Many of my golfing friends are familiar with a story (often retold and always embellished) from our trip to Scotland last year when we stopped at a convenience store to grab a quick lunch between rounds. Partly due to the limited selections and partly in an irrational impulse to do the things of Rome (“when in Rome”), a couple of us settled on a “meat pie” for our sustenance – think of a McDonald’s apple pie where the filling has been replaced by something consisting of ground and seasoned pork or beef or both (and probably fine pieces of various organ meats).
Like Haggis,* meat pies are one of those things (like a root canal without Novocaine) [Did you know that Novocaine is a proper noun?], that you probably want to do only once. (To be fair to my friends in Oxford (and others in England), Haggis is more properly a dish from Scotland, eaten particularly on the poet Robert Burns birthday each year. And don’t let anyone in Scotland catch you saying – “English – Scottish; Scottish – English, what’s the difference?)
This story came back to me yesterday when I wandered around North Oxford looking for a Post Office. (In England, a Post Office is a place to purchase stamps, mail letters and packages, and wait in queues to do any of the foregoing). After looking up and down a street that indicated there was a post office somewhere nearby, I asked a passerby, who pointed me to a building, but upon arrival I found that the post office had been closed five years earlier and there were a line of eight or nine people waiting to purchase what appeared to be some of Oxford’s finest meat pies on display in this converted pattiserie.
As somewhat of an expert on meat pies after my encounter last year, I need to disclose that some of the more revered pies of this genre of fine food are “Cornish Pasties” – that’s “pasties,” not pastries. If you ask our British friends about these extraordinary culinary specimens they will explain to you how the pasties developed to feed the Cornwell and Welsh tin miners (and how Cornish Pasties are to be “shaped like a “D” and crimped on the side, not on the top” – very important), but not why one should eat them. I have the utmost respect for anyone who works that hard under those circumstances, but does that mean we have to eat them now?
So I headed down to City Centre to find the main Post Office it should have been no surprise that I passed the West Cornwell Pasty Co. shop on Cornmarket. Although it was lunch time, I was not tempted to stop by for a Cornish Pasty or other meat pie.
I took care of my errand and then looked for a place for lunch. Burger King,. McDonalds, and KFC are also present on the popular pedestrian Cornmarket Street. When in doubt, I know I can always have “Fish & Chips” at almost any pub. Not the most healthy, but I do like it and it’s always fun to try a different English ale. Fish & Chips is one of the most iconic of the British pub meals, but if you’re unfamiliar, its battered and deep-fried haddock or cod, served with fries and green peas. (If you’re lucky they will add some mint and mash the peas before serving them.) In the U.K., of course, “chips” are what Americans know as fries or French fries. So “chips” are actually fries – and if you want what Americans think of as “chips’ you need to order “crisps” — it all reminds me of a Steve Martin movie where he exclaims “Those French have a different word for everything”! I visited The Bear Inn – the oldest pub in Oxford dating to 1242 (older than any of the Oxford colleges) – and enjoyed my fish & chips in their outdoor garden on what was another glorious day. The weather has been so good, the Brits think the cicadas may make their first ever appearance in the U.K.
I headed back to my dorm and stopped by my room before heading off to class on world religion and globalization. As I glanced out my window down on the yard in the back, I was reminded that the British seem to have a different word for a lot of things as well – hence, my initial surprise, when the burser promised me a room on the second floor with a garden view – that what I got: a room overlooking the yard (“garden”) on the third floor (in the U.K. the first or ground floor is “Floor Zero”).
*According to Wikipedia:
Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach and simmered for approximately three hours. (Even Wikipedia felt a need to spare us the fact that when it “simmers” for three hours it is done so in goat’s milk.)