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Learning to eat English

Learning to eat English

London and New York have a lot of things in common. But as The Economist’s data editor found when he moved from Brooklyn, food etiquette isn’t one of them

London and New York have a lot of things in common. But as The Economist’s data editor found when he moved from Brooklyn, food etiquette isn’t one of them

Dan Rosenheck | September 6th 2016

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?

15 Readers' comments

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oz - September 8th 2016

amusingly written although, I'd agree with other commenters that it's idiosyncratic and contradictory to my own (also idiosyncratic) experience, but also the data. (I'm half british, half american and lived in both London and New York and I prefer the life-style of the latter.) But, in my opinion, the ratio of Michelin Stars roughly characterizes each city well: NY 73; London 65. So very close with NY having the nose. There are some exceptions in my view: Indian food is vastly superior in London and even Thai has a slight edge there too. see you at Per Se tonight...

Ivson Souza - September 8th 2016

After reading VALWILLS comment, I must say I've heard a lot of people pronouncing SHED-YOOL. I'm not sure if this pronunciation is specific from a certain area, but it really exists. Telling the author to do more research is pointless. It seemed to me that he based his text on his personal experience, not on some flawed Google research. Anyway, I read this on the tube and I couldn't help but laughing hard at some details of this jocular comparison. Perhaps the text has more appeal to foreigners living in London. I'm Brazilian, by the way. :)

Boris - September 8th 2016

Most amusing. As a fellow non-native in England I too have had to slowly learn the local ways. Supper is indeed used to refer to a more informal meal in contrast to a dinner, which would designate a formal event outside the home. Likewise thank you notes are still required amongst the posh. Though only the non-posh would use the word posh. The posh would refer to someone as being particularly smart.

Robert How - September 8th 2016

I'm afraid your London chums are clearly dreadful social climbers of the worst sort. No-one says "supper" when they mean dinner unless they're Hyacinth Bucket. It rather indicates they actually grew up in a household where they called dinner "tea". And while it was once habit to send a thankyou note, that's terribly anachronistic nowadays, though a thankyou text or email is only polite. And napkins. English people generally drape them over their knees out of convention, we rarely need to use them for mopping up. American table manners are notoriously slovenly - I suspect it's the childish habit of being unable to use a knife and fork properly, at the same time. If you have two implements with which to pin down and dissect your food, you don't make a mess. With the American vice of deploying only a fork, which is then waved around during overloud conversation, it's hardly surprising the food goes everywhere.

valwills - September 8th 2016

Oh gosh... I haven't had time to read this article in full... but honestly! We use diaries.... we definitely do not say shed-yool. We don't have schedules.... if we did. They would be called SKED-yools. Need to do a bit more research beforehand!!!