Hoffman's Houston
Passport to the U.K.

Hear ye: U.K. consulate general to Houston fields Ken Hoffman's 10 questions

U.K. consulate general to Houston fields Ken Hoffman' 10 questions

Hoffman British Consul Karen Bell Fab Five
Her Majesty’s General Consul Karen Bell flanked by Houston's Beatles cover band, Five Five. Courtesy photo

Central Market's annual "Passport" celebration starts Wednesday, September 19 and this year the spotlight is on the United Kingdom, with traditional cuisine and entertainment from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Well, all right ... fish and chips and steak and ale pies. Is this seat available? You come here often?

The two-week feast promises a "virtual in-country voyage of international culinary discovery." Somebody in public relations is going to get a raise for that.

Translation: Scottish salmon, British wines, artisanal meat pies, fish and chips, cakes and confections, puddings, and cheeses. There will be tastings and cooking classes, dinner parties, ploughman's lunches, parent-child events, a storewide pub crawl, even a trivia night. 

The opening ceremony will 5-6 pm on September 19, complete with food samples and bagpipe music.

Trivia question: Why are bagpipers always marching? Answer: they're trying to get away from the noise. (I kid because I love.)

There will also be a "signature tented event" from 5-8 pm September 20, with food prepared by celebrity chef Noel McMeel and official welcome from Consulate-General of the U.K., Karen Bell.

Hey, I know her!

Hoffman makes British history 
Last month, I mentioned on Twitter that I was headed to England for the annual Beatle Week festival in Liverpool. One tweet led to another, and Bell, Her Majesty’s General Consul to five southwest U.S. states, including Texas, was suggesting fish and chips places.

I have a Twitter follower in high places!

One night, while walking back to my hotel near the Albert Dock in Liverpool, I poked my head into a betting shop. They’re practically on every corner in England. I asked the gentleman behind bulletproof glass, “Do you take bets on American baseball?

He said, “We do now. I have to say, you’re the first bet on baseball I’ve ever taken.”

I put 20 quid (20 pounds — about $26) on the Houston Astros to beat the Seattle Mariners. Thank you, Carlos Correa, the Astros won, 3-2. The next day I collected my $45.

I emailed Bell. “I am an undocumented worker in your country and I just made $45 and I have no intention of paying taxes.” She emailed back, “You can buy my silence, but it will cost you a bag of crisps [potato chips].”

I headed straight to a supermarket. I asked a cashier, “What’s a famous English brand of crisps?” I bought a bag of Walker Max Strong Crisps, “perfect with beer.”

A few days later, I was in Bell’s office at the British Consulate on Fannin Street in downtown Houston … to hand over the hush money (I mean, potato chips). Bell has been British consul general in Houston since 2015. She is responsible for “United Kingdom engagement” with Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Her job is to promote political ties, trade, and innovation between the American Southwest and the United Kingdom.

Bell is a career diplomat. Prior to her assignment in Houston, Bell spread British diplomacy in far flung reaches of the world, including Canada, Saudi Arabia, and China. She says her foreign assignments usually last four years, but she wouldn’t mind an extended stay in Houston. 

Hear ye: 10 questions for Her Majesty’s Consul General

Ken Hoffman: When you were a little girl, did you want to grow up and become a career diplomat?

Karen Bell:
Yes.  I had the recruitment literature for the Diplomatic Service by the time I was 12. Sad but true.

KH: Beatles or Rolling Stones?

Beatles. I also really like a Houston-based tribute band, the Fab Five.

KH: What other countries have you worked in? Where does Houston rank for unbearable summer heat and humidity?

The list is long. Working back, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Canada, India, and France. For frizzy hair, I think Hong Kong took the prize. I’d put Houston in second place on the humidity table. I’ll take heat, any kind of heat, over cold and snow any day. Sorry, Canada.

KH: Did you wake up at 4 am to watch Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding?

Not quite. But I was at a very lovely brunch by 8 am, to which I wore a fabulous fascinator.

KH: Do you ever get confused when driving — which side of the road, which side the steering wheel? What kind of driver's license do you have?

KB: Yes. But that’s because I’m a really terrible driver, rather than because of the rules of the road. It took me seven attempts to get my UK license. I have one issued by the State Department here.

KH: What was your biggest adjustment to living in Houston? Do you own cowboy boots? How long before you knew your way around and felt at home here?

I think the biggest adjustment was driving everywhere. But I loved Houston from the get-go — and I arrived in July. I remember seeing the city skyline on my way back from my first trip outside the city and having that ‘Sigh, I’m home now’ feeling. I have two pairs of cowboy boots — one custom, for best, and one for the Rodeo, where I’ve been a volunteer since my first year here.

KH: What Houston foods have you fallen in love with, what English foods do you miss most? What do you put on French fries?

Anything from Whataburger, obviously. I miss English pies (pork pie, steak and kidney, steak and ale, etc). By French fries, you mean chips. I put salt and vinegar on them. And chip shop curry sauce when I can get it.

KH: Who talks funnier, Texans or the British?

KB: I’m not going there.

KH: When you go to an Astros game, do you understand everything that's going on?

KB: Not a thing. But I made a Frito pie last time I went.

KH: What kinds of dogs do you have? Do they sleep in bed with you? What will happen when you get re-assigned to another country? Are your dogs from Texas? Do they understand you when you talk to them in British?

I have two dogs. Murray has been accurately described as ‘a fat dingo.’ We got him from a rescue in Hong Kong. He’s now a seasoned international traveler. Stella is a border collie mix who was found straying on a friend’s property near Livingston. They already have a pack of rescue pups, horses, and donkeys, so we were happy to adopt her. Both dogs sleep on the bed.

And, of course, they’ll be coming with us when we leave Houston. Murray has highly selective language skills. He seems to understand ‘biscuit.’ Stella’s a Texan girl, so much more advanced.