“Half memoir, half travel, A Yank Back to England...is an absolutely wonderful book, not only about going home again but also about love and family and tradition and the passage of the years.” —Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic (Washington Post) To see the entire quote, click here.
In America, Thanksgiving focuses on family and turkey. In England, we didn’t have Thanksgiving; but in my family, all get-togethers focused on drinking. Just before emigrating to the States, I organized a farewell party. My mum and all her sisters, Vi, Flo, Mary, and May showed up armed with bottles of gin. Way past midnight, the five ladies were dead drunk—they sang and swayed their arms, laughed and cried, but they could not move. I made several phone calls and their sons, the cousins I had not seen in years, arrived, much later, to winkle their respective mothers out of my flat. Drinks parties in my extended family went on and on. Nobody ever left until the booze ran out. And, even then, one relative always had the bright idea of making tea and cheese sandwiches to ‘soak up’ the gin the old girls had consumed. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Mike, a Brit expat who spends most of the year in Thailand taking photos and blogging, sent us this charming photo of his hometown of Oxton, Nottinghamshire. If you're wondering what everyone's doing, they're trying to see whose little rubber duckie will make it to the finish line first. Mike says the biannual event has strict rules—no interfering with your duck!—and the course is 800 yards along the village brook, which includes a couple of bridges. You know we love to say "only in England," but a friend of ours recently entered a duckie in a similar event in... West Virginia. You can see Mike's great photos of Thailand at his photo blog. And many of you read my life-as-a-Yank interview on one of his other blogs, British Expats Directory. If you have a great photo of England, send it on (72 dpi please)! If we post it, we'll link back to you.
The Mermaid was replete with secret passageways, a hide-out for contraband and a meeting place for smugglers! According to the walking guide Frances had picked up at the hotel, as Rye’s importance as a seafaring port diminished, its importance as a smuggler’s haven increased. The notorious Hawkhurst Gang used to hang out at the Inn, no doubt sipping their illicit contraband while keeping a watchful eye out for revenue officers. However, the hostelry’s most famous smuggler was fictional, Thorndike’s Doctor Syn, the vicar of Dymchurch! Frances rolled her eyes as I again rambled on about all his yarns, many of which featured Rye’s Mermaid Inn. For me, those fictional memories were suddenly anchored in reality.
We posted this last winter, but several people have asked me recently about Cauliflower Cheese—and it's on our menu for Thanksgiving—so we thought we'd post the recipe again. This is a classic English staple and when it’s done well, it’s a wonderful thing. Sadly the reputation for this dish has waned over the years and been relegated to the realm of ghastly pub food, made en masse for the lunch crowd because it keeps its heat, like shepherd’s pie with its layer of crisped mash. Even now, this maligned dish is usually found rubbing shoulders with a tray of baked beans and bangers, all held under the ubiquitous glass coffin atop near the beer pumps. And so after an hour or so, the cheese sauce turns into a rubberized cap, the kind a grandmother would swim in. This of course does nothing for the taste but it does act as a heat-sealant. This is a culinary tragedy. Done right, Cauliflower Cheese is a truly wonderful dish, good enough to be savored alone. But when it accompanies a prime rib roast...you are in God’s own country. Here’s how to turn a travesty into a culinary triumph. Cauliflower Cheese, prodigal-style Break up the cauliflower into florets, chop up bits of stalks if you are feeling virtuous, frugal, or both. Steam until crisp-tender, or cover and microwave for about 5 minutes. (If you use the microwave and value your fingers, leave the florets alone in the microwave for a few minutes to calm down. Anyway, you'll be kept busy making the sauce. ) Put 4 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour in a small saucepan; melt butter with the flour, whisk until no white bits remain. Take saucepan off the fire and let the flour cook off the heat. Add a little salt, a good pinch of nutmeg, and a 1/2 teaspoon of Coleman’s powder mustard (or a couple of shakes of powdered white pepper). Throw in a bay leaf if