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The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast

by Brian Yarvin (Harvard Common Press, 2013)

Anybody besides me sometimes feel nostalgic for a certain kind of frankly tourist-y food writing where authors ambled around strange regions pointing out local byways, without turning themselves into either high priests or pseudo-anthropologists? The photographer-cum-cookbook-writer Brian Yarvin resurrects the genre in an amiable saunter through that exotic locale, the United Kingdom.

Not, I hasten to add, the UK of big-name chefs and food-media personalities. His beat here is something the jacket blurb calls “traditional British cooking,” which on closer inspection is best translated as “grub” and which might as well be the far side of the moon for its visibility in recherche North American food circles. Well, it’s their loss. Dismissing fried bread as a bad joke or shuddering at the thought of stewed tripe and onions is as ignorantly provincial as recoiling from raw fish or braised pork belly.

Yarvin, who like me lives in another underrated culinary motherlode called New Jersey, is very good company on the road. I have no idea what natives of the British Isles will make of his bemused encounters with their food terminology (e.g.,”high tea”), but his love of their landscapes and kitchens is obvious. Without benefit of hyper-clever camera angles, historical exordiums on rook pie traditions, or tortured updatings of summer pudding and shortbread, he manages to make solid, unpretentious British food look and sound as interesting as any food on the planet.

Neither oldness nor novelty gets dragged in for its own sake. In about 105 recipes and a sampling of richly illustrated background essays, Yarvin simply follows his nose and taste buds around the UK from far south (the Lizard in Cornwall) to far north (the island of Rousay in the Orkneys). He communicates the same kind of “Where has this been all my life?” delight in new culinary experiences that cookbook mavens most often associate with treks to locales like Singapore. But in this case the object of discovery might be potatoes and turnips mashed into “clapshot,” kippers whipped into a buttery pâté, or the union of apple, onion, and (English-style) bacon in savoury “fidget pie.”

Yarvin firmly insists on a big-tent contemporary understanding of the national cuisine that not only recognizes curry-shop fare as a true “expression of the melting pot of the British Empire” but also takes in a few British gastronomic outposts on this side of the Atlantic. It’s worth searching through these handsome pages for a set of interpolated descriptions with the heading “Pilgrimage,” including such shrines as the “Balti Triangle” in Birmingham (“Balti” is a Pakistani-inspired style of stewing or stir-frying, and that’s Birmingham in the West Midlands, not Alabama), a gaggle of pasty shops in Cornwall, a fish-and-chips bastion in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Bubble and Squeak

Yarvin pays plenty of attention to standbys that are already favourites with many North Americans — lemon curd, “Poor Knights of Windsor” (a.k.a. French toast), Scotch broth, Yorkshire pudding. But he also makes room for comparative newcomers like “Coronation Chicken” (a sweetish sandwich filling or salad originally invented for the present Queen’s coronation in 1953) and “mushy peas” (big dried marrowfat peas cooked to a fare-thee-well, a wildly popular accompaniment to fish and chips). And he proves a fearless champion of dishes that routinely get a bad press in the US if not Canada.

Some of these last items rouse Yarvin to particularly spirited defenses. Though he doesn’t try to provide recipes for either jellied eel or haggis, he describes the former as “the sort of street dish that would be a high point on a trip to Asia or South America” and embarks on a quest for the latter that ends at an excellent Scottish butcher in Kearny, New Jersey. The succulence of the dish makes him imagine how it might be received under a French or Italian pedigree: “American food tourists would come back from Europe raving about it, and there would be discussions of how to smuggle it into the States in one’s luggage.”

There is unfortunately a fly in the ointment: Yarvin doesn’t write recipes with either natural flair or well-trained instinct. The many missed cues, unreliable timings, and odd failures of understanding (you can’t “scorch” clotted cream in a double boiler; mushy peas will never get mushy without prior soaking in a strong alkaline solution) will present an obstacle course to inexperienced cooks. This is definitely a book for kitchen veterans capable of educated guesses and improvised adjustments.

That said, I nonetheless had some good voyages of discovery. Maybe the most eccentric was a very strange, very sweet crumb-crust pie with a filling of sliced bananas and — no kidding — a perfectly recognizable dulce de leche made from condensed milk. Only the British inventors insist on calling it “toffee,” and have dubbed the whole thing “banoffee pie.” (I suggest halving the cooking time for caramelizing the milk.) Other standouts were a Pakistani-style vegetable medley called “One-Pot Balti,” a streamlined modern version of chicken galantine (once stuffed into a boned chicken, here simply steamed in a heatproof bowl), beef “collops” braised in a dark, dark sauce featuring pickled walnuts, and a kedgeree recipe that had the extra benefit of pointing me to a Maine-based source of good Finnan haddie (smoked haddock). Best of all were Scotch eggs and “Staffordshire oatcakes,” oaty-tasting yeast-raised griddle cakes that amply justified Yarvin’s praise as “unsung heroes of regional British cooking.”

It’s about time that the rest of the world stopped lumping British food into alternative categories of ghastly tradition (say, particularly bad boarding-school fare of a few generations back) and inspired redemption (via swaggering superchefs). A pint of best for Brian Yarvin, as indefatigable corrector of some truly indefensible prejudices.

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