The Brits and Their Veg: Can the Sunday Roast-Loving English Change the Way Americans Eat?

10/28/2011 10:55 am ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011
  • Elissa Altman 2012 James Beard Award winner and founder of

I love England. A lot.

I love the grayish patina that backdrops nearly everything in London, and the dusty green East Anglia farmland, and even the rough brown edges of the Midlands. I haven't been back to England in a very long time --- actually, an inexcusably long time --- but I got to know it pretty well years ago when I was studying at Cambridge for a semester. There wasn't a lot about it that I didn't like. Except for the vegetables.

Back in the mid-1980s, there really weren't any.

I mean, there were. But the peas were sort of London gray instead of East Anglia green, and it annoyed me. Everything else, like Brussels sprouts and asparagus, appeared to be boiled into flaccid negligence.

To be clear, I did eat very well when I was there, except for the small horse pate/salmonella incident that landed me in the Cambridge City Hospital, which I just finished writing about in my book. But in the time I was there, I ate excellent Doner kebabs, delicious venison roasts, untold numbers of meat pies and Cornish pasties, Scotch eggs, and a memorable roast lamb at Langan's Brasserie. But, no vegetables except for the aforementioned peas, and maybe a few braised pearl onions.

But what I always found confusing was that I had a lot of English friends who spent summers working in the States with an organization called BUNAC (British Universities North America Club), and they would swoon right out of their shoes whenever a platter of vegetables was in their midst. My friend Amanda, who was actually from Edinburgh but living in London, would eat nothing but vegetables when she was here, proclaiming them vastly superior to anything she got at home. I didn't think much of them, I told her. Brussels sprouts, Shmussel sprouts, I snorted over dinner one night. What was the big deal?

"You just take them for granted," she said, stuffing her face with the dark green orbs.

So here we are, all these years later, and Americans, while having our collective consciousness raised about green eating and farmer's markets and seasonality and organics, are forever battling the powers that be to get fresh vegetables into the mouths of people who need them the most, like kids, older people, poorer people, unhealthy people, inner city people. But beyond the powers that be, we also have to fight our own Depression-era and wartime historical inclinations, which long ago decided that the sheer ability to put meat on the table every single night was something that every family should aspire to, and that anything less stank of failure and poverty and unAmericanism. So it's still all about the meat here, no matter what we do, and when we do cook vegetables, we do it in the oddest of ways: we disguise it as a brownie before we feed it to our kids. We cover it in thick cheese sauce. We deep fry it, or boil it with a smoked pig's limb. We serve it out of a salad bar, drenched in blue cheese dressing and industrially-prefabricated bacon bits. We're like a nation of overgrown, petulant children feeding the family Labrador our Flintstone vitamins while mom isn't looking.

Conversely, the English seem to have become unrecognizably and vehemently vegaholic; they can't seem to get enough of them. Yotam Ottolenghi, the owner, with partner and chef Sami Tamimi, of London's eponymous, vegetable-forward Ottolenghi, writes a regular cookery column for The Guardian, and recently published one of those ground-shaking vegetarian cookbooks --- Plenty --- that only comes around only once in a very blue moon. Nigel Slater, author of the memoir Toast, contributor to The Observer Magazine, and widely-respected food writer, recently published a two volume --- TWO VOLUME --- collection of vegetable and fruit-focused recipes totalling 1,200 pages, called Tender; while not vegetarian, the star of every recipe either grows on a tree or in the ground. Not to be outdone, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, king of The River Cottage empire (which now includes a cooking school, a restaurant, much philanthropy, and a good amount of smart politicking about food standards), has turned his attention to "food integrity and the consumption of local, seasonal produce." For a man whose famed meat cookbook featured a much-ballyhooed amount of hyper-realistic gory butchery photography that made vegetarians everywhere squeal like pigs, the act of going almost vegetarian is surprising, to say the least. To say the most, Hugh has either found God and the glories of clean living (he's lost a ton of weight, cut his bizarre mop of middle-aged man curls into a proper trim, and actually looks healthy rather than peaked), or he's simply discovered that the veg trend sells. Maybe it's a little bit of both.

But however it comes, I'll take it, and hope that Americans can learn from our friends across the ocean that, to quote Yotam Ottolenghi, "meat should be a celebration; not everyday."

Praise the lard, but pass the peas.