Ode to English Sunday Lunch
My love of travel and marriage to a Brit have meant that, at the age of 41, I have made a home in four countries outside the U.S. Throughout my life as an expat, food has always been my favorite portal to a culture: A country reveals itself in the way it breaks bread. In Singapore, citizens belied their buttoned-up reputation in the raucous aisles of the evening hawker stalls, where my favorite meal was nasi goreng, served up on a plastic plate and washed down with a large bottle of Tiger beer. In Berlin, pragmatic stereotypes prevailed, and I acquired a Teutonic appreciation for the importance of the first meal of the day, Frühstück. And in England, where I have lived the longest, I made a rookie error in assuming the tourist staple of high tea at a fancy hotel was the country’s quintessential meal, prim and proper as the Queen herself. It turns out that Sunday lunch, a far more languorous affair, holds that mantel. In the below excerpt from Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, my memoir of life in the English Cotswolds, I recount one of my favorite experiences of this most British of meals. For your own experience of Sunday lunch in the Cotswolds, my top pick is The Black Horse Inn in Naunton.
Chapter Eighteen: Sunday Lunch
In March, we had lunch. It wasn’t just any lunch. It was Sunday lunch, a fixture of English life, and a ritual I had admired since we first moved to London. There it was an event that played out in pubs, where groups of friends would arrive with armfuls of newspapers. I used to look in at them through the windows of our corner pub, The Bonaparte, with their steaming plates of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and all those papers spread around like they were getting ready to paint something. The closest thing I could think of to this routine in Los Angeles was aspiring actors/directors/screenwriters sitting at a coffee shop gripping a soy chai latte in one hand and a script in the other. The harder the person tried to look nonchalant, the more deliberate the whole thing seemed. The English version seemed both gastronomically and intellectually superior. And now we had been invited to Sunday lunch, the first since our arrival in the Cotswolds.
This one was a belated birthday celebration for Miles and was hosted by his ex-wife, Lillian. (Fraternizing between ex-spouses is uncommonly common in the Cotswolds, presumably a coping mechanism for divorcees to maintain a social life in such a small community). Like all good parties, this one took place largely in her kitchen around the farmhouse table. After pheasant pie and potatoes Dauphinoise but before almond cake and coffee, snowflakes started dancing outside the kitchen window, which was already framing a picture-perfect winter white landscape. I was pretty sure Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson were about to walk through the door and join us for the cheese course.
An entire cast of Richard Curtis characters wouldn’t have been more interesting than the assembled company. In addition to the charms of Miles and his ex, we were joined by another couple. The husband resembled Paul Bunyan in his leather waistcoat and is a writer whose work I knew from my favorite newspaper. These facts alone would have been enough to sustain me for the entire afternoon, but he turned out to be only too happy to further oblige my stereotype of an idiosyncratic former Fleet Street journalist. While the rest of the table drank rioja, he steadily drained the bottle of The Famous Grouse and a small pitcher of water that had been set out at his place. (This is the only manner in which I have seen water offered at a Cotswold table. Unless it’s accompanying whiskey, locals seem to think using water to hydrate yourself is somehow wimpy.) Between courses, he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and told me stories about his early years in Los Angeles with his old friend, Robin Leach, and as a correspondent for The New York Times.
Neither did his wife disappoint. She was dressed in Toff I-don’t-give-a-shit, in this case a ripped hot pink cashmere V-neck, jeans, and leopard-print loafers. I think it was my compliment of her ring—Fabergé—that sparked the conversation that revealed her father had been a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who, while stationed in the AP’s Moscow bureau during the Stalin era, eloped with her mother, a ballerina in The Bolshoi. Clark Gable played her father in the film version of her parents’ romance. Really.
I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sorry for her. How are you ever supposed to live up to parents like that? It was enough to make me grateful for my own parents’ relative mediocrity. The day before on a phone call with my father I had to explain to him what cava was. He seemed downright fascinated to learn about the existence of this economically priced Spanish sparkling wine.
“How do you know about things like that?” he asked, his voice filled with genuine wonder.
On second thought, my father may have just been expressing understandable bafflement that my knowledge of wine seemed to eclipse my knowledge of the birds and the bees. Or at least my seeming ability to act on it.
JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 Indie Reader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. The book chronicles her decision to give up city life for the bucolic pleasures of the British countryside alongside her decision over whether or not to pursue motherhood. You can find Jennifer online at: