As I’m leaving very early today (i.e., the 6 a.m. train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, and then a ride to the airport), I decided to purchase some noms to consume along the way. In the Queens Street railway station in Glasgow, I found these comestibles in the Marks and Spencer shop where people buy food for the journey. These “2 Luxury Teacakes” cost me all of £1.05.
The label notes that “we enrich our moist teacakes with juicy sultanas, currants, & tangy citrus peel to give then a sweet indulgent fruitiness.”
Pondering the incipient noms, it struck me that almost no foods in the U.S. are labelled “luxury.” We don’t, for example, have “luxury cookies” or “luxury candies,” yet in Britain many foods have that label. I have seen, for example, luxury biscuits” (cookies), “luxury chocolates,” “luxury Christmas puddings,” “luxury jams,” and so on. There are even “luxury cheese and port hampers.”
The word “luxury” is ubiquitous in the UK, but not in the U.S. Why the difference? I don’t think it’s simply a matter of linguistic differences. Rather, I propose that it’s a vestigial remnant of the British class system, which once distinguished classes of people by their dress, their accents, and their manners. Those were the days of British “ladies” and “gentlemen”, of “toffs” and “swells.”
If you want to see what it was once like, read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London or The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell, of course, was slumming when he experienced the lower-class side of British life, but the class distinctions he portrays so clearly were real—and invidious.
My theory, then, which is mine, is that “luxury” is a holdover from those old days when the “lower classes” could pretend for a time that they were toffs— by buying fancy chocolates or other foods (usually “luxury” chocolates aren’t so fancy, though!), or having a holiday by the seaside. If you couldn’t go into a club, or had the wrong accent, you could still engage in a fancied form of upper-classness.
That at least, is my theory, which may well be wrong.
I do note that McVities, which makes the best biscuit in the world, the Dark Chocolate Digestive, also makes a Luxury Victoria Biscuit. Forget those, and indulge in the ones shown below, which I always do when visiting the UK (see many reviews here and here):
This is the world’s greatest biscuit.
And, of course, an ad:
The British make the finest “biscuits” in the world; I’ve written about them previously, and you can peruse the selection at The Great British Diet or at the apotheosis of biscuit websites, A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down.
I wrote about some of my favorite British biscuits nearly two years ago, and they remain the same. And, by the way, Orwell also wrote one of the best essays ever on British food, “In defense of English cooking.” Go read it: it’s free, it’s short, and it’s still true. An excerpt:
It is commonly said, even by the English themselves, that English cooking is the worst in the world. It is supposed to be not merely incompetent, but also imitative, and I even read quite recently, in a book by a French writer, the remark: ‘The best English cooking is, of course, simply French cooking.’
Now that is simply not true, as anyone who has lived long abroad will know, there is a whole host of delicacies which it is quite impossible to obtain outside the English-speaking countries. No doubt the list could be added to, but here are some of the things that I myself have sought for in foreign countries and failed to find.
First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets. Then a list of puddings that would be interminable if I gave it in full: I will pick out for special mention Christmas pudding, treacle tart and apple dumplings. Then an almost equally long list of cakes: for instance, dark plum cake (such as you used to get at Buzzard’s before the war), short-bread and saffron buns. Also innumerable kinds of biscuit, which exist, of course, elsewhere, but are generally admitted to be better and crisper in England.
Then there are the various ways of cooking potatoes that are peculiar to our own country. Where else do you see potatoes roasted under the joint, which is far and away the best way of cooking them? Or the delicious potato cakes that you get in the north of England? And it is far better to cook new potatoes in the English way — that is, boiled with mint and then served with a little melted butter or margarine — than to fry them as is done in most countries.
Then there are the various sauces peculiar to England. For instance, bread sauce, horse-radish sauce, mint sauce and apple sauce; not to mention redcurrant jelly, which is excellent with mutton as well as with hare, and various kinds of sweet pickle, which we seem to have in greater profusion than most countries.
Crumpets! Treacle pudding! Lamb with mint jelly! Cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches! Bring ’em on!
I’m curious which foods my expat British readers (or those who have visited the UK) miss the most.