After moving into the Castle, I discovered that I didn’t know how to eat in English, in public. My first attempts were in restaurants. I don’t remember the whole text of the Declaration of Independence, but I’m pretty sure there was something in there about our inalienable GodBlessAmerican right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of iced beverages with free refills. But in England I’ve learned that if you order a drink with ice, it will arrive with a brave little ice chip bobbing forlornly. So I usually request a drink with twenty-three ice cubes, and hope the wait staff didn’t spit into too many of them.
In America, menus are regarded as mere culinary suggestions which can be modified to suit each customer’s whim. But here in England, menus are basically chiseled onto stone tablets. No substitutions. Jack Nicholson would not approve, but I’ve grown to like this approach. It’s fast, clean, and takes all the guesswork out of ordering. .
Also, here you need to be grateful for any scrap of your waiter’s attention. They are not here to serve you; because that would imply that they are servants. Instead, they are people who happen to stop by your table with food now and then, and as such they deserve your (pathetic) gratitude for imposing on their valuable time. I’ve gotten so used to apologizing for every request that even when I got a steak that smelled like week old road kill, I hesitated to mention it to the waiter. When I couldn’t stand the smell, I still waited to catch his eye before starting to apologize. “I’m so sorry, but I wonder if you might have brought the wrong steak? This one seems like it isn’t what I was looking for. Perhaps you could just bring me a piece of fruit if it’s not too much trouble?”
Oh, and I’m an American, so I tip. After intensive therapy, I’m slowly working my way down from twenty percent to fifteen.
For the first year or so that we lived in England, my neighbors were too polite to comment on my American table manners.
They got over it.
At Harvest Supper in the Village Hall last year, I noticed the man to my right was practicing the British art of Pretending Not to Look as I cut my meat, put down my knife, transferred my fork to the right hand, and proceeded to eat the piece I’d just cut. Cut/switch/repeat. Meanwhile I watched in open admiration as his wife turned her fork upside down so that something shaped like a shovel turned into a slide. She speared three peas on the tines, and using the impaled peas as anchors, balanced a few more on the upside down tines, and maneuvered it all to her mouth—still upside down. Eating five peas at a time without losing a single one was an incredible feat of balance and persistence. I didn’t know whether to applaud or never attempt public pea consumption again.
“Look at that American plate.” One lady across the table murmured to another.
I looked down. My plate was white china, just like their plates. Of course, you couldn’t see some of it since my dinner came with mushy peas that I didn’t eat because I’m a grownup American who doesn’t consume food that’s a sculptural medium. (Unless it’s mashed potatoes, of course.) And there was an entire serving of blood pudding on my plate because you know — blood pudding. But my knife and fork were properly placed at 4:20 on the plate circle.
I looked around the table. My neighbors were British, which meant they would all be serious contenders if there was ever an Olympic event for Pretending Not to Look. But I’ve potty-trained four children. I know about waiting. Finally a few looked over nervously. I pointed to my knife and fork. They shook their heads slightly. “Knife and fork at six o’clock if you’re finished eating,” one whispered. “Unless you’d like more…”
“No, thanks, I’m stuffed.” I tried a smile. They winced.
A neighbor turned to me. “My grandmother taught us what to say.” She looked me straight in the eye. “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency.”
So there it is. I’m learning not to cut/switch my knife, to tip less, and to put my knife and fork at six o’clock on my plate. But there’s still so much more I don’t know about eating in England. So I guess I’ll have to hang around. At least until I’ve had an elegant sufficiency.