As American as Chipolatas and Grits

A post about Thanksgiving, grits, condos, cooties, enchiladas, and other things that my British neighbors don’t quite get.

A Thanksgiving display on the top of a small cupboard in my dining room, which must have been a bad place for it, as not a single person remarked on it. That's a full-sized pumpkin, by the way, not a miniature; don't be misled by the size of the grapes--they were the largest grapes I've ever seen!

On my first Thanksgiving in the UK, I came across a couple of British TV personalities making small-talk on the box (US: on the tube) about the unfamiliar holiday.  When one asked what a Thanksgiving dinner is like, the other one said in a bored, everybody-knows-that tone, “Oh, it’s just like Christmas dinner.  They have a turkey with stuffing…roast potatoes…Brussels sprouts…chipolatas…”

Chipolatas?

I wrote about roast potatoes a couple of years ago, and Brussels sprouts are so canonically a part of a British Christmas dinner that I recently saw an ad for “whimsical” Christmas gifts that included a wreath made out of them.  (Further Googling revealed that lots of people will make and sell you a Brussels sprout wreath, so the one I saw wasn’t an anomaly, but part of a genre.)  But that was the first time I’d ever even heard of chipolatas, which turn out to be sausages.

Long, skinny link sausages, that is.  Sausages virtually always refers to links here; I don’t think I’ve ever seen sausage patties in the UK. British sausage links are generally a lot bigger, a lot more round than American sausage links; chipolatas are as thin as American sausage links but they’re two or three times the length.  In fact I think they look kind of creepy, long and pale, like a dead man’s fingers in a ghost story.

A tray of skinny chipolatas and fat sausages

Pointing out that TV presenter’s chipolata error doesn’t mean I’m out to make fun of the British for what they don’t know about the US.  There’s no reason foreigners should keep up with details of American life—although the English lady about 50 years old who wasn’t aware that US and Japanese troops fought each other in WWII (when the Pacific Theater came up in conversation, she said she hadn’t realized Hitler had ships over there; when I said the ships were Japanese, she was amazed) did shock me.  But for every Brit who’s that blind to the US war effort in the 1940s, there are probably 100 Americans today who couldn’t locate England on a map, so I’m loath to point fingers—even cold, dead, chipolata fingers—at her.

A lot of the cultural assumptions that turn out to be so wrong that they’re funny do seem to have to do with food.  I heard a British chef in a radio interview talk about the time she made dinner at the White House for Bill Clinton.  She said she knew he was from Arkansas, which is in the South, so she decided to give him traditional Southern food, but with her own signature garnishes and so on.  What was the main dish then?  Enchiladas.

Right. Growing up in Kentucky, the only enchiladas I ever saw (until I was 21 and moved to California) were in those cheap TV dinners that came in partitioned foil trays—muy exótico.  Then again, Kentucky is about twice as far from Mexico as Arkansas, Arkansas being a mere 600 miles from the border, about the distance from London to Milan, and you know how similar English cooking is to that of northern Italy.

My writing group is a good source for all kinds of slips because there’s nothing like a group of amateur writers to test a language to destruction.  An Englishman once asked about one of my fictional characters, “If she’s such a successful plastic surgeon, why does she have to live in a condo?”  I really wish I knew what he thought a condo might be, but I didn’t think to ask.

A plate of chipolatas ready for cooking? Or...

Another time, someone who’d run across the word in an American novel asked what cooties might be.  An English lady jumped in with “Oh, I know what cooties are!” and provided an elaborate explanation involving cutting up squares of paper and marking black dots on them.  I think she got this from Canadian relatives, and it sounds like Canadian cooties are very different from the cooties I grew up knowing (and avoiding).

But the best example from the writing group came in a scene populated with what its English author apparently thought to be typical Southern children, getting on with their typically American lives in the present day.  These kids, whose descriptions owed much, I think, to The Waltons, pranced barefoot down to the lake—a typical southern lake, with the typically southern name Lake Wisconsin—to go fishing, while singing hymns and occasionally shouting “Hallelujah!”  (I promise you I’m not making this up; I have witnesses.)

Things took a truly surreal turn, though, when little Solomon, ready to pull in a nice fat trout, baited his hook with grits.  Yep.  Grits.  (For UK readers, this would be something akin to saying you were baiting your hook with porridge and, unless you are Lewis Carroll, I’m guessing you’d be unlikely to say something that off the wall.)

And so we find ourselves back on the subject of food.

...or dead man's fingers?

