The Lonely Planet travel website recently offered up an intriguing question for travelers who’ve made the journey “across The Pond” to England, Europe and points beyond.
Although post-Brexit, I guess the UK is no longer considered part of Europe.
As the writer noted, “The stuff we do when traveling — like go to museums, walk through markets, see statues, walk up mountains – is what I call the ‘space between meals.’ For many travelers, it’s the dining experience that anchors our day on the road.”
No quibbles with that.
“Sometimes the food we find traveling is plain weird,” the article continued. “Cambodian menus include spiders, Vietnamese ones cats, Chinese go for pig faces, Oaxacans [eat] crickets — and Colombians put cheese in their hot chocolate. It’s all fair game, whether you eat or not.”
As far as weird food, my fondest memory of a visit to the “wet market” in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou some years ago wasn’t the many stalls in which the carcasses of some unknown animals (monkeys? foxes? giant rodents?) were hanging from hooks, apparently as a way to entice customers to pick one up for dinner.
Nor was it one of the stalls at which a member of our party remarked, “Oh, is that a pet shop?” referring to the cages of puppies stacked six deep, to which our guide quickly suggested, “Uh, why don’t we check out this other stall over here that has some very interesting Chinese vegetables?”
No, the weirdest culinary ingredient was being sold from a small, cramped little stall containing a plastic kid’s wading pool and an elderly woman holding a chopstick on the rim of the pool. Upon closer inspection, she was shepherding about a thousand scorpions swarming around inside their plastic prison, and for amusement, she was letting one at a time crawl up the chopstick to see how close she could come to getting stung before flipping the scorpion back among its buddies.
Upon inquiry, our guide casually remarked, “Oh those — we put ’em in soup. They’re very good.”
Adding a delightful crunch and some valuable protein, I presume.
Best and Worst
But the food-related question the Lonely Planet article asked wasn’t about the weirdest, but the worst. In fact, the article was titled, “Is British food the worst in the world?”
I can answer that.
Yes! Yes it is.
Turns out the travel company’s staff agreed. In a poll taken among employees in the firm’s offices in Melbourne, Oakland, New York and London, the overwhelming consensus was that the world’s worst food is from Britain.
“By a landslide,” the article noted, and in fact of all the offices, only one city’s staffers declined to vote, and you can probably guess which one.
Granted, Great Britain is well-known for such “delicacies” as eel pie, haggis, toad in the hole and spotted dick (a molded pudding made from suet and dried fruit). Those choices alone probably put the country at the bottom of the culinary heap. But my experiences with ordinary British cuisine — and there’s an oxymoron for you — confirm the poll results.
Sure, the classic British pub is generally a lively location for an evening’s entertainment — as long as you stick to the ale and forego the pub grub. However, even nice, sit-down neighborhood restaurants in the big cities are abysmal in terms of the quality of the typical meal.
In a word, British food is “brown.”
Soggy, bland vegetables cooked to a dull appearance at the intersection of khaki green and the classic Crayola color Burnt Umber. Entrées, such as they are (minced mystery meat), drowning beneath a thick, paste-like gravy — brown, naturally.
And to top it off, the British foodservice industry apparently hasn’t heard about the novel staging tactic called “courses.” You don’t get a beverage, followed by a salad, and eventually your (brown-colored) entrée.
Oh, no — you sit and wait for close to an hour, then the wait staff brings out everything all at once on a tray: salad, drink, entrée and (alleged) vegetables. What, I’m supposed to eat that warmed-over entrée first, and then make the salad my dessert?
By the way, is it possible to buy canned salad? Because more often than not, I was sure that was the origin of those limp, brownish leaves and colorless tomato slices sitting in the salad bowl.
Anyway, the Lonely Planet poll put New York City and Singapore tied for first atop the list for the best dining experiences, followed by Rome and Paris tied for second, followed by what the article called “a predictable three-way tie” between Melbourne, Oakland and San Francisco.
Yeah — only if the good folks in Oakland consider their hometown to be part of the larger “Bay Area.” Otherwise, the two cities’ cuisines are as far apart in culinary terms as their respective baseball teams have been in recent postseason playoffs.
There’s a classic line in the wildly funny book, “Anguished English,” by former teacher Richard Lederer, which contains hundreds of excerpts from actual essays written by actual high school students that he collected over the years. In a composition about the demise of Napoleon, one student wrote, “The British defeated the French, but at a gastronomic cost.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.