Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Now that it’s time to write about Prince Charles, I find myself facing the opposite problem I faced before writing about his father. I essentially knew nothing about Prince Philip…but part of me thinks I might already know too much about Prince Charles. I watched—just as you probably did too—as his personal life spun out of control in the 1990s, in a spiral of infidelity, telltale diaries by members of his house staff, and scathing private telephone conversations made public. For years we got too much information about this man. If you’re like me and you could really do without learning any more incredibly personal details about Prince Charles, then don’t worry; the factoid I’m about to share is a fairly innocuous one. Prince Charles brushes his teeth with Maclean’s brand toothpaste, which is made by Glaxosmithkline. Glaxosmithkline Consumer Healthcare holds a Royal Warrant from HRH the Prince of Wales as “Suppliers of Toothpaste.”

Just as I did with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, I began my research on Prince Charles at the Chicago Public Library. There’s no shortage of books written about the heir to the British throne, but nearly all of those taking up shelf space at the library told the story of his marriage to Princess Diana, of her tragic death, and of his somewhat scandalous remarriage to his longtime lover Camilla. Certainly I’ll get to this aspect of his life soon enough, but for now I just want to know more about the prince’s childhood. It doesn’t seem possible—when scanning the descriptions of more recent biographies—to understand who Prince Charles was before his train wreck of a marriage clouded the lens of public perception about him. That’s maybe why a biography published in 1979 caught my eye. For the past week I’ve been reading The Man Who Will Be King: H.R.H. by Tim Heald and Mayo Mohs. Although Heald and Mayo spend a lot of time speculating about whether Prince Charles will ever get married and who he will select as his possible bride, Diana’s name never crosses their long list of his girlfriends and potential suitors. To get this early look at Prince Charles without any mention of Diana is therefore fascinating and refreshing.

Unlike his mother, who did not become heir to the throne until unexpected circumstances prevailed, Prince Charles was born with the expectation that he would one day be king. His mother’s pregnancy was closely followed by the British public, who wondered if Princess Elizabeth would produce a male heir. She did just that on November 14, 1948, in Buckingham Palace. As news of the birth leaked out to the media, a celebratory crowd gathered outside of Buckingham Palace, and the noise grew so loud that the new family couldn’t sleep. Heald and Mohs share that it was actor David Niven—among the many people in the crowd—who finally convinced everyone to quiet down.

The intensity of the public gaze on Charles has continued throughout his entire life, has never subsided for one second. That’s probably why—when he brushes his teeth each day—he reaches for a turquoise tube of Maclean’s whitening toothpaste. He must look his best at all times. As their old commercials from the 1970s suggest, “every time you smile it shows you chose Maclean’s.”

In 2002 an embarrassing rumor surfaced that the Prince employed a valet to squeeze his toothpaste onto his toothbrush for him. The article was meant to shed light on the large number of paid employees staffing his royal residence. This was picked up in newspapers from London to Sydney, where the Morning Herald complained:

His lifestyle would seem extravagant even to France’s “Sun King” Louis XIV: a team of four valets so that one is always available to lay out and pick up his clothes; a servant to squeeze his toothpaste on to his brush, and another who once held the specimen bottle while he gave a urine sample. Step into the world of the Prince of Wales, a lifestyle so pampered that even the Queen has complained that it is grotesque.
Although the story got a lot of press in that year, more recent articles suggest it was nonsense. (Or at least the part about someone getting his toothbrush ready for him).

I’ve been squeezing Maclean’s onto my own toothbrush for about a month now, and I love this stuff. I’ve been a consistent Crest user all my life and—while I’ll certainly go back to using Crest when the Maclean’s runs out—that’s only because I don’t think you can easily buy it here in the U.S. Maclean’s has a much better taste than Crest, and it doesn’t leave the same kind of aspartame-y aftertaste in my mouth. I started to worry last week that maybe taste isn’t everything and that I’d have a mouth full of cavities when I went to my upcoming dentist appointment. When I saw my dentist, though, I got the opposite report. I didn’t have a single cavity, and the dental hygienist said my teeth look great.


Where to buy: Maclean’s is sold in the United Kingdom, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. If you live in the U.S., you can still buy it from or from, a website I think I’m going to have to learn more about...

Photo credit: GlaxoSmithKline's tent at the 2013 Coronation Festival at Buckingham Palace, courtesy of Theo Cohen Photography.

