Old myths die hard. Take British food. An American acquaintance of mine in Boston only yesterday reiterated the old, old story that British food is ghastly.
I must say, though, that she began quite promisingly.
"I had a scone," she told me, "that has made me revise my ideas about English food."
"???" I asked silently, but as this conversation was telephonic, she may not have heard me. So I added: "And what are your ideas about English food?"
From her answer, it was evident that the current American view of cuisine in the UK is still based squarely on tradition. Probably she has heard stories about unfortunate experiences, eating-wise, of American service-persons during World War II. I believe she acquired her convictions about British cooking (since she is of a very recent generation) in a hand-me-down fashion. She probably also thinks we all still wear bowler hats and talk cockney the way Dick Van Dyke did in "Mary Poppins." But nobody ever spoke cockney like Dick.
"I would say," she said, "that British cuisine has a very bad reputation over here." I chuckled. "It does!" she continued. "If you ask people here what British food is like, they'll say that the very best thing that Britain has to offer is fish and chips."
I took it that this was not exactly a compliment. But then I can't help wondering if my American friends really know what authentic fish and chips is like. Even in Britain, this delicious staple dish (wrong word, though: it should be eaten out of a paper bag wrapped in newspaper, not off porcelain) varies from city to city and shop to shop.
Aficionados know where "the best" fish and chips are to be had, but some people will eat anything so long as it is quick, hot, cheap, and nearby. With quality so unpredictable even on home ground, it seems rather unlikely that top-grade fish and chips have been produced elsewhere in the world.
Also, it is a question of how completely British fish and chips is.
In Glasgow, many of the chippies are run by Italians; there is a strange irony in the fact that they make the best "Scottish" fish and chips. But then as an Englishman, I know that no one in Scotland actually has a clue about fish and chips. You have to go to Yorkshire (in northern England) to experience the real thing.
I have seen "fish and chips" on an American menu, but I felt unconvinced - just as I would have if I had seen Yorkshire pudding or English trifle on the same menu. These things require more than the faithful following of recipes or even correct ancestry in the maker. They belong to the soil and the air. And raw materials still differ from country to country in subtle ways.
To make a Yorkshire pudding in Minnesota is like making American apple pie in Worcestershire.
And so, I suspect, it is with scones in Boston - or at least with the "scone" that reportedly changed my friend's ideas about English food. I asked her to tell me about this scone.
It was a cinnamon scone, she said, and not at all what she expected. What she expected was something like the "blueberry scones" available at the same eating place. "The blueberry scone" - and there was a cutting edge in her voice now - "fit my definition of what a scone is. It was awful. It was tasteless. It tasted like a Milk-Bone dog biscuit."
This struck me as a dramatically effective comparison, but more fabulous than plausible - until I discovered that this American gourmet was in fact, by her own confession, a practiced dog-biscuit ingester.
"When I was about 6," she explained, "we had a French poodle, and I was trying to give it a dog biscuit to reward it for being good because it was always naughty. I tried to hand it to the dog. He wouldn't take it. So I said, 'Here. It's very good - watch - I'll show you....' That's what the blueberry scone tasted like. Pasty. It had little blueberry patches here and there that added a bit of color - but no flavor!"
By contrast, the cinnamon scones were apparently wonderful. Dusted with cinnamon, they sported glorious chunks of cinnamon cannily dispersed within. They were moist, not dry. They had everything that her image of a typical English scone does not have.
I listened quietly.
And then I asked what shape these so-called "English" scones were. Triangular.
"It is just as I thought," I said. "These scones are not English scones at all. English scones are never triangular. If they have any shape at all, it is round. And no English scone known to man has either blueberries or cinnamon in it or on it.
Also - at least in northern Britain - we call them 'skons,' not 'skoans.' I am sorry, but you cannot form a cogent critique of the present state of English cuisine from either of these Boston-born scones, pro or con."
I then tried to convey what a traditional, mint-condition, utterly fresh, sensitively and knowingly made British scone is like.
"We eat them," I explained, "as soon after they have been made as possible. We slice them in half horizontally with tenderest care and gently spread on them butter, homemade strawberry jam, and Devonshire clotted cream.
"A good British scone should be light, not too dry, not too moist, neither undercooked nor overcooked. Never heavy. It may have sultanas in it. It may even be a savory scone, flavored with cheese. There are treacle scones and honey scones. But your essential scone, even though with nothing more to it than its basic ingredients, is full of light-hearted flavor, is toothsome to the last nibble, and insists that you immediately eat a second and a third."
But this critic (whose taste for dog biscuits renders the discrimination of her palate somewhat suspect anyway) may have to cross the Atlantic before finding a true British scone. They are not to be had at a Boston tea party.