Long the brunt of culinary jokes for their overcooked meat (one reason they always serve gravy), the British actually have a long history of fresh, locally sourced sustenance that makes it easier to face a cold, wet climate much of the year.
Yes, British cuisine largely is comfort food. And my brothers and I still take comfort in many of the dishes we grew up eating.
Considering my mom was the daughter of a butcher, it’s no surprise our family’s favorite meal was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
However, the star of that meal wasn’t the roast, but, rather, the Yorkshire pudding, made with a pancakelike batter of eggs, flour and milk. Rather than cook it in muffin pans like popovers, as many recipes suggest, Mom poured the batter into the dish with the roast drippings and let it rise in the oven. The crusty, tangy bottom of the pudding was a beloved treat.
At our house, British dishes could show up at any time of the day, but Mom rarely did the “full English breakfast” or “fry-up,” known for loading a plate up with bacon (back bacon, akin to what Americans know as Canadian bacon), sausages, eggs, mushrooms and much more.
The traditional full English breakfast is an expansive meal, frequently including sausage, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, baked beans and more. (LILYANA VINOGRADOVA / GETTY IMAGES)
Mostly, breakfast in our house hewed more to dishes loved in the American South, though Mom occasionally treated us to a British morning staple, fried bread (which is just what it sounds like). However, she generally skipped the stewed tomatoes you’ll find on your breakfast plate in London. And, aside from one time, to indulge my daughter, Olivia, Mom didn’t include the strangest part of a full English breakfast — baked beans.
Mom did, however, introduce us to beans on toast, which sometimes made a quick supper for the King boys.
I once asked her about the beans-for-breakfast thing, and Mom dismissed it as "something English." She proudly was from Wales, the part of the United Kingdom that gives Charles, Prince of Wales, his title, and she quickly corrected anyone who called her "English."
Welsh cakes, a popular teatime treat, are sweet griddle cakes studded with raisins and dusted with sugar. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
So, our British food had a Welsh accent — from frequent servings of lamb in various incarnations, to the teatime treat known as Welsh cakes — sweet griddle cakes studded with raisins and dusted in sugar. Particularly when it snowed, and we were off from school, Welsh cakes were a tradition (a neighbor girl even took to inquiring, "Is your mom making Welsh cakes?" whenever the white stuff fell).
One British staple my mother didn’t make was the scone (properly pronounced “skon,” rhyming with “con,” not with “own”). That’s because, in their true U.K. incarnation, scones are not the sweet treats found in American coffee shops, but instead are a less sweet distant cousin of the American biscuit, which we ate with almost every meal. (In Britain, what they call “biscuits” are what we call cookies. My grandmother in Wales, who decided to cook a Southern fried chicken meal for my dad, a U.S. soldier stationed in their town in World War II, quickly figured out that the “biscuits” he craved were “scones without the sugar.”)
Welsh rabbit features a sauce of melted cheese, egg, beer and spices — but no rabbit — served on toast. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Another Welsh dish that we love is the melted cheddar-eggs-beer-mustard sauce served on toast known as Welsh rabbit. Yes, that's the correct name, not the frequently used "rarebit," which Mom again dismissed as "something the English came up with." The original name is an 18th-century Welsh joke; since most of the lands were owned by English absentee landlords, and the Welsh country folk weren't allowed to hunt on them, they melted cheese over toast and sarcastically dubbed it "Welsh rabbit."
A quirky British offering my mother loved at breakfast or teatime was Marmite, a spread made of brewer's yeast, which she'd lather on bread. We resolutely resisted Marmite, based on the pungent smell alone. On an extended stay in Britain last year, my daughter, Olivia, was enticed by a cousin to try it. It tasted just like it smelled, she said.
A lot of British dishes have colorful names. One of them we still enjoy is bangers and mash — sausages in mashed potatoes.
Bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) is one of quite a few British dishes that sport unusual names. (OLIVIA KING / SPECIAL)
The Brits don’t just eat sausages at breakfast, and my grandfather Edgar Parry was renowned for the bangers he sold in his butcher shop in Abergavenny, Wales. A big food company once offered to buy the recipe from him, Mom told us, but he turned them down, saying they’d undoubtedly cut corners and ruin the product.
Among British dishes with an unusual name that Mom chose not to serve was toad in the hole. (This is sausages cooked in Yorkshire pudding batter, not the U.S. dish of the same name that puts a fried egg in a hole cut in the middle of a piece of toast.)
Another she avoided was called bubble and squeak. The name of the latter made me curious, but Mom warned me I wouldn’t like it. On a visit to Wales, however, I prevailed upon my Auntie Helen to cook it for us. It was fried leftover potatoes and veggies. Mom was right.
One year, Mom tried something the British call faggots and peas (ground meat and dried peas) that we all decided was better left on the other side of the Atlantic.
My brothers and I can recall only once or twice that she made another well-known dish, shepherd’s pie, which substitutes mashed potatoes for pie crust. As my youngest brother, Tim, put it: “That was not a crowd-pleaser for a family of pastry lovers.”
A traditional British dish Mom didn’t make was steak and kidney pie, but we did enjoy other savory pies, including the traditional British pork pie made with seasoned, peppery pork and pork gelatin, encased in a thick pastry. Eventually, she gave up serving pork pie, though. When I asked why, she said she’d been trying to re-create her father’s recipe but never quite could nail it.
However, what she called meat pie (beef or lamb, potatoes and vegetables in pastry) was a favorite, particularly of my son, Bill. Mom would make one for him whenever he stopped by for a visit during his time at the University of Georgia, even when she was in her 80s.
The night after Mom’s funeral in 2008, young Bill teamed up with his Uncle Tim in her Athens kitchen to make “Grandma’s meat pie” one more time for those of us staying at the family home — a loving culinary tribute.
I think it was one of my favorite meals ever served in that house.
Bill King writes the Junkyard Blawg for Dawgnation.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.