London left behind its image as a gastronomic backwater long ago. Today it boasts 65 Michelin-starred eateries, and six of the world’s top 100 restaurants in the annual list sponsored by San Pellegrino. Yet while the British capital’s reputation for fine dining is now approaching its fame for finance and theatre, its natives – or at least the subset among them of educated, posh, intellectual types that a youngish American journalist for The Economist would tend to befriend – still behave as if eating out meant resigning oneself to a grim platter of fish and chips and mushy peas. In New York, my hometown and London’s closest cultural cousin, meeting at a restaurant or ordering food delivered from one is as natural as elbowing one’s way onto a crowded subway car. By contrast, during my three years here, I believe the number of times that a British friend has suggested to me unprompted that we rendezvous at an establishment whose revenues stem primarily from the sale of food is zero.
Sure, London offers countless opportunities to meet up at “the pub” (which one of London’s 7,000-plus pubs is never specified in advance). But although all pubs serve grub, and “gastro-pubs” purport to prepare food that is actually edible, no one ever seems to eat in these establishments. Time after time, my stomach has grumbled as I’ve huddled together with a gaggle of Brits after work, guzzling pints of lukewarm London Pride on roped-off slivers of pub-side pavement during the eight-minute intervals between rainstorms. But my plaintive pleas to peruse the food menu have always been dismissed, often with a curt rejoinder: “eating is cheating”. No, if a Brit truly wants to grab a bite with you, the invitation will almost invariably take a single form: “Oh yes, we must have you round for supper.” (Of course, if they never want to see you again, they are likely to say the exact same thing, and then just fail to respond or claim they’re unavailable when you try to set it up.)
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this phrase the first time I heard it. First of all, New Yorkers don’t really say “supper”, though we would understand it as synonymous with “dinner”. When I looked up the distinction online, I discovered that “dinner” actually means the biggest food-consumption exercise of the day, whenever it occurs, whereas a “supper” is technically a light evening meal following a massive lunch. Were we only going to be served a salad? Should I try to grab a kebab on the way?
Next, New Yorkers don’t really cook. Our apartments tend to be small, with correspondingly sized kitchens and dining-room tables. Moreover, New York’s inexhaustible reserve of undocumented-immigrant labour means that affordable, succulent ethnic food is always around the corner. Ever since the advent of Seamless – the online food-delivery service that London’s Deliveroo is trying to copy – we’ve been liberated from the mild indignity of having to speak to a human to order. Instead you just say “Hey Siri, Seamless” to your iPhone, click on your most recent order from the local Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, or even Colombian or Filipino, and press the Reorder button. Twenty minutes and $14 later you’re in moo-shu pork heaven.
Finally, New Yorkers aren’t big on advance planning. You never know exactly when you’re going to get out of work, or when something might arise to pull you back in. And someone usually comes up with something fun to do at the last minute anyway – a gallery opening by an inscrutable conceptual artist, say, or impromptu drinks at a previously undiscovered Midtown rooftop bar. If you foolishly commit to dinner with a friend a few weeks before, you’ll have to come up with a semi-plausible excuse in order to upgrade your evening. Discretion being the better part of valour, it’s more prudent to just leave plans tentative.
In London, by contrast, sharing a meal with a local requires a gruelling test of wills with that most formidable of adversaries: The Diary. Where I come from, a diary is a blank book in which a little girl writes every night that she would really like a pony, please, before going to sleep. Here, it means calendar or schedule (pronounced SHED-yool – yes, really), one which my friends tend to treat like a can of sardines: packed as tightly as possible, months if not years before consumption. Particularly during the summer, when Londoners scatter to the various shires surrounding the capital – I’m told that Hamp-shire, Hertford-shire and Warwick-shire offer excellent hunting and punting – I have grown accustomed to receiving emails in May informing me that the only time someone is free to get together before October is Tuesday, August 12th, at “7 for 7:30”. I presume that means one should arrive around 7:37, but have never mustered the courage to ask.
It turns out that English “suppers”, just like American “dinners”, do indeed typically consist of an appetiser and a main dish, and often a “pudding” too – a term that encompasses not just actual puddings but every other type of dessert as well. They also tend to involve groups of six or eight people – what New Yorkers would call a “dinner party”, on the rare occasions that we host them. And there’s an element of surprise, as most guests don’t seem to know who else is coming, or even that anyone else is coming at all, until they show up. I’ve found some hosts to be quite martial about splitting up couples in order to facilitate conversation between unacquainted participants, which can transform what I thought was going to be a pleasant, relaxed evening into a mildly stressful platonic speed-dating exercise.
Nothing provokes more anxiety, however, than the lack of a crucial item which is consistently, conspicuously absent from the London “supper” setting: the napkin. There’s no need for fancy cloth ones that have to be washed afterwards – a folded paper towel would suit me just fine. But New Yorkers – or at least the Jewish strain of them to which I belong – are not renowned for our table manners, and I’m afraid I am constitutionally incapable of finishing a meal without a few stray crumbs floating into the ether. Heck, I can’t even break off a piece of bread without scattering flecks of crust. I don’t know if Londoners just emerge from the womb tipping their soup bowls away from themselves to extract the final drops without slurping, or if they have to pass some GCSE exam on precision food dissection before moving on to A-levels. But at the end of a meal, it’s easy to tell where I was seated by the unfortunate pile of debris that Napkinless Dan was unable to clear away.
Of all these peculiar customs, however, I didn’t become aware of the quaintest until I hosted my own “supper”. As far as I was aware, the evening went off without a hitch, though my guests were so polite I doubt they would have informed me even if the pork had been laced with salmonella. It was only once everyone left that I discovered I had been neglecting a central element of London-supper etiquette: the hand-written thank-you note. Two days after the final diner raced out the door to catch the last Tube – this was in the pre-Uber era – my mailbox (post-box?) began to overflow with greeting cards rendered in immaculate fountain-pen calligraphy, paying homage to the prolonged marination of the meat (all 20 minutes of it), the brisk acidity of the Barolo and the lively banter of the assembled luminaries. (A more discreet inquiry as to the relationship status of one strapping young attendee had to wait until our next get-together.)
At first I mourned the trees that had been chopped down in order for my friends to convey gratitude that could have been just as easily transmitted by email. But soon I found that by “having people round” myself, I had discovered the secret to weaselling my way into Londoners’ impenetrably dense summer “diaries”. The thank-you notes were duly succeeded by a steady stream of reciprocal invitations to “supper”, generally a few weeks hence, and held in detached houses with vegetable gardens in far-off regions of London I had only seen en route to godforsaken airports like Luton or Southend. I began accepting with glee – but also apologetically informing the hosts that neither a hand-written thank-you note nor a prompt invitation for another “supper at mine” would be forthcoming, and that I hoped the fancy bottle of wine I planned to bring would compensate for my bad form. After all, you can take a New Yorker out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of a New Yorker.
Anyone free for a last-minute Deliveroo?