Notable Sandwiches #52: Cucumber
Musings on high tea and the UK's trans-rights pickle
Welcome back to Notable Sandwiches, the series in which I, alongside my editor David Swanson, stumble through the strange and ever-shifting document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches, in alphabetical order. This week: a high-tea delicacy, the cucumber sandwich.
Ahh, Britain. Land of high tea and scones, and of magic. The green seat of King Arthur, of majestic castles soaring up over chalk cliffs, of the fae creeping out from every moss-covered stone, ancient swords, a thousand-year monarchy, posh accents that make our Yankee vowels feel broad and coarse, beneficent wizards, and transphobia.
The cucumber sandwich fits every stereotype about upper-crust Britain between two slices of bread. It’s a Victorian creation, apocryphally invented by British colonists in India who wanted a light snack to counteract the sweltering heat of the country they were busy despoiling. As you ought to know by now, most sandwich-origin stories are bullshit. Still, it’s telling that a sandwich which spread due to new technology, in the form of coal-powered hothouses, also benefits from a boosterish, imperialist myth. The cucumber sandwich is generally prepared with butter or cream cheese, and served crustless at the highest of high teas—Queen Elizabeth was said to have preferred hers with mint. By now, nearly a century into its embodiment of (generously) poshness or (ungenerously) upper-class vapidity, it has become more symbol than sandwich.
The cucumber sandwich is so far removed from being au courant, in fact, that the sharpest satire of the dish comes to us from 1895, in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In Act I, the fatuous, amoral Algernon plans to serve cucumber sandwiches to his snobbish Aunt Augusta, causing the play’s protagonist, Jack, to exclaim, “Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young?”
The very same year that The Importance of Being Earnest became a smash hit on the West End stage, its author was arrested for “gross indecency.” Before his first trial Wilde had written, “The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing. On the sand is my life split.” On the stand, at the Old Bailey, he said of his loves: “That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.” He was sentenced to two years’ hard labor and spent most of it in solitary confinement. In his famous—and lovely—letter to his lover from prison, De Profundis (From the Depths), he recounts the public disgust at his sexual orientation as the chief source of his pain: “Everything about my tragedy has been hideous, mean, repellent, lacking in style,” he wrote. And of the crowd who jeered him: “To mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing.”
The cucumber sandwiches of Algernon bespeak one British tradition; the pillorying of its author for his sexuality, another. Sadly it is the latter tradition—the public degradation of LGBTQ people—into which the UK has plunged full-bore in a kind of public mania.
The US, of course, is busily engaged in its very own war on trans people, but it is the virulence and omnipresence of the UK’s transphobia that makes it so remarkable. It is staggering that such a tiny minority should be the locus of such an avalanche of print, from tabloids to the Telegraph, and that trans people should become the hysterical obsession of comedy hitmakers and wizarding billionaires alike, and the subject of lurid sexual paranoia of escalating absurdity. It’s an absolute flood tide of vitriol, and it has reached a remarkable high-water mark this week.
Currently, Scotland and England are at odds over trans-rights, with a Tory-led Westminster overreaching its authority to Cromwellian lengths in order to bar more tolerant Scottish legislation from passing. The UK’s tiny trans minority is caught in the middle of it all—less a cucumber sandwich and more of an absolute pickle. In order to clarify things, and with cucumber sandwiches in mind, I spoke to Mallory Moore, a Manchester-based, 39-year-old researcher at Trans Safety UK. This interview has been lightly edited, buttered, and condensed, with the crusts cut off and a dash of lemon and salt.
Talia Lavin: First off, regarding cucumber sandwiches, what do they evoke for you? Cultural icon or, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “reckless extravagance?”
Mallory Moore: Cucumber sandwiches are interesting—they give me British colonial vibes, like cricket match lunches. I have not been to a cricket match, but that’s what I assume they have there. Refreshing, though. A mate took me to a fancy tea where I had one. It was nice. To be honest, though, fancy tea feels like it’s much more about the presentation than the sandwiches.
What’s it like being trans in the UK right now?
At the moment, being trans is at a peak of controversy, I think. It seems much much more stressful for younger people who came out post-Trans Tipping Point, when I think they had hopes that things were just going to get better for everyone from there. In general there’s a really stark shift in public opinion, and an increase in public violence targeting trans people. With that said, I think most ordinary people simply do not care about trans people or trans issues in the UK, and the hostility is much greater in the media and government than in general.
