Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

A Toast to the Roast: Tucking into Britain’s Traditional Sunday Feast

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Photo by Andrew Burbanks, taken at the Cowshed in Bristol, England

Waaaaay back in the hot ‘n’ hazy days of summer—you know, eight weeks ago—I boldly proclaimed central air conditioning to be mankind’s greatest invention. Well, I take it back. (I’m a fickle blogger, aye, so I am.) That was warm weather me talking, high on salty sea breezes and sunscreen fumes. Chilly weather me, wrapped in a comfy, musty cardigan, pumpkin spice latte foam sloshed across my upper lip, is more inclined to bestow superlatives on autumnal pleasures. Snuggling with the spouse, so uncomfortable during the summer heatwave, earns high marks, as does binge-watching darker fare on Netflix, like The Haunting of Hill House. But the single greatest rite of fall has got to be gorging oneself to the point of delirium on an excessive feast, something Americans raise to an art form on Thanksgiving, which as I post this is just a few days away. (Lucky Canadians already had their Thanksgiving in October.) As a Yank myself, I should be pining for this annual jubilee of gluttony right about now, but I’ve discovered a U.K. equivalent that totally satisfies my expat hunger pangs. Even better, I don’t have to wait for a holiday; I can belly up to this gut-buster on any given weekend. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my definitive pick (at least until spring) for mankind’s greatest-ever invention: the British Sunday roast.

Certain aspects of British cuisine can be challenging – earlier in this very series, I went on a (completely justified) tirade against the existence of Marmite – but I defy anyone to find fault with the Sunday roast. A tradition dating back to the 15th century, it began as a post-church reward for enduring several butt-numbing hours of morning devotion. Over the centuries, it’s become so ingrained in the culture that it regularly places at or near #1 on surveys of the most British things ever. It even tops tea and the Queen on occasion. Come any Sunday around noon, it’s served in a variety of eateries all over Great Britain and Ireland, from elegant hotel dining rooms to humble cafes to trendy brasseries. Pubs have long offered the roast – if you run the local Kings Arms or Nags Head Inn and you don’t dish it up for your punters (that’s Brit-speak for customers), you might as well close for the day. Some crazy Brits even spend hours preparing this massive meal in their own kitchens. The nutters! And while the Sunday roast seems ideally suited to the fall and winter months, it’s perfectly acceptable to indulge in it  year-round – beach bod be damned.

As advertised, the star of the Sunday roast is a generous, juicy joint of meat. Typically it’s beef or lamb, but pork or poultry takes the lead role every now and again. Each is served with ladle upon ladle of its corresponding gravy, of course. Potatoes roasted in duck or goose fat are a must as a side, and a rotating selection of seasonal vegetables, on a caloric scale from steamed broccoli or green beans to cauliflower with cheese sauce, rounds out the meal. (But save room for the non-optional, fruit-based dessert of crumble, tart, or pie, with heavy cream or custard.) If the main event is beef, you’re sure to find a Yorkshire pudding plopped on your plate – and if my American readers are queasily picturing a dollop of chocolate mousse oozing over this savoury repast, let me stop you before you hurl. The Yorkshire pudding in no way resembles the Jell-O dessert that Bill Cosby once hawked stateside. Rather, it’s a plain batter of flour, milk, eggs, and a pinch of salt, poured into cup-shaped tins atop sizzling fat or oil, and oven-heated until golden brown, crispy on the outside, and risen to the size of a dinner roll on steroids, or a mutant muffin, if you will. (As an aside, how did the term “pudding” come to mean such vastly different things, from these fluffy fists of deliciousness to a sweet, creamy treat to – yikes! – sausage made with animal blood?  I should Google the answer someday. Right after I finish watching all 12 million cat videos on YouTube.)

While baking, Yorkshire puddings can sometimes collapse into a concave shape due to variations in batter temperature, or possibly the wicked magic of oven gremlins. Unlike with a soufflé, however, this is anything but a culinary faux pas. Indeed, the hollowed-out puddings can be used as gravy hot tubs in which to dip potatoes, carrots, forkfuls of meat, or even your finger if you’re an uncouth hillbilly immigrant.  Yorkshire “puds” also make wonderful plate mops, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why they’re not more widely consumed in North America (though the similar popover features in some U.S. holiday dinners), just as I find it shocking and sad that Southern buttermilk biscuits are virtually unknown in the U.K. There needs to be some sort of baked goods exchange program started toot sweet.

Speaking of those down-home biscuits, besides Thanksgiving, the British Sunday roast in a way reminds me of the sumptuous after-church spreads of my youth in the American South. Following morning services, family and close friends would adjourn to one of our homes or a restaurant or cafeteria to devour such Dixie-fied faves as fried chicken, fried okra, biscuits and green bean casserole. It’s a memory many Southerners cherish. “When I was growing up, my mama always served a huge lunch on Sunday after church,” recalls my friend and former Atlanta newspaper colleague Wendell Brock, who continues to cover various cuisines in the region.  “And if the preacher came, we had even more — usually two meats and many vegetables, plus bread and dessert.” Both he and fellow Southern food writer Susan Puckett, another pal from my newspaper days, agree that this once robust tradition is on the wane. “The big Sunday dinner is something I occasionally hear about in small towns still, but has largely faded in most places, especially more urban areas,” Susan notes. Fortunately, the experience persists at a few holdouts like the Colonnade in Atlanta, where both the menu and the décor seem like they’ve been preserved in amber since the restaurant opened at its current location in 1962.

The menus for the British Sunday roast and the Southern Sunday dinner are quite different (see chart below), but the idea is the same: Eating mountains of yummy food with people that you love. I may be peering back at those dinners I had as a youngster through rose-coloured glasses – it’s likely I was flicking black-eyed peas at my sister and kicking her under the table, and my parents and their chums were probably singing the praises of President Nixon. But if our family wasn’t perfect, at least we were together. That wouldn’t always be the case, as we have since scattered, a few beloved family members are no longer with us, and I have moved an ocean away. That distance has compelled me to focus on creating new memories with the family and friends my partner and I have in England. On numerous occasions, we’ve had the pleasure of sharing a Sunday roast with some warm and welcoming Brits we’ve gotten to know (and a smattering of expats like myself), and each time I’ve felt not homesick but happy, and content with where we are in our lives.  As much as I love where I come from, the banquet before me these days is spectacularly bountiful. Pass the biscuits—sorry, puddings – please.

SUNDAY ROAST VS. SUNDAY DINNER
Here are two typical menus for British and Southern American Sunday feasts. But there are as many variations as there are families to eat them. Feel free to leave your favourite combos in the comments section!

British Sunday Roast Southern American Sunday Dinner
Roast Beef or Lamb Fried Chicken or Ham
Roast Potatoes Mashed Potatoes
Yorkshire Puddings Biscuits
Cauliflower w/ Cheese Sauce Green Bean Casserole
Peas and Carrots Black-eyed Peas/Fried Okra
Mashed Swede (Rutabaga) Candied Yams/Sweet Potatoes
Gravy Gravy (Gravy is universal)

 

 

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