A dear friend came to visit from my hometown. It was wonderful to see her and to celebrate her first night with us, we decided to go to our local pub. Pubs (abbreviated version from ‘Public House‘) in England are much more beloved than in the US and serve more as a social network, versus just a place to have a drink. All that being said, when you go to your local pub in England, there is more of a community connection than you have in an average bar in the US.
So now, the table is set (tongue firmly planted in cheek) at this point. We arrived late for dinner in England, around 21:30 (9:30PM US time). The kitchen closed at 22:00, so we were pushing the courtesy barrier from the “git-go” (beginning) as we say in the Southern US. We are courteously escorted to our table, already thinking we need to have what we wanted to order in mind, given the time crunch. My friend, re-energized from the long trip over, was ready to settle in for a long night. She perused the menu, scanning repeatedly from page to page, still undecided with what she wanted. She began to ask us, “what’s really good here?”
“Everything, but especially the chips (french fries), they’re really great!” my husband and I chimed in, nodding to each other in agreement. So, after her final tour of the menu and asking us our recommendations, she settled on a steak with mixed vegetables. Funny how we often ask for opinions, but really, we end up getting what we think we want anyway. Only later, would her choice come back to haunt me.
By this time, it was about ten minutes before the kitchen was closing and we had not yet ordered. After the third time of the server coming by our table, we were finally able to place our order before the deadline and relax, knowing we’d not breached pub etiquette.
My friend was happy with her choice–until our burgers came out with a side of golden, thick and crispy chips! They were done the right way, the Belgian way (twice cooked). Did you know that chips/french fries are actually, Belgian? Glad to offer a side of chip trivia to you at no extra charge. Now, where was I? Right, so after our beautiful chips were placed before us, can you guess who wanted to have some? You guessed it, none other than Ms. Steak and Veg. Even before getting the first one in my mouth, I see her pinching her fingers together as she goes in to pinch one of the golden beauties we spoke so highly of. She took one bite and she was hooked.
One after another the chips began to disappear, not only from my plate but my husband’s as well. And like any junkie, she was wanting more. My friend even asked the server if she could order her own. The server, my husband and I all looked at each other, taken aback by her request. By now, it was 22:30 (10:30PM) so we all knew it was too late to order any more chips. The server made her way back to the kitchen, dreading asking if more chips could be cooked. After a just a few minutes, she returned and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but the cook has just turned off the fryer.” My husband and I were again relieved that the chip fiasco was finally being put to bed and we could get our bill and leave still with our heads high.
Sadly, none of us could anticipate what happened next. My American friend then added, “Well, if he just turned off the fryer, it should still be hot enough to make my fries.” Here it comes, I thought. Now, our server will take the walk of shame back to the kitchen and make the chef delay his exit because of my french-fry-loving friend. Dutifully, she did just that and fifteen minutes later, returned with a heaping “choke on it, you selfish American &!#@$” plate of chips! My friend was of course happy as evidenced by the mini clapping of hands when they arrived, oblivious to the gleaming, golden English cynicism they represented. In a word, my husband and I were embarrassed. We understood fully, but my friend on vacation had no clue. Having worked in the restaurant business, I know what other naughty things people can do to your food (never me, of course!). Let’s just say, neither my husband or I had any.
After about three, maybe four chips, my friend had her fill. She had several previously from our plates, plus the small wait to get her own, her stomach had ample time to catch up to her hypothalamus (part of the brain that tells us we’re full), much to our chagrin. I asked, “Are you sure you can’t eat anymore? They went to a lot of trouble to get them…”
She replied, “No, I’m full…besides, I’ll give a good tip.” How do you explain (or even should you?) that a tip isn’t always the answer in some cultures? In her defense, as an American, I do understand that money talks and most of the time, splashing out a little more cash for the inconvenience, will get you out of most situations. But in this case, it was more about the fact that several people had to stay late for the barely touched plate of chips and the routine of closing the restaurant also had to be delayed because of it.
Knowing that it would add insult to injury to leave the almost full plate of chips, I began searching for a way to hide them. I thought of going to the bathroom to ditch them, but then, I thought, someone might see them in the waste basket. Then I though, I know, I’ll flush them…then, what if the toilet overflowed (that would only happen to me!) how would I explain that? Then, I knew…I would smuggle the deep-fried contraband in my purse. It was a cheap purse, so if it smelled like a chip shop, I could learn to live with it. So, in they went, swaddled in a serviette (napkin) to be taken to their final resting place.
My friend looked at me like I was insane and frankly, I guess I was to a degree. We got up to leave and made our way to the bar to pay. We were greeted by all of the kitchen staff and our server (they wanted to get a look at us, it was certain). My friend had given us a few pounds and said she would use the restroom before we left. While she was away, we tipped everyone, not just the server. We all looked at one another with the knowledge that all was understood.
When we got home, our nerves turned to laughter and we took the photo of my purse and the chips that became the inspiration for this article. I guess the moral of this deep-fried story of culture, is that I have become accustomed (albeit, in a bit too neurotic of a way) to being British. Although I don’t claim that Britons would start stuffing their pockets and purses with chips to prove a point, I do think that there is a common connection of courtesy that is not always bridged by the size of your wallet. I’ve gotten another purse since then and will try to keep it, ‘chip-free’ from now on!