Category Archives: Food

An English Christmas 3 (Revisited) : Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

This post, part of the sequence that first ran in the Christmas season of 2010, should have been gone live yesterday, but my hosting duties got in the way of my posting duties.  Hope you’ll enjoy the original post and updates in any case.

Don’t want to make your own? posts this photo with a suggestion that you buy your pudding from Fortnum & Mason.

It’s Christmas day as I write this so, since I’ve told you about Christmas cake and mince pies, there’s just time to tell you about Christmas pudding before the holiday is over, and I’ll have covered the Big Three.

Christmas pudding is traditionally a steamed concoction of dried fruits and suet held together with a minimal amount of breadcrumbs or flour. It’s also called plum pudding, but doesn’t have plums and probably never did; the name comes from the prunes that it used to have and that some recipes still call for.

Update: But as I learned from a guest at Christmas dinner yesterday, at one time raisins could be called plums.  In fact, any fruit that in any way resembled a plum could be called one; the Oxford English Dictionary features a quote from the 18th century in which somebody refers to a “great Plum” that “is called Mango”.  Hmmm.

Some recipes use a lot of dried figs; puddings like today’s Christmas pudding probably inspired the “bring us a figgy pudding” line in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.

And Christmas puddings are soaked with spirits—as is pretty much everything in the United Kingdom at Christmastime, including the inhabitants.

There are some pleasant traditions associated with Christmas pudding. For starters, for at least the last 150 years there’s been a tradition that everyone in the household should take a turn stirring the pudding, and the longer you stir, the more good luck you’ll have in the next year. Clearly some sly cook 150 years ago came up with this as a labour-saving idea.

In another tradition, the cook adds coins or other inedible prizes to the pudding, and each diner has a chance of finding one—if not breaking a tooth on it. Christmas puddings are best eaten carefully.

Originally the prizes were coins, and if you found one in your portion, you got to keep it. Nowadays it’s more likely that the cook will stir in symbolic objects, little trinkets about the size of charms on a charm bracelet, though the symbolism varies from family to family. For some, a tiny horseshoe means good luck, or a tiny anchor means you’ll find a safe harbour (which could be interpreted as a new home, a new job, or anything else you like).

Here again, I’m lucky enough to have heirlooms handed down from my mother-in-law. In our Christmas puddings, you might find a silver sixpence, a button, a thimble, or a ring said to be a grandmother’s wedding ring, though if it was, the grandmother must have had truly tiny hands. The coin predicts wealth in the new year, the button says you’ll get new clothes, the thimble means plenty of work, and the ring stands for love. (You can keep the luck, but you have to give the prizes themselves back. In the first place, they don’t make silver sixpences anymore.)

We had our Christmas pudding earlier today—flaming Christmas pudding at that. You pour warmed brandy over the pudding and put a match to it. If you dim the lights before dessert, it looks pretty impressive, with blue flames flickering all over and around the dark pudding. And in case there isn’t enough liquor involved in the making of the pudding or the flaming of the pudding, you serve it with a hard sauce made of butter, sugar and brandy, that melts over the hot pudding.

I was asked for fruitcake recipes after the Christmas cake article, so I’ve put recipes for Christmas cake and for Christmas pudding in the Featured Link section (right hand side of the screen). My favorite Christmas pudding comes from a chef called Nigel Slater; his is the only one I’ve seen that calls for dried apricots. The first time I made it, I didn’t have all the dried fruits it called for, so I substituted more apricots for anything I didn’t have, the result was fabulous, and now I add extra apricots on purpose.

Of course, you’re supposed to make the pudding ahead—in earlier times, some people made the pudding at New Year’s and kept it to eat at the following Christmas. For those who don’t have time for such things, or confidence that a pudding made 12 months ago is still edible, there are plenty of Christmas puddings in the supermarkets, most of them in microwaveable bowls so there’s no steaming.

Or you could order Christmas pudding at High Timber, a restaurant in London that serves the dish, but only to diners who sign a legal waiver. They’re afraid you’ll sue if you chip a tooth, or swallow one of the charms. A serving isn’t cheap, either, at £7, but that’s because you get to keep the charms—and they come from Tiffany’s.

Merry Christmas!



