Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 December 2020
AA Gill & British Pubs
AA Gill & Jeffrey Steingarten
Two wonderful food writers are the late AA Gill, UK and Jeffrey Steingarten, USA. Both have a unique voice and have brought something special to ‘foodie’ writing. Both writers have created a persona, which whilst probably not true adds something immeasurable to their style.
AA Gill seems to be an angry, sardonic working or lower middle class intellectual with a ‘chip on his shoulder’. Although, this is not an adequate description. It is superficial, and certainly not true. He was upper middle class from a happy background.
What is true is that he spent his late teens and the whole of his twenties as a drunk.
Jeffrey Steingarten presents the persona of a New Yorker with obsessive compulsive behaviours. It is also probably not true, but adds an energy to his writing. I’ll cover him in a later article.
Steingarten tends to give you more information than you ever wanted to know, but in a very entertaining way. AA Gill gives you less than you want (fewer column inches).
I’ll concentrate on AA Gill, who wrote a few short articles on the British pub amidst a massive oeuvre of food and travel writing. Although he offended many people constantly, it was an integral part of his style. The quotations below are from Table Talk 2007 a collection of his column articles from the Sunday Times.
AA Gill Biography
Adrian Anthony Gill (28 June 1954 to 10 December 2016) was born in Edinburgh. His English father Michael Gill was a TV producer and director; his Scottish mother an actress. He was educated at the independent St Christopher School, Hertfordshire, which was co-educational and vegetarian. He recalls his experiences at the school in his book The Angry Island.
He moved to London to study art. He spent six years after art school trying to paint, but decided he wasn’t good enough.
He began his writing career in his thirties after drying out. He used AA Gill, as well as his name, as a reference to Alcoholics Anonymous, though he was very guarded about his post alcoholic experiences.
He made his first major breakthrough with a pseudonym piece for Tatler in 1991 of being in a detox clinic. In 1993, he was poached from Tatler by the Sunday Times where, according to Lynn Barber, ‘he quickly established himself as their shiniest star.’ He continued with the Sunday Times until shortly before his death from cancer. In 2010 the Sunday Times disclosed that Gill had been the subject of 62 Press Complaints Commission complaints in 5 years for his acerbic comments.
One example will suffice, he described the Welsh as: ‘loquacious dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls’. But, the racism commission declined to prosecute because it said Gill had not meant to stir up racial hatred.
Why AA Gill and the British pub?
British Food — an appraisal of the middle
I wrote an article British Food — an appraisal of the middle in late May 2015 in my first two hectic months of writing this blog. At the time I was hesitant in criticising English food because I anticipated hoards of angry Poms responding abusively. Little did I know then that any response would be welcome instead of the usual overwhelming silence. In blogging today one usually gets favourable responses, unlike the thoughtless and cruel outrage of social media.
I thought that it was time to have another look at British Food — an appraisal of the middle too see what sort of job I’d done and to change my opinion if necessary.
The article is rather long but it covers much ground. A trip to central England of two months in 2014 with reference to a year in the UK in 1980/81 is interspersed with food experiences, before concentrating on the British pub.
The appraisal of British food is based on eating out at the middle level. It is taken as given that British food in top restaurants is the equivalent of anywhere. We know the names of many top British chefs.
Food at the middle is the sort of food we ate over two months house-sitting and travelling in central England. Not a random selection, because we always had advice from our hosts in house-sitting and at carefully chosen AirBNBs. It is the type of food the English middle classes or well-paid professionals partake of when they can’t be bothered cooking or they’re meeting with friends. Regular going-out or bringing-in food, but not special occasions.
While there are plenty of ethnic restaurants (not very good) and plenty of fast food places (worse), the primary source of food when going out is the British pub and in general it leaves something to be desired. The other common source of food is pre-prepared food at supermarkets, which at its best is excellent (Waitrose rather than Tesco) and superior to anything in Australia (still true in 2020).
The British pub is becoming a food destination because it has been the cultural destination for socialising in the UK for generations. Yet, the pub-drinking lifestyle has been on the decline for decades. The English are very sentimental about their pubs and are truly heart-broken when a treasured local closes down. English pubs have been closing for decades, but there are too many for them all to close and they are still central to British life.
Hence, the only solution, particularly with the growth of a different class of professional-type and the young labour force, has been to repurpose and to renovate.
