Monday, October 17, 2011


I’m about to go to England for ten days or so, not primarily for the food I admit, but I do find myself looking forward to English “fayre,” the odd pork pie, the odd bit of pheasant, some good English cheese, and there’s the promise of a "real" English curry in Sheffield.   Fish and chips always figure too but in fact I just had some “British” fish and chips here in L.A. at H. Salt on Hollywood Boulevard.

It’s a place I’d always thought about going to but never had an occasion until now when a fellow Englishman came to town, Travis Elborough, author of, among many other things, the book Wish You Were Here – England on Sea.  He took the photograph above.  The Sunday Times described him “an English nostalgist in the mode of John Betjeman,” which I wouldn’t think was an absolute compliment but Travis seemed happy enough with it.

The H. Salt we went to, part of a small chain founded by an actual Englishman, had some strangely authentic touches – the deep fat fryers looked completely pukka, and the fake Jacobean paneling and leaded windows were probably no more fake than those in many a chippie in England.  

We each had the Piccadilly Platter – one  portion of chips, which were very good, with one piece of slightly over-solid, unnamed fish that seemed to have been cut out by machine to absolutely standardized size and shape.  But all in all not bad.  There were hush puppies on the menu too, a fine local variation. Travis moaned that England is now beset by “gourmet” fish and chip shops, where you have to pay 7 or 8 quid for your meal.  A Piccadilly Platter costs $3.21, including tax, for which price I suppose you have to be content to live with plastic knives and forks.

When it comes to English food, Travis knows of what he speaks.  He tells me his grandparents ran a pirate-themed eatery in Polperro in Cornwall, called the Jolly Roger.  Authenticity seems to have been patchy here too.  The walls, he says, were lined with  cutlasses picked up as a job lot in some auction in the 1950s by his Great-Uncle Bob.  Travis describes their vintage as “questionable” but a cutlass surely is what a cutlass surely does.

The album cover above doesn't have much to do with Travis or his relatives, but the Polperro Fishermen's Choir do sing a song called the Jolly Roger.  

Anyway, in order to prepare myself for my English journey I found myself over the weekend consuming what I’ve come to think of as “local delicacies,” chicarrones, supremas rellenos and tequila.

And suddenly I thought, blimey, have I gone native?  And if so, a native of where exactly?  Of course, there’ll be no shortage of pork skin or blood pudding in England, certainly not in Sheffield, and I imagine the tequila bar I used to go to in Convent Garden will still be there, though I don’t imagine I’ll go to it.  It would be like taking coals to Newcastle, or perhaps taking coals from Newcastle.

And as fate would have it, over the weekend I watched Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which I thought was absolutely wonderful, and Johnny Depp was a revelation.  No plastic knives, or even forks, for Mr. Todd.  The movie contains the song “Worst Pies in London” sung by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the maker of the eponymous pies, with some wonderful lyrics,

… the worst pies in London!
Even that's polite!
The worst pies in London!
If you doubt it take a bite!
Is that just, disgusting?
You have to concede it!
It's nothing but crusting!
Here drink this, you'll need it.

Well I think everybody in London has eaten a pie like that, and I’m sure some have wondered exactly what was in it.  Not human flesh, we can safely say, because once Mrs. Lovett inserted a little corpse meat into her pies, they tasted just great.

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