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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Out of place

My mother was serious about etiquette, especially when it came to table manners.

My brother and I were instructed early on in the proper way to hold silverware (known in these parts as cutlery), we were thoroughly warned against talking with our mouths full and woe betide the child (or husband) who rested his or her elbows on the table during the meal. Elbows on the table were an open invitation for Mom to jab the offender's tender skin with her fork.

Since arriving in England, however, I have sometimes felt like a bit of a slob, or, at the very least, a bumbling country bumpkin.

That's because you eat here using the Continental style of dining, which is rather different from how we eat in America. I still forget that when setting the table, I am supposed put the napkin on the left-hand side of the plate, under the fork, instead of on the right-hand side, under the knife. And you may not realize this, but you in England eat with both hands. You often hold your fork in the left hand and knife in the right, using both implements to neatly and politely cut up food and carry it to your mouths.

I, on the other hand, eat the way that is polite in America--I keep one hand on my lap at all times, or nearly all times, using only my right hand to hold the fork or spoon. The only exception is when I grasp the fork in my left hand and use it to hold the food in place while using my right hand to wield the knife. Once the meat is cut, however, the knife gets laid back down on the plate, I automatically switch the fork back to my right hand, and resume eating. The left hand goes back on my lap.

This is not my first experience with Continental dining. I spent the fall of 1999 as a student in Alicante, Spain, where I read in some cultural guide all about the differences in table manners. The only sentence, regrettably, that sticks in my mind is the one that said, "Europeans are suspicious of foreigners who keep one hand under the table, for nobody knows what that hand is doing."

Last weekend I accompanied my friend on a visit home to her parents in Kettering. It was a relaxing and fun few days, and we greatly enjoyed her mum's home cooking. One night at dinner, however, I looked around and realized that, as usual, I was the only person at the table who wasn't using both hands to eat. My left hand was resting politely on the napkin in my lap, as usual, as my right hand did all the work of using the fork.

"Ruth's mum probably thinks I have a terrible mother," I thought glumly, watching them all deftly work away at their meals with a piece of silverware in each hand. "But I'm actually very polite. In America."

Then I saw a few of the other diners resting their elbows on the table. It was all I could do not to go after them with my fork.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Food for thought

It is in places like the Crocus Café where I feel most at home this side of the pond.

At the moment I’m ensconced in a squishy couch in the corner of this little “volunteer-led, community cafe” on an unassuming Lenton street, gazing up at a large blackboard with items like “Toast, 25p” and “Porridge, £1.20” colorfully chalked in. I’ve ordered the leek and cauliflower cheese bake, with ratatouille and roast sweet potato, for a mere £3.20.

Not only do the prices of this not-for-profit, locally sourced enterprise make me feel welcome (as I am a volunteer in Britain living on my dwindling savings and the straggling income of a part-time, long-distance freelancer—paid, of course, in meager American dollars), but the atmosphere is just right, too.

It’s not fancy. Crocus Café is about community and eating well while doing the least amount of harm to the earth and humanity. These values are increasingly embraced in the Chicago area, where I worked as a features reporter the last four years, as they are here in England.

As I researched and wrote stories about food trends, about gardening and green building and health issues back in Chicago, I began to sense a link between contentment and the sharing of healthy, tasty, often-simple meals. I was invited into home after home as strangers enthusiastically prepared their family food traditions for me, and I left gardening assignments bearing fresh-cut flowers and homegrown tomatoes from hitherto-unknown interview subjects delighted to talk about the wonder of growing things.

The lessons continue in England. Last Saturday I attended a dinner party and was served baked salmon with an avocado salsa, alongside new potatoes and green salad, with Pavlova for dessert. I didn’t know the other guests before the meal, but afterwards felt myself with friends.

Crocus is filling up now with the lunchtime crowd and I don’t know any of them. Yet I don’t feel alone. Not in the least.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Market Square debate

I was having coffee next to a window looking out on Market Square yesterday and so had a ringside seat as workers dismantled the Nottingham Eye. I watched in amazement as a crane gently lowered the massive wheel and workers separated the parts out for loading onto two waiting lorries.

Last night I chatted about the Eye with three locals. Anne and Kevin raved about the view, and soon we were talking about the ice skating rink, the Christmas market and other events that have been held at the revamped Market Square.

They then explained to me how Market Square looked before the renovation.

“I think it was unnecessary and expensive,” Anne said. Our friend Marc nodded in agreement. But I fought to defend Market Square.

“I really like this idea of public space,” I said. “It’s like Chicago’s Millennium Park. It made great art accessible to everyone and has become a gathering place for people of all backgrounds.”

“I like public space, too,” Kevin said. “There was a fun event at Market Square with conjurers all over the place, but I still think the Market Square we had before was fine.”

“Well,” I admitted. “I can see how you feel that way, considering taxpayer money went to fund the Market Square renovation. Private donors underwrote Millennium Park. But do you all think the renovation was unnecessary?”

