Sunday, October 3, 2010

Who you are is what you eat

In Britain people can have different names for certain meals, depending on their social background. It's just another example of our strange eccentricities.

Random Idea English investigates, and reminisces ...


One of the less savoury aspects of Britain is its class system. And although it is not nearly as bad as a couple of generations ago, it is still very much with us. Of the current Cabinet, most went to Oxbridge, and more than half are the products of private schools, which educate a mere 7% of the nation’s children. The two leaders of the coalition, David Cameron and Clegg, are undeniably posh, having been educated at Eton and Westminster schools respectively. By a quirk of fate incidentally, the poshest private schools in Britain are known as Public Schools.  What in every other country are called public schools, in Britain we call state schools.  See article here.

This video, usually referred to as the Class Sketch, sums it up nicely. Before you watch it, make sure you know the meaning of the following (just mouse over them to see):

the phrasal verbs - look up to and look down on
the expression -  innate breeding
and the words - vulgar, industrious, trustworthy




The class system, however, is much more nuanced than this simple threesome. In one episode of the popular comedy series ‘Keeping up appearances’, Hyacinth Bouquet, says to her husband - ‘I hope you’re not going to spoil things with lower-middle-class humour.’ To understand fully it helps to be aware of these nuances.

These two comedies also show how important class is in a lot of British humour, which often satirises it or gently pokes fun at it. Of which this is perhaps the most famous example. Twit is another word for stupid idiot.



You can find a more up to date version, from the Catherine Tate show here. The song in her video, by the way, is Jerusalem, which could well be the subject of a later post.

And we give away our class in the way we talk, for accent in Britain is vertical as well as horizontal, class based as well as geographically based. We give it away in the way we dress, the words we use when we are ‘caught short’, and even how we hold a knife at table.

When I was young I wasn’t for example allowed to use the word ‘toilet’, which was thought to be ‘common’. We had to say ‘lavatory’ instead. And a direct ‘What?’ was thought better than ‘Pardon?’ for the same reasons. There was a strange theory that the upper and lower ends of the social scale shared the habit of ‘calling a spade a spade’ whereas the lower middle class (the French expression petit bourgeois is perhaps a nicer description) were more coy about these things and preferred to use euphemisms. Although as toilet once meant the act of dressing and lavatory was once a place for washing, I’ve no idea why one was considered more euphemistic than the other.

I freely admit to being a right little snob when I was young, but I hope it got knocked out of me when I went to college, where we ‘public-schoolboys’ were vastly outnumbered by normal people, and later when I studied history (E.P.Thomson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ is one of the all-time great history books). But I still have problems with the knife thing.

We used to use the terms ‘U’ for those words which were thought to be socially acceptable, and and ‘non-U’ for those that weren’t. I now discover that this ‘U’ stood for Upper class, but at the time I always thought it was ‘people like Us’. The terms were coined by Alan S.C. Ross, a linguist, but quickly made famous by the writer Nancy Mitford, and were gospel in my social milieu. And not only for language, but dress and behaviour as well. For example the Gannex raincoat worn by Harold Wilson, prime minister in the sixties and seventies, was considered ‘frightfully non-U’, even if the Queen's corgis did wear them. (frightfully was a very U word).

There’s a very good article on the subject with a list of relevant words and their equivalents at Wikipedia.

But what has all this to do with the names of meals, you are probably asking.

Well, in the morning we are quite classless, we all have breakfast. Then mid-morning some of us, especially children, have elevenses, a light snack, which as far as I know has no class connotations. But after that it gets messy.

It is generally agreed that dinner is the main meal of the day, but when do you have your main meal. Traditionally, and especially for people whose job involved physical labour, this was in the middle of the day. Nowadays however, for many people dinner is an evening meal, and in the middle of the day we eat lunch. But many people from a working class background, especially in the north of England and Scotland, still refer to their midday meal as dinner. In the evening they have tea, or supper.

Supper usually refers to an evening meal, although less formal than dinner. So for me my normal evening meal is supper, but if I had guests round and put on a bit of a show, it would be dinner. Likewise, when I go out to a restaurant in the evening, that is dinner.

Tea as a meal is a bit complicated. Now everyone in Poland and as far as I remember, France, thinks we all have tea at 5 o’clock. But in fact there are two types of tea.

Afternoon tea is a light snack at around 4 o’clock or 4.30, and is quintessentially British, deeply woven into our culture. Everyone knows the phrase - And is there still honey for tea? - even if they don’t know where it comes from (the poet Rupert Brooke). And of course there’s the Mad Hatters Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland. You can see it here. Afternoon tea typically includes cold sandwiches in little triangles of bread, stereotypically cucumber or egg and cress, as well as biscuits followed by small cakes. And all of course washed down by tea. Real tea from a tea pot. Not those nasty little bag things which belong with butter portions! As I said, it's a light snack.

Then there’s high tea, which usually consists of a cooked dish, followed by biscuits etc., and is eaten a bit later, more like 6 o’clock. So where the 5 o’clock thing comes in, I don’t know.

Time for a little digression. Once when I was travelling in the Highlands of Scotland, I stopped at a hotel for afternoon tea. Scottish hotels used to be renowned for their afternoon teas, but this one was a distinctly sad looking affair with tired-looking cakes and biscuits in their wrappers. Now I have this strange habit of objecting to paying for something I have to unwrap. I absolutely detest butter portions! Why should I pay to get my fingers greasy? Anyway I asked if I could have hot buttered toast instead. “I’m sorry Sir, we don’t have the equipment”, was the answer. Equipment? For toast?

A week later, with this experience still fresh in my mind, I stopped mid-afternoon for tea at a small café attached to a museum. Everything on the menu was more like high tea, and I didn’t particularly feel like a cooked dish at that time of day. Then I spotted the single uncooked item, ‘Fresh scones’, which I duly ordered, without a lot of hope. But what a surprise I was to get, for what arrived is forever etched in my memory as one of the best meals I have ever eaten. A plate came piled high with scones hot out of the oven, with a small bowl filled with butter (no nasty portions here!), and a pot of home made jam. People are (sometimes rightly) rude about British food, but like the language, when we do it simply, it can be superb.

A scone is somewhere between bread and a cake. Technically it is known as quick-bread as it is made with baking powder rather than yeast. Scones can sometimes be a little boring, but fresh from the oven and served with butter and (optionally) jam, they are simply delicious. Especially treacle scones, made with a type of molasses.

I was wondering if afternoon tea was more of a middle-class thing, but I remember working on a small croft farm, where we would come up to the house at about four every day for a snack. The farmer’s wife would serve freshly baked scones from the Aga stove, the best piece of baking equipment in the world, although apparently also a major contributor to global warming. It was bliss, but I can’t remember whether we called it tea or not.

To cut what’s becoming a very long story short, I once lived for about a year as a lodger with a lovely couple who were staunchly working class. Well the first night we had tea at around six, much as I had expected. But at around 10pm I was somewhat taken aback when they asked me what I wanted for supper. Now we weren’t in Spain, we were just about to go to bed. This was when I discovered that in some areas supper is a light snack taken before going to bed, usually accompanied by a hot milky drink such as cocoa, Ovaltine or Horlicks.

Just when I thought I knew all the variations.

Wikipedia is excellent on this subject. For more information on meal names start here and then you can get more details at the various separate entries. By the way check out the Ovaltine ads on YouTube and see if you can spot the spoofs from the real thing.

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