One of the things I appreciate most about living in the U.K. is the fast food. Really. It's not that I've suddenly taken a liking to McDonald's and KFC, both of which are abundant here. Anyone who knows me knows I'd rather give money to the Republican party than eat fast food. I'm quite proud of the fact that the only time Z was taken to McDonald's in St. Albans was with a friend, and he came home to tell me that he had been to "Old McDonald's" for dinner. "You went where? You mean McDonald's?"
"No mom! OLD McDonald's." You gotta love that the kid can associate that word, not with Big Macs, but with a perennial children's song.
What England seems to do better than most any other country I've visited is the healthy take-away and the high class chain restaurant. Whereas in the U.S., if we were going on a car trip of any length over 30 minutes, which is about how often I need to put something into my mouth, I would obsessively pack cut veggies, hummus, easy-peel satsumas, almonds and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. If I were premenstrual, we would all be treated to Pringles.
Here I don't have to do that. The motorway rest areas are a beacon every 20 miles or so. One can almost always count on there being a small Waitrose or Marks & Spencer grocery there, each stocked with all manner of take-away items that I would be hard pressed to duplicate after a full day of cooking up lentils, carrots, quinoa, tomatoes, blanched beans and a tasty vinagrette. The sandwiches are worthy of a gourmet caterer with fillings such as tikka masala chicken, smoked salmon, egg salad with capers, or avocado and humus. There is a menagerie of cut fruits, satay sticks, Scotch eggs, veggie-filled pot stickers and arugula salads. Can you imagine coming across this cornucopia of nourishment at a 7-11 or a Chevron service station?
After picking out two or three grain salads and the child-friendly ham with butter bread, we grab a few truffle chocolate bars near the check out and head to Starbucks next door. Now how civilized a pit stop is that?
The same well above average-ness applies to chain restaurants in this country. When we first arrived in St. Albans I was astonished by the number of restaurants. I didn't recognize any of them - no Olive Gardens, no Paneras, no Dennys. Since I'd never heard of these new restaurants, I assumed we'd landed in the epicenter of independent gastronomy. But I was wrong. Jamie's Italian, Zizzi, Slug and Lettuce, Brasserie Blanc, even the high class Loch Fyne, specializing in seafood, all turn out to be chains and can all be found, some repeatedly, in every major city in England.
Unfortunately, this healthy abundance has only further encouraged me to slack off on cooking and attempting to get my kid to try new things. I keep telling myself that he'll be just fine. After all, I survived more than a decade of pigs in a blanket and Hamburger Helper, tater tot casserole with cream of mushroom soup and sloppy joes. My mother was a diligent cook but let's face it, no one really knew what food was doing to us in the 70's. To her credit, my mother fed us soy products before it was cool. She was no hippie so it wasn't for the sake of the animals or the earth but because it was half the price of hamburger. She also cut our skim milk with powdered milk. Now what kind of unique torture is that for your crap milk to be mixed with even crappier milk? I think that was the first thing she dispensed with when my father got a raise.
So I'm relieved to say I've never bought a Happy Meal for Z, not because I'm nutritionally virtuous but because I'm not likely to resist getting myself a McFlurry. The fact is England has options when it comes to a quick meal. If I were an ambitious entrepreneur I'd bring one of these healthy chains to the U.S., start in California and work my way north. For now I'll keep enjoying my four bean salad from Marks and Spencer on my weekly trips into London.