REVIEW by Alice Tsay
A Journey Through the British and Their Food
by Tom Parker Bowles
Ebury Press, August 2009
Paperback 320 pp., ISBN: 978-0091926687
I once sat next to an elderly British gentleman at a dinner party in which the conversation turned to home cooking. My mom, I confessed, dislikes the heaviness of traditional Taiwanese cuisine; she loves sticking vegetables briefly in boiling water and then giving them a light touch of salt and oil—much to my brother’s longtime disgust. Before I could add that I quite liked the crisp textures and clean flavors that result, my new friend shuddered and burst out, “My mother was just the same when I was growing up." Grimly, he revealed the emblem of his childhood distress: “Boiled cabbage, all the time.”
One picks up a book like Tom Parker Bowles’ Full English suspecting it will redress the familiar stereotype of British cuisine being bland, overcooked, and uninspired—the sad boiled cabbage of the world’s vast culinary offerings. After all, the cover features a cheery Parker Bowles seated in what almost looks like an American diner, except that what he nurses between two hands is almost certainly not a cup of Joe, but a steaming mug of Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea, topped with the measure of milk that no true child of Albion ever goes without. And there, in front of him, a steaming plate of the delightful morning repast from which the book takes its name: the full English breakfast, which generally contains sausages and thick-sliced bacon, fried eggs, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans, broiled tomatoes, and perhaps some black pudding and hash browns and toast served with orange marmalade. Though Parker Bowles’ particular helping looks a bit slight, he does not have the look of an unhappy man.
He is saving room, perhaps, for the other hearty English foodstuffs that he will linger over in his tour of the tongue, subtitled A Journey Through the British and Their Food; not for the son of Camilla are the lofty establishments in which cutlery radiates out from the plate, glamorous servers wear silk dresses that appear more costly than the monthly rent, and the pastel-clad man sitting behind your dining companion has a single pearl drop earring that winks and glistens in the light, distracting you from the three tablespoons of risotto that appear to comprise your entree. Instead, Parker Bowles—author of The Year of Eating Dangerously (2007) and E is for Eating: An Alphabet of Greed (2004)—rolls up his sleeves on appetite-whetting excursions through traditional Cheddar cheese farms in South Somerset, bacon-curing operations in Wiltshire, fruit orchards and sheep-covered pastures in Kent, gastropubs in Lancashire, the great salad bowl of London’s current eating scene, and more.
To create some space for digestion between his many, many meals, Parker Bowles peppers his third book with anecdotes, quotations and the occasional historical blurb. Armchair tourists who want a taste for themselves can choose from twenty-six recipes, including ones for raisin-studded Eccles cakes, roasted wood pigeons, Balti chicken and mushrooms, and deviled bones. Though the fun facts and character sketches can be arranged on the pages in a manner that feels a bit canned at times, they are nevertheless filtered through the vibrant vocabulary and practiced charm of good weekly columnist or television show host—familiar occupations, it turns out, for Tom Parker Bowles, who appears frequently as a presenter on the UKTV Good Food Channel’s Market Kitchen and has a regular food column in The Daily Mail.
While Full English honorably acquits the task of mapping the pleasures of honest, home-cooked British fare, however, Parker Bowles’ greatest achievement in the book may be in his visceral and sometimes poetic descriptions of foods that fail to hit the spot. A particularly offensive vegetable pie is described as “somewhere between glum and suicidal,” with a “mean and purse lipped” crust. Tripe, he concludes after a long passage musing on its various attributes, is “a piece of offal that is capable of offending all five senses.” Dismissing PR-friendly claims that chicken tikka masala is “Britain’s true national dish,” Parker Bowles blasts it as “a wretched hybrid of a dish, a plodding dilution of the world’s greatest food cultures.” These sections, just as much as the starry-eyed praises of delectable cheeses and luscious cakes, provide a rejoinder to the trepidations of old British gentlemen raised on mushy cabbage and dismissive Americans regaled with tales of the same, proving quite definitively that English cuisine is certainly not boring even when it is bad.
September 12. 2010