Friday, January 2, 2009

More British food. Sort of.

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. 


  1. I am old enough to remember the grand nationalised rail era.
    I could, but will attempt not to, write an essay on the subject.
    Suffice to say, the railway was born here in England, in the brave days of the new renaissance which we call the Industrial Revolution.
    Somehow, ordinary young men, farmers sons, labourers sons, were struck by a wave of curiousity, and took it upon themselves to use iron and stone as never before, to tame fire and set it to work, they became the new Da Vincis.
    The steam engine was the catalyst. the first ones were staionary engines, which bobbed a lever up and down. A simple enough movement, but one which could pump water and air through ever deeper mines. Lift men and ore up and down shafts, already, coal and ore became cheaper.--------------------
    Ohh... Mr Soubriquet, you're doing it again... cut to the chase... railway companies proliferated. (Americans; railway and railroad are the transatlantic synonyms, this is Britishspeak, so railway is the one we will use).
    We had, in a small country, a proliferation of railway companies, duplicating each other's routes, and with the advent of the motor car and truck, they were struggling. So the big bad state took them over. A man called Beeching, ever reviled in Rail-loving circles, sought to rationalise the network, and pretty much overnight, closed hundreds of lines, thousands of stations. The concept was that a lean, mean, state owned network would be far more efficient. But we all know that governments are extremely inefficient at running anything. and that government workers feel so secure in their jobs that a job badly done is no barrier to promotion.
    British rail epitomised that aethos.
    Let it be said, you could dine very well indeed upon the trains.
    But for the peasants, that curling sandwich was the norm. How often did we hear on a long journey, that the restaraunt car would be closed, due to some unstated fault?
    And of course, they blithely sold tickets, with complete disregard to the actual number of seats.
    Now they've gone. And the companies now running the routes are many. A cheery Polish girl will sell you sandwiches, snacks, and hot drinks, and for the most part you'll reach your destination at about the quoted time.

    But oh, how I miss those smoke-belching, steam-guffing leviathans of yesteryear.
    I am tempted toward a blogpost.... With pictures. Not sandwiches.

  2. Thank you M. Soubriquet. I was thinking I was going to have to be the first to admit to remembering nationalised railways. (btw I fear you failed in your attempt ;) )

    I don't especially remember curly sandwiches, just awful food. With one exception and that was the set breakfast. I must have been travelling for work because otherwise there was no way I'd either be out so early, nor been prepared to pay so much, for a meal on BR. Two things I recall: one that it was an excellent breakfast - I was probably ravenous - and two, that it cost 17/6 (seventeen shillings and sixpence). For that the average passenger, including myself, would tender a one pound note in payment and be offered 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence, half a crown) in change. The slightest hesitation in picking up that half crown meant it disappeared in a flash into the waiter's pocket, as a tip, whether or not you intended it. Next time I had the right change.

    As it was pre-decimalisation, I can only have been working in Liverpool, and I must have been sent on a training course. Another admission of age - I can't remember where.

  3. Holy Crap! Is this guy Max funny or WHAT! Someone should nominate him to the humor bloggers elite club. Right. Here, little doggie, I got your curly sandwiches. Ya little hump ya.

  4. Maxie, I think this is one of the better posts you have made this year. Don't listen to the dork in the hat. He is just jealous of your extreme writing majesty.

    Why would Soubriquet want to be served by a cherry Polish girl?

  5. Too much Maxie. You know how HOT I get for writers. Even you!

  6. Tanisha, being served by a cheery Polish girl is one of life's great pleasures.
    For cherry I recommend Danish, with cream.
    By the way, I think Max's alter ego situation is getting out of hand.

  7. A. 15th february, 1971, D Day, or Decimalisation Day.
    A year and a half later, I started in my first job as a reluctant un-civil servant, working for Her Majesty's Government, in the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity. For each week of my labours, I received the princely sum of Twelve Pounds and fifty pence. Before taxes and deductions.
    So the 17/6d breakfast was mighty expensive. at the time, a pint of Guinness was 15 pence in the student union bar.

  8. Soubriquet, it was the 2/6 tip that stuck in my mind, but I'm fairly sure the breakfast was 17/6. Any less and the tip would have been unacceptable (it nearly was anyway). And I do recall feeling it was a great treat, and very luxurious.

  9. I'm also old enough to remember British Rail before the bits got sold off. Although not pre-decimalisation.

    Railway food has always been overpriced although it's definitely less ropey these days than even 15 years ago. Thankfully.

  10. I just discovered I haven't answered any of these comments. No wonder you all left in a tiff. How could I? I was so interested in reading them, that's why. But I will answer them all in the morning, and in such a clever fashion you would be incredibly daft not to return later and read them. So.

  11. @Soubriquet - I love old locomotives. I hope you do. That would be great! I will watch your blog.

  12. @A. - I can't remember pre-decimalization. It happened here in the 1700s. Right after you made us stop using your money. :)

  13. @Soubriquet and A. - Zzzzzzzzzzz.

  14. Hey Catherine! The old system had bits? Ropey? You are teaching me again. :) :)



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