In praise of penguins

Soup, treacle and Penguins

We are coming up on a year since the anniversary of our move to Alabama. Or as my English colleague and the BBC would call it, AH-LA-BA(r)H-MAH. And it is in a nod to this colleague that I post this picture for when I first met her she had a tin of spotted dick upon the shelf of her office, back when her office was located where the lower school library is now and where you could hear the boys from Accounts through the walls.

“What is that?” “Why do you have that?” “Do people actually eat that?” “Is that your lunch?” “Emergency rations?” You don’t want to be rude. It’s their culture.

It was a while before I learned that she had the spotted dick in the same spirit in which my husband and I bought up cans of Luck’s collards and Bruce’s yams at the creepy Co-Op near our equally creepy apartment near Penn Station, as ironic decoration with a fond nod to our shared links to Southern culture, a simultaneous assertion of appreciation with an edge of mockery, a tribute to the packaging of yore, that they are still using. When these cans of Southern veg and jack mackerel turned up in our NYC to London shipment of things we had been storing eight years later we considered reinstalling them, but shelf space was scarce and you could actually buy the exact same tin of mackerel around the corner in Tesco. And what if a babysitter mistook them for food and fed them to the children? Out they went.

The spotted dick went, I think, a similar way. It did not make it to the shelf of the colleague’s later two work spaces and I’m pretty sure she didn’t actually tuck into it on some day when she was feeling mournful about the loss of our hot pudding option — some kind of traybaked cake drowning in custard sauce — which went off the menu several years ago and must have marked a further Americanization of school culture, like the demise of the tuck shop and psychologically lumped together with the rate at which, around the country, pubs closed, a general dilution and diminishing of a way of life, a culture that was increasingly more affluent and success-oriented, giving way to mobile phone shops, tanning salons and All Bar Ones (though All Bar One did not survive the St. John’s Wood High Street, and while Radio Rentals quietly bit the dust in late 90s or early oughts, there was still a place across from school where you could hire purchase machines.)

Okay, rewind almost a year. We have had one of the longest days of our lives, the family, the cats and I. We fly out of London with animals and excess baggage and a bottle of HP sauce. No idea when we will return, the girls leaving the only place they have ever lived for a city we have visited once. It’s an emotional day. The Atlanta airport takes its toll: the long wait for the bags, before they are sucked back into the airport and you must wait for them again. The having to take the cats out of their travel bags and carry them through the x-ray machines. Declaring the cats (live animals) to customs. The shuttle bus to car rental place where we pile our duffel bags containing medical and school records, tax documents, the good knife, my jewelry, our summer clothes, sheets and towels, laptops and cameras and a ziploc bag of cat food (also declared; meat product) (ziploc bags being a Watford Costco luxury item; coals to Newcastle now, one might say) into a minivan; the general wait and wait and have documents checked of travel; the personal momentousnous of the day coupled with the sheer indifference of those around us.

Then we are on the road, released into America with its eight lanes of traffic and the spiraling on- and off-ramps, and headed up the Heart of Dixie highway into the unknown. I don’t remember how far along we were when the rain started but it was a tropical storm of near Biblical proportions that lasted the entire drive. We arrive at last and enter the house we have rented, sight unseen, and set the cats down and I lose the rock, scissors, paper for who has to turn the car around and go to the supermarket.

I am driving down the road in an hallucinatory state of tired, it’s still raining, I have no idea where the supermarket is but am told it’s second or third set of lights (and let me stop here to say that as a New Yorker, those are instructions that wash over me in a big wave of meaninglessness; I want to know: how many blocks is it? What cross street? In London, I would patiently ask, well when you’re at the place I’m trying to find, is there another road that intersects, nearby, and what is it is called? Third light, second left, far lane, what are you talking about?)

Wait, how did we get here from spotted dick?

So I stagger into the supermarket, from warm rain to a blast of air conditioning, and set out to collect the survival items we need. And then I encounter the ethnic food aisle. There is a section of British food, with more varieties of HP sauce than they had in our local Tesco, and with a few notable exceptions (Penguin bars! Digestives!) it is the kind of British food that I would and never did eat: tinned rice pudding, pickled onions, Branstons sandwich pickle, Oxo cubes. It is a strange and unexpected reunion.

Penguin bars are chocolate-coated, chocolate biscuit with chocolate cream sandwich bars. They come individually wrapped with illustrations of penguins engaged in games or sport (singular) and each with a very, very bad, pun-based riddle which is shared at lunch and met with groans. We listed these as a component of the school lunch in one of our admissions materials, years back, in the days of the tuck shop, and a child on an interview and tour told the admissions officer in a hushed voice of terror, “but I don’t want to eat penguins.”

And from a child’s perspective, coming to a country that offers roast chicken flavoured crisps, how could one be expected to know what others might find delectable?

British ethnic food

5 Replies to “In praise of penguins”

  1. Who is this ridiculous person sullying the good name of the British by hoarding classic English puddings in vital office space? ; )

    You are indeed correct that the aforementioned never made it into my last two work spaces, (in all honesty, there’s hardly room owing to the rest of the guff I’m currently collecting.) You will be pleased to learn that the offending article now resides in the back of one of my kitchen cupboards having made it home successfully from school, and survived a kitchen refit and a summer in the loft. Of course, I’m now worried that some ill-informed cat sitter may feed it to the lads if the kitty kibbles run out. That would not do. Spotted whotsit is definitely a non-meat product. x


  2. It deserves capitalization; or capitalisation. Spotted Dick.

    I am delighted to see that Marmite is available, albeit only in the small jar. Would you like the large jar or the squeezy jar.


  3. I once spotted Spotted Dick at my local Atlanta supermarket (everyday variety, not some specialized shop). I bought some and took it home, giggling all the way… I showed it off to my friends, displayed it. But it too did not survive a move to another abode. The funny thing is, I never opened it, not was I ever sure what it was because the can, if i recall correctly, did not list the ingredient… custard pudding. with spots (what kind of spots?!)


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