Filed under Culture, Current events, Food, History

An English Christmas 2 (Revisited): Mince Pies In Royal David’s City

Happy Christmas! Or if you’re American, Merry Christmas! This post first ran on Christmas Even 2010, but the ritual is the same…

When I lived in the US, Christmas always seemed to start just after Thanksgiving. Sure, there were Christmas displays up in some stores before that, but only to give people something to grumble about. We knew that it wasn’t open season on Christmas until Santa Claus showed up at the end of Macy’s parade.

Here in the UK there’s no national celebration in late November, so there’s no natural or definitive start to the Christmas season; it just creeps up on you. But there is, for many people, an accepted starting point for Christmas itself: at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve when BBC radio broadcasts the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College in Cambridge. (I’ve put a link to it on the right-hand side of this page under Featured Links; the BBC will leave the recording there for people to listen to only for the next seven days, so if you’re interested, don’t wait.)

I listen every year, maybe because singing in a choir is the closest I ever got to playing a team sport, I still love the sound and remember what it feels like to perform, and I don’t have that many opportunities during the rest of the year to hear a really good choir. They usually do some of the medieval carols that I love anyway, but that are especially satisfying when sung in a medieval mini-cathedral like this “chapel”, built over a hundred years from the middle of the 15th century to the middle of the 16th. Why start Christmas at King’s? It’s traditional. But if you need more of a reason, you might be interested to find that King’s College is officially named “The King’s College of Our Lady and St Nicholas in Cambridge”, so there’s a pretty good connection to Christmas built in.

Some of the carols everybody knows here have the same words that Americans sing, but set to different tunes, and the British also have lots of Christmas carols I never heard until I moved here. Did any American readers out there grow up singing “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree”? One of these new-to-me carols, “Once In Royal David’s City”, sung by one choirboy alone, always starts the service. As I understand it, two or three choirboys have practiced the part, but no one knows who will do the solo until everyone is in place, the director raises his hands, and finally indicates who is to sing. That, I’m told, is supposed to stop them from being so nervous.

Right. If I were one of them, the suspense would crank me up to peaks of anxiety I can scarcely imagine. It gives me palpitations just to think about it.

They also include modern carols, some of them commissioned for this Festival, either this year or in previous years; maybe these will grow on me, but they seem dark and muddy. Okay, the words may sound silly, but give me “Ding Dong Merrily On High” any time. Some of the modern compositions seem to have been stripped of any scrap of the joy and goodwill that make some of the traditional songs such a treat.

And speaking of treats—I was in the kitchen making my mince pies while I listened. That’s the second of the three English Christmas desserts. The British serve these little tarts with brandy butter, but that’s going too far for me; I want to taste the joy and goodwill of the brandy and orange zest, sharp and clear, and not muddy them up with cream.

So bring on Christmas. I’ve got the mince pies made and I’ve heard the little boy start the carols; I’m ready.


Filed under Culture, Current events, Food

An English Christmas (Revisited): Part 1

Most current subscribers and readers have been following my Anglo-American Experience for less than a couple of years, so I’m taking the liberty of reposting, this year, a series of Christmas posts from 2010.  I’m not updating it, although there’s no snow this year, which might be a shame; then again there’s no probablem with BT’s phone lines this year, which is a definite plus.  In any case, I hope you enjoy it, and I wish you a happy mid-winter festival, whichever one you may celebrate.

It snowed last week and for a while the world outside my window looked like a Christmas card—well, that is, if your Christmas card picture of snowy English countryside includes a British Telecom engineer up on a telephone pole.

Americans often romanticize England—no BT engineers allowed—and almost everybody romanticizes Christmas. So what is a modern Christmas actually like in our part of England? I’m going to have to take that question a little bit at a time, and I’ve left it rather late. I’ll start with food—in fact, I’ll start with just one dish.

The three wise men on a Christmas cake.

There are three traditional desserts at Christmas. It’s not that people choose one of the three; they generally offer them all. Many Americans will have heard of the most important one, Christmas pudding (also called plum pudding), even if they’ve never tasted it. The majority of English people would think a Christmas dinner that didn’t end with Christmas pudding was incomplete. Then there are mince pies the size of small tarts, which are more informal and are served not just on Christmas day but throughout the season to guests who drop by, or at teatime—or to guests who drop by at tea time. But the one I hadn’t heard of before my first Yule in England is Christmas cake.

First, you have to realize that the English idea of fruitcake is very different from the American “let this cake pass from me” attitude. British readers may not be aware that fruitcakes are objects of derision in American popular culture, right up there with accordions. (I was living in Belgium when I first saw the Far Side cartoon in which those entering heaven are issued their harps, and those entering hell are issued their accordions. My Belgian colleagues didn’t understand why I thought that was funny—one of the guys even said “My mother plays the accordion”—so I didn’t try to explain.)

Everybody in the US has heard tales of fruitcakes that are never eaten, but that make the rounds from new giver to new recipient every Christmas for decades, Christmas being virtually the only time that Americans eat fruitcake. The British wouldn’t necessarily get the humour in that; on the whole, they like fruitcake. If you’re invited over for someone’s birthday the cake will probably be a fruitcake, wedding cakes are traditionally fruitcakes, and no British summer picnic is complete without fruitcake.

An English Christmas cake is a fruitcake topped with a layer of marzipan, then royal icing, and finally decorations, which can be as simple as a ribbon tied around the cake, or very, very elaborate. You can coat holly leaves in egg whites and sprinkle with sugar to look like snow, you can buy special molds to make your own sugar Christmas bells, or you can have another glass of wine and put your feet up, having bought some Christmas cake decorations ready-made and thereby bought yourself some time.

My family\’s Christmas cake decorations.

Or better yet, if you’re really lucky, someone will give you heirloom Christmas cake decorations. The ones I use were passed down to me from my mother-in-law, who was given them by an English lady when their family lived in Sudan many years ago. Being an American, my mother-in-law hadn’t heard of British Christmas cakes and didn’t realize that’s what the decorations were for, so for decades she set them up as a little Christmas scene on the sideboard. When I encountered English Christmas cakes, we realized what we had, and now I decorate our cakes with those little old-fashioned figures made of plaster, wood, and some kind of bristles (for the evergreen branches): two snowy trees, a cottage, a cockeyed snowman every bit as big as the cottage, and a tiny church over which the little Father Christmas looms like Godzilla.

I made my Christmas cake this year ridiculously late, barely more than two weeks before Christmas. You’re supposed to start about Hallowe’en. You wrap up the cake in grease-proof paper, which is something like American waxed paper, and then foil, and then shut it into a cake tin, which you open every week or so to dose the cake with liquor, which is called feeding the cake.

You’re supposed to feed the cake by trickling a teaspoon of brandy into it, but I was way behind schedule and the bottle had only about half a cup left in it, so I just gave the cake the best feeding a cake ever had and emptied the bottle. A little more never hurt, surely. In fact, I think the problem with American fruitcakes is that they don’t put enough booze into them.

Elaborate Christmas cake decorations to buy from I’ve never seen a purple Christmas cake, though.

Pretty soon it’ll be time for me to take the cake out of the tin, cover it with the marzipan, and mix up the dreadful icing which, while inedible, does cover a multitude of ills. I read about a lady whose cake came out dramatically lopsided, but she went right ahead and iced it, and decorated it with little figures of skiers, plunging down the slope. Now that’s panache.

So the icing blankets the cake in something like the way the snow blankets the landscape, and that’s a sort of romanticizing, too. The snow covers, or at least masks, all the imperfections—including the blue bathtub that the farmer across the road has in the field as a horse trough—leaving the viewer to imagine that an English Christmas is just like the ones on the Christmas cards or in the storybooks.

It’s starting to melt, but I’m hoping it’ll hang on. It’s only two days until Christmas.


Filed under Culture, Current events, Food

Thanksgiving Turkey and Pumpkin Pie: American Cultural Imperialism?

I hope American readers had a great Thanksgiving celebration yesterday; over here, it was a regular workday, of course, like any other.  It’s not part of British tradition to go “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” for a turkey dinner.  Nor do they shout “Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!”—okay, Americans don’t either, except in the over-the-river-and-through-the-woods song, but pumpkin pie is almost unknown here.  Happily for me, that’s changing. It’s getting easier to find Libby’s canned pumpkin nowadays, although it’s only available seasonally, and you have to find a store with a section of American imports, but when I first moved to Britain, I couldn’t get pumpkin at all.  And what’s Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie?  I think that’s more important than the turkey.

A wild turkey does his courtship display on the grounds of Ash Canyon B and B, which my friend Mary Jo Ballator manages as a wildlife and bird sanctuary. This species is the Gould Turkey, which is common in the Huachuca Mountains of SE Arizona. Photo courtesy of Ash Canyon B&B —

My November column for the Guildford Dragon NEWS was about Thanksgiving and turkeys, as it happens, and featured one British person who does seem to ‘get’ Thanksgiving: Surrey turkey farmer Derek Joy.  His big market is Christmas, because that’s when the British traditionally eat turkey, but he told me he sells a lot more Thanksgiving turkeys than you might suppose—about a third as many as he sells for Christmas.

