Across the pond

Julia Graves

(julia graves)

We are what we eat. If this is true, then my first visit to Sainsbury’s only seemed to reinforce that Americans are exactly like the British. However, as I grew increasingly more acquainted with the supermarket giant, I found that American and British tastes dramatically diverged.
While Americans certainly have an obsession with large slabs of meat, the British seem to enjoy stuffing their meat into pasty, doughy shells; the “Ready Meals” aisle devotes nearly half its shelf space to pukka pies, steak puff pastries, chicken and gravy shortcrust pastry pies, Cornish pasties and cheese and onion pasties.
The rapidly rising rate of vegetarianism in the United States limits shelf space for such meat, but I’m more inclined to think Americans’ lack of zeal for pasties is due to the overwhelming success of Tim Burton’s recent film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.”
When the Brits don’t wrap their meats in doughy exteriors, they put them in cans and jars. Spam, rarely seen in the U.S. since the end of World War II, occupies a worryingly large portion of several shelves, accompanied by other canned meats such as Prince’s corned beef – conveniently available in a low-salt version – Sainsbury’s own turkey breast, chicken breast in jelly, chopped pork with ham, and for the truly adventurous, Ye Olde Oak’s lunch tongue.
I began to suspect that it was simply a front to reinforce the remnant of the old American humor about the Brits’ love for the truly disgusting: Surely no sane person ate this anymore? But even as I stood marveling at such a plethora of canned meats, a woman drifted over and deliberated for several moments before opting for a can of corned beef.
To her credit, I did not see her again as I examined the “spreads” section an aisle over, stock full of beef and onion, fish, chicken and ham, and sardine and tomato pastes. Yummy.
Several other non-meat-related surprises became apparent as I made more daily pilgrimages to the wonder that is Sainsbury’s. Unlike U.S. supermarkets, the British do not refrigerate eggs.
Where Americans value Nutella as a rare commodity, in Sainsbury’s it outnumbers peanut butter two-to-one and is half the price. The British sell pre-made, microwaveable chocolate crepes, whereas Americans cannot even spell “crepes,” let alone know what they are.
The American Lay’s potato chips become British Walker’s crisps, available at Sainsbury’s in exotic flavors like mature cheddar and red onion, red onion chutney, and my personal favorite, bacon and cream cheese.
Americans do not distinguish between jam and marmalade, but at Sainsbury’s, they are strictly segregated by large, ominous red labels. Beans at Sainsbury’s are boxed instead of canned, macaroni and cheese is canned instead of boxed, and brownie mix – well, thank goodness that stays in a box.
Nothing reveals a people’s love for a certain type of food more than the number of ways they sub-categorize it. Large American supermarkets like Safeway and Albertsons display drinks in basic categories such as juice and alcohol.
Sainsbury’s has devoted three entire aisles to wines, with a separate section for fine wines, two to beer and lager and one to mixers and juices. The tea aisle subdivides into fruit and herbal teas, specialty blends and tea bags.
The British also clearly love their chocolate as well as their booze; this entire aisle is divided into bags of sweets, children’s sweets, chocolate bars, fun-size and the ambiguously named gifts.
Perhaps the greatest distinction of all between the American and British diets lies in their cookies, which in British terms may refer to any number of custard creams, jam sandwiches, shortbread fingers, bourbon creams, malted milk biscuits, ginger crinkle crunches, fig rolls and McWities Hobnobs – also known as “nobbly oaty biscuits.”
On my first several visits to Sainsbury’s, I remember puzzling over the notion of “digestives,” which I took to mean some sort of fiber-enriched cookie meant for the elderly.
One day I mustered up the courage to try them, and discovered that while British food is certainly distinct and oftentimes perplexing to our American sensibilities, there are some things that they get very right.

(julia graves)

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