Friday, October 19, 2012


When you sample, ponder, and write about British consumer products as much as I have lately, you really start to miss Great Britain. I haven’t spent much time there, but when I was there I was thrilled to find it was just as special as I’d always believed it to be. I knew I couldn’t wait to get back. Yet getting back is something of an impossibility right now. We’ve been trying to experience and examine this idea of royalty right here in our own backyard, but our project has its limits. Lately I’ve been looking a little harder for ways to experience British culture in Chicago and thinking about a series of field trips.

Our first field trip? To Spencer’s Jolly Posh Foods in Lakeview.

It was my friend Suzy who tipped me off about Spencer’s in an email titled “a tiny british grocery store in the city!” Spencer’s is located right near the corner of Southport Avenue and Irving Park Road, which places it conveniently up the street from Southport Grocer, Julius Meinl, and Sensational Bites. I’m pretty familiar with this dessert corridor already. Our foursome set out midday last Sunday—in the midst of a rainstorm—to check it out.

When we got to the front door we were drenched and chilly, so it was wonderful to walk into the shop’s cozy interior. Right away it reminded me of A. Gold or Verde & Company—two quaint British food stores located in London’s East End, just a stone’s throw away from Spitalfields Market. Both stores go for a kind of “village store” feel, and that’s just what we found here.

The walls at Spencer’s were lined with shelves that held little tins and jars and packets and bottles with everything from jam to tea to mustard to chocolates. Maybe you have to have tried as hard as I have lately to get your hands on some of these British foods to fully appreciate the selection, but it was all there: McVitie’s dark chocolate digestive biscuits and HobNobs, a complete selection of Twinings teas, Wilkin & Sons Tiptree preserves, Colman’s Season & Shake packets, Cadbury chocolates, Robinson’s barley water (you know you have to water it down, right?), HP Sauce in four different flavors.

We happily scooped up what we’d been craving—two tins of McVitie’s biscuits for me, HobNobs for our friend Krysten, chocolate caramel biscuits for Adam, Cadbury white chocolate drops for Nathan, HP barbeque sauce, and a box of Darville’s of Windsor tea bags.

As we shopped (and as Nicholas snoozed in an Ergo baby carrier strapped to my chest, as Nathan attempted to grab every single package of candy at his eye level), we took in our surroundings. There’s a large kitchen table placed, English-style, in the center of the store where guests can take tea and enjoy freshly baked scones. The walls are full of British posters and old advertisements and signs.

The best part of our visit was chatting with the guy behind the counter. Upon seeing us enter the store drenched, he quipped, “We had the rain brought in special for you” in a fantastic British accent. You don’t hear that much around Chicago. He answered about a trillion questions I had about the store and the business; we learned that it’s run by a Brit called Nicholas Spencer and that the store opened just three months ago but the Spencer’s brand has been in use for quite a while longer—selling British packaged meats like back bacon and bangers (think: sausages) on the Internet. Spencer’s runs British food stands at farmers markets around the city, and they’re hoping to soon sell this fresh food in their store.

We absolutely cannot wait to go back. I’m even thinking of getting really adventurous and buying some sausages to make bangers and mash.

Where to find it: If you're in Chicago, you should visit the store at 1405 W. Irving Park Rd. You can also buy Spencer’s prepared meats on the website.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


So far it’s been pretty difficult for Baby Nicholas to join our Royal Warrant testing panel. The kid doesn’t consume a lot besides breast milk, formula, diapers, and baby lotion, so we can’t be sure how he feels about tea, metal cleaner, or mustard. A couple of weeks ago, without even thinking about it, we bought a Royal Warrant product especially for him: Gerber baby rice cereal. In the U.S., Gerber has recently partnered with global food company Nestlé, which holds a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen as “Manufacturers of Nestle Products.”

Baby rice cereal is the simplest food you’re ever going to make. Actually, that’s not correct. Baby rice cereal should be the simplest food you’re ever going to make. To prepare a single serving for one baby, you stir the powdered, shimmery rice flakes into breast milk or formula until they dissolve into a too-thin, watery mixture. You then start feeding it to your baby, but the whole time you’re thinking this is just a little bit too thin. So then you add another tiny shake of the rice flakes. Only, your arm always slips, and you always add about three tablespoons too much. I’m not sure how this happens, but I promise you that this always happens. And then the mixture has turned to concrete. Your baby is glaring at you: What did you do?! And pretty soon you’re mixing up more formula or heating up more breast milk to water it down further, but while you’re doing that your baby starts freaking out: Forget it! I don’t even want it now! I finally learned my lesson with Nathan, but that means that Nicholas always eats too-thin rice cereal.