I’m learning, in writing columns for the Dragon NEWS, how different it is to write for a primarily British audience rather than a primarily American one.  I recycled an anecdote  from last Thanksgiving’s blog post  for the opening of that NEWS column, and had to make some interesting changes.  For American readers, I just reported a conversation between two “British TV personalities” about what Thanksgiving dinner is; for British readers I can say who the “personalities” were, which brings in all the overtones and implications of those personalities’, er…personalities.  British readers can be amused that it was Carol Vorderman who came out with wrong information, because she’s a game-show host and a sort of professional know-it-all (UK: know-all), whereas American readers would just say “Who?”  And British readers wouldn’t bat an eye to hear that Vorderman said that Americans eat chipolatas for Thanksgiving.  For all they know, it’s true; for Americans, that’s the punchline.  She thinks we serve turkey and chipolatas?  What the heck is a chipolata?

Another handsome turkey (or is it the same one? I can’t tell) poses for the benefit of potential mates. Photo courtesy of Ash Canyon B and B —

Most British people don’t really seem to understand Thanksgiving—and of course there’s no reason for them to keep up with the festivals of other countries—so I was surprised to learn from Derek Joy that British interest in Thanksgiving is growing (the Dragon NEWS column has a bit more info).  So far, celebrating Thanksgiving hasn’t caught on in Britain to the point that it sparks the kind of pushback there is against trick-or-treating, which is seen by a number of people here as a nasty habit being imposed on Britain by American imperialists bent on cultural domination.  Er, no.  Americans do not care one bit whether British kids go trick-or-treating.

I suppose if enough British people ever become interested in Thanksgiving, that could start to rankle, too.  As of the last census, there were about 160,000 American-born people living in the UK, out of a total population of over 62,000,000. So I think we’re safe for a while yet.

Of course, if there is a secret plan to take over UK culture, one American-imposed holiday at a time, Mr Joy might be part of the advance party, and those cans of Libby’s pumpkin might be the thin end of the dastardly Thanksgiving wedge.


Filed under Culture, Food

An Announcement, Enhanced with Autumn Colour

Looking across a vineyard toward the main building at Denbies in the summer; you could almost be in the Napa Valley (but it’s a little *too* green). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Please excuse me for delaying the promised post on the William Blake/Sir Hubert Parry song “Jerusalem” by posting this announcement instead: As of last week, I’m writing a column  for the Guildford Dragon NEWS, Guildford’s independent online news(not-actually-on)paper.

Vine leaves changing colour at Denbies.

I’ll be looking in those columns at the same sorts of things I write about here, except that I’ll focus on people, places and events in the Borough of Guildford, with Guildfordians as the target readers.

The publisher has seen fit to call the column “The Eagle Eye” (not my choice; feel free to suggest something better!), and we may soon have a logo, drawn to resemble a pub sign.  The Guildford Dragon is interested in pubs—but who isn’t? I’ll probably write a certain amount about local pubs, though at the rate they’re closing I’d better hurry.  (There are none left in the village where I live, three having closed since we moved here–not that I’m implying causality there, you understand.)

More vineyards at Denbies. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The first column went up last week, though readers here might recognize most of that offering as one I made earlier (as the chefs on telly/TV say); it’s a reprise of my article on the civic procession for the service for the mayor after last May’s Mayor Making.  (Bet you can’t say that three times fast.)

After this, there should be a new Eagle Eye column appearing in the third week of every month.

More Fal–er, Autumn colour at Denbies

Now, the one rule of blogging is Don’t Be Boring, so in an effort to give you something more interesting for your time spent here today, I’ve added some photos of Denbies,  a winery in the eastern part of Surrey.  Vineyards in Britain?  Absolutely!  The first ones were planted by the Romans.  Look for a post on the Denbies winery, probably in the new year.

Main building at Denbies Wine Estate. The light-coloured tower is above the main entrance, but the wing in the foreground, painted black, houses the Surrey Performing Arts Library, which was the reason for my trip.