What are you hearing from comrades in Scotland? How are they holding up, with the current brouhaha over the gender recognition law?
Comrades in Scotland are in general pretty tough. Many of them have done a really great job organizing links with allied struggles to a degree those of us in England have absolutely failed at. I know they face hostility also, but they’ve done a great job organizing resistance to transphobia.
Now they seem to be getting tired of being used as an independence talking point, if only because the standard left/lib thing is to act like none of this is to do with transphobia and sincere hate, and everything is just a proxy war. As if it isn’t both.
Can you give a brief explanation of the current situation around the Scottish and UK laws, and the Holyrood-Westminster conflict?
Around 2015 or 2016, both the Scottish government in Holyrood and the British government in Westminster decided that they were going to liberalize gender recognition. That’s a legal process where you get your birth certificate and legal gender reassigned and reissued. This primarily affects marriage and deaths, which are registered in sexed ways. Meaning that, for example, your partner has to call you their husband if you get married as a trans woman without a gender recognition certificate, even in secular processes. It’s very petty, but it’s really important to some people. Someone last year committed suicide after her life partner who had died was misgendered throughout an inquest. As you can imagine, it can be pretty traumatic for people. But it doesn’t really affect anyone else, because no one goes around checking birth certificates.
Fast forward seven years or so, and the Conservative party have been accused of taking cash for peerages—becoming “Lord” whatever—from ultra-conservative businessmen funding them in the millions. And all of a sudden they do a reversal on gender recognition, conversion therapy, and many other things.
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What’s been happening in Scotland in the interim?
The Scottish government has gone through two consultations—with many thousands of submissions to each, as well as oral submissions with questioning of witnesses—trying to get their approach to gender recognition right. They’ve also shown that they have the devolved power as Scottish parliament to reform gender recognition. But because of the Conservative British U-Turn, the Tories have decided to turn this into a devolution crisis.
The Scottish reforms themselves do a couple of things:
Reduce the minimum age of gender recognition to 16.
Allow people to do it without the traumatic and burdensome medical investigation that was previously required.
It also introduces new processes and offences around fraudulently applying or trying to use gender recognition to get around sex offender tracking.
I should add, in terms of hate crimes and stuff, Scottish trans women who have been targeted as a result of media panic have basically been subjected to things bordering on terrorism. It’s definitely not a safe time to be a trans public figure right now, and trans women of color have been particularly monstered out of the public eye over the last several years.
It’s so discouraging.
The Tories can’t last forever.
Is Labour any better?
We just need to build back and overcome Labour’s ambivalence; they’re trying to look “sensible” by refusing to get involved. Labour are in an awful state, generally, but they will be the next party in power.
Who would be the best person to discuss all of this with over cucumber sandwiches?
The best person would be Harry Josie Giles, because she’s an artistic genius from Scotland, a poetic goddess, and a punk icon. And she is hot as fuck on understanding all these issues.
Who would be the worst person to discuss this with over cucumber sandwiches?
Miriam Cates, the Tory MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, because she helped run a church group with credible allegations of conversion therapy, has used this issue to launch her feminist credibility somehow despite that, and as a Tory MP would basically make me feel terrible while gaslighting the issue in the most polite/rude way imaginable.
Should the UK break up? Is it time for this unnatural sandwich to dissolve?
Hahaha. Nations are daft. Scottish—and Welsh and Northern Irish—people need to be able to determine their own futures rather than being dictated by Westminster, whether that’s abolishing the United Kingdom or devolving it or whatever else works for them. We know from Brexit that secession isn’t necessarily the same as increased independence. But again, nations are daft.
High tea, or free T [testosterone]?
Definitely free (liberated) T. Trans guys shouldn’t be having to warn each other about the legality of androgens in the UK.
I was not expecting an interview about the awful deterioration of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK when I saw the headline -- I was just going to pop in and say that my gran used to send me off to school with Marmite & cucumber sandwiches in my lunch box for several years, so the headline brought back happy (but slightly weird) memories.
As to the main body of the piece, I'm ashamed of what's happened in the UK since I emigrated over twenty years ago -- things used to be so much better there than here, in America. It's terrible to see my former home becoming so hostile to people I care about.