Tuesday, November 14, 2006

LONDON CALLING: The Glories of British Cuisine

My grandmother tells the story of being in Munich in 1972, attending the Olympics in the company of my aunt, who was an alternate to the U.S. gymnastics team. (For that reason, I will always hold a grudge against Cathy Rigby.) While there, they met a charming gentleman from England. Since they would be stopping in London on the way home, he offered to take them to dinner in his town.

Anyone out there who has even heard the tales of British dining will know what's coming next. My grandmother, however, had evidently never heard such stories, for she was astonished when the man took them to a Chinese restaurant. Like a perfect straight man, she complained that she expected to sample the local cuisine, and asked why he had chosen to show off a Chinese eatery. Right on cue, he replied, "Well, I certainly don't want to give you British food."

This story stayed in my mind every single time I sat down at a dining table during our London sojourn. British food is bad; everyone knows it. The British know it. It's why everybody recommends you go and get Indian food. The curries are supposed to be sensational.

I don't care for curry, and I grew up with the blandest taste buds within a 90-mile radius, so I figured that I was prepared for whatever London could throw at me.

Pub food is what most people are thinking of when they talk about British food, and we definitely got our share. Roasting is clearly big in pub cooking. We had roast beef one day, roast chicken the next. Along with the familiar fish & chips, you'll find these dishes at practically every pub on the island. But it's not just these items. Every pub seems to have the exact same menu. What is salmon pie? No idea, but it was on every bill of fare. Does every pub serve lasagna? Yes, I think so. It's almost as if there's a commission overseeing the kitchen of every pub in England. The consistency is a little disturbing.

I did discover the glories of Yorkshire pudding this way. I'm not such a stupid American that I thought all pudding should be like Jell-O. But I was sufficiently unfamiliar that I expected it to be more like bread pudding. Or I think that's what I thought. When I was actually served Yorkshire pudding, I was really delighted, and I realized that I had no idea what I thought Yorkshire pudding would be. Clair says it's like a popover, which doesn't actually help me much. It's really like a light, airy dinner roll. It sops up gravy and dissolves in your mouth, and one of the first things I did when I got home was to look up Yorkshire pudding in my copy of How to Cook Everything. I have big plans for myself.

Of course, we weren't confined exclusively to pubs. We worked in some fine dining as well. Usually, we ate depending on where we were when we actually got hungry. Between the racing around and the jet lag, our schedule was completely whacked, so it's not like we had a strict eating rhythm going. But on reflection, that worked to our advantage. If we hadn't been trying (and failing) to find something worth seeing in the West End, we wouldn't have enjoyed the porcini mushroom specials at Galileo's, right across the street from the theatre housing Phantom of the Opera. If I hadn't gotten us lost in the South Bank, then we wouldn't have ended up at an Italian restaurant nestled in the vaults underneath the Waterloo Bridge. The food in these locations was not necessarily the finest I've ever consumed. But they were experiences, unique experiences. Happenstance worked out well.

There's one other experience that has to be noted. Our first hotel was in The City, London's financial district. First thing Monday morning, it was overrun with harried, horribly-dressed business people. Like rats in wrinkly suits and ill-knotted ties, they were. So it's in this environment that we decided to grab breakfast at a place called Fuzzy's Grub, which advertised itself as the home of the only true down-home breakfast in town. For the record, in London, that means a toasted egg sandwich. My father introduced me to the fried egg sandwich, but he never made it with inch-thick toast. Proof of British insanity can be found exclusively in this sandwich. I don't think I ate again for 14 hours, so stuffed was I by this one egg sandwich. Sometimes, you realize you should have just had fruit, and this was one of those times.

But I haven't described the best food in all of London. It's embarrassing, frankly. In an entire country, the finest single thing we consumed... was at McDonald's.

Here in the United States, the Fun Police somehow persuaded the McDonald's Corporation to destroy the two finest things on their menu: greasy, salty French fries, and a hot, scalding, fried apple pie. The fries are mealy now, usually cold, and without flavor. And the pies are a complete joke. They are baked, with a powdery surface and a powdery taste. Two years ago, after seeing Super Size Me, I vowed not to eat at McDonald's again, and the blow was cushioned by the knowledge that the really good food was long gone anyway.