The gastro pub has been gradually replacing the drinking pub across England and is the main source of outside food or restaurants at the middle. Hence, important to an appraisal of British food.
My main conclusion in the 2015 article was:
In general and because we ate at more pubs more regularly than the locals do, we were probably less impressed. Nevertheless, pub food in England, even its best, is stodgy, predictable and unimaginative. Though the food is often well presented, the influence of celebrity chefs and Master Chef.
I’ve often thought when in Italy — whilst we love and approve of the antiquity of Italian cities, towns and villages — that the Italians are burdened by it and it hinders everything they do.
Similarly, The English are burdened by the British pub and until, or if, they can solve the problem, British food at the middle will never blossom
AA Gill, as the ultimate insider before his demise in 2016, has even more pertinent views on the British pub than I do. And, I think he emphasises my insight more authoritatively than I could.
AA Gill & the British Pub
The Drunk’s View of Pub Food (Feb 2004)
I’ve spent more time in pubs than in any other public building. More than in restaurants or cinemas, theatres or magistrates’ courts, libraries, museums or churches. More than in all of them put together. That’s an amazing testimony to the power of the pub — and a savage indictment of my social sophistication. …
Going into a pub is like revisiting the scene of a crime, being both victim and perpetrator. One of the things I hated at the time was any confusion of the pubbiness of pubs; the trendy pretense that… or, worse — much worse — a restaurant.
Food and pubs go together like frogs and lawnmowers… Pubs don’t do food; they offer internal mops and vomit decoration.
Comment: Despite the self-loathing aspect of this confession, what he says extends beyond the drunk to the average Brit of a generation.
I remember after a delightful evening of restaurant food, alcohol and lust in London in 1981, going to sleep at 5 am — being awoken from pleasant dreams at 11 am on Sunday morning because we must rush down to socialise at some nearby pub. I remember distinctly being given a pint of beer without breakfast and being unable to drink it. I’d been accustomed to long nights of slow drinking in Northern Ireland that began at 11 pm and finished at 7 am. No one was sick and there were no fights. Another story.
AA Gill was setting us up here for the change to come.
The Gastro Pub (March 2003)
Bear with me, I’m going to read you a menu. It may help if you imagine it in the voice of Joyce Grenfell or perhaps Peter Ustinov.
Bruschetta, crostini, chicken with pitta bread and tzatsiki, BLT…Thai fishcakes with lemon aioli…
AA Gill goes continues with a long long list and then says: Now that’s not the entire menu, but it’s most of it. …
A menu tells you what the pretensions of the restaurant are, who it wants to attract and what it wants you to assume about it, and, by extension, yourself. … First, let’s look at the practical things. There are, give or take, ten different countries’ cuisines represented here, some of them in the same dish. There are more than fifty-one primary ingredients, not counting staples… and they’re all relatively cheap. …
But — and this is a kitchen tautology — there are a bewildering number of cooking methods implied, some of them quite complicated, and there are other things that have to be made against the clock and served instantly (a full English breakfast is one of the most annoyingly tricky things to get right if you’re not making it over and over for breakfast). …
It’s international well-travelled food. Except, if you look carefully, it actually isn’t. It’s cruise-ship highlights… … and if you eat out once a month it will be as familiar as your own sock drawer.
It is, AA Gill admits, a pub.
It’s clear that the menu is making boasts the kitchen can’t possibly sustain. This food needs a full brigade and a properly equipped kitchen to make it well. But it’s a pub; it has probably just got a galley with one overheated Sloane in a pinny and a porter. I see this so often — a menu that’s constructed one dish at a time. An owner asks ‘Can you make fishcakes? ‘Yes.’ Can you make penne, ‘Yes’… It is part of a gastropub chain. And this is chain-gang food — chosen by committee, made by one poor sod.
People don’t cook. And frankly why should they? If you work all day to make your money, why should you employ yourself as a bad commis chef and dishwasher afterwards? Why not eat out? How nice it would be to go down to the pub, settle into the sofa, share a bottle and have a well made parmigiana with a side salad.
So, so . . . so how was it for me? Well you know how it was for me. It was vile. The caesar salad was a compost of what might once have been an aspidistra. The pasta came on a plate so hot it burnt the waitress through the dishcloth… The pasta had been made ages before and was as soft as old cornflakes…etcetera.
