As an unabashed Anglophile, I consider television my lifeline to the idealized Britain where my soul aches to be. Every night when I close my eyes, I go to my second home, a pastoral cottage in Scotland where I have an ex-parrot and two sheds. My dearest friend is Mary Berry, and we travel the countryside—I’m on a motorcycle and she’s in the sidecar. I regularly attend lavish garden parties at Downton Abbey, where no one even once considers escorting me off the premises for filling my purse with cocktail shrimp.
The Crown promised us that it would be the new gospel for our kind. Costing more than $130 million to produce, Netflix’s masterpiece about the life of Queen Elizabeth II was to be a display of pageantry that could only be rivaled by the Windsors themselves. To say it succeeds does not even come close to doing it justice.
Over the course of ten episodes, we are bathed in a level of opulence that quickly becomes nothing more than scenery: elaborate sets, priceless jewels, exotic locales, a scene centered around an actual elephant. The Crown takes us into Elizabeth’s life quite intimately and, in time, almost suffocatingly. Being the British sovereign is not even remotely the cushy “job” of a political figurehead that I’d suspected it to be. In the first episode she is a young, carefree princess, aware that one day she will take the throne, but with the expectation that that day will be far in the future—that she will be allowed for some years to enjoy a modicum of normalcy, far removed from the crippling stress her father grapples with. By the final episode the queen is not even out of her twenties, but her lifelong disdain for fools and their many poor choices in life has been more than justified. Shakespeare wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and sweet Jesus did he hit the nail on the head with that chestnut.
It’s the opulence that I’m here for. My dreams rely strongly on my power to compartmentalize (I’d omit: Brexit/Big Brother/Piers Morgan), so throughout I made a point of mentally filing away each moment of grandeur for future use by my subconscious. I was given parades, a coronation, and a freaking elephant—but no elaborate banquets! What of Downton Abbey, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones, all of which have expanded their cultural influence into the realm of cookbooks—did absolutely no one even consider the lucrative merchandising possibilities here? I fully expected to see at least one banquet with servants and crystal and a shitfaced Winston Churchill telling jokes about prostitutes. Not a one. In fact, there was hardly any food seen or mentioned throughout the entire series, a fact that when compared to other aristocratic epics seems utterly ludicrous.
Being the expert that I am, I have theories as to just why The Crown lacks food. My qualifications: I’ve seen several documentaries about the UK on PBS and have spent a sizable portion of my life dicking around on Wikipedia.
Theory Number 1: Stress-Induced Nausea
Of the many lessons we can take away from the The Crown, there is none more blatantly obvious that this:
Being a member of the British Royal family is absolutely, soundly, and thoroughly fucking terrible.
To we mere mortals, a life of nobility seems to be all champagne wishes and caviar dreams. I say “mortals” because the royals are something else: Taught from birth that they have been selected by none other than God himself as his personal terrestrial representatives, they are the chosen ones who will set the example for humanity, instilling in the people a sense of hope and faith. Their childhoods—and beyond—are spent being drilled on such matters as foreign military entanglements and the differences between various fancy spoons. Even the tiniest error could destroy not only the monarchy, but the eternal souls of all mankind.
I believe this is why members of the royal family make a deliberate point of doing the absolute dumbest shit possible—not because they feel they are “above the law,” but rather because their very existence is so entrenched in that law that they’re trying to get booted from the family. Edward VII is said to have caused his father to die of shame when he learned his boy had banged a prostitute at sleepaway camp—then, once his prudish father was out of the way, he had the all-clear to bang more than (and this is supposedly documented) 1,000 additional women. Prince Harry once attended a formal dinner party dressed as a Nazi for some reason.
If my blood were blue, I’d be sustaining myself on a strict diet of bone broth and cherry Jell-O, which I would still manage to vomit up due to stress. Many members of the House of Windsor have done something similar, replacing broth with scotch and Jell-O with more scotch.
Theory Number 2: There’s Not Much to Show
In episode seven, Princess Margaret greets a cocktail party full of dignitaries by saying that “the food is known for not being much.” This could read as a sly dig at British food, which has the reputation of being positively awful and mostly boiled. Alas, I will not jump in the fray here with easy jokes, because I for one think British food is “the dog’s bollocks”—these are the same people who gave the world cheddar cheese and those gigantic turkey legs you get at Medieval Times.
British royal banquets, in particular, are not to be turned down. Edward VII’s 1902 coronation coincided with victory in the Boer War, and elaborate celebrations were planned to toast not just the sovereign, but also the fortitude of his empire. George V’s 1911 ascension was marked by the Festival of the Empire—a World’s Fair of sorts that exclusively focused on British dominance, which then governed 23 percent of the earth’s population. This is the era of Downton Abbey, a show that featured such spectacular examples of haute cuisine—salmon suspended in jiggly aspic, gravity-defying platters of vertical asparagus, delicate raspberry meringue—that one had to wonder if it was truly England at all.
How we descend from the culinary dignity of Downton Abbey to the sorry state of things in The Crown: World War I, rationing, the Great Depression, more rationing, World War II, the Blitzkrieg, the loss of most of their colonies, and, for good measure, a little bit more rationing.
