Monday afternoon provided the stage for the extraordinary spectacle of people getting angry online about mince.
A video posted on Eater's principal Twitter account became the source of feverish comment from a host of outraged Little Englanders. In it, Nick Solares went behind the scenes at Shaun Searley's Quality Chop House to discover the secrets of his iconic (and very delicious) Hereford Mince on Dripping Toast.
It was the piece's title that caused the real controversy in its no-arguments-brooked declaration that “mince meat on toast is a quintessential British comfort classic.” This, people hastened to point out, simply was not true. There were a whole gif keyboard of permutations around "no" and "nope"; plenty of vitriol around clueless Americans and their total incomprehension of the British diet; a friend of mine was moved simply to tweet “stop making up foods!”
There is a long history of this sort of frenzied overreaction — the wonderful italians mad at food account on Twitter could not exist without it. If it's not Eater it's Nigella and her creamy carbonara; if it's not Mary Berry with her "inauthentic" spaghetti bolognese, it's Melissa Clark and her pea guacamole.
It's fine and maybe even mildly diverting if you take it as a bit of harmless steam-blowing, or as evidence of the general ludicrousness of online culture.’
But a joke is never just a joke: food is something both universal and deeply personal; to shout loudly about a foreigner's (mis)interpretation of your food is to shout about identity both national and individual. The Eater piece mislabel seems to have struck a particular nerve in its blanket implication that this is a dish that all of us Brits have grown up with, something as enshrined in our low-effort, maximum-reward canon as Heinz tomato soup and hot buttered toast or sausage and mash.
Clearly, it isn't. But it manifestly is a dish that exists (made by Shaun Searley, it's excellent, too); there were enough people coming out in (muted) support to suggest that the headline was not so much a fiction as an unfortunate exaggeration.
Not a classic, but delish. (Also good: next-day cold mince in a sandwich.) I'm v keen on oxtail on toast too https://t.co/3JCOrWtYx8— Nigella Lawson (@Nigella_Lawson) July 10, 2017
Nigella Lawson, no stranger to Internet food controversy, with a measured response.
In their heart of hearts, everyone sort of knows that this is how headlines work in the attention economy: a more accurate description — "mince on toast is a variant on the more common mince and potatoes, it is cooked to a very high standard at The Quality Chop House" — would draw less ire but fail on a whole host of other levels.
And so as much as I enjoyed some of the performative outrage, it saddened me slightly, too. The reaction was not really about the wrong-headed obliviousness of that title; it — ultimately — was about British people kicking back noisily against foreigners trying to impose something on us. Which is all a bit too an-Englishman's-home-is-his-castle for comfort, a little too 52 percent raging against Brussels and their stupid bendy (or was it straight?) bananas. It displayed a myopia about how foods evolve; how "classics" and "authenticity" are constructs every bit as artificial as Mary Berry's spaghetti bolognese, or the Anglicised nonsense dish that spaghetti bolognese represents in the first place. It reminded me that for all the great leaps food has made in the United Kingdom post-rationing, there is still a nasty, suspicious part of us that looks askance at anything too ambitious, or decadent, or — as in this case — alien.
It also made me fear, just a little, for the today’s launch of Eater London. This site has a difficult mission: it is work that will be made exponentially harder every time we call out the slightest thing that does not ring true to good British people — raised on the things only they know — playing armchair critic with a meat and offal scrap pie in one hand and pint of warm, flat beer in the other.
It is a mission worth pursuing; good things might emerge from it. We might learn about restaurants previously undiscovered or dishes long-forgotten: if you haven't been to the Quality Chop House, it really is worth a look — along with that mince, the confit potatoes and cod’s roe are superlative (they're also British, even if they are neither quintessentially nor classically so). We might see our city through a fresh pair of eyes. We might in fact learn to appreciate it even more, for the great piebald impossible place it is.
For centuries, London has proved itself the most gracious of hosts to new arrivals from all over the world. I hope we don't stop now.