Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Disputing the theories of a Nobel ecomonist

Happy news this week was that Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize for Economics. The Boy was in Krugman's International Trade class at MIT and has been getting a kick out of his New York Times blog (which, unsurprisingly, has been particularly entertaining of late).

But while Krugman might be all Nobellian when it comes to trade theories, I have to take him to task about a 1998 piece he wrote called
Supply, Demand, and English Food. In it, he discusses how the greasy, gelatinous joke that is allegedly British cuisine is the result of population movement during the industrial revolution:

A good guess is that the country's early industrialization and urbanization was the culprit. Millions of people moved rapidly off the land and away from access to traditional ingredients. Worse, they did so at a time when the technology of urban food supply was still primitive: Victorian London already had well over a million people, but most of its food came in by horse-drawn barge. And so ordinary people, and even the middle classes, were forced into a cuisine based on canned goods (mushy peas!), preserved meats (hence those pies), and root vegetables that didn't need refrigeration (e.g. potatoes, which explain the chips).
He goes on to argue that the English continued to eat slop because they didn't know any better:
... by the time it became possible for urban Britons to eat decently, they no longer knew the difference. The appreciation of good food is, quite literally, an acquired taste--but because your typical Englishman, circa, say, 1975, had never had a really good meal, he didn't demand one.
You can see where I'm going, can't you?

It is true that British cuisine has been a punchline for a long time. But I submit that this is completely unwarranted and based largely on experiences in tourist-trap restaurants in London. If you wander into an overpriced pub in Leicester Square looking for lunch, then yes, you'll get a deep-fried sausage and frozen chips and canned vegetables. It's not as though you're likely to be a repeat customer. Thanks for your money; have a safe flight home.

However, those of us who grew up on English cuisine know that the menu extends far beyond fish and chips and mushy peas--and has always been thus.

I'm thinking about Sunday lunch: roast chicken with sage-and-onion stuffing, buttery mashed potato, fresh steamed carrots, Yorkshire pudding and gravy.

I'm remembering my mum's curd tarts, apple crumble, triple chocolate cake, bread pudding. And my grandmother's Welsh cakes, rice cake, tea breads, and especially her dark, dense, brandy-soaked Christmas cake.

I'm having flashbacks to summer picnics on the North York Moors: overstuffed sandwiches of ham, cheese, tomato, cucumber, lettuce; hard-boiled eggs; homemade cupcakes; strawberry blancmange in individual pudding cups.

I'm thinking of all the foods I crave that are hard to come by in the US: cornish pasties and scotch eggs, and real rice pudding (baked in the oven with butter and cream), and Danish bacon, and Cumberland sausage, and not having to buy rhubarb or apples or blackberries because they grow in your back yard, and cream cakes made with fresh cream (eclairs and napoleons and strawberry tarts).

And here's the thing: I've lived outside England for 15 years now. I've traveled to Paris and Montreal and various tropical islands. I've eaten in New York and San Francisco and Miami, not to mention some of the most respected restos right here in Boston.

By Paul Krugman's measure, I now "know the difference."

And yet I'd still go for a nice Melton Mowbray pork pie in an instant.

I was going to stop there, but here's another thing: it's not as though all traditional American cuisine is fantastic. Of course there are pockets of regional deliciousness, but then again this is a very big country; by comparison, the UK is about the size of Minnesota. I'm sure Minneapolis today has some fantastic restaurants, but was that true in 1975?

And from a grease perspective, fish and chips don't hold a (tallow) candle to a Philly cheesesteak.

What do you think?

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Anonymous jo said...

having married an Englishman from Oop North i too have learned over the years to appreciate British food. In fact, as a cooking teacher it has fallen on me to often convince the general populace here in the states that there are indeed really splendid peasant food from the U.K. While I will admit to liking the occasional tin of mushie peas and mowbray pie would never be turned down there are many foods I love that husband has introduced me to.
Lancashire tasty cheese, eccles cakes, pork pies, custard, sticky toffee pudding, sussex pond pudding, bangers, jam roly poly, squab, pheasant, 'real' venison, M&S salmon parcels, M&S butties for road trips, walker's crisps occasionally - cheese and onion please, hard cider - of the hard cider(!), gooseberries, fools in general and my most favorite....Yorkshire pudding.

8:26 AM  
Blogger LimeyG said...

I had never heard of Sussex Pond Pudding, but now: WANT! I quote from the Source of All Knowledge:
"Made of a suet pastry which encases a whole lemon, with butter and sugar, it is boiled or steamed for several hours ... After cooking for so long, the skin of the lemon almost candies like a marmalade in its own juices and that of the butter and sugar."

4:32 PM  
Blogger jess said...

It's been 14 years (MAN I am old) since I was in England, but I take exception to Krugman too. I had so many delicious meals there, including the best Indian food I've ever had. I also recall the Times did a long piece a few years back on the spectacular offerings London now has -- as good as the top restaurants in any city. I would think that our tastes develop over time and with exposure, so the offerings in any given city follow. When I was little, DC had maybe 5 good restaurants. Now it has hundreds. I think it's more about people and what they want than any inherent lack in cuisine.

9:51 AM  

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