The winery building houses, for reasons unclear to me, the Surrey Performing Arts Library, a branch of the public library, and I was there to do research on the composer of “Jerusalem”.  With the vine leaves turning colour on a sunny autumn (Brits don’t call it “fall”) day, it was glorious; you see, I hope, the sacrifices I make to research these posts.


Filed under Food, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

Isaac Newton and the Paralympic Apples

Apple dancers at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics

Olympic sports have continued here; the Paralympics don’t end until tonight. British viewers saw the full Paralympic opening ceremony, and we’ve had 4 channels showing events live all day long. I gather that in the US, NBC showed only about 5 hours of the Paralympic action, total—hard to believe.

A performer enters, riding in her wheelchair on a gigantic apple, which sits on a book. Books made up another theme of the ceremony, representing, among other works, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Newton’s Principia Mathematica

The Paralympics’ opening ceremony, like the Olympic ceremony, tackled a revolution, in this case the scientific revolution. The connection between Newton’s apple—represented in many forms, including the real apples given to each spectator on arrival—and the Paralympics might not be obvious, though when you watch some of the people who run on those remarkable blades instead of feet, it’s clear that science and technology underpin some events. But I’d guess that the choice of theme had much to do with the contemporary world’s most famous disabled person being British and a scientist: Stephen Hawking, who narrated the production.

Professor Hawking, looking very small on the main set in the enormous arena

The UK can’t actually claim that the scientific revolution began here—can’t leave out Copernicus for starters, and he was Polish—but I guarantee you that a good proportion of the population finds that the phrase “scientific revolution” brings to mind that apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head 100 years after Copernicus. Newton wasn’t actually conked on the head, but there was an apple tree, he did watch an apple fall and, watching it, wondered why apples always fall down and never out to the side or something, a bit of daydreaming that led to the universal law of gravitation. Descendants of Newton’s apple tree still grow in the same orchard at his home in Lincolnshire, which I visited just a couple of days before those apple-wielding performers (see illustrations) appeared on my TV/telly, so I’m using that as an excuse to write about Newton in the middle of my streak of Olympic-ceremony posts.

A 430-voice chorus sings Principia , a violently discordant piece by composer Errollyn Wallen inspired by Newton’s work

Isaac Newton was born prematurely at Woolsthorpe Manor on Christmas Day 1642, so small that the nurse said he could fit into a quart jug (in the US we’d have said pitcher; Brits think pitcher is as quaint and old-fashioned as Americans think jug is). Servants sent out for supplies for the baby sat down and goofed off rather than hurry, as they didn’t expect him to be alive when they got back anyway.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, where Isaac Newton was born, grew up, and did some of his most famous work.

On the other hand, local superstition at the time held that it was lucky to be born on Christmas Day. It was also supposed to be lucky to be born after the death of your father, as odd as that sounds, and the baby’s father had died a few months before. When his mother, Hannah, remarried, she left three-year-old Isaac at Woolsthorpe Manor with his grandmother. Lots of books will tell you that this meant her new husband didn’t accept his step-son, but the National Trust (historic preservation group that maintains the house) says it’s more likely that Hannah shrewdly left her son in the Newton home to make sure no one questioned his right to inherit the place.

The farm at Woolsthorpe Manor

When he was older, his mother also demanded he do his familial duty and work on the farm—Woolsthorpe Manor sounds grand, but it was really just a glorified farmhouse. Had that worked out, he might have remained illiterate like his father, who never learned to write his own name. (There’s a grid of small cup-shaped gouges on a plaster wall at Woolsthorpe Manor that historians think is an inventory of livestock; presumably that was how you kept track if you couldn’t read or write.) But Newton’s mother found she could lead a scientific genius to the land, but she couldn’t make him cultivate it.

Newton, first scientist ever knighted, was granted a coat of arms; claiming descent from a certain baron, he was allowed to adopt that baron’s ancient symbol. The crossed bones are not uncommon on arms and don’t imply piracy; National Trust staff suggested they are sheep bones, as the family made its money in sheep.

In the end, she allowed him to go to school, and from school to Cambridge, where she expressed her feelings about his choice not to be a farmer by giving him so little money that he had to work as a servant for richer students. It doesn’t seem to have mattered much. The only thing that could keep him away from Cambridge was the plague, which closed the place down in 1665.

As far as is known, this is the apple tree from which Newton said he saw the apple fall, one of several in the orchard that lies just outside the front door at Woolsthorpe Manor. It’s certainly over 400 years old. The variety is Flower of Kent, and it’s a cooking apple.

