Sunday, 17 June 2012

Breakfast in America

In the classic 1969 song, The Boxer, Art Garfunkel – or Paul Simon – refers to the ladies of negotiable virtue he used to encounter along New York City’s Seventh Avenue. “I do declare,” sang Paul – or was it Art? – “there were times that I felt so lonesome I took some comfort there.”

While I can’t admit to having sampled such earthly delights, I too have felt great comfort in a similar area of that great city. While my current diet means I probably can't do it now, I have in the past experienced that wonder of the modern age, that miracle of the culinary and gastronomic arts. I have eaten breakfast in an American diner.

Now,I’m not going to pretend to be well-travelled. I certainly can’t make any claims about being some sort of expert on the United States. I’ve been there a handful of times and, on each occasion, limited my experience to the Eastern seaboard. I have not eaten from sea to shining sea, despite appearances to the contrary. And, yes, I am aware that it’s wrong to characterise an entire nation simply by writing about one meal in one city. I hear rumours of breakfasts in New Mexico that feature cheese and peppers, tequila and beans. In the mid-West they go for corn in a big way – ordering the low-carb option is probably still a hanging offence. In Maine I suspect it’s lobster and peach cobbler all the way.

But I discount all these tales. For I have breakfasted in the Big Apple. And never has my fast been broken more conclusively. It was on our second or third visit when we discovered the place. We were staying in mid-town Manhattan, on 57th Street, just a couple of blocks down from the sudden green strip of Central Park. As seasoned travellers, or so we thought, we’d eschewed the more obvious commercial delights of Sixth Avenue or Times Square.

The truth is, we were still in downtown touristville, but by moving a few blocks further out we found the places that other Americans used when they were visiting. This also meant forgoing the blandness of a hotel restaurant. We were going to have to go out for breakfast – a novel concept in itself. So that’s when the diner made its delicious, hustling, calorie-laden impact on our lives.

We crossed the afore-mentioned Seventh Avenue and were drawn in, like moths to a chrome-plated, neon-lit flame. A six-foot-tall black guy in full evening suit welcomed us in, smiling broadly and making us feel genuinely as if his entire life had been building up to welcoming these latest two customers that morning. I’d just like to repeat the salient point of that last sentence; an evening suit. Bow tie, cummerbund, shiny patent leather shoes – the whole nine yards. It was eight in the morning and our breakfast already involved a maitre d’.

He showed us to a booth, one of thirty or so, and I had a few moments to take in our surroundings. The booths were decorated with hundreds of small brass plates, each only an inch across and inscribed with the name of a famous patron. Apparently we were sitting in a booth previously occupied by Ted Danson and the bloke from Seinfield with the tall hair. The whole of one wall was taken by a mural of the boardwalk in Atlantic City; the home crowd at New York Giants stadium peered out from the one opposite.

“Something tells me we’re not in the Grab-a-Bite in Acocks Green,” I said to Katie.

“I know,” she replied, eyes wide open. “Look out, here come the menus.”

Tyrone was possibly even happier to see us than his tuxedo-wearing colleague.

“Good morning Sir, Madam!” He meant it. “Here are your menus.” He gave us each a bulky tome and checked our coffee order. Because, let’s face it, we were always going to have some. The aroma of freshly-ground beans permeated every nook and cranny. Even the most avid tea-drinker was going to be beaten into submission by it. Looking over to the coffee station was to see an industrial process in place as the barista dispensed the brew to a never-ending stream of punters. At the marble-topped bar, suited-and-booted New Yorkers perched, waiting for their take-out order. They barked at Blackberries, thumbed their NYT or WSJ or simply glanced at the 24-hour rolling news. There was a cacophony of conversation; it seemed as if they were already making deals before moving on to the concrete and glass eyries next door.

“Phil. Have you looked at this menu?” said Katie in a low voice.

I had. Although I hadn’t fully understood it. There were items there that I’d never considered for breakfast before. There was a heady mix of Italian and Yiddish, interspersed here and there with familiar words. I pounced on one of them like a lifebelt.

“Eggs. Right, they do eggs,” I said under my breath. “You know where you are with eggs. Oh blimey..”

I ran my finger down the menu. I had been given fewer options the last time I bought a new car. How do I want them, what do I want in them, under them, to the side of them? What type of bread to accompany the whole shebang? I eventually settled for three eggs scrambled with Nova Scotia salmon, crispy polenta and something called challah toast. Katie had cinnamon raison and pecan French toast, topped with strawberries, whipped cream and maple syrup.

“Great choice,” said perma-happy Tyrone. “I’ll get these to you as soon as possible.” The contrast with your typical British Harvester employee could not have been more stark.

By this point I think we were hyperventilating ever so slightly. It was like being on an alien planet. Our pulse rates went up another notch when the food actually appeared.

“Christ on a bike,” I gasped, “this isn’t breakfast. This constitutes my entire set of nutritional requirements for the next fortnight.”

“You’re telling me,” said Katie from somewhere behind a mound of whipped cream.

“How is it that they’re not all the size of houses?” I pointed an egg -laden fork at the coffee line. “Look at them. You’ve heard the stereotypes about American people, yet this lot all look like racing snakes. They eat like this and yet none of them are even remotely at the waddling stage.”

“It’s a city thing, I suppose. They must burn it all off through nervous energy.”

“But Katie, we live in a city.”

“Not this one. Not this one." She had a point.