By the time Elizabeth ascends to the throne in 1953, Great Britain is sustaining itself on a diet that is, at a minimum, 40 percent Spam. Multiple generations had grown up only knowing a world where food was purchased with government-issued ration coupons. Even restaurants were handcuffed, with a 1942 order dictating that no meal could cost more than 5 shillings a customer. Rationing as a whole didn’t end until 1954, in the second year of Elizabeth’s regency. After spending the first half of the century being hammered by incessant disaster, the British threw in the towel and began the tradition of making anything gourmet simply by pouring canned baked beans over it.
Queen Elizabeth places no importance on food. Her wedding brunch lasted all of 20 minutes. The most famous dish from her coronation (and still a British staple today) is a steamed skinless chicken breast slathered with a mix of apricot jam and mayonnaise. While the state of British cooking has both rebounded and excelled, her royal highness prefers dishes such as boiled eggs, lamb cutlets, and gin martinis. Gin would be an important part of your diet, too, if you had to deal with those people.
Theory Number 3: All That Etiquette Makes It Too Hard to Eat
There’s more to the royal education than learning about how you are literally God’s gift to the universe. There is also the matter of proper etiquette, which is taught with the same precision one would apply to quantum physics. Episode seven cold-opens with 13-year-old Elizabeth staring out a window, eyes nervously following the warplanes buzzing through the air, being chastised by her French tutor to focus on the lesson at hand.
“It is always the sovereign who begins the meal. It is absolutely forbidden to begin before he, or she, takes their first bite. During the meal, when it is the first course, you must only speak to the person seated on your right until the end.”
Truly, what could be more important for a young girl to learn amidst the London Blitz of 1940? Maybe when the Nazis invade she could eat a salad with a shrimp fork and cause all of them to drop dead with embarrassment.
The protocols for daily life are so byzantine that it’s simply impossible to even attempt a summation. The closest I can manage is this: Everything you do is wrong. Sleeping. Showering. Tying your shoes. Looking at birds. Eating a bagel. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.
The act of ingesting anything is a minefield of potential impropriety. There are specific rules about everything from condiment usage (always dab, never smear) to adding milk to tea (after it is poured—putting milk in first is for poor people) to barbecues (ghastly affairs that are an affront to good taste and should be avoided whenever possible). Long pasta is banned for danger of splashing a bit of sauce on one’s attire. Garlic is verboten because an odorous aristocrat is an odious aristocrat. And no person should ever, ever touch the queen, or any royal for that matter. This keeps them from being poisoned via contact with lesser skin, which probably has cooties.
To truly understand the difficulty of navigating dinner with the queen, we’re going to do a bit of role playing. As we all know, a stiff upper lip and emotional repression are commonly thought of as “peak British” traits, so you’re going to need to slip into that persona. Now picture yourself as a proper Brit, then add the layer of the previously addressed stress that rests with the nobility. Consider the few etiquette protocols we just skimmed over (of which, in reality, there are multitudes). Once you’re fully in character, I want you to say the names of the following foods aloud:
Woodcock with creamy Cumberland sauce.
You’ve maintained your elegant composure in the queen’s presence, correct? You haven’t perchance smirked, or even worse, broken out into a hysterical fit of giggles? If you’ve held it together, you’re a far better person than I am. Perhaps they really are superior to my lot. Did you know the Brits have a dish called “neeps and tatties” and not a single one of the four British people I polled has ever thought to call it “nips and titties”? Seriously, how do you miss an opportunity to call something nips and titties! I don’t care how blue your blood is, no one is so important that a solid dick joke is beneath them. (See how that works, your majesty?)
Theory Number 4: Smoking
It is well known that smoking destroys your sense of taste, and smoking like a chimney can just about obliterate it. What food was to Downton Abbey, tobacco is to The Crown. If it’s eventually revealed that this entire series is actually one long anti-smoking PSA, I would not be the least bit surprised. In episode one, Prince Phillip talks about just how much he loves smoking, and Elizabeth chastises him. Phillip quits the day before his wedding; now he’s 95 years old. If only the rest of the Windsors followed his example.
Later in the same episode, we get to see surgeons excise King George’s lung, which they casually wrap up in newspaper like cancer-crusted fish and chips. Does this spur him, or any other member of the royal family, to quit smoking? Of course it doesn’t! These people just can’t get enough of the warm embrace of tobacco. After all, George was only the name he assumed upon his ascension to the throne: His birth name was Albert. Yes, we are all gaping at the blackened, disease-laden lung of none other than the namesake of Prince Albert in a Can. I’m guessing that no one ever let him out, and now he’s going to die slowly and painfully. Good job, everybody.
After we watch George eventually succumb to lung cancer, we witness his mother, Queen Mary, die the same way. His father, the late Edward VII, smoked 20 cigarettes and 12 cigars a day, a regimen that eventually killed him with a one-two punch of bronchitis and heart disease. And if you all promise to keep tuning in and keep this thing on the air, it will only be a few more seasons before Prince Edward kicks it thanks to throat cancer, after which Princess “I’m sure as hell not seeing a pattern here” Margaret, like her father before her, has a nice chunk of her cancerous lung lopped out in 1985. Maybe they’ll wrap that one up in a McDLT container.