The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, June 05, 2002  

Tips From the Other Side of the Pond

It’s always a little surprising, a more than a bit amusing, to encounter a Brit posing as a gourmand in order to look down his nose on the purportedly uncivilized Americans.

Thus, we draw your attention to Matthew Engel of The Guardian, who today in “Raspberries to Strawberries” writes about the relative merits of American, British, and European fruit. Guess who wins.

The tirade comes from a man whose country’s culinary gifts to the world include spotted dick (a pudding-type gelatinous mass made with beef fat and raisins and sold in a can), kidney pie, deep-fried Mars bars (very popular in Scotland), and mushy peas (for those Brits with teeth so decayed that regular boiled peas pose too great a masticulatory challenge). Even that which is edible, Digestive Biscuits, for example, has a creepy air about it.

California strawberries, Engel maintains, taste like Polyfilla (that is to say, plastic). The state’s tomatoes “have the characteristics of cricket balls without the yumminess” (could be. . . we haven’t tasted cricket balls). And the Red Delicious apple has the “flavour of moist papier mache” (Engel means papier mâché, but no matter, we actually agree with him on this one.)

In a gracious, and therefore stunningly un-British and un-European aside, Engel concedes he’s talking about harvested fruits, not garden-cultivated delicacies:

“Not all the fruit is like this. There are roadside stalls in the countryside, and tucked-away farmers’ markets, and ‘specialty gourmet stores.’ But it is probably easier to score dope at Mormon Tabernacle choir practice. Also, the stuff is never cheap and quality is patchy.”

Oh, so there is good produce in America, after all. If Engel weren’t so typically British in his laziness, he would find himself with top-notch fruits and vegetables on his plate every day of the week.

“Leaving home, I expected a modicum of culinary deprivation,” writes Engel, who quickly notes the ready availability of Marmite (A yeast extraction. Think motor oil, with salt.) in the U.S., while lamenting the absence of orange squash.

But Engel, apparently without realizing it, proceeds to negate his entire diatribe about California fruit:

“I have come to believe that the British consumer has one unexpected advantage. Fruit ripens most deliciously when it ripens slowly, which will happen at the coldest edge of its climatic range. That’s why English strawberries knock the pants off Californian or Spanish.”

Slow ripening. Hmm. Is that the reason British berries allegedly taste better or is it because a Brit is more likely to encounter strawberries cultivated in modest quantities on small plots than that which is produced on the vast farms of Central and Southern California? The reason is, indeed, the latter, and Engel as much as said so two paragraphs earlier. Thus Engel is comparing, well, apples and oranges.

Those dreadful California farms may not generate the luscious produce of a lovingly tendered backyard garden -- and despite Engel's tantrum, virtually every American knows this -- but they are a means of feeding a hungry world. If Engel and his compatriots have a better suggestion for doing so, we’re all ears.

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