This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2017.
If you'd told me ten years ago that I would one day spend an hour and a half beneath the vaulted ceilings of a London pub, eating quinoa salad with the man who writes the Wetherspoons News magazine, I may have questioned your soothsaying.
And yet, here we are, just a few weeks after MUNCHIES received a rather mysterious email from the JD Wetherspoon PR team, which made the pub chain's new range of hot dogs, burgers, and salads sound more like a comprehensive dossier of state secrets than a spring menu launch. "Would rather not go into too much detail re the meals as they are not launched in the pubs until March 8," the email read. "And we don't want competitors knowing about them."
This, I thought, must be how Edward Snowden felt.
Only Snowden didn't get to spend a lunchtime chewing through seven plates of various delicious forms of beige across the table from Eddie, a man who started working with Wetherspoons 27 years ago. A man who refers to the chain's new smashed avocado bagel offering as a "beigel," because he's a true Eastender. A man who spends his life pulling together stories from across the country for a pub magazine read by two million customers. A man who describes the Brexiteer chairman of Wetherspoons, Tim Martin, as "just a really nice bloke."
Eddie is keen to point out that, in many ways, Wetherspoons is the most reliable way to take the temperature of the national zeitgeist. If it's happening in Britain, then it's happening in Wetherspoons—from births to deaths, fights, affairs, marriages, austerity, celebrations, family harmony, social disharmony, and everything in between. I look up from my laden table and see a man in a suit jacket and long tweed skirt, two builders eating a full mixed grill at 10.30 AM, a couple of businessmen scrolling through iPads over filter coffees, and bar staff with a wide range of European accents. And that's just one pub, on one morning.
Looking through this month's Wetherspoons News, there are stories of Mencap award-winning "kitchen associates," the conservation of some 16th century Tudor walls in a Wetherspoons in Hoddesdon, a female aircraft engineer from the 1930s, a visit to a pub in Pontypridd by two members of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards wearing full dress uniform, local food banks, Morris dancers performing a "rapper" dance in Whitley Bay, and a woman who's lost six stone by eating at Wetherspoons (and joining Slimming World).
But first, to the food.
It would be easy to claim that Wetherspoons has suddenly woken up to the hipster-baiting potential of brunch. The new menu includes a 350-calorie smashed avocado bagel, a gluten-free fry up, and a New York deli-style pastrami bagel with mustard mayo and gherkins, said to be inspired by the 1989 sandwich orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. It all feels a very long way from the fried-egg-and-pint-of-lemonade hangover breakfasts we dragged ourselves to Wetherspoons for as students.
Although if you are hanging like a pair of curtains, you may be cholesterolly-charged to hear that there is a new burger on the Wetherspoons menu that weighs in at 1,900 calories. "The Empire State Burger" is a double beef burger with "gooey" American cheese slices and maple bacon. Mine even came with onion rings and a side of fries.
Now, I'm as easy-come-easy-go about my arteries as the next woman, but even I was sort of impressed to see my entire daily calorific intake on a single, blue-patterned plate. You'd have to be ploughing a large chunk of Iowa fields, by hand, with a wooden spoon and a toasting fork, to be burning of enough calories to have this as a regular lunch.
The PR email had explained: "In essence, we've two great burgers to add to the range plus two new hot dogs and a quinoa salad (who would have thought of that at a Wetherspoon years ago!)"
When Eddie started working for Wetherspoons back in 1990—when Wetherspoons wasn't exactly known as a gastronomic destination—he never thought that he'd one day be discussing Incan grains with members of the press. (He probably didn't think he'd ever witness a woman with unplucked eyebrows and elasticated trousers eat four plates of lunch at 10.45 AM either, but you live and learn.)
The quinoa salad was actually pretty nice. As the menu says, this "fabulous" new salad is "under 500 calories (459 Cal), comprising quinoa, rice, avocado, adzuki beans, grilled red, and yellow peppers, red cabbage, chia seeds, and kale." That's right—chia seeds and kale. Shove that up your Curry Club and see how it rumbles.
Finally, to the hot dogs. After spending this summer in Berlin, I was sort of intrigued to see that Wetherspoons has just launched its own version of the currywurst. It is called, exotically, "The Bombay Dog" and involves a sausage (of course) on brioche bun, topped with curry sauce, tomato, onion, fresh coriander, and a healthy scattering of crispy onions. Definitely one for a first date, I'd say.
There is also "The State Dog" topped with a Monterey Jack cheese and pepper sauce, maple-cured streaky bacon, gherkin, and crispy onion. It seems a little odd that as Trump eases his racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic rump into the presidency, Wetherspoons has included so many Americana-inspired burgers and hot dogs on its new menu. Let's hope it's just a case of the enduring appeal of meat and bread.
"I honestly never thought you'd eat as much as that—I'm impressed," says Eddie, as I lean back on my chair, look upon my deeds, and wonder quite how I'd done it again. I had "tasted" (read: eaten) most of the new Wetherspoons menu in the time it had taken the middle-aged man in a skirt to drink his coffee, which either tells you something about the quality of Wetherspoons' food or my ability to put it away during the first half of the day.
It is probably true that, for a great many people, Wetherspoons News is British news—a reflection of the successes, the failures, the dangers, and eccentricities of those of us living in this funny collection of islands. With the pub chain turning over literally millions of pounds in food every year, it is probably also fair to say that its menu is the British menu—from curry and rice to hot dogs and onion rings, to quinoa salad and avocado bagels. I've taken the temperature of the British palate, surrounded by builders and businessmen, on top of a swirling carpet and off those signature blue-and-white plates. Now, I suppose, it's your turn.
Oh, and I still disagree with Tim Martin about Brexit, by the way.