“How would you like your eggs?”
“Over-medium, please – ”
“Just poached, fried, or scrambled, sir”
“Why are Americans so picky about eggs?”
Good question. I think my reply was something along the lines of “eggs are more of a thing over there – diners all do them to order, as you like” which wasn’t really an answer, just another way of saying “Americans are picky about eggs”. I did him his eggs over-medium, anyway, partly because I like American pickiness about eggs, and partly because I didn’t want him to think we had all the eggs pre-cooked, sunny-side-up, in a congealing proteinous mass under the hot-lamps. I kept thinking, though – why are Americans so picky about eggs?
An easy answer would be that they aren’t, particularly – maybe they are just more vocal than the reticent British about their pickiness, more active in getting what they want; I don’t think this is true, though. A hungover Englishman is perfectly capable of being quite vocally and unpleasantly picky about his breakfast, although this more often seems to manifest itself in a lust for the exact shade of burntness on a sausage, or a peculiar hatred of black pudding. When they do make specific egg requests, perhaps remembering the lost estate of their mother’s fry-up, or some half-forgotten greasy spoon, they will fumble for the words; a Brit could never coolly ask for “eggs over-medium” – instead, you get semi-coherent requests for “er, flipped, but sort-of runny”, “something between a fried egg and an omelette”; occasionally, someone will ask for their egg sunny-side-up, because they saw it in a movie, only to discover they meant over-easy, if they meant anything at all. We lack the vocabulary to be picky about eggs.
More generally, and setting aside professional and keen amateur cooks, I think we lack a vocabulary to talk about the processes of food. I saw, recently, on a cafe menu that an American friend of mine posted on Facebook, a bagel filled with (among other things) “minced” onion. I just don’t think you’d see that on a menu here; most people would not know or, more importantly, care what “minced” meant in that context. “Onion” would suffice – the process by which it got into a bagel is irrelevant.
Why we don’t seem to have developed a layman’s vocabulary for talking about one of the most fundamental activities of life is another matter. In America, I think, eating is a much more public activity than it is here. In England, there seems to be a strong divide between eating in private, which can be a pleasurable, even hedonistic, experience (yes, I know we have a very lively restaurant scene, but I consider that a form of semi-privacy), and eating in public, which must be functional, food-as-fuel, and hopefully a little unpleasant. I’m talking about eating on the street, at service stations, in shopping centres, even diners or whatever – places or occasions where you eat out because you are out and you need to eat, not because you have gone out to eat.
Take a petrol station sandwich – sliced bread, margarine, some imitation of cheese, perhaps the ghost of ham, the wilting corpse of salad, all packaged at some indeterminate location some indeterminate time ago. There is no enjoyment here at any level. This is fibre and protein, designed to stop you feeling hungry so you can carry on with whatever you’re doing. It’s barely even nutrition, just fuel, bought along with your petrol. The vast majority of gas stations, on the other hand – or at least the ones that I went to – have their own deli counters, where your sandwich will be made for you, to order, to your specifications, with a choice of breads, of cheese, of meats… These are not places where people go to eat; they fulfil the same function as the shops at service stations, they just do so much better, with attention to detail and some kind of deep-seated belief that all food should be worth eating. Yes, of course there is also an America of chains and mall food courts, but that is relatively new and not, I think, as pervasive as the back-road small-town America of grocery store delis and of diners where you can get your eggs or your burger or your steak cooked any damn way you please, and where that is not pickiness but simply a reasonable thing to expect of food that is being cooked for you in exchange for money.
There are, I’m sure, any number of reasons why this is lacking in Britain – a hangover from Victorian uneasiness about taking pleasure in food, a class-based distaste for the service industry in general, our supposed love of privacy in our pleasures – and it is, perhaps, gradually changing, although it is telling that the current crop of more casual, cheaper eateries (Pitt Cue Co., the Polpo group, Yalla Yalla) all look East or West for their food and decor. Yes, we have farmers’ markets and delis and food vans, but until we are no longer expected to eat a day-old parody of a sandwich entombed in plastic as a punishment for wanting to eat in public, we will not have a ‘food culture’, just an eerily accurate impression of one.