And so we rolled our sleeves up and set to. My eggs were scrambled to perfection and shot through with sea-fresh chunks of salty salmon. The polenta, crispy on the outside, yielded to creamy softness in my mouth. Challah turned out to be French toast but made with traditional Jewish braided bread. All of this was washed down with thick dark coffee, constantly refilled by orbiting staff closely watching to see if your cup fell below the half-way level. I looked over at another table, watching in awe as a gentleman poured what looked like maple syrup over some rashers of bacon. My mind was sufficiently boggled by the whole sweet/savoury interface.

“Katie, we’ve got to come back here tomorrow.”

“I’m not entirely sure I’ll have finished these pancakes by then, but why?”

“I’ve just seen what I’m trying on our next visit.”

We turned back to the breakfast challenge and after fifteen minutes of Herculean effort, managed to finish. While both being fully aware of the general concept of ‘leaving some food behind’ it was just too good to even contemplate. I sat back against the wall of the booth and patted my distended belly.

“That breakfast was quite possibly the pinnacle of civilisation. After something like that to start you off, I reckon you could build a transcontinental railroad, bolt together a Boeing or put the finishing touches to a moonshot. That’s how to do it.”

Katie raised an eyebrow. “I’m not so sure, she said. “I can actually hear my arteries furring up. If everyone had breakfast like this back home I’d give the NHS eighteen months, tops.”

We left some dollar bills at the table, like they do in movies, and gently manoeuvred ourselves back into the manmade Manhattan canyon outside. My heart was singing Home of the Brave while my stomach provided a counterpoint with Hava Nagila. Yellow cabs honked and jostled. At the street corner, steam arose from a manhole like a well-placed cliché.

We did not eat until that night. And even then it was more out of tradition than anything else. One thing is for sure. I shall return. To the city, to the diner, to the more experimental parts of the menu. Because, in the immortal words of Messrs Simon and Garfunkel, I am leaving, I am leaving, but the breakfast still remains.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Ticking the boxes

We're all going to Hell in a handbasket. And I think it might be my fault. I'm terribly sorry.

It started in the week of my birth. I can hardly claim to have known what I was doing at the time, being rather more interested in emptying my bowels in an extravagant fashion. But it turned out that I'd chosen the right time to be born. The British Cohort Study was underway, a study of everyone born in one particular week in 1970.

Originally this was just a case of midwives filling out a few extra forms to help the powers-that-be better understand a cross-section of their latest citizens. But five years later someone had the bright idea of contacting these families once more to see how their five-year-olds were getting on. Every few years after that there was a litany of tests, surveys and questionnaires.

Yes. I'm well aware that a survey and a questionnaire could be the same thing.

42 years later and the BCS is still ongoing. I've just completed the latest questionnaire-survey, actually. And that's when it occured to me that I've probably had a hand in ruining everything for everyone. You see, someone must be taking seriously my responses to all of this data-gathering. They're using it to plan things. They know in intimate detail how us 42-year-olds feel about politics, our general health requirements, the number of bedrooms we have in our houses and how many units of alcohol we consumed last week.

That's the sort of information you need when making decisions on behalf of everyone. Best to make sure it's all accurate, then, yes?

The problem is this. When I'm filling in a survey/questionnaire thing, I sometimes embellish things. I give the answers that I would like to give. When asked, "How many times have you visited a museum in the last 12 months?" I really want to be the sort of sophisticated person who can glibly tick the 'Four times or more' box.

I don't completely fabricate matters. There's no way I'm going to be able to convince anyone that I visit a gym three times a week. Or that I've never been inside a pub. But if the form asks me about my reading habits, its a regular diet of literary fiction all the way, rather than the truth (Twitter and camera instruction manuals, in case you were wondering).

We only have to hope that the thousands of other Cohorts are a little more diligent when giving their details. The people using all this data have to hope that some people are being brutally honest, otherwise they'll be opening loads of libraries and museums.

And we can't be having that, can we?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

It's a start

I used to love beige food. Still do, as a matter of fact. But avoiding it for the last two weeks has had a profound effect.

Just to be clear, when I say 'beige' I am being literal. I'm referring to the colour. Chicken nuggets, crisps, pastries, pies, you name it, I would eat it. In fact, all the stuff my doctor told me I had to pretty much stop consuming - it all occupied the beige end of the spectrum.

Our fridge used to look like the paint job in a Barrett's show home.

Over the last fortnight I've been eating a rainbow. Mainly, it has to be said, the green end, but certainly there's been a variety. I don't think I've ever had quite so much fresh fruit and veg. I even recognised some of it. The red lentil and sweet potato curry the other night was a particular high point, although I should probably apologise to anyone who was near me the following morning.

I don't suppose I need to paint you a picture.

The new regime has forced us to adopt some new practices. We now both get up in the morning at the same time so that we can have a proper breakfast and also to carry out the extra prep required for lunches, etc. It's quite civilised - we're able to talk to each other in the morning, which beforehand we tended not to do. Apparently that's what married couples do all over the place. Who knew?

As a result of all this colourful cuisine I've lost nine pounds in two weeks. Which is nice. I'm not yet at the point where it's noticeable to others, or in fact to me, but hopefully that will come in due course.

There are still some challenges. Last night we went to a party, which meant party food. There were acres of beigeness. It was spectacular. In the good old days I would have wandered from room to room, grazing on Doritos, stuffing pork pies into my gaping maw. Instead, I had a couple of cucumber sandwiches and munched on lettuce and tomatoes.

This is where you'd expect me to say how refreshing it was, not to fill myself with junk food. No. I won't say that, because it was bloody horrible.

But my war against beige food must go on.


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