English Lumps of Sugar

My mornings in England over Christmas started with dark coffee at the Rump & Wade. I am the early riser in our family, so each night before I went to bed, I laid out my clothes and packed a book and a journal for my morning excursion.

We stayed at the Cromwell Hotel in Stevenage, named after Oliver Cromwell. Not because he lived there in the early to mid-1,600s, but rather John Thurloe, his secretary, owned the then farmhouse. I interpret secretary to be like a cabinet member; Thurloe was Crowell’s head of intelligence. It seemed strange to me that I awoke every morning to Cromwell’s portrait on the wall of Thurloe’s home. I wrote that off to modern day marketing.

The Rump & Wade is the bar and restaurant connected by a long hallway to the Cromwell. We Malcolms had a little giggle at the name. During the English Civil War in the mid-1600s, Cromwell led the English Parliament after the death of Charles I. Within a government torn apart by war, Cromwell led the remnant group that remained, the “rump.”

As for Wade, well, honestly, the origins of Rump was a bigger fascinator to me than Wade. Perhaps it refers to George Wade, who was born in the generation following Cromwell and served in four wars throughout his lifetime? Just an educated guess at that one, based on a little poking around at the history of “Wade” in England. Naturally, most references were to walking through shallow water. I would hope that the name Rump & Wade has a deeper meaning than that.

The Cromwell is fitted out with beautiful dark wood paneling, and the hallway to the Rump & Wade is painted bright Caribbean blue. It opens into a brightly lit brasserie with a bar and tables for breakfast in the morning or lounging in the evening. The connected restaurant seating is reserved for more formal lunches and dinners. A small table near the window was my morning retreat, not for breakfast, just quiet coffee.

The tables were fully set, including a little pitcher of milk for English breakfast tea and a bowl of sugar cubes. My table was set for breakfast; however, I wanted elevensies: coffee, not tea. It’s customary to take a short break and have coffee, or tea, around 11 in the morning, with a little something to go with it, like a biscuit (cookie) or bun (sweet roll). I was asking for elevensies at sevensies.

However, coffee was readily available in the hotel restaurant with freshly brewed American-style pots waiting on the sidelines next to the bar. When the waitress served coffee to me the first day, I asked for cream. She took my request in stride and brought a small pitcher of cream to the table. I didn’t bother asking for sweetener instead of sugar. I had sent the bar into a bit of a shuffle asking for sweetener the night before. It would be a sugar-filled week with two lumps of sugar in each cup of coffee.

In my childhood, lumps of sugar in sweet little bowls were not prolific. Lumps of sugar were used infrequently and out of the context of a fresh linen-covered breakfast table. My uncle occasionally took my sister and I horse-back riding, and after riding, we would feed the horses lumps of white sugar from our flat out-stretched hands. Flat like a table so the horses’ lips would tickle them and their teeth wouldn’t nibble them. I can’t help but think these little lumps are horse treats served up as posh on the English table. Don’t get me wrong, we have sugar cubes in the states too – but not at the pub, Fuddruckers, or our other local kid-friendly haunts.

Lumps of sugar slow the consumption of coffee. Not once in England did I pour coffee into a travel mug with a dash of sweetener and a splash of half & half to gulp on the way to somewhere. When I ordered coffee the first morning, I smiled and put on my best American accent to ask for a little pot of cream to go with it. The smile was an apologetic “I’m-so-sorry-I’m-an-American-drinking-coffee-at-7-a.m.-asking-for-cream.”

However, the first six days, the same waitress was there every morning, and she knew my routine by day three. Then on Day Seven, a new waitress… and complete confusion.

“You can just help yourself to coffee over by the bar,” she replied as I wandered around with an empty coffee cup.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize it was self-service!” Why hadn’t the Day One through Six waitress said something?

“Oh, it’s not, but I assumed since you were right there…”

“May I have a little bit of cream too, please?” I asked as she poured the coffee into the cup in my hand.

“If we have any,” was her reply as she walked behind the bar. “How much do you want?” She was going to glug it into my cup directly from the gallon jug. Yes, in England, gallons of cream.

I couldn’t say tablespoon; that’s American. I want more than an English teaspoon. “Just a little splash,” I decided, thinking the translation would be easier if she just poured a little pot for me.

I took my cup back to the table and found no sugar bowl. I borrowed the one from the next table over. And, this being the seventh day, let the thought fully develop: How many other people’s fingers had reached into this sugar bowl to grab a lump of sugar? There were no sugar tongs nor a spoon in the sugar bowl. I was sure that many, just like me, reached in for a lump or two with their fingers. I saw rows of sugar bowls full and stacked up behind the bar. This was not a disposable set of cubes. The bowl was moved from table to table and refilled as needed. I wondered how often they were cleaned.

Conflicted thoughts between packeted sweeteners and bowls of sugar cubes bounced around in my brain. How many trees do we chop down in order to individually package truckloads of quarter teaspoons of sugar? And the accompanying three different sweeteners in the “sugar bowl”? How many kids, including my own, create wasteful games out of these packets? The stateside health department’s intolerance of germs seems to have swung the sugar pendulum ridiculously far from simply serving sugar cubes. Or is it easier for restaurants to receive shipments of tiny packets that lumps of sugar? I was in full sugar spin.

The lunacy over sugar ended when – after dropping two cubes of sugar into my morning coffee – I opened my journal to write. The memory of horse lips tickling my palm 40 years ago reminded me of swimming with stingrays, for the underside of a stingray ranks number one as the softest object I’ve ever touched — second only to those horse lips taking sugar cubes off of my then 10-year-old hand. Yes, sugar cubes over Christmas riled a memory that pushed velvety horse lips to second, outranking the silkiness of my boys’ cheeks as babies.