I have lived in the US for nineteen years now—in Maine for all nineteen of them. My parents moved over when my eldest son was starting kindergarten, so have now been here for almost eight years. In that time, they have been home to England twice alone, and our whole brood managed to get over just slightly before the pandemic hit. When the kids were younger and the grandparents resided in England, we went over often. Once we entered the public school system and had all grandparents stateside, the trips dwindled.
When a friend asked this week for a list of things she must do when visiting England this spring, all I could think of was the food. When planning our last trip, once we were done talking about relatives, my father and I instantly began compiling a list of must-eats while in England again.
There are now many delights of my homeland that can be found in the regular grocery store, but some we still struggle to find and some we can’t find at all.
In no particular order, here is my completely biased (and incomplete) list of British foods that will make or break a trip across the pond.
Sausage Rolls. To understand sausage rolls, you have to understand that sausage in America is a different beast altogether. The American pork product is not the breakfast sausage of my youth. In essence, a sausage roll is simply sausage meat wrapped in puff pastry, but it loses most of the deliciousness when attempted with American sausage. Though I have come close with shredded chicken, pork, and potato, the real thing eludes me. The “Irish Banger” that you can find in many US restaurants rarely hits the spot. Once in the UK, you will need to go to a proper bakery, preferably a chain we have in the UK called Gregg’s, and get a hot sausage roll. Your life will never be the same again.
Cheese and Onion Crisps (tr. potato chips). There is a distinct flavor difference between the States and the UK. Where the US has grape, the UK has blackberry. Where the US has crab dip, the UK has prawn cocktail. And where the US has sour cream and onion, the UK has cheese and onion. It’s a seemingly slight distinction, but the flavor difference is unmistakable. It has to be Walkers cheese and onion crisps. Store brand will not do. The crisp is crispier than Lays. The oil is lighter. The flavor is more pungent. Slap the contents of a bag of these between heavily buttered bread and you have one of the great meals of my youth.
Skips. Much in the same way that the US has potato chips and then the cousins of potato chips, I’m talking your Fritos, Doritos, Bugles, and cheese puffs, the UK crisps too have their relatives. For myself, it is the light and tangy prawn cocktail Skips that are craved even after nineteen years. Many would go for a Quaver or a Monster Munch, but for me, nothing beats the pure powdery tang of a Skip. An actual prawn cocktail is a shrimp cocktail in the US, but that really does not capture the flavor of this melt-in-your-mouth delight. One suitcase usually contains dozens of these on the way home, and I will still buy a few bags at the airport.
Branston Pickle. This is high on my dad’s list. It is a condiment you will be familiar with if you have ever eaten a Ploughman’s. Consider it a relative of American relish, only chunkier, and with more gusto than your hot dog condiment. And not green. You can put it on a cheese sandwich, but really you just want a dollop of it next to your lunch or next to your pork pie.
Brown Sauce. To deal with brown sauce you have to deal with bacon first. If you have only ever eaten bacon stateside, you have not really eaten bacon. I’m sorry, but hard truths must be faced. When the English first crossed the ocean to find new lands to pillage, there was an accident with the bacon ship. Half went to Canada and half went to the US. Fortunately, you can still find complete bacon in England. And if you give a Brit some bacon they are going to want some brown sauce on it. Technically it’s molasses-based ketchup, but that is nothing like it sounds. It must simply be eaten to be understood.
Chicken Curry. While I could regale you with stories of Indian food had at weddings I have attended or balti houses in my hometown of Walsall. While I could fill your senses with stories of tikka and vindaloo and all the wonderful things you find in a country that colonized the world, it is the humble chicken curry from our local Chinese takeaway (tr. take-out) place that I still dream of after nineteen years in Maine. When I was in college I would buy too much of this and eat it for breakfast the next day—sorry not sorry. It is creamy without cream. It has big chunks of onion and English garden peas. Some American places have this on the menu, and they do come close, but it’s just not quite cricket.
Prawn Crackers. Of course, if we are talking about Anglo-Chinese food we have to address the prawn cracker. While the American take-out eater will rarely order without a portion of crab rangoon, the Brit ordering takeaway will always get prawn crackers. They come with the meal, so you have no choice, but you can order more and many do. A puffed prawn (tr. shrimp) flavored cracker, you can eat them plain, scoop the rice up with them, scoop the curry up with them, crumble them over your noodles, save them for the next day even. They are a taste sensation that fizzle on your mouth, and I am still not sure why you can get them in Britain but not America.
Chocolate. There is little to be said that has not been said by many an Anglophile about the differences between American and British chocolate. One of these things is simply not like the other, and until you have eaten a bar of proper Dairy Milk you have never truly lived. I grew up not far from Bourneville, which is the town built up around the Cadbury’s factory, and I remember driving there when I was young. You can smell the chocolate as you get closer. And now I am drooling on my computer.
Custard. If you have seen the eleventh doctor adjusting to his new body, you will be familiar with British custard. (Just don’t dip fish sticks in them whatever you do!) We can get proper custard in various places in the US, so we haven’t had to stock up on this much on trips home over the years. You will need this warm poured over sliced bananas or cold in a trifle. But you do need this.
One suitcase at least will be full of teabags on the way home, although we might need two if we stock up on decaf as well. Liptons will not do, and you don’t need Twinings, though they are good. Most grocery chains now carry at least one kind of box of PG Tips or Tetley, and that is your best bet over here. One cup and you will be cursing the people who threw tea into that New England harbor. Anything to declare, ma’am?
The drinking of tea “is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families.” – Benjamin Rush
I could wax poetic on all manner of British foods for days—I have barely touched on pork pie or the other things you might find in Gregg’s. The crisps (tr. chips) alone could be an entire monologue.
The bread, oh the bread, and the cheese, oh the cheese. But this is a good and accessible starting list if you truly want to experience British culture. Oh, and don’t forget the fish and chips (tr. steak fries).