by Brenda W. Clough
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.