»  National Review Online

August 30th, 2001

  Anyone for Spotted Dick?

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It is ten weary years since I left England's shores
In a far distant country to roam.
How I long to return to my own native land! —
To my friends and the old folks at home.
               — "The Miner's Dream of Home"

Robert Browning, Rupert Brooke and Will Godwin's Australian miner notwithstanding, I don't think English people are much prone to homesickness. Quite a large number of English expatriates are glad to be out of the place. They will tell you what the sailor told George Borrow in Lavengro: "England was a hard mother to me, as she has proved to many." Now, I'm not in that category myself. I have many fond memories of England, and no complaints. I don't think I have ever shed a tear for the Ould Sod, though. I'm not the type — not sentimental at all. There are, though, occasional moments when I feel a lump in my throat. Certain hymns; a sighting of the dear old Queen on TV news (you may say what you like about the rest of the Windsors, I'll not hear a word against Betty); books about the Great War (as the men of my father's generation called it, as it will always be in my mind) … A few scattered things like this, now and again, catching me in just the right mood, remind me that a country, especially one you were born and raised in, is not just a splotch of color on a map. Well, I had one of these moments the other day, when a reader sent me a clip from the Fox News website. The news item was about spotted dick; and thinking of spotted dick, I sank into nostalgia.

Last night as I slumbered I had a strange dream.
It seemed to bring distant things near.
I dreamed of old England, the land of my birth —
To the hearts of her sons ever dear.

Spotted dick, I had better explain, is an English dessert: a cylinder of dense spongy stuff (hey, I'm no cook, just a consumer) with raisins or sultanas imbedded in it. The raisins make it "spotted"; "dick" is I think an ancient corruption of the word "dough." The story on Fox is that England's biggest supermarket chain — which is also, incidentally, an ex-employer of mine — is going to stop calling this wonderful confection "spotted dick" because people are embarrassed to ask for it. With that dull-witted predictability that makes one think the European Commission must be behind this somewhere, the stores will henceforth label this material "spotted richard."

Reading this, I was at once back in my childhood, among the glories of English cuisine. It is a misconception, though apparently a universal one, that the English are lousy cooks. Well, speak as you find: I have never eaten food as varied, well-prepared and nourishing as that I ate growing up in an ordinary working-class English household. The truth of the matter is that English food is wonderful, but you have to live in an English family to know this. We are not lousy cooks; we are merely lousy restaurateurs. (Note to the editor, and to all TV newspersons: THERE IS NO "N" IN THAT WORD, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.)

"English restaurant" is almost an oxymoron; though I should add that this is less true now than when I was growing up. At home, though, we eat like kings. Our food has far more variety than American food mainly because we are willing to eat things that you won't even look at. There is, for example, no part of any edible animal that can't be made into an English dish. Stuffed sheep's heart: brains on toast: calf heel jelly: pig's trotters: chitlings: tripe and onions: oxtail soup: tongue: blood pudding: devilled kidneys: sweetbreads (which is some gland or other): donkey dong. All right, I made that last one up, but the others are real. You dull Yanks with your boring prime cuts — eat your hearts out (preferably stuffed).

(And let me say that the last sentence there applies to white Americans much more than to black and yellow ones. Black American food is almost as imaginative as ours, and they eat the animal down to the bone, too, just as we do. They are also, again like the English, great fish eaters. Until it was pulled down to make way for a Home Depot, our local shopping center had a wet-fish store run by an energetic couple from Taiwan. They had everything — freshwater fish, sea fish, shellfish, crabs, eels. The owner told me that apart from the few local Chinese people, practically all his customers were black.)

But it is in the matter of desserts that the culinary genius of England takes wing and soars above the Aónian mount. How I miss those English desserts of my childhood! Bakewell tart! Queen of puddings! Rhubarb crumble! Gooseberry fool! Apple turnover! Treacle sponge! Treacle tart (a completely different thing)! Jam Roly-poly! Bread and butter pudding! Blancmange! Trifle! Spotted dick! The pies and tarts all smothered in thick hot custard! Now I think I am going to cry. You simply can't get this stuff here, except occasionally, by chance, and usually choked with cinnamon or buried under a deliquescing mound of that filthy "cream topping" that sprays out of a can.

Chorus:  I saw the old homestead and faces I love,
I saw England's valleys and dells.
And I listened with joy,
As I did when a boy,
To the sound of the old village bells.

Now, don't get me wrong. The U.S.A. is a great country. I'm glad to be here; I look forward to becoming a citizen; and I shall try my best to be a good citizen. But let's face it, there are some things Americans just can't do worth a damn, and dessert is up there at the top of the list. This nation, so great and admirable in so many ways, is a dessert desert. Ice cream, "fruit salad," cheesecake — that's the entire repertoire in ninety per cent of your eating establishments, and in your homes too, so far as I can judge.

Sometimes, in very up-market places, you get offered something called "chocolate mousse." This is rare, though — so rare than most Americans think mousse is stuff you put on your hair. With American dessert mousse, you might as well; it sure isn't fit to eat. American cakes are pathetic. I worked in New York offices for some years, and when a birthday came around in the department a cake would be purchased. Frequently these were just large slabs of ice cream. On other occasions they were weightless, tasteless, textureless masses of sponge, smeared with some oily white slime that always made me think of the stuff I found accumulated in my belly-button when, after three months' imprisonment, I was cut free from a full-torso plaster cast I'd had to wear for a back problem. (Look, I'd been doing my best to maintain my normal high standards of personal hygiene. You try taking a shower while encased in plaster from crotch to clavicles.) Worst of all are Jewish desserts. Halva! — a waste by-product in the manufacture of polystyrene! Hasn't anyone heard of marzipan?

Reader, I have travelled all over this world (cue banjo here) and have found something to like and admire in every place I have been — in America most of all, the one country where the flame of liberty still gutters faintly in the rising gales of bureaucratism, legalism, corporatism and globalism. Yet there are times when I would abandon everything I have and jump on a plane back to London for just one mouthful of warm spotted dick dripping with custard.

Once more in the fireplace the oak log burned bright,
And I promised no more would I roam.
I sat in the old vacant chair by the hearth,
And we sang that dear song 'Home Sweet Home.'

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Thinly-disguised plug for my new novel.

In my column last Thursday I passed some comments on the state of modern literary fiction. Samples: " I do not read much current Lit. Fic., except when paid to. My impression is that not much of it is any good … I can't see much that is Lit. Fic. about Fire from the Sun … None of the characters is an angel, a space alien, or a coprophagic dwarf … Magic realism? I shall die happy if I can believe I have got real realism right …"

I had not, at the time I wrote that, read B.R. Myers' piece on current fiction in the July/August Atlantic Monthly. A kind reader pointed it out to me. Myers is way better read than I am in the Lit. Fic. of our time, but his conclusions agree pretty well with mine. Like me, he believes that the emperor has no, or at any rate very few, clothes: that most of the "fine writing" gushed over in the pages of the New York Times Book Review is pretentious crap. It's an excellent article, and I recommend it to you without reservation.