When I was 16 I told my father I wanted to leave America to go to university in Scotland. His only real concern was the food: ‘I don’t think you know what you’re getting into.’ His run-in with British cuisine was in the 1970s, so little wonder. Sure enough, the food in the student halls of St Andrews was worthy of Oliver Twist. If it wasn’t slabs of fatty gammon, already cold in the tray, it was a tepid, oozing excuse for lasagna, harboring hard lumps of ground beef and grainy béchamel sauce. And then...
When I was 16 I told my father I wanted to leave America to go to university in Scotland. His only real concern was the food: ‘I don’t think you know what you’re getting into.’ His run-in with British cuisine was in the 1970s, so little wonder. Sure enough, the food in the student halls of St Andrews was worthy of Oliver Twist. If it wasn’t slabs of fatty gammon, already cold in the tray, it was a tepid, oozing excuse for lasagna, harboring hard lumps of ground beef and grainy béchamel sauce. And then there’s haggis. I loved everything about my four years at the tiny university town on the frigid North Sea coast, except for the food.
That all changed when I moved to London, and I have to hand it to them — Londoners do know how to eat well. The world’s cuisine is here. Even traditional British food, I have come to see, can be world-class, notably game birds. My English mother-in-law, easily the greatest cook I have ever known, cooked me a snipe at Christmas to prove snipes were real.
Yet 13 years after I left for Britain, there are inevitably still things I miss about American cooking. Our breakfasts are high on the list. What a wonderful thing it is in America that it’s not unseemly to order whatever you want at breakfast time, wherever you are. French toast, sausage links, huevos rancheros, sausage patties (you can’t get those in the UK), regular bacon (what Brits call ‘streaky’ bacon), scrambled eggs, hash browns, and all topped with maple syrup. The sweet-savory breakfast combo has not caught on with the British, a rejection which is surprising coming from the people who invented the mince pie.
To my shame, I pine after packaged junk food. This is — I admit — entirely nostalgic, since most of this stuff is objectively nasty. What adult in their right mind would willingly eat a Funyun? But to this day my father sends me a large box every few months containing nothing but Cheetos and Chili Cheese Fritos. We both deem this a wise use of time and money.
But there’s no contest, really, for the American food I miss the most. Incredibly, in the city in which you can hear spoken almost every language in the world, you cannot get a good sandwich. God knows I’ve tried. The handmade, to-order deli sandwich is simply not present in London, but I have a strong feeling that it would take off here. The city is full of high-end fast-food chains offering everything from sushi to chipotle chicken wraps, but here’s the thing — the sandwiches are bad. My husband (born and raised in London) comes from a long line of people who refuse to eat sandwiches. His impression of them is of the supermarket pre-packaged tuna-and-sweetcorn variety. They are always cold, and placed in a neat triangle cardboard box with plastic wrap over the top, proudly displaying the contents. The bread is distressingly moist.
Even in my home state of Montana, far from civilization, you can get a freshly-made turkey melt with ripe tomatoes, oozing melted cheddar on thick whole-grain bread (made in-house), and choose from a host of different condiments. Why hasn’t this caught on in Britain? Didn’t the Earl of Sandwich (an Englishman) invent the food that takes his name? London is swarming with suited businessmen and women in search of a quick lunch, but who can’t stomach the idea of a supermarket sandwich. Indian takeouts abound, Vietnamese pop-ups flourish — hell, there’s even the odd quesadilla truck — but I have never found a good US-style deli. I even once thought of opening one myself before I remembered I have no business experience and no food credentials. I suppose it’s quite American of me to think I could succeed.
Who is to blame? Marks & Spencer, the supermarket and department store chain, must shoulder some of the responsibility. They started the evil trend of pre-made sandwiches in 1979, and the rest, in Britain at least, is history. They and other chains like them now boast appalling ‘meal deals’ — a sandwich, a drink and a packet of crisps (potato chips) for around £3. These have ambitious titles. Choose Coriander and Carrot Falafel! Try Summer Pea and Mint Fritter, or Vegan Southern-Fried Chicken Wrap! These are always terrible. But it’s Southern-Fried Chicken flavo(u)red! No, no it’s not. Lies, damn lies.
Also, what these sandwich conmen don’t understand is that even a sandwich containing melted cheese, freshly-cut deli meat, ripe, juicy tomatoes and a generous spread of chipotle mayonnaise, won’t taste nice a few hours later. Sandwiches are supposed to be portable, but they are not supposed to be made ahead of time. Any appetizing filling is going to seep into the bread and make it soggy. The exception is the classic peanut butter and jelly, which will remain edible for several hours. But this is an American sandwich. You will not find it in Britain. What you will find are the following: Coronation Chicken (don’t ask), Prawn Cocktail, Ploughman’s (pickle and cheese), and an increasingly diverse range of chicken options. These flavors can be exciting (even chipotle has made it to the UK, hallelujah), but the problem lies in the execution. When it comes to café dining in Britain, the more extravagant the menu, the less I trust it.
If the British public are not introduced to good sandwiches, they will not know what’s possible. My husband recalls watching Friends as a child and being perplexed when Joey declares that sandwiches are his favorite food. My husband thought it had to be a joke. No sandwich was worthy of such praise. I hope he may change his mind when I introduce him to a freshly-made turkey melt on a slice of warm focaccia.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2021 World edition.