Since 1942 or thereabouts, the quip, “The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language,” has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, though it does not appear in any of his known writings. Another, from Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, claims, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” Both gentlemen overlooked another distinct gap between Americans and their British cousins. That gap is in cuisine. Some foods both popular and common in the United Kingdom are viewed with dismay in America.
In fairness, some of the foods are merely hung with monikers which render them strange to American ears, and thus absent from American plates. Others, however, are considered less than palatable, due to the ingredients used and the preparation of same. Most meat-eating Americans share with the British a love of roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding, similar to popovers. The same Americans view other popular British foods and dishes with rolled eyes and wrinkled noses, astonished that anyone would consider eating such concoctions. Here are 10 popular British foods considered weird by Americans.
10. Spotted Dick
The obvious double entendre of its name raises American eyebrows, and a secondary name for the dessert, Spotted Dog, does little to whet the appetite as well. The references to both dick and dog are from early dialects in Britain, and refer to pudding. The dessert is not a pudding in the American sense, but rather a cake, once made with plums, but more commonly found today with dried raisins, currants, or other fruit. The fruit accounted for the “spots” of its name, the cake for the pudding, or dick.
Traditionally, the fat used to make Spotted Dick came from suet, the hard fat surrounding the kidneys from beef or mature sheep. Recipes for the dessert have been traced to the mid-19th century in British cookbooks and guides for housewives, though it never appeared to have achieved popularity in the United States. Though modern recipes often substitute other fats for the suet, such as butter, traditional recipes for the dish can be found readily online. By the way, in recognition of the somewhat bawdy interpretation of its name, in 2009 Flintshire County Council in Wales renamed the dish Spotted Richard.
9. Black Pudding
Black Pudding appears to the eye as a type of sausage, traditionally made from the blood of slaughtered animals. The blood from slaughtered beef, pork, and sheep was mixed with ground fat or suet and cereals such as oatmeal or groats. Herbs and spices were added, including mint, thyme, and pennyroyal. The modern day version available in British markets is made entirely from pork blood, and usually the cereal used is oats or barley. Records of the sausages called Black Puddings date it to the mid-15th century, and there is evidence a similar dish, made in an earthenware pot rather than a sausage casing preceded them.
The sausages in Britain’s stores and shops are pre-cooked, and are popular eaten cold, grilled, fried, boiled, or baked. Often it is sliced, fried, and served for breakfast, though it is also served whole as part of a meal, particularly in the Black Country, the Midlands, and in Scotland and Ireland. Similar sausages are also popular in Australia. They are also sometimes used to make Scotch Eggs. For those objecting to blood sausage, British shops offer White Pudding, a similar sausage made without using the processed blood of slaughtered hogs.
8. Jellied Eels
Eels long served as a staple in the British diet, particularly in London, where the Thames teemed with them. In the early 18th century anyone could fish for eels in the Thames, provided they had a net with which to catch them. Other British streams produced eels as well. Shops featuring Eel Pies and Mash appeared in the 1700s, and another dish made from the fish – jellied eels – soon followed. They remained popular through the 20th century, though in recent years jellied eels have acquired the panache of a delicacy, rather than a popular cheap food for the urban poor.
Jellied eels are made by chopping the cleaned fish into pieces (rounds), which are boiled in water flavored with vinegar, nutmeg, and lemon juice. The eels release gelatin into the water during the boiling. The eel is then cooled in the water, which solidifies into a jelly, and the entire gelatinous goo is packaged for consumption. Today there are fewer eel houses in London, and jellied eel fans find their delicacy in supermarkets and delicatessens. Or, they can resort to making their own.
Periwinkles have long been popular in the United Kingdom, especially so along the coasts and in seaside towns. They are small shellfish, similar to snails, which the French across the Channel eat with Gallic aplomb. The British call periwinkles simply winkles, and though they are somewhat challenging to eat, since they must be extracted from the shell, they remain a widely ingested food item in the United Kingdom. In British coastal shops they are served in paper bags, with a pin with which to extract the little beast from the shell attached.
To be fair, they are also popular in New England and in the American Northwest. It is widely believed, though unproven, that periwinkles came to America by being attached to the rock ballast once carried in sailing ships. When the ballast was dumped into the sea off the American coast, the tiny snails found their new environment to their liking, and flourished. They are fished by towed dredges or by simply wading through the water, picked by hand, and deposited in a bucket or creel.
6. Stargazy Pie
Sardines and pilchards are interchangeable names for a variety of small fish of the herring family. Under either name they are definitely an acquired taste. People generally love them or loathe them for their oily texture, fishy taste, and smell. Fishing for pilchards was once a thriving industry in Cornwall, where for over 130 years the fish were caught with seines, packed in hogsheads, and exported to Europe. The industry died out in the late 19th century, but a uniquely Cornish dish, Stargazy pie, survived. It is especially popular on Tom Bawcock’s Eve, a festival local to Mousehole, in Cornwall.
