Dining in England ain’t what it used to be

Published 12:30 pm Thursday, April 27, 2023

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If there’s one thing that unites us—or divides us—on a global level, it’s food. Personally, for me, embracing a different culture includes diving in, wholeheartedly, into an unfamiliar cuisine.


I’m not talking 5-star dining…as marvelous as that would be, it requires both a fat wallet and the effort to do one’s hair and shave one’s legs. (It’s not yet June when I indeed shave and then, in the spirit of philanthropy, donate it all to ‘Locks of Love.’ You’re welcome). When I’m on vacay, even a work-related vacay, I’m generally eating on the run and am looking for something casual.

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And so this column, if you don’t mind, is a bit of a Part Deux of my previous column about returning to England and I must say that, while the UK had for decades a really rotten, yet well deserved, reputation for dining, that’s been left in the rearview mirror for at least 25 years. Gastro-pubs have long been the rage and every conceivable restaurant one could desire, from the obligatory curry joint to northern Italian can be found in most city centers. However, on this trip, while we did indeed enjoy an absolutely wonderful Italian meal that began with a pot of fragrantly steaming mussels and perfectly prepared calamari, that was one night. The rest of the time it was ‘petrol station’ grub.


Think gas station mini-mart. Like, a Spinx station, or as it is known to us locals in Dark Corner, ‘The Gowensville Mall.’


Most of us have stood in front of a selection of pre-made sandwiches and we’re used to a typically American display: ham and cheese, turkey and cheese, egg salad. I’ve even seen folks leave the Spinx carrying a tall cup of fried chicken ‘Liver and Gizzards’ to throw down their necks as they drive home. To each their own, no judgment here.


So as I stood in my dirt encrusted riding boots with my friends in front of the same sort of display in Hampshire, so hungry that I was close to gnawing on a napkin dispenser, I looked with wonder at the sandwiches offered that, despite their cardboard and clingfilm exterior, sounded pretty exotic.


“Prawn sandwich,” I mouthed, trying to visualize exactly how that would be presented between two pieces of bread. My hand inched towards it out of curiosity’s sake just before the sandwich was snatched up by a woman who cast a threatening look at me that quickly morphed to a victorious smirk as she’d managed to take this last one. Evidently, shrimp sammiches are highly desirable and I still have no idea if they’re little, ‘popcorn’ shrimp or giant prawns. I did at least catch a glance of the package which mentioned ’salad cream,’ which I’m assuming is what we would call mayonnaise.


There was a veggie wrap that looked pretty straightforward although the veggies didn’t look particularly fresh, and then my eyes fell upon what seemed an unlikely pairing: tuna and sweetcorn. I had to go for it. It sounded bizarre, I was starving, and as soon as I got back into the car and took my first bite, I was in love. Only the Brits, who somehow convinced its population to feel great affection for heating up a can of beans and pouring them over toast, could come up with opening a can of sweet corn to mix up with tuna and mayo. This sandwich had a bit of heat to it as well, so I’m guessing it had a dash of finely chopped red pepper and red onion as well. All I know is that I fell instantly in love, and had I encountered that same territorial woman in her Pepto-Bismol, pink puffa jacket, making a move for it, we’d have been engaged in the sort of Donnybrook only seen on Southwest Airlines. As it was, I bought two more. Plus ‘Thai-flavored Sweet Crisps,’ which tasted a lot like Lay’s Southern Barbecue Chips.


I’ve eaten well since I’ve returned to the States. My main staple, a Greek salad, remains a twice-weekly favorite as does a big plate of veggie nachos at a local smokehouse. But like a first love, I shall never forget and always wonder the whereabouts of that beautiful tuna and sweetcorn gas station sandwich.


And bless their hearts, they don’t even know about Duke’s. Oh, the ecstasy….