In the Berkeley market where I shop, one can purchase fresh burdock, Meyer lemons, organic chickens, raw milk, durians, and Puy lentils. During the summer months, heirloom tomatoes overtake the produce aisles. At holiday time, heirloom turkeys arrive in bulk.
One aisle of this capacious market is devoted to “international foods”. Here, one may purchase a United Nations of canned foods, many lacking English translation. Fiery Thai bean paste, Chinese mushrooms, black vinegar, Japanese sweets. Teas for every occasion. At the end of the aisle, blocked by spices and overpriced salt, sit two shelves stocked with English food. Heinz canned beans, Marmite, marmalade. I’ve never bought any of it. I’ve never seen anybody else buy it, either.
John Haney, born in Romford, England, now chief copyeditor of ,Gourmet magazine, adores this sort of English fare: sausages (and we are not talking artisanal local here), fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes (again, not Early Girls or Sweet 100’s), chips (that’s fried potatoes to Americans), tinned baked beans in tomato sauce, pork pies. He has written an entire ode to this stuff in Fair Shares For All, a book filled with food he admits is awful.
Other comestibles include ham, piccalilli, “doorsteps” (thickly sliced bread spread with margarine), and enough “afters” (desserts) to definitively account for English dentistry. To wit: sponge, custards, spotted dick (a suet-based pudding laced with sultanas), and wafers. Bacon sandwiches are washed down with oceans of booze. This is not the food of Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, or even rebellious Fergus Henderson. It is working class fare, eaten proudly by a man who, though living in Brooklyn and working for a famous food publication, identifies as an East Ender.
That said, Fair Shares for All, which grew from a 2003 Gourmet essay, is a bit misleading. Billed as “a memoir of food and family”, the book is truly about the suffocating English class system, where people are judged by the contents of their cupboards, their schooling, the very way words emerge from their mouths. Mother Kitty yearns for upward mobility while father Denis, having survived a childhood of brutal poverty and near starvation, is content with steady work at the Telegraph Company. This enrages Kitty; the ensuing strain leads young John to prefer his grandparents’ home, where Grandpa tells war stories as Grandma dishes up sausages aswim in lard.
World War II looms over Haney’s childhood: his father and uncles all served. Everyone knows somebody who didn’t come home or returned damaged. Haney is fascinated by their stories—the more gruesome the better. As a teenager he joins the Air Training Corps. He enjoys “the regimentation and sheer predictability,” qualities that bode well for a copyediting career.
From the ATF, Haney moves to University and punk drumming, which carries him to America, where he enjoys White Castle cheese fries and “most things on the menu at Burger King.” Haney then moves to America, jumps to publishing, marries, divorces, and faces the deaths of his parents.
This final section, particularly the writing about Denis, is the most moving. A gentle, quiet man whose life was marred by poverty and divorce, Denis dies ravaged by lung disease. His death leaves John at Joy’s house, depressed, drinking heavily, trying to hash out how an East Ender has become a participant in the rarified realm of New York foodieland. He describes eating at Gramercy Avenue
Bistro: Dungeness crab, steak, panna cotta, going out for cigarette only to vomit the meal. Why? “I don’t belong there…it all goes back to that sense of exclusion…that feeling of not belonging.”
While many of us can empathize with the which-fork-to-use moment, Haney skims over so much of his adult life that it’s difficult to know precisely where his inner East Ender parts ways with the suave New Yorker who copyedited the article on Algerian food in this month’s Gourmet. Nor do we ever really learn how he reconciles enjoying foie gras and truffles while maintaining his affection for Marmite and bangers.
Haney studs his prose with adjectives, a surprising proclivity in a copyeditor. But wordy passages are saved by humor. When the family entertain themselves by inventing grotesque meals, Aunt Jackie’s contribution of “chocolate-covered carrots” becomes “a delicacy worthy of the molecular gastronomists who have recently taken the ridiculous mainstream…” Lunch at his father’s includes “mashed potatoes containing an infusion of butter even Fernand Point might have found excessive…”
Fair Shares for All was better as an essay, before it was forced into becoming something neither fish nor fowl. But readers will find Haney’s sharp observations of the English class system, the food of poverty, and the effects of war, making Fair Shares for All a worthy, if ultimately depressing, reading.