Food: UK vs US — Class

by Brenda W. Clough

usukOne of the great divides between the UK and the US is class. Americans are much less class-conscious. We divide ourselves by money instead.

The markers in the UK are almost infinite — speech, clothing, education, walk.  But one of the most fascinating is of course food. This may be eroding, in this modern day of gastropubs and Starbucks. But you can see it in the novels — what you ate showed who you are.

And here is a grand example, in the works of the great Dorothy L. Sayers. Her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, has been described as having a mind that turns upon eating and drinking. I love it. I am currently rereading The Nine Tailors, wherein Lord Peter meets the Rev. Theodore Venables. The incumbent of a rural parish, the Rev. is by no means well off. But he almost instantly signals his upper class by naming a port, including the year. He further seals his status by being familiar with Lord Peter’s book about incunabula. More importantly, they eat muffins.

Compare this to another Sayers clergyman, the one in Strong Poison. ‘Blindfold’ Bill Rumm is a convicted safe-cracker, now gotten religion and leading noisily musical religious services in a slummy part of London. He is clearly not of Lord Peter’s class, not even of the middle class of Miss Murchison, Lord Peter’s deputy. This is indicated not only by the music and speech and setting, but what they sit down to for supper — pig trotters. Anybody have a recipe? I don’t cook them often (my husband’s gastric issues no longer accommodate such fatty fare) but this one is very similar to my favorite. Serve with strong mustard and a green salad.

Because of Lord Peter’s very high status (and because he is detecting crime) he can move up and down among the many classes that appear in the books. He does not react with horror when presented with a pig trotter, and he doesn’t demand food of his own class. A person less confident of his status might be more picky.

Americans do not do this. We are omnivorous; we all happily eat pizza and spaghetti and long sandwiches, without much reference to status. (What we call those long sandwiches varies, but this is a geographical nomenclature and has nothing to do with class.) I can just remember when the French cuisine that Jackie Kennedy introduced to the White House was a novelty, but these days even they serve all kinds of food. I have dined at White House — we had cheeseburgers. In fact one of the great signals that your ethnic group is becoming really American is when your ethic cuisine becomes an American favorite. I have watched Chinese soy sauce move from ‘available only in Chinatown’ to ‘Asian section in grocery store’ and finally to the regular shelves, beside the balsamic vinegars and the twenty types of BBQ sauce. The ultimate? When you can buy a gallon jug of soy sauce at Costco. It is no longer Chinese. It’s American.

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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Food: UK vs US — Class — 11 Comments

  1. I was visiting the US during the presidential campaign including John Kerry, and remember reading hostile articles devoted entirely to descriptions of the menus at restaurants he was known to visit, with elaborate dishes and high prices.

    The idea, I suppose, was to show him as not sharing in this common enjoyment of popular foods.

    • You will note that pols these days do not make that error. Barack Obama may prefer arugula. But he takes care to be photographed eating half-smokes and pizza and shave ice. A larger question might be, why is this important now? In JFK’s day he was admired for broadening the American menu. (Julia Child helped, too.) In the past we were not as envious as we are now.

      • There seems to be a great fear right now that anyone different, or better educated, or with more money, is definitely going to take advantage of you. Instead of thinking that it might be a good idea to hire someone to run the country who is educated and knows a bit about interacting with foreigners, etc..

        • It shows our weakness. If we were strong and confident, we would culturally appropriate without shame. Like the Victorians, happily writing THE MIKADO or painting pottery in Chinoiserie patterns.

  2. Actually, what Theodore Venables and Lord Peter have in common is not class, but education: good schooling and Oxbridge after. There is a tradition of younger sons of the upper class going into the church, but Venables could just as well have come from an aspirant middle-class family. And given that he and Peter never play the name-game, swapping acquaintances or experiences outside university, I think the latter is more likely; they would certainly have connections in common if Venables were remotely from the same background, but he never ventures to suggest it.

    • But clergy are deemed gentlemen — even if they were not born so. The education and the cloth got you up there, in a way that making a boatload of money did not. (I’m read THE BRONTES by Juliet Barker, and the Rev. Patrick Bronte was a smart farm kid who made the leap into gentle status by becoming a curate.)

      • Oh, certainly a gentleman. Just not upper crust. In this instance a country gentleman, which is another distinction; country folk mix with other classes in ways not possible in town. Harriet qualifies the same way, as a doctor’s daughter – but gentle status is clearly distinct from upper class. The one can be achieved; the other you have to be born to, and is bound up in lines of property and heredity through time. Harriet would scoff at any suggestion that she were the same class as Peter, before their marriage. (Helen would scoff at the same suggestion after their marriage – “really not one of us”, she would say – but Helen is a case unto herself.)

        • I was impressed by the occasional mention of the foods that only Peter (or his brother the Duke) can get — the ‘grass’ (asparagus, one assumes) that has to be sent down from Duke’s Denver because you can’t buy it.

            • That’s the other enormous gap between us and them. Not only can we now buy it in the stores. Thanks to modern refrigeration, we can buy it year-round, when they fly it in from Mexico.

              • Alas, I was raised within an hour’s drive of the Vale of Evesham, where the UK’s finest asparagus is grown; I know what it tastes like fresh-picked in its due season. I have no love for year-round grass harvested a thousand miles away and a thousand hours ago. All the sugars turn to starch, and what’s the bloody point?