Why the British have chipolatas at Christmas, when there’s already a big roast turkey, served with a stuffing that usually, in England, has pork sausage meat in it anyway, is a question.  A neighbor said that the chipolatas, wrapped in bacon, broiled (UK: grilled), and set all around the turkey on its platter, are really for the children, but no one else I’ve spoken with thinks that’s the case.  An older friend tells me that when she was a child, chipolatas weren’t the non-optional part of Christmas dinners they seem to be today.  That tradition, then, isn’t very old, although you’d have to look a while to find an ad showing a Christmas turkey being served on a chipolata-free platter.  The earliest she remembers them is the late 1940s, after the war.  (That would be the war with the Germans and the Japanese—and the Italians, for that matter.)

Having learned about chipolatas, do I serve them at Christmas?  No. I don’t see the point, really, despite our when-in-Rome philosophy.  The when-in-Rome approach means we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving unless we’ve got American visitors, so I’m off the hook for cooking a Thanksgiving feast most years (regardless of whether the hook has grits on it).

23 Comments

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23 responses to “As American as Chipolatas and Grits

  1. Malcolm

    Well! Until now I had never heard of chippolatas … no, chipolatas (see, I even had to check the spelling) for Christmas dinner. Even turkey, to me, is a late abomination–a combination of high-pressure salesmanship from Norfolk, England, and a drip-drip of schmalz from Hollywood, CA. Your ‘dead-man’s-fingers’ image is a mighty step in the right direction. Back in the forties and fifties the Christmas bird was either a goose (which yielded enough fat to salve your hands all winter and keep them chap-free) or a capon–a name I had to explain yesterday to our one-man family butcher, who then explained to me that they kill all male chicks at day-old sexing sessions, so there’s no chance of getting one, ever. How sad that no one will stagger from the Christmas board “in fair round belly with good capon lined” nor even know what Shakespeare was talking about.

    • I have read of capons, but never encountered one personally. The first Christmas in England, though, I did a goose. I cut off loose fat before parboiling (which my recipe recommended, to get rid of more fat), rendered it, and it was the most beautiful, creamy white stuff I’d ever seen. A sad comment on the modern world, I suppose, but it looked to me like some kind of manufactured face cream or something — when I assume really that manufactured face creams might have, when first created, tried to look as appealing as goose fat!

      As for natural hand creams, my mother-in-law found that knitting with undyed local wool kept her hands so soft she stopped using hand cream. And my husband once, after tasting various honeys at a farmer’s market, said that he didn’t think the one labelled “hand creamed” was very nice — and I pointed out that it was hand cream, and not meant to be eaten…

  2. Candida

    We still have goose, and have the fat for making perfect roast potatoes through the year, since we have hand cream in the modern age. The tiny amount of leftovers from a goose makes a fair imitation of crispy duck served with Chinese pancakes etc on Boxing Day. St Stephen’s Day. What do you call that over the water? And we no wrapped sausages. My eldest wants them – “Pig wrapped in pig, what could be better!” – but I can’t shake a feeling that they’re a bit trashy. But are they really only British? Was that pigs in blankets joke in Shrek put in only for the UK audience? That’s more consideration than I expect from Hollywood, which managed to put racoons in Suffolk in the remake of 101 Dalmatians.

    • Nobody said that Americans don’t wrap sausages in bacon, only that we don’t call skinny sausages chipolatas or consider them a usual part of Christmas. I have never personally eaten an American sausage wrapped in bacon, but I’m entirely willing to assume that other Americans do. What do we call them? No clue. Most likely “sausages wrapped in bacon”.

      I really like getting comments– all comments! Any comments!–but I think we’ve established a pattern here such that if I say “Living in the UK, I was surprised to find X” you will comment “Really? Don’t Americans do Y?” Probably this derives in most instances from me inadequately describing X, but c’mon — I said I’d never heard of chipolatas, much less eaten them for Thanksgiving, as the presenter suggested; I didn’t say Americans eschew the wrapping pork with pork. It sounds just the kind of thing some Americans stereotypically would do, although the only thing I’ve ever wrapped a sausage in is (American) biscuit dough, to be served as, I think, “pigs in blankets” (if I remember the name right from Girl Scout camping days).

      I also never made the candied yams for Thanksgiving with marshmallows until this year — trying to do an ultra-traditional Thanksgiving, using the “modern tradition”, if I can call it that. One time, years ago, I tried making a dish that a food historian said was like what the Mayflower pilgrims would have cooked, a sort of stew of turkey and pumpkin, with cream. Er, it’s not an experiment I’d care to repeat. Anyway, to do the canonical sweet potatoes/yams meant buying British marshmallows, which come in pink and white, at least at the stores around here, and so I had to pick out the pink ones. And the marshmallows didn’t brown, they just sort of smeared pale-ly across the dish. A difference in marshmallows? More likely pilot error — my own fault.

      • No, the marshmallows here are totally different than American ones!