Three heads nodded in agreement, which left me thinking about the difference in transatlantic mindsets. Americans love change, they embrace it, they reach after it to make life more efficient and enjoyable. Anne, Kevin and Marc all clearly appreciate the new Market Square, yet they still think it was a waste of money. This demonstrates a British attitude I can only sum up using an American phrase: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

English hospitality

As a journalist accustomed to reporting the news, at first I was dubious about being in an Evening Post feature.

But the response since the article was published last week has been wonderful. Sure, there were a few slightly rude comments on the Web version, but they weren’t too bad. I was very touched that one reader even apologized for the other Brits’ sarcasm! I received a couple of other letters congratulating me for the article, including one delightful missive from an older gentleman welcoming me to his hometown.

All this makes me realize, once more, that the English do hospitality better than any other nation I know. Each time I open my mouth I betray my nationality, but every comment is friendly and welcoming. I’d be a rich woman if I had a pound for every time I heard, “Whereabouts in American are you from?” but I can’t get annoyed because folks genuinely want to hear the answer.

I even benefited from English hospitality while in America. While looking for my first reporting job, an English expat family in Chicago invited me to stay with them awhile. I ended up staying for a year, well after I’d found a job, and that family became like my family. Now here I am in Nottingham, staying with yet another gracious and hospitable family who welcomed me into their lovely house with open arms, even though I was a stranger.

Rain and English reserve may be real but the sense of caring and warmth that pervades this land is realer still.

Attempting an American breakfast

I served American pancakes and bacon to my housemate Julia the other day, and she was so impressed that went out and bought ingredients for another breakfast, even inviting her boyfriend over to share in the delights.

“It’s an amazing taste experience,” she assured him. “I’m not usually keen on maple syrup, but it goes so well with the fluffy pancakes and salty bacon.”

I smiled broadly at these words in great relief, because the first time I tried to make American pancakes and bacon here in Nottingham, it was a culinary disaster on every scale.

I love to cook, and in my five years as a food writer, I’ve picked up plenty of expert tips along with extra confidence in the kitchen. So when I realized one day that I had a hankering for good old pancakes and bacon (though I adore the English version of pancakes, they what we'd call crepes), I breezily invited three Nottingham friends over to come share my feast.

But everything went wrong. Even though I’ve been flipping pancakes since I was 8 years old, try as I might I couldn’t manage to adjust the stove top to the all-important perfect temperature. The griddle I tried to use had ridges that made the pancakes impossible to turn, and, to make matters worse, my batter recipe was off. I ran out of plain flour and had to substitute self-raising flour halfway through, and my desperate attempts to “fix” it with extra milk and flour were pathetic, to say the least. So not a single pancake turned out well, and I rather embarrassingly had to serve a stack of pancakes with scorched surfaces and slightly runny middles.

Then there was the bacon. I do like English bacon, but those rounds of fried ham are what we call Canadian bacon. I’d been informed that streaky bacon was the closest British equivalent to American bacon, though it’s saltier. So while at Tesco’s, I bought a pack of what I thought was streaky bacon.

When I got it home and opened the package, I was puzzled because, while the strips of meat interlaced with fat looked like bacon, they were cut much too thick. So I took a knife and, with difficulty, shaved it thin into the bacon strips I know and love. I put them in the pan and fried away, hoping they’d magically transform into familiar bacon. Instead, a very un-bacony aroma filled the kitchen.

“This isn’t bacon, it’s just strips of regular pork!” I exclaimed. My housemate David dug the package out of the rubbish bin, and we laughed to read that I’d actually bought “streaky pork,” a fatty cut of pork that, as it turned out, nobody in the room liked.

By this time, though, the guests had assembled and there was no other food, so I set out the plate of dubious pancakes and dish of pork. There was also a large bowl of juicy Clementine oranges. That was it.

“Just pour over lots of maple syrup and it’ll be fine,” I told my friends. Because they are my friends, they assured me that the meal “really wasn’t that bad,” and David reminded me that he can eat anything.

“That’s true,” I said, digging into my plate of pancakes. Covered in syrup, they were passable, mostly cooked cakes, and at least the flavor was tasty. But then I tried the pork. It was disgusting—salty, chewy, fatty and pretty much inedible. Even David couldn’t eat it, and the others didn’t even try.

“These Clementines are so delicious!” one friend valiantly remarked, and we burst into laughter.

“I can’t believe it,” I told them, staring at the food. “This truly is the worst meal I’ve ever served.”

“That’s OK, Steph, we love you, anyway,” they chorused, and I was reminded of a favorite scene in the film Bridget Jones’ Diary, where Bridget serves a disastrous meal to great merriment and her friends toast her personality, if not her cooking skills.

My reputation was restored, however, when I made breakfast for Julia. This time I made sure I had all of the proper ingredients (including real streaky bacon), and I cooked them in a different, much better pan. The pancakes and bacon turned out beautifully, and Julia was charmed.

“So this is what Americans eat?” she asked, reaching for her fourth pancake. “It’s brilliant."