This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
This summer, crowds of people will arrive at London’s airports to find themselves, as many did this weekend, immediately lodged in a lengthy queue to pass the border controls of fortress Britannia. Some will be arriving for the first time, others with local passports, rushing back in time to celebrate her Divine Majesty’s sixth decade of handwaving, or to ogle, first hand, the spectacular athleticism of beach volleyball players. Yet, as they absentmindedly thumb through the pages of their readied passports, slowly churning blackened chewing gum further into the carpet tiles beneath their feet, they might have cause to momentarily wonder what it is that warrants the inclusion of the word “Great” in the name of their destination.
Answers to that question may readily be offered by a special genre of traveller scattered in the crowd around them. It is a well-known irony that the fastest and most vociferous defenders of all things British are ex-pats, some of whom will be returning briefly to Blighty to participate in the festivities of coming months. Most will offer a predictable narrative of blood, earth and pride to explain their enduring attachment to the island: an honourable history of kings and queens, one World Cup and a couple of World Wars. Her Majesty may well be mentioned, for grimacing so consistently through the degeneration of the nation’s character.
However, when it comes to the things that they actually miss, and feel the strongest emotional attachment to, the list is often more banal. Frequently high on their list are the everyday culinary rhythms of their former home. Amongst the crowd in the queues this summer is one ex-pat who, after reentering the border on his yearly trip ‘home’ from South Africa, charters a taxi to take him to his favourite jellied eel stand in East London. There he slowly ruminates on a portion of eels swimming in a porcelain bowl of vinegar and jelly, mopping up the remainder with a piece of thick white bread before journeying on to meet his patient family. Others, dissatisfied by the pale imitations that they eat in their sunny homes abroad, make a bee-line for their old local fish and chip shops.
Of course, there is nothing inherent in the flavour of such dishes that makes them great. The taste of home is the taste of home. If fried palm worms were fed to you amidst the security of childhood, you might miss them. Indeed, there are no doubt members of a Vietnamese diaspora who still crave these frittered invertebrates. While eels doused in tangy chilli vinegar are surprisingly addictive, what is really remarkable about so much of this island’s culinary culture is less the flavour of the dishes themselves, than the long history of transcultural exchange and evolution that they tell.
Eels, while abundant in the Thames estuary, were traditionally brought to London by Dutch fishermen. They were made especially accessible in the 19th century by families of Irish and Italian entrepreneurs who set up London’s leading eel and pie shop chains, Kelly’s and Manze’s. The particular eel stand to which our returnee heads for a taste of home is, to this day, run by the descendants of Eastern European Jews that landed in London when fleeing the pogroms. Even the dish at the heart of a national culinary identity, fish and chips, is to all intents and purposes a Franco-Sephardic fusion food. The fish is derived from the peise frite favoured by the Portuguese Jews that arrived following their readmission to the country under Cromwell in the 16th century. The deep fried Andean tubers that the fish nestles on were the favoured fuel of French migrant workers – pommes frittes.
The combo only became naturalised as a national dish in the twentieth century interwar period, when its growing popularity helped symbolically create and calorifically sustain a nation. Yet while often called on as props in a fictional narrative of an island race, both of these dishes arise from a quiet amenability to cultural difference and hybridity beneath the surface of the Isles’ modern history. While recent British history has been punctuated with outbursts of racial violence, the story of its cultural creolisation is one that continues to unfold in British eateries today. From the jerk chicken bagels sold in Hackney to Glasgow’s haggis pakora, the archipelago continues to hosts a wealth of culinary and cultural crossroads, offering delectable artefacts that reflect both our transnational history, and ready us for our global future.
While Brits tend not to wear the ‘nation of immigrants’ narrative on their sleeve in the same way that some Americans do, we could do a lot worse than foreground the multicultural history of the island in our celebrations of our Teutonic Queen and her Hellenic consort. In fact, the original vision of Britain offered in the promotional video pitching for the Olympic Games alluded to this history. Promoters used Britain’s cultural diversity to distinguish it from other bidding cities. Yet as the Olympic marathon is diverted away from the public diversity of East London, and unelected rulers with a penchant for military uniforms sit down to dinner with other unelected dictators, the vision of Britain we offer ourselves, and others, is degraded.
This summer, jerk chicken bagels and haggis pakora will be overshadowed by cucumber sandwiches and the tooth rotting, bowel blocking snacks provided by official Olympic sponsors. Once again an opportunity to reshape our bombastic national story, and to recognise something ‘great’ is going to be lost. What we are left with is a narrative as fantastical as the unicorn emblazoned on the cover of its citizen’s passports. No wonder the people queuing up to visit home are always so disappointed. The indigenous queen ruling an island race, cooking up local food according to local recipes, like unicorns, has never existed here.