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A Matter of Taste: An Expat on Differences Between British and American Palates
Sometime during the early 1990s, a new and exciting breakfast product appeared on the shelves of British supermarkets. I was aware of Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts thanks to American television shows, and when I saw boxes of them stacked into a great pyramid at the end of aisle seven down our local Sainsbury’s, my excitement was almost too much to bear. Through a devoted system of accompanying my mother on her weekly grocery runs backed up by a chorus of methodical whining and heavy negotiating, I was eventually able to wear her down enough that she gave in and bought me a pack. I would now be enjoying sugarcoated chocolate pastries for breakfast instead of plain old Weetabix. Life was finally complete.
Or so I thought.
Much to my surprise, I found that I didn’t care much for something so sweet and sugary first thing in the morning and before long I was back on the ‘Bix. Years later, as an adult recently expatriated to the U.S., I discovered that sugar could be found on all variety of American foodstuffs, and often where you’d least expect it—bacon, baked beans, even bread. Nothing, it seemed, escaped a dusting.
Of the three main meals, breakfast appeared to be particularly heavily hit. I would observe Americans in diners with curious wonderment as they drizzled maple syrup all over their sausages and bacon and then chowed it down merrily with a mouthful of pancake. So one day, in the spirit of culinary adventure, I decided to give it a whirl. Unfortunately, the syrupy sweetness combined with the salty meat was unpalatable upon my British buds (truth be told I found it repugnant), and it would appear that I was not alone in my assessment. In their book Eating In America: A History, authors Waverly Root and Richard De Rochemont describe maple sugar as “a flavor too strange and too assertive to charm European palates” and note that to this day it is virtually unknown on the Continent.
A few months after the maple syrup incident, I was invited to my first Thanksgiving. Somewhat naively, I envisioned the meal to be similar to a traditional British Christmas dinner, and parts of it were, but there was one dish on the table that I assumed was some kind of terrible mistake: the brown sugar-glazed sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Surely this thing was supposed to be served with ice cream as a dessert? I recall watching in horror as my fellow diners forked it into their mouths with slices of gravy-soaked turkey. How could they so recklessly mix sweet with savory? Needless to say I didn’t enjoy the yams, but I loved the idea of the creators of this dish conspiring together to make an innocent vegetable into a side that packed more sugar than a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola.
“Here, try the yams. Do you think they’re sweet enough?”
“Hmm. They could use a little brown sugar to make them pop.”
“Okay. How about now?”
“This is gonna sound crazy, but why don’t we throw in a packet of marshmallows?”
The issue of condiments is another cultural distinction separating British and American taste buds. The popularity of sweet sauces such as honey mustard and barbeque in the U.S. certainly seems to be in keeping with America’s penchant for mixing sweet with savory. Fries—or chips as they’re known in the U.K.—are a good way of highlighting this transatlantic nuance. Fries in America are almost exclusively accompanied by tomato ketchup, and although many Brits enjoy them this way too, chips in Britain are an edible blank canvas frequently paired with an array of less sugary condiments such as mayonnaise, gravy, curry sauce and vinegar, to name a few.
A possible explanation for this is that by the time Heinz got around to exporting their ketchup to the U.K. in the late 1800s, most Brits’ buds had already evolved to prefer savory condiments over sweet on salty foods. America, by contrast and as a relatively young nation, had yet to fully develop its national palate. Interestingly, the top-selling condiment in America is actually mayonnaise (the U.S. consumes more than $2 billion worth annually compared to around $800 million for ketchup). However, this statistic is slightly misleading because mayo is not only a condiment but also a common ingredient in things like tuna salads, coleslaw, dips and dressings.
Whenever American friends of mine visit Britain, they usually return with two principal complaints—the weather and the food. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done about the rain, and the food is simply a matter of subjectivity. They think it strange we compliment roast lamb with mint sauce, but I find it odd that they put ranch dressing on pizza. They consider pork pies repulsive; ditto me with beef jerky. While I don’t understand their preoccupation with peanut butter, they can’t comprehend my unwavering loyalty to Marmite. In the Americans’ defense, Britain does have a fondness for labeling its national dishes with somewhat unappetizing names—toad in the hole, shepherd’s pie, bubble and squeak. I mean, if I didn’t know any better, I’d be hesitant to order something called spotted dick too.
What differences have you noticed between the British and American palates? Tell us in the comments below: