It was a sight to gladden a British patriotic heart. Dozens of Scotch eggs, scores of pork pies and hundreds of wedges of rhubarb-and-custard tart tickling the jaded palates of New Yorkers. Selling like hot cakes, in fact, to residents of the very nation that believes Britain produces and consumes the worst food in the world.
"We thought you guys just ate boiled beef and cabbage," explained the man so enamoured with his very first Scotch egg that he was buying a second one from London street-food vendor Andy Bates. The customer wished only that Brooklyn Flea, the coolest street market in the Big Apple, was one of Bates's regular gigs. "Who'd have thought a cold egg could taste so good, especially wrapped in black pudding and deep fried?" he wanted to know. "It sounded like it was going to be greasy, but it wasn't. I loved it... this was just an incredible little ball of goodness."
While the Scotch eggs flew off the stand, Bates, whose Eat My Pies stall is a favourite at Broadway and Whitecross Street markets in London, found he had some explaining to do about other items that are so familiar to his regulars back home. "Our pork pies go back centuries but must never have travelled across with the pilgrims, because it turns out the Americans expect a pie to be sweet," he says. "They were surprised when they first bit into them, then they loved them. But they were still a bit puzzled. As for the custard tarts, the rhubarb really threw them. I think they found the idea of putting rhubarb and custard together quite bizarre."
Yet in spite of initial reservations, Bates, whose pop-up stall was filmed for a show to be aired in the UK later this year, sold out of everything in three hours flat.
"It must have been the expats who attracted attention to the stand by getting teary about foods they had nearly forgotten," he suggests. "One woman told me: 'I haven't eaten a custard tart like this since my mother died.' She was really emotional."
Others were merely exuberant. "I don't remember rating Scotch eggs when I lived in Britain, but they made me so homesick when I spotted them on the stand, and I liked the one I ate here much more than what they used to serve in pubs," says Elaine Gilboa. "If they all have soft-boiled eggs in the middle now, they've really evolved."
Unlike most common or garden Scotch eggs, British food has evolved in spades over the past decade. We may have had only three restaurants in the San Pellegrino Top 50 last year, but one – The Fat Duck – was at No 3, and in 2010, our restaurants were awarded more stars than at any time in Michelin's 35-year history.
Yet now the Food Network has finished filming in New York with Bates and three other British chefs, the soft-boiled Scotch eggs will have been digested and long forgotten. You might think, given the popularity of British cooks on American television – audiences have lapped up Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Nigella – that the tide was turning, that the land that gave us Caesar salad, gourmet burgers, fried chicken and Subway would be looking to adopt steak-and-kidney pudding and Banoffee pie as the latest must-have ethnic fare. But you would be wrong.
"Americans love to watch these cooks on television, but they don't necessarily want to try [those cooks'] native food," says Marlena Spieler, a Hampshire-based writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's like they say they love pub grub – and gastropubs have become huge – but I'd be very surprised to see sausage, beans and chips on an American pub menu."
And the haggis on a stick she found at Martins West, a pub in San Jose, California, doesn't count, she insists. "It's more of a wind-up – innards for macho men who dare to down them rather than a menu item to be taken seriously," she says.
Sheila Dillon of BBC Radio 4's Food Programme has also observed the transatlantic food scene from both sides of the pond, being married to an American, and says: "We have taken their food on board because to us, Americans are the exemplars of modernism. They are the Romans, and we want to be like them. One way is to eat what they do.
"But to the Americans, we remain the nation of disgusting food," she adds regretfully. "Even though they know we have good restaurants now, you can't wipe out 200 years of history. When I made rhubarb puddings for my friends when I lived in New York, it was a revelation that a Brit had made something delicious." We also, she says, have a reputation for making fatty food. "And Americans have a horror of fat. They don't compute that their own fast food is full of it; they just don't want to take it on board in other people's food."
But there are gradual signs of an upturn: Gordon Ramsay, having survived the New York food critics, has insinuated rabbit terrine and saddle of venison into his menu at The London hotel in Manhattan; British chef April Bloomfield has taken the city by storm with her own gastropub; and Dillon says her husband has learned to love haggis and black pudding, "even though they're so different from the foods he grew up with".
And when the sophisticated Manhattan brasserie Artisanal put fish and chips with tartare sauce on the menu last year, it found it had a surprise bestseller on its hands.
"I ate it back in the Eighties when I worked at Le Gavroche and lived in London for six months," explains chef-proprietor Terrance Brennan. "But it was actually when I got to the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston and ate the dish with some chef buddies – crispy and gooey at the same time, really hitting the spot – that I remembered it and felt I had to put it on my own menu. We are a French brasserie, so we serve frites, not chip-shop chips. But we use codfish and beer batter for an authentic taste, add a classic tartare sauce, and our customers love it."
Meanwhile, London's Launceston Place restaurant reports covert exports of its treacle tarts. "We have a lot of American diners who often ask us to pack up extra tarts for them to smuggle home," says chef-patron Tristan Welch, who gave Bates a hand with the Scotch eggs and pork pies during their New York filming. Welch adds. "I think the fact [the pork pies] sold out, yet the Americans wouldn't promote a British dish on their menus, is down to a chauvinistic food culture they share with the French. Both nations may embrace Vietnamese and all kinds of other ethnic cuisines, but they're damned if they'll give British food the time of day. We've just got a bad rap we can't shake off."
Spieler thinks a new love affair with Britain sparked by interest in the royal wedding could present a new opportunity. "Anything British is generally considered more sophisticated and better quality than home-grown," she says. "So even if the food doesn't appeal to them, they will try to like it as part of embracing the whole British experience." But, she adds, "they will try to meld it to their own tastes".
And this will not always be in a good way, according to Shelby Farmer, another keen purveyor of Bates's Scotch eggs in Brooklyn. "I could see them catching on here," she says. "But we'd eventually need a baked, not fried, diet version, made with egg whites only. And we'd smother it in ketchup."
The Food Network's all-British "Chopped" will be shown in the UK in September.
What we took from the Americans
Meaty, chargrilled hamburgers: as purveyed by Hard Rock, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and other specialist chains, plus fast-food imitations.
Caesar salad: though it is a British variation to add chicken and serve it as a main course rather than a starter.
KFC: the fast-food version of southern-fried chicken.
Blackened fish: Cajun cuisine has gripped the British palate for hot, spicy foods.
Baked beans: born in Boston and re-interpreted by Heinz, these are a sophisticated side dish when made from scratch in New England, never served in the US as part of a morning fry-up.
Sweet treats: chocolate brownies, elaborately iced cupcakes and designer doughnuts, epitomised by the Krispy Kreme kiosk in Harrods.
What we've given them
Sandwiches: Named after the fourth Earl of Sandwich in the 18th century and introduced to the USA in 1840 by Englishwoman Elizabeth Leslie, but since trumped by Americans with their Club double-decker.
Fish and chips: Quality varies, and don't expect malt vinegar or pickled onions.
Haggis: served on a stick at Martins West, a gastropub in San Jose, California, it has a certain curiosity value.
Indian food: The favourite food of modern Brits is becoming increasingly popular in the US, particularly on the east and west coasts.Reuse content