The English have strange tastes. I offer as proof an episode I witnessed in July at St. John restaurant in Smithfield, which lies in the northwest section of London and has served as the scene for such diverse activities as jousting, public executions, the burning of heretics, and the boiling in oil of forgers; fittingly, it also served, in the 19th century, as the city’s main market for livestock, which was shipped there to be slaughtered on site. The slaying of animals now occurs in remoter locales, though butchery of the resulting meat continues inside the area’s Victorian warehouses, one of which furnishes the address for St. John.
The interior of this London staple, renowned for its indigenous cuisine, has a rather minimalist, whitewashed appearance that belies its abattoir past, while the daily menu wades, as it were, thighs-deep in it. On the evening of my visit, patrons—for the most part, well-groomed, suit-clad executives and soigné ladies of a certain age—sipped Gevrey-Chambertin and conversed sotto voce as servers heaved large platters of whimsically garnished organ meats of such varied texture and hue as to raise the brow of even the most veteran forensic pathologist. In the midst of this bustle, two professorial gentlemen in tweeds at the next table terminated an energetic conversation on Japanese intent in the Pacific Theater to turn all attention to their order, which a smiling waiter ceremoniously set before them: In a deep pan, the crisp, unctuous head of a suckling pig gleamed against a garden of greens, its eyes puffed like blisters, its golden skin roasted taut, lending to the porcine lips a grim sort of grimace. This expression was faintly mirrored in the chalky visages of those about to dine, whose oily lips drew back across serrated teeth in anticipation. They descended upon the skull with fierce concentration, rending the scant flesh and plucking out the bubbled eyes.
Seldom does one behold pure enjoyment—that rapturous sensual indulgence that banishes all else. The sight of this scholarly pair scooping from the sockets the final spoonfuls of curdled matter graphically underscored for me how closely culinary traditions are linked to national identity. Divided already, according to Churchill, by a common language, Englishmen and Americans are further separated by the Great Divide of the Board. Few Americans relish the idea of sinking teeth into a jellied eel or, worse yet, a greasy helping of Spotted Dick—not that our own heritage does not posit dietary aberrations. But where we have, by and large, abandoned primitive repasts, the English remain obdurate in their ghoulish gastronomy. As our ancestors sought to export newly discovered and more refined foodstuffs to Europe, the British populace was frequently the first to spurn them. The potato—originally carried home by Spanish explorers—was regarded as a dubious comestible of the nightshade family. While the Incas esteemed it as a cure for everything from indigestion to rheumatism, enlightened Europeans at once recognized it as a carrier of syphilis and leprosy. The Germans and the French eventually softened their stance, but the English were more cautious: Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh permission to cultivate the invidious vegetable only at a safe distance—in Ireland.
The tomato—another American favorite—was also much maligned in this land of liver and lights eaters. Embraced primarily in Italy in the 16th century, the undesirable fruit (sometimes called a wolf’s peach) encountered resistance from the British until the 19th century. English herbalists in the 1500s insisted that, while the lowly Spaniards and Italians might stomach the tomato, the more delicate English constitution was susceptible, as one John Gerard wrote, to its “ranke and stinking savour.” (Better, of course, to enjoy a salubrious helping of headcheese.) This sinister reputation did, however, have some validity. Wealthier Britons, unlike their neighbors in Italy and Spain, often ate off pewter through the 18th century: The tomato’s acid leeched the lead content from their prized plates and flatware, poisoning unfortunate diners.
That the digestive tracts of their ancestors could be poisoned at all seemed remarkable to me, as I watched the gentlemen at St. John dab their mouths with napkins before the pig’s denuded remains. As what appeared to be a blood pudding emerged next, I turned away to reflect that the Puritans at Plymouth, whose First Thanksgiving consisted of lobster, game, corn, and fish, had much for which to be thankful: namely, that a common cuisine would not also divide their progeny from the English.