you must; I never do, I find bay leaves overrated. By now it should be safe to remove the cauliflower from the microwave, which you will use to warm up two cups of milk, either fat-free or whole if you are feeling naughty. Mind you, if you’re feeling particularly decadent (and I know there are one or two of you out there) add a little cream. Now put the saucepan back on the fire, whisk in the warmed milk, keep whisking for a minute or two until the concoction thickens. You have now made a Béchamel sauce. Congratulations. I don’t tell Frances but I now add a dollop of cream cheese, about a large tablespoonful, for extra enrichment and flavor. To your creamy cheese sauce add a large teaspoon of Dijon style mustard and a shot of Worcestershire sauce. (And by the way, this is pronounced Wooster Sauce. Wooster as in Bertie Wooster. No shire. No cester. Just Wooster.) Whisk your sauce again then set aside. Butter a large glass dish and turf in the cauliflower florets and edible stalk bits. If you have a 1/4 cup of cauliflower water residing aimlessly in the bottom of your glass dish or steam pot, add it to your sauce. I now sprinkle a generous amount of grated Swiss cheese over the florets, but you could use any grated mousetrap you happen to have kicking around. Then enrobe the cauliflower with your lovely sauce. The experts pour, but I prefer to spoon it on gently, making sure the sauce covers the cauliflower evenly. Now put the dish in the fridge for 24 hours to rest. No, no, I’m only kidding! But you do need to top the dish with parmesan cheese before going any further. For additional flavor and crunch I also add fresh breadcrumbs toasted in butter--it’s worth the extra step. Now you’re almost there. Mix a couple of tablespoons of the crumbs with an equal amount of Parmesan cheese and sprinkle this mixture over the sauced cauliflower. Pop the dish into a 350 F oven for 1/2 hour or so, uncovered. When the sauce bubbles and the top is a gold, mahogany brown ––et voila! Do let your cauliflower cheese repose for a few minutes before serving. This wonderful dish can be prepared ahead, and kept covered in the fridge for hours even overnight. Just don’t sprinkle the crumb mixture until you’re ready to bake. And no, it really doesn’t need any additional salt, the cheese takes care of that. And you can adjust the pepper and dry mustard to your taste. But do use the Worcestershire Sauce, especially now you know how to pronounce it. Enjoy!
After some initial misgivings, I was talked into doing a little video for Youtube (sneaky Prodigal Wife said it was "practice" for a reading!)... and here it is! Let me know what you think, but please be gentle...the grease paint is barely off my training wheels! (PS: If you find it amusing, please rate it/favorite it and pass it along...if you all like it, I'll do some more.)
In the better-late-than-never category, here is a spectacular photo of the Lewes Bonfires sent to us by our friend Gareth at What England Means to Me (some of you may have read the essay I submitted to this site). The bonfires at Lewes are quite famous and probably the largest in England, and I believe they combine several commemorations into one explosive sight. Have a great photo of England? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Momentarily confused, our waitress quickly regained her composure. I told her to lead the way and together we managed to get Kate and her stroller downstairs without waking her. We sipped wine and ordered lunch in a surprisingly airy cellar restaurant, blissfully devoid of cigarette smoke. We had half an hour to go before we had to pry my parents out of the pub. Time to be alone and relax. Kate woke up, a bit groggy, but after a change and a bottle, she obligingly went back to sleep while we ate and finished our own bottle.
Standing, from L to R: Lew (Dad), Frances (Prodigal Wife), Denis (The Prodigal Tourist), and Jessie (Mum). Floating: Kate (Prodigal Daughter).
About this blog
You are reading random vignettes, deleted scenes, and other extras from and about my book, A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns. Enjoy, let me know what you think, ask questions, and thanks for your support! Cheers, The Prodigal Tourist
Years ago I shed my Cockney accent and left London's blighted East End for America. Since then, I’ve only returned to see my increasingly cantankerous parents and assorted relatives. Until my American wife comes along. She wants to tour, see the sights. No thank you. It’s not for me. But she insists, and I become a reluctant tourist in my former homeland.