Belmont Club

The politics of pastrami sandwiches

Paul Berger of the UK Times has developed an infallible way of telling which side of the Atlantic he is on: no matter how jet-lagged he is, Berger just goes out to buy a sandwich. If he can see the filling, he’s in New York. If he has to guess if there’s anything in it at all, he’s in London. Berger says:

The shortcomings of the contemporary British sandwich are numerous. They include freshness, variety, consistency and lack of substance. But the main problem is the Dickensian attitude towards fillings. Perhaps I have been in New York too long, but when I am faced with a row of sandwiches I like to be able tell by sight what delights await me inside: glistening slices of ham or chargrilled chicken, topped with avocado, crisp lettuce and deep, red tomato.

Fast-forward to Heathrow airport, less than half an hour after I touch down on damp English tarmac, and I am face to face with my first British sandwich, a snack so devoid of filling that it looks like the victim of knife crime — a baguette with a gash. A glance at the nearby tag informs me that somewhere inside this wounded piece of bread lies “egg mayonnaise”. But rather than take their word for it, I opt for a smoothie.

But why did it takes years of brain-washing in New York for Berger to notice the difference? Even Paul Krugman who is an admirer of many things European, found himself perplexed by inexplicable misery of British food. Why did it remain so bad when people could clearly afford better? Being an economist by trade, Krugman rooted around for an answer until he hit upon the theory of market failure.  He believed that for historical reasons British cuisine had been so bad for so long  it had become an acquired taste. There was actually a demand for bad food in Britain. A lack of information had caused market failure, he concluded. Berger, being exposed to other cuisines, eventually came to see the difference.  Britons before the age of mass travel kept eating disturbingly bad food because they believed it was really supposed to taste that way. Krugman writes:

Maybe the first question is how English cooking got to be so bad in the first place. A good guess is that the country’s early industrialization and urbanization was the culprit. Millions of people moved rapidly off the land and away from access to traditional ingredients. Worse, they did so at a time when the technology of urban food supply was still primitive: Victorian London already had well over a million people, but most of its food came in by horsedrawn barge. And so ordinary people, and even the middle classes, were forced into a cuisine based on canned goods (mushy peas!), preserved meats (hence those pies), and root vegetables that didn’t need refrigeration (e.g. potatoes, which explain the chips).

Of course now that they know better, the Britons will change their ways. Krugman believes that bad information also behind another kind of regrettable food choice.  If the British sandwich is in danger of being overrun by the hot pastrami sandwich and a half-sour, across the Channel the glory of French civilization is under the brutal assault of Dunkin Donuts.  Krugman says, “conversely, a good equilibrium may unravel. Suppose a country with fine food is invaded by purveyors of a cheap cuisine that caters to cruder tastes.”  The idea of Frenchmen chomping doughnuts makes him shudder.

You may say that people have the right to eat what they want, but by thinning the market for traditional fare, their choices may make it harder to find–and thus harder to learn to appreciate–and everyone may end up worse off. The English are often amused by the hysteria of their nearest neighbors, who are terrified by the spread of doughnuts at the expense of croissants.

Krugman believes, in summary, that people can make bad choices because they don’t know better. From that it is easy to see how he can believe that opposition to Obamacare and European-style welfare is because know-nothings have bad acquired tastes. Like Bill Clinton, who craved fried pies and brought on his cardiac problems, the “bitter clingers” don’t know what is good for them. They unreasonably cling to outmoded habits and customs. Force them to sample better public policy, give them a taste of sophisticated sensibility and they will never go back to the old ways. At all events, the bitter clingers would be far better off accepting the aesthetic judgments of their well-traveled betters. Like Paul Krugman.

But his argument is not entirely convincing. For in the years when Britain ruled the seas, its merchant fleet and navies brought many people from all walks of the Island’s life into contact with distant lands. Wellington campaigned in France; Clive in India. The Med was for a long time a British lake. France was right across the Channel. London was for years the most cosmopolitan city on earth. It is hard to argue that Britons ate badly simply because they knew no better. The more probable case was that they knew the “better” foreign article and preferred the bad British food just the same. Kipling caught the sweep of Britain at its height by invoking the storm winds of the ocean.

Strayed amid lonely islets, mazed amid outer keys,
I waked the palms to laughter — I tossed the scud in the breeze —
Never was isle so little, never was sea so lone,
But over the scud and the palm-trees an English flag was flown. …

The East Wind roared: — “From the Kuriles, the Bitter Seas, I come,
And me men call the Home-Wind, for I bring the English home.
Look — look well to your shipping! By the breath of my mad typhoon
I swept your close-packed Praya and beached your best at Kowloon!

“The reeling junks behind me and the racing seas before,
I raped your richest roadstead — I plundered Singapore!
I set my hand on the Hoogli; as a hooded snake she rose,
And I flung your stoutest steamers to roost with the startled crows.

And through this tempest, the mystery British sandwich survived. Why? Perhaps because in all those turbulent times the meat and two veg served as the unfailing rock, the symbol of all that was enduring in England.  And now that empire is gone, what comfort there used to be in the Roast Beef of England is missing as well, and it’s on to the curry. Maybe. But we’ll never know any more than anyone will understand why The Tasty has been immortalized in movies about Harvard Square while Elsie’s has closed unremarked. Dostoevsky wrote, “man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time”. And as for the cause of the survival of doughnuts in gay Paris, a famous Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, once said, “the heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”

Paul Krugman may like what he likes — even Obamacare — but for anyone to like it simply because he does — now that would be market failure.

“No Way In” print edition at Amazon
Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5