In the past we have talked extensively about Britain's fine gastronomical delights such as Yorkshire Pudding, Cornish Meat Pies, Fish and Chips, and so much more. ("So much more" mainly meaning mushy green peas.) Not quite extensively enough, however: today we marvel at something lovingly called "British Rail Food."
If you are an american reading this, you may jump (naturally) to the same conclusion I did at first. Rail food. Right. You make a box lunch and go sit on a railroad track and eat it. First one squashed by a train loses. A game, not food. Au contraire mon frere.
The British rail network was nationalized (or "nationalised", as the Brits like to hiss) between 1948 and 1994. Some of the sandwiches from that era are still under heating lamps waiting to be sold.
Not true, you say?
Then you would be wrong, for I can readily document the period of nationalization of Britain's railroads.
Oh. The food under the heating lamps, you mean. Yes, perhaps an exaggeration. But legend has it that the test for the sandwiches finally being thrown away was when their corners curled up more than 1 inch. That's a fact. No, wait. I said that was a legend. So NOT fact.
True, however, were the nasty comments and jibes this rather regimented "food" took from Britsh travelers during that period. Or "travellers" as the British like to say, in their uppity consonant-wasting way.
Uncovered at last is a 37-year-old document which listed some rules for the making and displaying of fine rail food during that era.
Issued in 1971 and authored by Director of Rail Catering, one Bill Currie, whose name would be especially apt today, himself now 37 years older than then, or perhaps actually dead and buried, as his food was and should have been, but here contributing only to this post's longest run-on sentence, gave several tips and instructions.
To make the sandwiches attractive (and probably to be able to tell what was inside) at least a third of the filling had to be placed in the center where the diagonal cut would be made and the contents seen by the, ahem, "consumer." Translated from the American into your standard BritishSpeak, this would be written roughly as follows:
"The average consumer could expect to find ⅔ oz of meat in their sandwich, but if a frankfurter took your fancy you got a whole 1oz! Filling a bread roll with chicken and cress required even more precision, as catering staff were charged with the task of calculating one twelfth of a punnet. Tasty treats like cheese (¾ oz) and gherkin (¼ oz), luncheon meat (⅔ oz) and cress, and sardine (⅔ oz) and tomato (⅓ oz) were whipped up all over the network."
Now, that's precision! Holy Ronald McDonald!
Now, right about now, the three or four Americans reading this far down in the post are probably saying to themselves, "Wha' the feck is 'punnet'? Wha' the feck is a cress?" And rightly so, but not germane to this post, since the Brits already likely know what that stuff is, and probably eat it all the time. Unless a punnet is not edible. Perhaps it is a napkin. Though napkins were unlikely to be served with food back then. I assume. Since a napkin would have cost more than the actual amount of food one received.
And, to be absolutely fair, an American, whose usual evening fare consists of a two-day-old Earl Campbell hot link purchased from an Indian all-night convenience store and washed down with a raspberry slurpy, would hardly be in a position to judge fine cuisine as would your average on-rail British "consumer." One would think.
Former BR caterer Myra Tuddenham, from Newcastle, said the reputation for stale BR sandwiches probably dated back to when they were kept under glass domes on the counters in refreshment rooms until the corners indeed turned up:
"They probably were terrible, particularly when the tomato made the bread go soggy, but people still bought them by the thousand. They are all pre-packed now and standard is much higher these days - I think the food is fabulous now," said Myra.
"Myra retired in 1999 after 28 years on the railways but is still a regular East Coast Main Line traveller. Indeed despite their reputation, BR sandwiches were undoubtedly a big seller among the passengers. Records show that in 1993 Inter-City customers munched their way through no fewer than eight million packs!"
Relax Max reckons Myra's face still displays a rather pronounced tic when she utters the words "Standard is much higher these days - food is fabulous now!" Picture Myra's head jerking sideways and snapping a bit backwards as the word 'fabulous' comes gushing out, and her left eye tic-ing rapidly, uncontrollably, at the very memory of chomping down on one of those wretched 37-year-old pickles. Ah, yes. We all believe you, dear.
Unfortunately, none of our readers are old enough to remember the grand nationalized rail era. Too bad. Your comments would be marvelous.