Sunday, May 15, 2011

Musings on British and American food differences

Food is an emotive topic and different people have such different tastes and preferences.  On top of that, trying to compare the food culture of two countries in a thousand words is, frankly, impossible.  But I will do my best and maybe revisit certain elements of this subject area at a later date.  Anyway, here are my personal musings on British and American food differences.

British Food Culture

English cuisine used to be considered as crap when I was growing up in the 1970s and rightly so.  In short, it was a national joke.  It had a reputation for being bland and greasy, badly prepared and badly presented.  Sometimes it didn’t taste of anything at all and you had to smother your pile of mushy, overcooked vegetables with tomato ketchup and brown sauce just to give your palette something to detect.

But then something weird happened in the 90s, the  British fell in love with  food.  But it wasn’t our own food.  We realized that we could steal it from other people.  There had always been (well, for a long time) Indian, Italian and Chinese restaurants, but now we started stealing the entire world’s cuisine, be it Thai, French, Japanese, Spanish, Lebanese, etc.  Now British food is great, though technically it isn’t really British food anymore.

The rising standard of living and influences from continental Europe also helped, I reckon.  With more people traveling abroad I think it raised expectations and the EU pushed Britain in the right direction methinks (more on that later).

Giant red crab legs - yummy!

American Food

If you go in an American supermarket, you won’t see a great deal of difference to what you see in the UK.  Of course, down here in Florida, there is more of a Cuban, Caribbean and Mexican influence, say, with the food.  But the same regional and local variations can happen in Britain, though not as extreme (for instance when I worked in the Moor Allerton area of Leeds, the supermarkets had large kosher sections to reflect the Jewish community there).  I think the variety’s much greater in the USA however because of the larger and more diverse population clusters of immigrants from different countries.  That means it is only ever possible to talk about American food in a general sense, as the variance is huge across this big country. 

For the sake of argument, I am trying to focus this post on the staple and classic American foods (although it is a stereotype that Americans live off burgers, fries, pizza, pancakes, and lots of deep fried food, many Americans do actually live like that, certainly down here in the South).

One general element of American food culture which I would say is subtly different is that in the sliding scale of cheapness vs quality, Americans in general place more value on cheapness than the British, as far as I can see.  This can be problematic for me as I am more of a quality person.  Some of the food (normally, but not exclusively the low price stuff) in the USA really is bad with all sorts of sweeteners and chemicals added to bolster what is in essence a bad product (I am thinking about things such as bread).  The attitude in the US tends to be that food producers and stores should be free do whatever they like and people should be allowed to eat whatever they want (even if it’s poisoning them and there weren’t any clear guidelines on the label). 

I really think that the EU helped to make British food better in the UK because we were forced to adopt the higher standards of the continentals and some of the practices that happen in the USA in terms of additives, inadequate labeling of ingredients etc. were banned in Europe and the UK some time ago.  (On a side but related note, I think that the country that values quality most in its culture, out of all the ones I’ve visited, is probably Germany and that’s one reason I suspect that they do so well with manufacturing exports and Britain and America do relatively badly).

There are exceptions to the cheapness/quality thing, of course.  For example, Americans have always placed a higher value on quality coffee than the Brits.

Broiled lobster tail and salad - yummy!

British Foods I miss

Not much I really.  I did have a craving for good old fish and chips the other day.  We ate some battered fish and oven chips, but it’s not quite the same (though healthier!)

I also miss all the cheap Indian food that you get in British cities.  Plus all the cheap Indian restaurants.  There are far less Indian restaurants here and you have to search a bit more to buy ingredients for curries and when you do find things, they aren’t cheap.

Weirdly, some of the Chinese dishes have different names here, even though they are still in Chinese!  And they don’t have prawn crackers or fried seaweed!

As I mentioned in my comments on the previous blog, there is a big supermarket here which has, in the ethnic section between Indian and Chinese, an area of British food.  Stuff like tinned treacle pudding, baked beans, Jaffa Cakes, Tate and Lyle syrup etc. I guess I know it’s there if I ever feel the urge.

Things I like about the food here

I love the Cuban, Caribbean, Mexican food here.  Although you can get it in the UK, all the ingredients are fresh here and the meals more authentic.

I must admit I have grown fond of American pancakes.

Florida is a grower’s paradise, so there is lots of great local food, especially citrus fruit, vegetables, sea food that is locally grown and fresh.

Generally speaking I am eating lighter foods here because some of the typical English food I ate back home just seems too heavy and stodgy here in the hot Florida climate.  I guess will have to wait until the short Florida Winter to eat some of the typical English food.


  1. And I can imagine that you are getting great Cuban food there in Florida!!! And glad you like a lot of the 'American' food! I totally agree with the Americans wanting the cheap over quality. We have been back from Germany for 2 weeks now, and the hubs and I swear we have been so bloated because of all the cheap and poor quality food that is everywhere here! So I miss that from Europe for sure.