        What I’ve seen as ‘pigs in blankets’ is mini hot dogs in biscuit dough. Sausages were less popular in the States when I was growing up, just like hot dogs aren’t a hit here (why would they be? They’re sold in jars or tins in the UK!)

    • Oops — didn’t answer re what Americans call Boxing Day/St Stephen’s Day. We call it “the day after Christmas”. Truly — no joke. It’s just…December 26th. Nothing particularly special.

  3. ..the fifty year old lady who had no idea that the US and Japan were once at war, reminds me of the Canadian youth who asked me how long it had taken me to drive from London to Toronto.

  4. MFC

    Absolutely delightful post, Mary Ellen!! I read it very early this morning while watching the sunrise. I laughed so hard, (particularly at the grits-for-fishbait scene), that I cried, and I was afraid I’d awaken my sleeping hubby. Thanks for getting my day off to a jolly start.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, though I can’t take the credit; I merely stand on the shoulders of the creative people who came up with their own versions of foreign stuff they didn’t really get. But if you liked it, please tell other people!

  5. Claire Taylor

    Hi Mary Ellen, I remember the cootie thing from when I was a kid in Seattle. It involved an origami folded paper that was plain when unfolded one way and had little bugs drawn on the other side. You showed your friend the plain side, then pinched them with it and showed the bug side. “You have cooties!” By the way, I think marshmallows on sweet potatoes are awful. Way too sweet. Salt, pepper, and butter are much better. As for condos, an American who owns one in Paris was offended when I characterised his “pied-a-terre” that way. Claire

    • We didn’t do the origami thing for cooties, but if we’re talking about the same origami thing, we did various sort of…well, I’m not sure what to call the game we used it for. You labelled the various facets of the origami thing numbers, and had your victi–er, friend, pick a number, then you folded the origami thing this way and that way (the same two ways, alternating), as many times as the number they chose, which revealed a new number, and they chose again, and did the fold-refold thing again, and finally unfolded the point of the thing that you landed on to reveal a fortune, or the name of a boy that you supposedly “liked” (UK: fancied).

      Does that sound like the kind of origami you were talking about?

      In our schoolyard (and the schoolyard of a friend here who was raised in Marin County CA) cooties were entirely virtual, and it was all a (pretty toxic) social shaming game, with a sort of tag-you’re-it aspect, in that if somebody who “had cooties” touched you, you had them, too. I never realized that, as I’ve since been told, this derived from outbreaks of lice. Nobody I ever knew at school had lice, but I understand lice are very much on the rise now in schools in the UK and the US. Wonder why…?

    • Come to think of it, there was a variation in which the facets of the folded paper thing were labelled with the names of colors, and when the other person picked a color, you did the alternating-fold business as many times as there were letters in the word, so you called out the letters and with each letter, you changed the orientation of the paper device.

      Is any of this making sense? Perhaps not…

      • Claire Taylor

        I makes sense to me, but our games weren’t so elaborate, only the cootie thing. I do remember some great creepie-crawly art work of tiny spiders, beetles, and centipedes. No one we knew had lice, so we had no idea what they looked like.

      • Sharon Minsuk

        Cootie catchers! I actually didn’t know the name until looking it up just now. And never knew about the lice/dots thing. (Lovely, another way for kids to torture each other!) We used them for fortune-telling. Interesting history!… http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/786718.html

      • Really interesting, everybody! Sharon, thanks for the link. We never used those things in regard to cooties, but for fortunes and such, as you said.

  6. I love your blog Mary Ellen. Unfailingly entertaining! Someday, I’d love to spend part of my year in England but until then, I have you.

    I never knew what Chipolatas were never mind that they go around a turkey. But yes, we Canadians know what a cootie catcher is. And yes, we used them for fortune telling not for catching head lice!

    Oh, and Dec 26th is Boxing day in Canada (and a statutory holiday). As for the origin of the term Boxing day, filling alms boxes or boxing up the presents/ornaments is usually the explanation given. A visiting or relaxing day is what is used for now!
    Cheers!

    • Thank you, Jenny — very kind words. Come on over and visit!

      (Oh, and I shouldn’t leave the impression, if I did, that chipolatas are just for Christmas here — you can get them all year round, just like you can get a turkey anytime, if you feel like it, but it’s still the done thing at Christmas.)

  7. benbisley

    What an interesting thread.

    Chipolatas get everywhere.

    I was writing to a friend about a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I’d seen; having finished the letter I did a spell-check. The lead Athenian lady is named Hippolyta. The spell-checker didn’t like that and suggested “chipolata” instead.

    • Interesting! I just tried it (to confirm that it happens when set for US English, since I don’t know where you are) and it does — weird. Must use the same dictionary for both, but different spelling rules.

      Now if I could just figure out why my MSWord flips suddenly from US to UK English sometimes for no obviously reason…

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