Comment: The description is masterful. Even AA Gill doesn’t expect us to believe all gastro pubs are like this. But frighteningly, the average is like this in my experience. And, the description of the food is horribly familiar. It typifies our experience in 2014 of pub food as stodgy, predictable and unimaginative. The occasional exceptions made it worse rather than better. AA Gill makes us understand, why it is so!
The Better Side of Gastro Pub meals
Bill Buford in Heat describes the time that Mario Batali understudied Marco Pierre White for some months in a pub restaurant Six Bells in Kings Road Chelsea in 1983, as the new ‘chef’s slave’, when both men were callow and unfamous.
What a joy to have been to be a patron of Six Bells at that time!
Today, Marco Pierre White is regarded as one of the most influential chefs in Britain (as well as the most foul-tempered, most mercurial, and most bullying), and it’s an extraordinary fortuity that these two men, both in their early twenties, found themselves in a tiny pub kitchen together. Batali didn’t understand what he was witnessing: his restaurant experience had been making strombolis in New Brunswick. “I assumed I was seeing what everyone else already knew. I didn’t feel like I was on the cusp of a revolution. And yet, while I had no idea this guy was about to become so famous, I could see he was preparing food from outside the box. He was a genius on the plate. I’d never worked on presentation. I just put shit on the plate.” He described White’s making a deep green puree from basil leaves and then a white butter sauce, then swirling the green sauce in one direction, and the white sauce in the other, and drawing a swerving line down the middle of the plate. “I had never seen anyone draw fucking lines with two sauces.” White would order Batali to follow him to market (“I was his whipping boy—’Yes, master,’ I’d answer, ‘whatever you say, master’ “) and they’d return with game birds or ingredients for some of the most improbable dishes ever to be served in an English pub: écrevisses in a reduced lobster sauce, oysters with caviar, roasted ortolan (a rare, tiny bird served virtually breathing, gulped down, innards and all, like a raw crustacean)—”the whole menu written out in fucking French.”
(For more information on Heat refer to my article on International Peasant Foods.)
In giving us a drunk’s view of food and pubs AA Gill has been setting us up for a similar experience of gourmet food in a pub of all places.
I walked in and discovered it was a pub: a very pubby pub, pubbled with after-work drinkers. The restaurant bit was in an adjoining room. At 6.30 pm it was packed — and I was amazed. The waitress found me a spot on a table with two couples. The kitchen was a cage the size of a Monopoly board, with a pair of cooks running around like the top hat and the iron. The menu was to the point and very good…
I started with a dish that made the whole room go quiet.
The lights went down and a single spot illuminated the bowl in front of me. In the distance, there was a choir singing the Angelus, and I knew, the way you just know, that I was going to love this dish for the rest of my life — or its life, whichever was longer. It was heart-clutchingly thick potato soup, and nestling in it was a slab, a plinth, an altar of pressed foie gras, gently melting. It was properly brilliant.
Comment: So all pub restaurants are not of necessity bad. The two examples above show that not only can brilliant food be made in pubs, but it can be made in tiny pub galleys. Not all renovated pub kitchens are tiny. Some have full-sized kitchens the equivalent of fine food restaurants anywhere. The standard of gastro pubs in Britain may be improving. My 2014 observations may be out of date. (But, I don’t think so.)
Nevertheless, even with increasing pub closures, Britain is as burdened by its British pubs as Italy is burdened with the relics of the past. Renovating a few, employing high class chefs and creating gourmet kitchens will increase the quality of some gastro pubs. But, what of the rest?
Until England solves the problem of what to do with its pubs in cities, towns and villages, pub food in general will remain mediocre and the standard of British food in the middle remain stodgy, boring and unimaginative. Abuse me, if I’m wrong!
Key Words: AA Gill, Jeffrey Steingarten, Table Talk, Bill Buford, Heat, British Pubs, English Pubs, Gastro Pubs, Tatler, Sunday Times, Lynn Barber, Angry Island, pubbiness, Mario Batali, Marco Pierre White, pub
The Quotations from AA Gill above all come from Table Talk 2007, pp 41-48. His Sunday Times column was also called Table Talk.
Lynn Barber Guardian Review of AA Gill, 25 May 2008
Guardian Obituary on AA Gill, Stuart Jeffries, 11 December 2016
AA Gill Articles
Some scathing restaurant reviews from Eater. Table Talk 2007 has more interesting ones.
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