  2. Why do you have to invent something when you can simply steal it? that's a great way of thinking.

  3. I think you miss some of the regional differences over here Paul.
    For instance the English don't understand good quality steak - if you want good steak in a restaurant you have to go to either Scotland or Ireland to get it.
    And the same is true of bread. I have yet to find wheaten bread over here - one of the great misses of my life.
    And as for potatoes, well the English just don't do potatoes - you need to be in Ireland!!!!
    And that's not to mention Irish Stew or Ulster fry-ups!!
    And apparently the traditional English breakfast now includes hash browns! DUH!!

  4. I think it's a little unfair on traditional British food. I think there were a lot of people who couldn't cook properly! Who doesn't love a bit of Shepard's Pie or a good old Cornish Pasty? You can't beat a good roast beef with Yorkshire puddings either.

    Florida food is good, but stay away from cheap restaurants. I've seen many a rat in strip-mall restaurants. And yes, the cheap produce here is horrendous. I particularly enjoy the stewing steak with the origin listed as "Mexico, Canada or USA", I was struggling to name the species of animal let alone the origin!

  5. @Texa - Well I am biased in favour of German produce as I am love with their beer. I don't like everything about Germany though, there are definitely some things I prefer in the USA! ;-)

    @Patti - copying is the highest form of flattery! :-)

    @David - I couldn't help but notice that you missed Welsh food out of your list! ;-)

    @Incons - Unfair! Unfair? I do sometimes use a slightly larger-than-life version of the truth sometimes. I call it poetic license, but others have been known to label it exaggeration. ;-) I will take your advice regarding the strip-mall restaurants. You are right about the pasties. I could come to miss them.

  6. Interesting post Paul. I think Australia has done a similar thing to U.K. in that we have stolen other country's cuisine...having a very large multi- cultural offering...especially Asian. It definitely beats the meat and 3 vegie meal that I grew up with, even though the vegies were fresh from Dad's patch! My observations here in U.K. are that you are all 'sweet tooths' although having experienced a couple of winters I guess it's a comfort food thing. Speaking of winter I do appreciate the 'delicacies' associated with the colder weather, especially xmas...mulled wine, minced pies, pigs in a blanket etc...bring on xmas! And of course with the larger population here there is far more convenience food on offer...the ready meals are a great quality...something we don't have to the same standard in Australia. The fresh produce here seems to be o.k., I just can't work out were it comes from. In Australia there is a big focus on buying (and therefore labelling) Australian produce..something we all try to do. However, having said all of this, I am enjoying the proximity to Europe and all it has to offer on my favourite pastime...eating. If only I could get a good coffee here in U.K. it would be fabulous! Robx

  7. p.s. I've just read your 'bacon buttie' post...hilarious!!...and my arteries are hardening just thinking about one! Robx

  8. @Robynne -

    Yes, the Brits are exceptionally good at sweets - biscuits, confectionaries etc. I would agree that it's maybe a Winter comfort thing as the further North you get, the more they focus on sweets. In Cumbria and Scotland every town and village seems to have its own specialities! haha!

    Some of the biscuits they have in Germany are like something you'd get on a 17th century sailing ship - dry and chewy!

    I was shocked by the lack of choice when it comes to biscuits and crackers in the USA!

    There used to be a bigger focus in the UK on buying British, but partly because of the EU that doesn't happen so much now.

    The standards of coffee are rubbish in the UK, but would you believe that they were 10 times worse before the 90s! The USA takes coffee more seriously and rightly so. I might do a blog about beverages sometime!

  9. Certainly salad seems to be more of a staple in the US than the UK, which might reflect the climate, as you say. Should be healthy, but it's so often covered with dressing - in my part of the US, it's almost aways ranch dressing (don't know if that's a localised taste).

  10. Yes, the US love salads, I agree, I've experienced that down in Florida anyway. You can't eat a lot of the traditional English stodgy food here, except in Winter, you need something lighter in the damp heat. As you say, the salad is healthy but the dressings are often super fattening! :-)

    I think part of the appeal of salads for Americans is possibly that salads can be "customized" with different dressings/ingredients etc.? I've noticed that Americans really love to personalize food, compared to Brits?

    Salads are often eaten here in the US as a first course of a meal, whereas they are almost always an accompanyment in the UK.

  11. "If only I could get a good coffee here in U.K. it would be fabulous! Robx"

    I think it'll be hard for you to find a good restaurant offering coffees. British foods are made in partnered with a tea. They always do that. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or even in snacks, Teas are always present. So, if you want to have a coffee break. It's a hard thing to find. Try buying an instant one. :)

  12. Some restaurants in the UK will serve up great food and then let you down with poor desserts and coffee, in my experience. That's especially true with pub meals.

    Talking of pub meals, that's something you don't really get in the USA. Not in the same way, anyway. Unless I'm missing something?

    (Although most standard British pub fodder would be too heavy and stodgy for down here in Florida anyway!)

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