her take the 30-lb. cheese wheel onto the plane, the customs officer at the other end would simply confiscate it.

Late-breaking update...

A warning: I heard the following story second-hand. I cannot vouch for its veracity, but hey, this isn't a respectable news-gathering organization - we have no reputation to uphold. So here goes...

Cadbury may soon have to stop selling chocolate. Oh, they won't stop making those heavenly products that I waxed poetic about recently (B in B #1), it's just that they'll have to call it something else, not chocolate. Turns out that their product doesn't meet the new EU (European Union) standards for "chocolate" - Cadbury puts in too much milk, and not enough cocoa fat. No wonder it tastes so good. Needless to say, this is not taken to very kindly by the Brits - not in the least because the EU headquarters are in Brussels ... Belgium ... as in "Belgian Chocolates". Hmm - can you say "protectionism"? Thought so..

The eyes have it

The Brits are an overwhelmingly blue-eyed people. It's amazing - noticing people on the street, in the Tube, among friends and co-workers, we see a higher percentage of blue eyes than anywhere else we've been, including Scandinavia. Must be the Saxon influence. They're fair-skinned too -- this is the only place I've been where one can get SPF 48 sunscreen -- year round. Surprisingly, the third part of that equation - blonde hair - isn't terribly prevalent. The typical native English "look" is blue eyes, fair complexion, and light brown hair.