As I start to type out this blog post I am on a train departing from Cambridge, the city that has been somewhat my home for the past four and a half months. I’m not loving every minute of this new adventure, but I am starting to allow myself to realize that’s an okay thought. I’m spending a lot of physical, emotional, and spiritual (not to mention financial) energy on this venture of earning a PhD. I’m doubly hard on myself because of my mental illness and in general I have been hard on myself my whole life.
Back to the thoughts that started this post. I’m sitting on a train, sipping on an iced vanilla latte and eating a bacon sandwich. Bless the British people for inventing the bacon sandwich. It’s the only time I’ll concede that your back bacon rashers are better than the thick smoked streaky bacon back home. Especially the bacon from Smiths and Harmons. I really miss Harmons. Sainsburys here is somewhat close, but not the same.
The last five and a half months have been an exercise in “same” or “not the same,” and sometimes there’s “somewhat better” and “better.” Ben and Jerry’s? Same. Hard to find cute clothes for my plus size body? Same. The UK weather compared to Utah weather? I say somewhat better because while the humidity is surely going to kill me, at least there’s moisture in the air and everything’s green. Which means I can breathe through my nose and my lips, elbows, and hair aren’t always dry. Diet soda? I’m going to say it’s better for me here because I don’t drink it like I did back home. I used to be a Diet Coke fiend, but here Diet Coke tastes nasty. So less soda equals win, doesn’t it?
Game shows? Somewhat better. I’ve always loved Jeopardy back home, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has always been easy for me sitting at home on the couch and shouting at people for not knowing that Frida Kahlo’s nationality was Mexican! But I admit here in the UK I’ve fallen for quiz shows like The Chase, Pointless, and Tipping Point. My advisor teases me for liking the last one, but I mean, come on, it’s exciting to see if the counters in the push machine will or will not fall. And people are dumb for choosing drop zone three when clearly in drop zone four that mystery counter is so close to falling over. (For those of you that have never watched the game show Tipping Point, don’t, it’s addicting.)
Historical sites? Again somewhat better. I do love the pioneer and Native American history of Utah, but I have always been enchanted by old churches and castles, ancient graveyards, and with any place where the population and government are dedicated to preserving the past. The stories that came before us speak of our humanity and the sliding scales of our progresses as a civilization, which has changed from the first tiny settlements in the Tigris-Euphrates and Indus valleys, into this global economy and melting pot of cultures our world is slowly becoming.
Because I’m studying food in science fiction and fantasy literature for my PhD, this means I’m not only looking at what magical sweets Harry Potter bought on the Hogwarts Express or the anachronistic potatoes in Middle Earth, I will be studying the history of food in culture as well. I am fortunate to have already visited the historical kitchen at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II’s secondary residence, on a previous trip to England. Recent archeology of the centuries old castle uncovered that several of the chimneys in the kitchen were almost a thousand years old. Which means that it’s likely the oldest continually working kitchen in Great Britain at the very least.
Today I visited Hampton Court Palace there I walked where kings and queens once walked. They are titles, which mean very little for many people in the world. I’ve met several republicans here in the UK, which for my US friends mean they are against the monarchy, or rather for the most part, the monarchy receiving taxpayer money. To me the title of course invokes history. This is probably due to my American birth and a vague notion that real names would be remembered forever in history that weren’t presidents. I still vividly remember my dad telling my siblings and me about the death of Princess Di and that this was going to really upset my mom who liked her a great deal. Then in the aftermath of September 11th I remember the outrage over President Bush’s family ties to Saudi Arabian royalty. The rest of the notion of royalty is wrapped up in fairy tales and history.
In my senior year of high school we studied several of Shakespeare’s plays and we learned a bit more about the culture of Tudor and Elizabethan England. I was completely enamored with the story of the Tutors (and also of the mysterious figure of Christopher Marlowe, but that’s another story for another time). The budding feminist in me was outraged at how Henry VIII discarded one wife after another, especially since I’d learned in biology class that men carry the genes that determine the sex of a baby. I was also enchanted by the notion of this culture of decadence mixed with religious fervor, tying into my own inner religious turmoil that continues to this day.
At Hampton Court Palace I must confess I felt a bit disappointed in my surroundings upon first arrival. The flag at half mast due to the attack at the London Bridge the night before was also heavy on my heart.
Whenever you see modern restoration and construction taking place with a historical sight in the backdrop, it tends to cause a bit of temporal dissonance I think. I felt this same bit of disappointment when I visited Westminster Abbey for a second time in 2015 and saw to my horror the beautiful gothic facade covered by scaffolding.
My disappointment began to ebb away though as I climbed the steps up to Henry VIII’s apartments and the great hall within. These vaulted ceilings never cease to take my breath away. The audio guide and displays pointing out things where time was knitted together between the years even then. Where some places of Katherine of Aragon’s time still overlapped with Anne Boleyn’s (some of it due to restoration). One exhibit was dedicated to the power play between Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. It was spiritually moving to visit chambers where in all likelihood Katherine of Aragon prayed and wept, never losing her composure or her faith. I also admire Anne Boleyn as well. We can never know to what extent she was played a pawn in her father’s and uncle’s games to court the King’s favor, or if she really was a bold patron of new religious freedom. I’ve also seen Anne’s English Bible, a Tyndale translation, in the British Library. Such a thing would have been a dangerous possession; even as Henry distanced himself from the Catholic Church in Rome he still fought to maintain his faith in the teachings of the church of his forbearers.
Of course the main reason I wanted to go to Hampton Court Palace was so see the historical *working* kitchen. Well, really only one hearth is actively used today for live cooking demonstrations of spit roasting meat. The experimental food historian (my new favorite job title) answered questions from visitors with enthusiasm. Surely he’s answered many of these same questions many of the times over the years working as both a historian and a character in the atmosphere of a time where courtiers dined on thousands of pounds of meat every year. The staggering number of hundreds of deer, oxen, sheep, wild boar, and fish served could feed a small third world nation today for sure. When guests spent their time at Hampton Court, approximately 75% of the diet was meat; hardly distinct from the diet of many people in first world nations today.
When I told the experimental food historian I was here in the UK to study food in literature he was instantly interested. Immediately asked if I considered some quotes from various Shakespeare plays, one of which was King Lear, a play I have not revisited with my new academic angle in mind. He also told me about a friend of his who did her own postgrad dissertation on the historical significance of how deer was hunted and the order in which it was dressed (butchered) in the field, with allusions to Tristan and Isolde and The Green Knight. When I said, “cool,” he laughed and replied, “we say cool; most people don’t know what it means.”
I love that. I so often feel so singular and isolated that I forget I can be part of a “we.” I’m an academic “we.” I guess in a way I’m a food historian “we” now as well (more of a cultural food historian, but still). I’m a writer “we” and a reader “we.” Still a part of family “we” and slowly becoming part of the Anglia Ruskin “we.”
This also means I will likely become a “we” of the past one day. I’ll leave behind words rather than royal actions or help to charge religious change. You can be a part of a “we” too, vicarious we of this PhD blog and my expat experiences.
© Ginger Lee Thomason and foodandcheerandprose.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and foodandcheerandprose.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Image taken with iPhone 6 in June 2017 at Hampton Court Palace, London, England, UK.