I thought I’d put my rice cereal problems behind me. I’m an old pro at this now! Nicholas had been eating it pretty well for a few days when I caught a story on Today a couple of weeks ago. Essentially the news report claimed that American rice is loaded down with very high levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen. This is especially bad for infants, whose solid food diet is sometimes limited to rice cereal alone. I thought immediately of Nicholas because at that time, rice cereal was the only solid food he was eating.

We’ve now replaced our Gerber rice cereal with Gerber oatmeal. Yes, I can appreciate the irony here. It’s not unlike the English professor Adam and I had in college who announced he’d decided to boycott Coca-Cola for unnamed reasons. He entered class the next day drinking a Dasani water, so we helpfully pointed out to him that Coca-Cola owns Dasani. The next day he came into class drinking MinuteMaid lemonade. “You know that’s owned by Coca-Cola too, right?” one of our classmates asked him. He admitted he did not know. “Are you buying all of these out of the Coke machine around the corner?” Adam asked. He nodded. The next day he came to class drinking a Coke again.

But I digress. Gerber put out a statement saying that its rice cereal has been made with California rice since the beginning of 2012 because California rice has far lower levels of naturally occurring arsenic. Based upon my research, this is accurate. The highest levels of arsenic come in brown rice grown in Arkansas, where arsenic was long used as a pesticide on cotton crops. It leached into the soil and has stayed put ever since.

God only knows what’s lurking in our oatmeal, but Nicholas’s diet on paper at least looks pretty healthy: breast milk, formula, oatmeal, homemade peas, apples, and sweet potatoes. I find again with my second child that it’s scary to transition from breastmilk—the safest, most perfect food for a baby—to food that comes from the somewhat irksome and poorly-regulated American food supply.

I wonder if Queen Elizabeth also feared the transition away from breastfeeding. Biographer Robert Lacey shares in Monarch that Elizabeth breastfed Prince Charles, her first baby. I worry this little factoid is only interesting to me because I’m currently breastfeeding. If that’s true, I’m sorry. If it’s not true, let’s continue on.

Have you ever breastfed a newborn baby? Yikesy. That’s a lot of new to get used to. I live in a world of Boppy and My-Brest-Friend pillows, of supportive husbands, and nursing covers with a thin, curved wire that allow ultimate privacy but also eye contact with a breastfeeding infant. There are state and federal laws that guarantee me the right to breastfeed my baby in public, even if I’m not wearing one of those expensive nursing covers. In many ways, it’s a fantastic time to be a breastfeeding mother, but any mom will tell you it’s still not without its difficulties. There are people who go out of their way to glare at you and make you feel uncomfortable...there are the long days of maternity leave that seem to string together as one big, long nursing session...there’s the two 20-minute breaks I take at work each day to cozy up to a breast pump. It’s not very appealing stuff. Someone with royal blood should be able to get out of some of the unpleasantries of being a nursing mother...but money and bloodline really don’t buy everything. In this case, they don’t buy your breastmilk going into your baby’s mouth without you being pretty actively involved.

I like that Queen Elizabeth nursed her baby. It makes me feel close to her in a way that transcends money, social class, age, and nationality. Just like me, she has had to answer to a hungry, unreasonable child waking up for a midnight snack. That makes her seem more like a real person and less like a distant monarch.

While we’re talking about “real,” Nestlé promises to provide Nicholas and the rest of our family real nutrition for the rest of our lives. Manufacturing everything from bottled water to KitKat bars, the company has something for everyone. In all of the research I’ve done on Royal Warrant products, Nestlé's website seems to make some of the boldest claims. Consider what it says about the British food brand Herta: “Frankfurters are the ultimate family meal: tasty, inexpensive and quick.” Huh. The Nestlé logo on the back of our baby cereal comes with the advice to “start your child on a course to healthy nutrition,” as if to suggest I'm doing just that by buying Nestlé-branded baby food products. And what does Nestlé claim about the chocolate bars for which it’s so well-known? They’re good for you: “Long known for great taste and enjoyment, Nestlé chocolate and confectionary products are also full of intrinsic goodness, contributing to well-being.”