Well, except for England.

McDonald's never felt the pressure overseas to ruin a good thing. So if you decide to throw away your hard-earned pounds at the Golden Arches, you can get yourself a genuine deep-fried apple pie. Clair knew this, and on our first night, somewhere on on the Brompton Road, we beat the rush of inebriated Britons and ordered ourselves a pair of genuine McDonald's apple pies. The crust is crunchy and salty and covered in batter bubbles that crumble in your mouth. The interior is just the right blend of sweet and cinnamon, and is hotter than the hottest, lawsuit-meriting coffee. As soon as you take a bite, your tongue is torched by the scalding juicy apple jelly, and your hands are burned by the same as it bursts out of the crust. It's unavoidably messy, unquestionably bad for you, and potentially permanently disabling. We each had three. A definite highlight of five days in London was the realization that someone still knew how to make it right.

In that respect, I'm glad to be back in America. Now I can go back to avoiding McDonald's all the time.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


I voted today. There really weren't any compelling races in my part of the country, and none at all with significance for the American political scene. But I voted anyway. I waited a long time to get the franchise, and I'm not letting it go to waste just because MSNBC doesn't give a crap.

To clarify, my 18th birthday fell two weeks after Election Day. On a campus of tens of thousands of students whose biggest choice was Coors or Shiner, I was not permitted to cast a ballot. The 26th Amendment didn't do me a whole lot of good. So I really make it a point to vote whenever I get the chance. I'm a political nerd, and I might as well commit to that.

As I said, the races on my ballot were fairly inconsequential. We had a race for governor, which featured the incumbent, who is patently corrupt, and the state treasurer, who has great potential for corruption. Naturally, I voted for the Green Party candidate. I'm always happy to scream impotently into the darkness. (I voted for Howard Dean in 2004 a month after he dropped out of the race.) I think the existing corrupt guy is going to win, but at least I don't have to take responsibility for it.

There were also approximately 963 pages of judicial retention votes, which I maintain is the single biggest reason for voter apathy in this country. Is this the case everywhere? I don't remember seeing all these damn judges when I voted in three other states. This has to be completely unnecessary, especially since they're all going to get retained. I took the trouble to actually do five minutes of research on them (including the write-in vote I cast for my alderman in the vain hope that she would take the hint and stop being my alderman), but I promise you almost no one else did. There are incompetent judges, and I'm not entirely convinced that the electorate is the right group to fix that.

The really big deal was that the touch-screen voting machines made their debut. Here in Illinois, we have the touch screens, and we have this system where you draw a line to complete the arrow of your choice. Bo-ring. Also, we had more problems with the arrow system, because polling places ran out of the special pens. Brilliant.

There's all kinds of complaint about the touch screens and how they're rigged or broken or whatever. I don't totally buy this, since we seem to have absolutely no problem using them to handle our money. But I do see how the stakes are a little higher with an election. So I think the biggest question is, do the things work?

I was prepared to ask for the touch screen, but there was practically no one voting, so they handed me my little voting ATM card without a word. Also, I was the youngest person there, so I think maybe they figured I'd give them the least amount of difficulty in figuring it out.

Honestly, I thought it worked swell. I could review all the categories at any time, and when I was done, a paper printout of my choices scrolled by, just so I could be sure that I got the vote I wanted. Admittedly, most of them were those damn judicial retentions, so I nearly passed out somewhere during Minute 15 of the scroll. But from my limited viewpoint, it all worked just fine. Then again, I always used to check my ballot for hanging chads.

As I write this, they're projecting that the Democrats will take over the House of Representatives, while retaining control of the Senate. I find this very exciting, since it means we could very well have our very first shrill Speaker of the House. (That's not a political slam. I just find Nancy Pelosi unbearable to listen to.) It also means that our government might have a check-and-balance system for the first time in six years. Call me nutty, but I think that's a good thing.

I take what I can get.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

LONDON CALLING: It's Actually the Bell

You can't build a landmark. I mean, you can't build something expecting it to be a landmark. The reason buildings get to be landmarks is because they work. They fit the skyline, they ingratiate themselves into their surroundings, their greatness becomes evident over time. You can build something innovative. You can build something beautiful. You can build something popular. But "landmark" takes a little extra.

