I'm back in Nottingham now and back to real life, but real life is still pretty good.
I generally have Sunday dinner (or lunch, a hallowed British tradition) with the wonderful family I am living with, but this week everyone was away so I joined two of my friends for a leisurely lunch at the Victoria Hotel, affectionately known as "The Vic." The Vic is one of the very best locals around (a local is, appropriately enough, what the locals call the local public house). I've been before for drinks, but never for a meal. The food was stunning and the afternoon ideal.
There are several differences between an English pub and its most obvious American equivalent, the casual dining restaurant. Unfortunately, one of them is not price--despite the approximately 2:1 exchange rate between the British pound and American dollar, an entree is still between £7- £10. It was well worth it, though, to join Ruth and Laura on a rainy, chilly Sunday's afternoon for a leisurely meal and chat.
First things first: At most pubs, patrons find themselves their own tables. This can take awhile, as there's generally no host on duty and the customers have to stand around watching for a free table and, while still managing a modicum of the famous British civility the ability to queue up and wait politely, claim the seats as quickly as they're vacated. That's what we did today, anyway, but we were clever enough to stand in the gap between two rooms, away from the queue at the door, and wait until a party stood up. Before they had their coats on, Ruth was very politely enquiring if she could sit down, which she did. As soon as the group was pushing in their chairs, Laura and I had joined her and the table was ours.
Secondly, you usually order food at the bar. The Vic has an amazing food menu, but instead of waiting for servers you head on up and stand in the omnipresent queue, where the bartender will take your order, give you your drinks, and send you back to your table while you wait for food.
Thirdly, the English aren't nearly as fond of eating salad with their main courses as are Americans. Now, it's true that you can get salad in many places, and Laura ordered delectable vegetarian burritos that came with a lovely salad, but when I ask for a salad with my meat and potato entrees, my friends often give me a bemused stare.
"I would never have salad with a roast dinner," someone recently told me, as I tucked into a lettuce salad that I'd piled next to my plate of roast lamb and vegetables. "That's just wrong."
However, there are exceptions.
"My mum always orders a salad with her entree," Ruth said. "I think it's more of a Continental thing. They do it in France and Spain, they just don't do it in England."
So while today I enjoyed a delicious plate of bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes) with steamed peas and carrots, and while I did long for a crisp, green salad to go with it, I knew better than to ask. At a proper restaurant, Ruth tells me, I'd be more likely to get a salad if I asked nicely, but pub food means roast dinners and hearty meals, and the customer is definitely not always right.
One similarity between many pubs and American casual dining restaurants is the portion sizes. Today, for example, my plate featured two huge sausages, a giant pile of mashed potatoes and generous portions of steamed vegetables. At home it wouldn't be a problem, as I'd eat half and take the rest home, congratulating myself on getting two meals for the price of one. But they just don't do doggy bags in England. The first time I asked for a to-go box, the server gave me a blank look. Thus today, as I stared down the remaining, mouthwatering sausage swimming in onion gravy, mash and veg, I knew my pleas for a doggy bag wouldn't go far.
"I just really want to take it home," I told my friends. "I've paid for it, why can't I bring it with me?"
"Why would you?" they asked. "You're full."
Ah, the difference between the European and American mindset.
"I could wrap the sausage in a napkin and put it in my purse," I suggested, but we all laughed at that.
"The grease would get all over your stuff," Ruth said.
"You're right," I conceded. "I'm just going to start carrying Ziploc bags around in my purse for these occasions."
We'd decided to order pudding (dessert) and I was already full, but since I'd paid nearly $20 for my food (or £9) I felt obliged to keep eating. I managed half of the remaining sausage but then the girls ordered me to stop.
"Stop eating it," Ruth said.
"Put the fork down now," Laura suggested.
"But I paid for it!" I said again. Finally, I put the fork down and went to the bar, where I ordered a gorgeous, ginger-infused Parkin cake (sort of a molasses cake) topped with brandy sauce and floating in poured cream. Ruth had her steamed treacle sponge with custard, and Laura settled for ice cream. We drank our tea and coffee and chatted well into the afternoon.
Four hours later, our bellies are still full, but we're still smiling.