Though British food has not always been held in the highest esteem, I have not found this reputation to bear much truth. As a vegetarian, I have found it relatively easy to eat in restaurants and at the Oxford dining hall and shop at grocery stores. In 2012, two percent of Britons were vegetarian and less than one percent was vegan (which are slighter lower than the percentages of non-meat-eaters in the United States). Every morning, the dining hall of St. Catherine’s College (one of the forty-four colleges of Oxford University) serves black pudding (a traditional blood sausage), fried and scrambled eggs, hash browns, baked beans, croissants, toast and cereal. Unfortunately, the dining hall does not offer any chocolate croissants or breakfast pastries, although these are popular at cafés.
Where I notice a massive difference is in British supermarkets that have quite limited choices, as my experience in America has been a huge variety of brands and variations on seemingly every item. With lunch and dinner, the Oxford dining hall always provides “chips,” or french fries that are very thick and which people normally consume without ketchup. Fish and chips, which is fish fillet over french fries, as well as shepard’s pie, which is a meat pie with mashed potato crust, are also very traditional British meals. Of the English food that I have tried, meals have regularly seemed cheesier and creamier than most dishes in the United States, although portions have been smaller. About half of the dining hall’s desserts have mousse and a large portion also are topped with whipped cream, which is not sweetened as it often is in the United States.
As someone who loves United States breakfasts, I have dearly missed pancakes, french toast, waffles, and maple syrup. While toast is common for breakfast in Britain, peanut butter seems fairly rare in the United Kingdom and nonexistent in the dining hall (and sometimes difficult to locate in Oxford grocery stores). Marmalade, jam, butter, Marmite (a yeast extract spread) and chocolate-based spreads (including Nutella) are more ordinary accompaniments for toast in the United Kingdom. Juice, tea and coffee are also normally paired with breakfast foods, and grocery stores regularly designate entire aisles for a massive selection of teas. Hot beverages and juices are usually served in smaller cups and glasses, and as a passionate coffee connoisseur, British coffee often seems to be of a superior quality to coffee in the United States.
Large British supermarkets commonly offer numerous organic and fair trade products, and British processed foods generally contain fewer preservatives and long-ingredient lists than in these United States foods. “Free range” eggs, which come from chickens that are not caged, also often comprise a large portion of the eggs in grocery stores. Most supermarkets have “Indian” and “Oriental” sections, as well as several non-dairy-based milks and yogurts, including rice, soy, almond, and coconut. Supermarkets also tend to sell a wider variety of chocolate, as the average Briton consumes more chocolate than the average United States citizen. Grocery stores are permitted to sell nearly any type of alcohol, although employees always check the IDs of anyone who appears to be of twenty five years of age or younger.
Perhaps due to its imperial past, the United Kingdom is full of cuisines from various countries. In 2011, 12.8% of its citizens was ethnically non-white, which might suggest a high popularity of foreign cuisine (although this percentage does not reflect the presence of refugees). When I stayed in Gloucester Road, London for about a week, most restaurants stopped cooking food around 10p.m. (and kept serving drinks until 11p.m.) while many Indian restaurants continued serving meals past midnight.
On the spectrum of food ethics, horse meat is still legal in the United Kingdom (and it also is in Canada), although this meat was nationally outlawed in the United States in 2007. However, a major taboo surrounds consumption of horse meat, as evidenced by a Europewide 2013 scandal revealed that enormous amounts of “beef” sold in UK supermarkets actually contained horse meat. Researchers discovered that the huge quantities of frozen meat at the store Freeza Foods in Northern Ireland was 80% horse in 2013. Throughout the United Kingdom, an “economy burger” can consist of as little as 47% beef. While fast food giants in the United States consistently claim to use 100% USDA-inspected beef in their burgers, great suspicion accompanies these statements. As horses are some of the most intelligent animals, the legal status of horse meat seems particularly out of sync with much of Britain’s humane meat laws, which include the banning of whale meat (and about a $7,500 fine for those who import it into Britain).
While I will be thrilled to return to America’s larger meal portions, I will certainly miss the relaxed-pace of British dinners. Each night at 7:15, St. Catherine’s College offers a waiter-served three-course meal (with coffee and tea) for a reasonable £4.05 (about $6), which encourages students to eat slowly and enjoy each other’s company. An old-fashioned central campus bell rings promptly at 7:05 and students arrive five to ten minutes later, before all rising silently when the “masters” (professors and administrators) enter the “Hall” (the dining hall). It feels like a tradition held still in time for centuries and I feel privileged to take part in these special dinners.