The real test of a landmark is that when you see it, you immediately understand. Several years ago, I was standing up in a wedding in St. Louis, and I made a point of getting up early the morning of the ceremony, taking the hotel shuttle downtown, and visiting the Gateway Arch. It's an engineering marvel, and it's a historic monument. But more than that, it's a landmark. I knew that the moment I walked up to the base. Which is enormous and triangular. But you sense the majesty of it immediately. And it doesn't matter that St. Louis isn't a very beautiful city, or that East St. Louis and the banks of the Mississippi below are even less beautiful. It's a powerful structure, and it ennobles that city. It lived up to the hype. That's a landmark.

Big Ben is a fantastic landmark.

Our first full morning in London was spent in Westminster Abbey, which is a discussion for a later date. Westminster Abbey just happens to be, literally, next door to the Houses of Parliament. It's as though they're in Britainland in a world-themed amusement park, they're so close together. So my first glimpse of Big Ben was out the window of one of London's fabulous taxicabs, rolling along the banks of the Thames. Perfect setup.

And I kept getting closer and closer to it throughout the day. Here it is nicely framed by the trees. There it is from across Parliament Square, which is nearly impossible to get to. Bit by bit, I got nearer to it, and it still managed to look as impressive as it has in every photo I've ever seen of London.

Why does Big Ben (which, as the title indicates, is actually the largest bell inside the clock tower, not the tower itself, but let's just overlook that) impress me so much? It's hard to say. It's obviously not the biggest structure I've ever seen. I can see the Sears Tower from the end of my block. But to stand underneath it, and look up at it and see that immense clock face, the gold glistening in the grayest sky, is not something I can easily describe. All I can really say is that it lives up to the hype. It's everything that Big Ben is supposed to be.

I don't know enough of the history of Big Ben to know what they were going for when they built it. But I know what they got. They got a structure that singularly says "London" when you see it. And it carries that weight effortlessly. It's a landmark.

And right now, when people are asking me my favorite thing about London, I'm saying Big Ben.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I understand Madonna a little better now.

Not totally, you understand. The Sex book, the conical bras, the fine line between adoption and discount shopping, those things all still elude me. She's kind of a weird one, that Madonna.

But her tendency to slip into an English accent, in spite of her upbringing in the greater Detroit metropolitan area, that I kinda get.

It's widely accepted here in the States that you can say almost anything in an English accent, and it will sound better. Give Patrick Stewart a copy of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and I promise you he will make it sound like an Edwardian classic.

I'm not sure if they have the same feeling in Great Britain, where they all by and large talk like that. I mean, they can buy their own copies of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and the fact that they're reading it themselves in their own accents probably doesn't make the book any better. What I do know is that nobody in England is imagining how much cooler something would sound if it was read with an American accent.

(Well, except maybe rock 'n' roll songs. A lot of British bands try to sound American when they sing. But I'm getting off point here.)

The thing is, there's a real charge from being in a place where there's not just an occasional accent around me, but exclusively accents. Which means, of course, that I'm the one with the accent. Again, I'm getting sidetracked. It's just such a thrill. It sounds incredibly stupid, but I had this ongoing sensation, this repeating thought: "I'm surrounded by British people!" Like I said, it sounds ridiculous. But for someone who has spent over three decades in the same country, it was very exciting.

And then the desire to fit in takes over.

Once, many years ago, my grandfather and I were at Walt Disney World, and we decided to speak with British accents for a while. We didn't declare this out loud. There was just this tacit understanding that we were playing a little prank on the world. And we did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself.

Now, at cash registers and on trains and running down streets, I was confronted with the real thing. And I wanted to fit in. Again, not a conscious decision. But every now and then, I adopted an accent of my own.

This sounds incredibly childish. I accept that. But believe me, it's a little beyond self-control. When you head this accent that you've grown up to believe is the essence of cool, how can you help but play along? Sometimes it would happen before I'd realized it. It probably drove Clair nuts. But I won't apologize. It just felt like the right thing to do.

So Madonna and the accent? I get it. It's not right. But it makes sense.