So Newton went back to the farm and sat there by himself, totally revolutionizing science, later saying “I was in the prime of my age for invention”. He not only saw the apple fall and worked out his theory of gravitation, but developed the three Laws of Motion, invented calculus, worked out principles of mechanics and of planetary motion, and did famous experiments with light. His work always began with observation, and he was such an inveterate experimenter that, rather less famously, he stuck a blunt needle into his eye to see how pressing on his retina would alter his vision.

Performers pull giant apples into the stadium

A trip to Woolsthorpe Manor includes a chance to see the window that Newton covered, leaving only a small opening so that he could direct sunlight through a prism and break white light up into colours. Newton didn’t invent the prism; people knew them from way back. Ships used prisms to let light in below decks, for one thing, and Newton bought his prism at a country fair, maybe sold as toy for children. In any case, before Newton, people thought that prisms added colour to light, and that all colours were mixtures of dark and light, so that (I’m not making this up) one theorist said that red was produced by the purest white light with the least amount of dark mixed in (I know, I know) and black was pure darkness, but if there was just a little light mixed into the darkness, you got a sort of dull blue. Newton used a second prism to bend the light again, merging the colours to produce white light, which pretty much knocked the ol’ prisms-apply-colours theory off the table (and at least it didn’t require any of that needle-in-the-eye business).

A giant apple floats in.  Before Newton, people thought objects contained more or less of properties called gravity and levity, which made those objects heavy or light.  This, then, is an apple full of levity, I suppose.

Isaac Newton ended up the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, an extremely prestigious position. One of his professors had the job, but resigned so Newton could have it; he was that good. Three-hundred and ten years later, Stephen Hawking got the job*, which leads us back to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, in all its apple-y glory.

Apples floated in on wires. Performers rode in on gigantic apples, dragged in enormous apples on carts, tossed around beachball-sized apples, juggled apples. On cue, everyone in the stadium bit into their free apples for one thunderous communal crunch.

Apples everywhere…

And Professor Hawking told us via his synthetic voice that “There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being”. True, but some are less run-of-the-mill than others, and watching Paralympic athletes you can’t help but be majorly impressed. I’m going to miss the games. (I’ve already looked up a wheelchair basketball team near me and hope to go see them play.) But at the moment, I’m looking forward to tonight’s closing ceremony. Just in case there’s audience participation, I’ve got some apples standing by.

* Lucasian professors are required to retire at 67, so Professor Hawking left the Lucasian Chair in 2009, replaced by physicist Michael Green.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor are mine; others are screenshots from the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics


Filed under Arts, Culture, Food, History, Sports, Technology, Travel

Roadkill on the Information Highway

Screen shot of the promotional website described in this post, taken from the Daily Mail’s website. For  full story, see the Daily Mail link in the text just to the right of this image.

Kentucky made headlines in England a few weeks ago—while I was in Kentucky, as it happens.  I saw the story in the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader, but it made the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, too: the British public relations firm Gosh PR, hired to promote the state to potential tourists from Britain, created a website suggesting that the unusual number of dead animals and the wide variety of species you could see flattened on Kentucky roads was a big draw for visitors.  They recommended that tourists play “roadkill bingo” while driving along listening to the “jingle-jangle of the banjo” from bluegrass radio stations.   (Stereotype much?)

The website did suggest visiting bourbon distilleries, and the horse farms of the thoroughbred industry, but also invited tourists to come see “Hazzard County – home of Boss Hogg and the Duke boys”, with a photo of the actress who played Daisy in The Dukes of Hazzard; unfortunately Hazzard County is a) fictional, and b) supposed to be in Georgia.  Oops.  The contract with Gosh PR—which had garnered nearly 2/3 of a million Kentucky tax dollars over the years—was cancelled and the government official responsible resigned.

A postcard showing “Sanders Court and Cafe” in its prime; the caption on the reverse reads (take it as read that [sic] appears every time you think it should): “Sander’s Court / Corbin KY. / Asheville, N.C. / Harland Sanders, Owner – Mgr. / Offer complete accommodations with tile baths, (abundance of hot water), carpeted floors, “Perfect Sleeper” beds, air conditioned, steam heated, radio in every room, open all year, serving excellent food.”