Stargazy pie is a pie made with pilchards, other fish, and various ingredients according to the whims of the baker. Boiled eggs, potatoes, vegetables, bacon, mutton, and others foods are often found in the pie. What makes it unique is the heads of the fish are arranged to protrude through the pastry crust, as if they are stargazing. Sometimes the tails are arranged to protrude through the rim of the crust as well. A stargazy pie contains baked sardines which stare at the diner as he prepares to enjoy his repast. It’s hard to understand why it never gained popularity in America.
Marmite is a brand name for a food spread invented as an offshoot of the brewing industry. It is, in essence, concentrated brewer’s yeast, high in B vitamins and almost overwhelmingly salty in taste. It is used as a flavoring in many dishes. It is also stirred into boiling water to create a hot beverage. During World War I it was issued to British troops, where it acquired its most popular use, spread on crackers or toast, or any form of bread, sometimes accompanied with butter. During World War II it was fed to German prisoners of war as a source of vitamins.
Marmite developed a solid base of fans who appeared nearly addicted to the stuff, and an equally devoted group who find it disgusting. Unilever, which owns the brand, took advantage of the dispute in an advertising campaign in the 1990s, adopting the slogan, “Love it or hate it.” One wonders if Marmite improves the flavor of one’s Stargazy pie, or if lovers of baked sardines find the savor of the popular spread distasteful.
The first thing to consider about laverbread is that it isn’t a bread at all, though toasted bread is often served alongside it at table. Laverbread is traditionally served in Wales. It consists of boiled seaweed, though not just any seaweed. The seaweed is harvested in the shallow coastal waters of the Irish Sea, and is known to the Welsh as slake. The slake is first harvested, then washed repeatedly, then boiled until it assumes the texture of a mushy, somewhat gooey paste. Then it’s ready for eating.
Although often eaten as is, with accompaniments such as bread, it is also sometimes rolled in oats and then pan-fried, to be eaten at breakfast. At other meals it is eaten as a cold salad, or heated as a side dish. The Welsh also enjoy laverbread as the main course, sometimes supplemented with boiled bacon. Yes, boiled bacon. The actor and famed diamond purchaser Richard Burton extolled the virtues of laverbread when he referred to it in an interview as the “Welshman’s caviar.”
Scotland is credited (perhaps blamed is a better word) for giving the world haggis, though dishes prepared with similar ingredients in the same manner appear throughout the world. Cooking the offal of an animal using its stomach as the cooking vessel was a common means of eating during a hunt. The Scot’s version consists of chopping up the heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep, known as the pluck. It is then combined with onions, suet, oats, and whatever spices are available, placed in the sheep’s stomach, and boiled.
Supermarkets in Scotland offer prepared haggis, often in artificial casings rather than a sheep’s stomach. It is popular in pubs, fast food restaurants, and even in Indian restaurants throughout Scotland. Technically haggis is illegal in the United States, due to its containing lung, and importing haggis is not allowed. Some American companies make their own versions, which do not contain lung and which are always offered in artificial casings. They can be boiled, baked, or fried. A large supply of another product of Scotland, Scotch Whisky, may be of use when contemplating its consumption.
2. Scotch Eggs
Fortnum and Mason, a London department store, has long claimed to have invented Scotch eggs in 1738. They were simple enough; hard or soft-boiled eggs wrapped in ground meat or sausage, then quickly fried. They were intended to provide a quick meal or snack for travelers or workingmen, though few of the latter could afford the upscale prices offered by the store. The store included the eggs in some of the various hampers they sold, containing several prepared foods. They were quickly popular, and have remained so ever since.
What makes them slightly weird to some eyes is the unlimited variety of sausage in which the eggs were wrapped. Scotch eggs can be made using Black Pudding, haggis, and other sausages and puddings. Sometimes pickled eggs are substituted, as in the Worcester version, in which an egg pickled in Worcestershire sauce is wrapped in White Pudding. The Manchester version uses a more traditionally pickled egg and wraps it in Black Pudding. How the snack came to be known as the Scotch Egg, since it was supposedly invented in a London store, has been the subject of debate ever since they first appeared, with little progress made toward a satisfactory answer.
1. Bubble and Squeak
There is really very little weird about bubble and squeak, other than its name, the source of which remains in dispute. The oldest known recipe for the dish appeared in 1806. In the late 19th century it became a popular means of using the leftovers from a roast dinner, and thus is comprised of potatoes and cabbage, though other vegetables including onions, carrots, and even peas, are often added. They are fried together until browned to a crust, and often served as a side dish for breakfast or brunch.
A Scottish version has the even stranger name Rumbledethumps, while an Irish version is called Colcannon. There is a reference to a dish of beef and cabbage fried together called Bubble and Squeak in the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’s 1785 edition. The book, which was a collection of slang terms, is the earliest known mention of the name. Bubble and Squeak is probably the strangest name on this list for food, though it is also probably the least weird of the dishes listed here. But, its all a matter of taste.