Whatever. To revisit the Britvic debate, does this manufacturer of food and nutrition products deserve a Royal Warrant? In recent years, Nestlé has arguably pushed global social justice issues into the forefront of its company mission. It also sponsors programs such as the Nestlé Social Research Programme, which is committed to improving the lives of people under 35.

Perhaps this is a company you can feel good about...even if you are at times feeding your child a food you can’t be sure about.

Where to buy: For British candy, try Amazon or World Market.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


When we visited London last summer, Adam had to stop me from going crazy buying Kate and William souvenirs in the gift shop at Westminster Abbey. I didn’t even ask if he was interested in seeing the special display of wedding photos on exhibition there. If the wedding did nothing for Adam, he was certainly in the minority. What is it about a royal wedding that pulls people in like a magnet, that convinces people burdened by their own lives and problems to turn their attention so fully to the love lives of people they’ve never met?

The British people in 1947 were no exception. Historians refer to the United Kingdom in this juncture as “Austerity Britain,” a bombed-out country still rebuilding from the one-two punch of the Great Depression and World War II. This austerity proved to be a somewhat awkward backdrop for the lavish wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten. The British people also weren’t completely sold on Philip. Just what kind of family did this prince in exile come from? And was he good enough for Princess Elizabeth? Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that, on his wedding day, Prince Philip arrived at the altar fresh from drinking a gin and tonic. Tanqueray Gordon & Co Ltd holds a Royal Warrant from Queen Elizabeth II as “Gin Distillers.”

I know very little about the November 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, but that needn’t be the case. The BBC’s online archives include a 17-minute newsreel of the day that is an interesting watch even if it does lack sound. In a 2007 article published in the Telegraph to mark the 60th anniversary of this wedding, author Elizabeth Grice did a nice job contrasting the royal wedding with Britain’s harsh economic reality, especially when describing the crowds that came to view public displays of the royal couple’s wedding gifts in 1947:

“To a make-do-and-mend nation, still rationed to 1 oz bacon and 2 oz butter a week, and encouraged to cook a sea creature called snoek* (‘best not to try serving it as it is’), the display had a surreal quality.”

A lavish wedding in the face of austerity: sure, I can relate to that. I planned my own wedding when I was a graduate student living off a tiny stipend each month. It seemed strange to plan seating arrangements and select menus and think about cake flavors for a far-off party when I had a budget of $25 a week to spend on groceries. Princess Elizabeth was on a budget leading up to her wedding too, at least in the sense that she was limited by ration coupons. The royal family famously participated in the ration program during and immediately after World War II in order to show solidarity with the British people. Although they did make a good faith effort to limit their purchases, they were also allotted far more ration coupons than anyone else. Grice writes that British women were so excited for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding that they mailed her their ration coupons to help her pay for her wedding dress. (It was illegal to give them away, so these were promptly returned).

Let’s get back to the gin. Grice describes Prince Philip post-G&T on his wedding day as “fortified” and looking “as if he was enjoying himself.” Interesting. God knows what Princess Elizabeth thought of this drinking, but we do have a clearer picture of her views on gin now. In the first episode of Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work, a BBC television program (re-aired in the States on PBS) in which camera crews were given unprecedented access to the Queen’s schedule, the Queen’s personal bartender (actually he’s called the Yeoman of the Cellars) gives a tutorial on how to make her favorite drink. It consists of one part Tanqueray gin, two parts Dubonnet, one lemon slice, and two ice cubes. You don’t just throw all of that in a cup and hope for the best either. First you pour in the gin—then the Dubonnet. Next you lay the lemon slice very gently into the liquid to avoid splashing the sides of the cup. Then you put the two ice cubes on top of the lemon. The most important thing to know about this cocktail? The Queen is the only one allowed to drink it. In a party at Buckingham Palace, it is prepared for her and taken to her alone on a serving tray. No one else can have one...not even Prince Philip.

It’s a good thing too. This drink was a bit strong for me, although maybe I could build up a tolerance if I drank one every day before lunch, as the Queen is reported to do. Right now, if I had more than one of these cocktails, I’d probably be able to convince myself I was the Queen of England.

Where to buy: Tanqueray and Dubonnet are readily available in American liquor stores. If you want your own personal Yeoman of the Cellars to make it for you, that’s a little less accesible. 

*I was hoping for something that resembled the Loch Ness Monster and/or an eel. Don’t get your hopes up—it’s just a fish.