Looking into the story a bit more, I was surprised to find various websites not only saying that Kentuckians like to dine on roadkill (with squirrel supposedly being “something of a delicacy”), but claims that the Kentucky stew known as burgoo is a “traditional” recipe for eating up any roadkill that you find—unlikely, since references to the dish go back to the 18th century and the car wasn’t invented until the 20th.  Burgoo in Kentucky was less a recipe than a name for a stew of whatever you had on hand; if you came back from hunting with two possums and a rabbit, then that’s what went into the pot, with you here meaning Daniel Boone or someone of the sort.

In any case, we didn’t eat roadkill or burgoo when I grew up in Kentucky, nor did we eat an inordinate amount of fried chicken, though of course that’s the first thing my English neighbors think when they hear I’m from Kentucky: “Oh, where the fried chicken comes from!”  So of course, on vacation/holiday recently, when I realized I was near Colonel Sanders’s original restaurant, I had to stop in and take some snapshots to post here for you.

At the Harland Sanders Museum and Cafe in Corbin KY, you can have your photo taken sitting on a bench with the Colonel, or at least, a sort of resin effigy of the Colonel, which I found…decidedly creepy, actually.

British people sometimes ask me whether Colonel Sanders was a real person, and I can assure them that he was; we used to see him at state fairs and such gatherings, but as he was a benevolent sort of character, who wore non-standard clothes in a particular color scheme as a sort of uniform and sported trademark facial hair, I can see how people might be tempted to lump him in with Santa Claus (or, in a quote I ran across on the internet, “Father Time or Uncle Sam”).

The real live Colonel started with a gas station, added a café, later still adding a motel and renaming the place the Sanders Court and Café, and prospered.  By 1937, he’d expanded the place to the point it could seat 142 customers, but he found that people stopping in for gas and a meal didn’t order the fried chicken dinner as often as they might, because it took too long to prepare and they wanted to get back out onto the road.  So he invented a technique for frying chicken in pressure cookers.  (That’s an idea that makes me cringe; I’m scared of pressure cookers at the best of times, and what’s worse than an exploding metal vessel full of steam? An exploding metal vessel full of boiling oil.)

The Museum includes recreations of the kitchen at the original Sanders Cafe.

But when President Eisenhower’s system of interstate highways reached Kentucky, the Colonel found his restaurant bypassed.  Cars and diners stopped coming.  At age 65, he sold the place to pay his debts, ended up broke, and with his first social security check hit the road to demonstrate to other restaurateurs how you could put together a tasty chicken dinner if you used his recipe, and do it fast if you used his method—and he’d show you how to make those chicken dinners if you promised to pay him a nickel every time you served one.

A bronze bust of the Colonel, made by his daughter. He didn’t ordinarily stay in one place long enough to sit for a likeness, but he was snowed in at the time and had no choice. From his expression, I’d say he was pretty peeved.

The rest is history—history you can see today if you visit the Harland Sanders Museum and Café.  It’s in Corbin, Kentucky, on the Whitley-Knox county line, rather than in London, Kentucky, in Laurel County—that’s another little detail that tripped up Gosh PR. Their website also suggested that tourists might go see the Kentucky Derby at Keeneland in Lexington; you can go to Keeneland for Derby Day if you like, but you’ll watch the race on a big screen, because the horses will be running at Churchill Downs in Louisville, as they always have.  Louisville, by the way, was important in the story of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to see how far west the North American continent actually extended, but Gosh PR, alas, referred readers to the expedition of Louis and Clark.

Gosh personnel could have nailed down a lot of those niggling details with just a quick look at Wikipedia; okay, it’s hardly an authoritative source, but it would have been better than nothing. To be fair, though, when the Kentucky tourism commissioner resigned he admitted that he had approved Gosh’s website, so he didn’t know any better, either. 

It would be nice to think that British people might visit Kentucky, if only because I might hear “Oh, where the chicken comes from!” less often if my neighbors knew more than one fact about Kentucky, but that may be expecting too much. England was the first country overseas to get a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, and there are an awful lot of them here. But while Colonel Sanders may still be a famous face, his popularity is slipping.  A 1976 poll apparently showed Colonel Sanders to be the second most-recognized celebrity in the world (after fellow-Kentuckian Muhammad Ali) but a survey in 2011 found that only 6 in 10 young adults recognized the Colonel, and over half of those surveyed thought he was a mascot only, not a real person.

Sounds like the KFC company needs a better PR firm.  D’you think Gosh would bid for the job?


Filed under Current events, Food, Travel