Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Story of Yule - a fairly factual account

We interrupt the regularly scheduled travel blogs to bring you my annual Christmas story:

Many centuries ago, in a faraway, densely wooded land with picturesque rivers, lakes and corpse-filled peat bogs, the happy Celts sang, danced and sacrificed animals to celebrate the return of the Sun in late December. They lit giant fires, hung decorations on trees, laid out presents for the gods and made their little part of Europe pleasant and gay so the Sun would return from its celestial holiday to warm the frozen ground.

One day, a boat appeared on the horizon. This had happened before, so the native Celts knew what to expect: rape, pillage, and attractive blonde and blue-eyed babies. But this boat was different, less decorated. There was no fierce wooden dragon leading the way on the prow. Perhaps the Vikings were going through a modern, minimalist period of boat design, they thought.

Instead of the strapping, muscular, Arian eye-candy that usually jumped off the boats into the icy surf, two men in plain brown woolen robes slogged up the shore. They carried no weapons, so the Celts generously decided not to skewer them on the spot.

As to what went through the minds of the two robed and soggy men, it went something like this: I’m freezing cold and wet for God. Doing this for God. Hope I don’t lose a toe to frostbite, it would be really hard to wear sandals then. HOLY SHIT there is an army of buck-naked men wearing gold jewelry staring us down. I am not gay, dear God I am not gay.

Vikings had come before, rival tribes had come before, but what the fuck were these two guys doing, thought the Celtic chief. They weren’t undressed for war. They had no weapons. They wouldn’t last long. But, it was almost Yule, and the chief was in a good mood brought on by mead and mildly hallucinogenic wheat mold. He was inclined to be generous.

So the Christian missionaries came and stayed.

It has been said that both guests and fish begin to stink after three days, and the missionaries stayed a lot longer than that. Every year they tried to talk the Celts out of their pagan festivities.

They looked upon the wintry festival of the Sun's rebirth and were appalled at the wild behavior of the pagan partiers. The missionaries glared at the scantily clad men and women leaping around fires and toiling on richly detailed stone and metal decorations. Every year when the party was just getting started, the leader of the Christian missionaries would approach the Celtic chief and ask "wouldn't you rather honor one God instead of a whole bunch?” And every year the answer was, “Have some mead and sit down.”

The missionaries tried changing their tactics, “It's economical! You could cut down on your sacrifices and parties and institute a proper work ethic in your people. All this frolicking is not only bad for your eternal soul, but your finances too." Now, partially since the chief was stoned on ceremonial herbs, and partially because he only understood about half of what the foreign guys were telling him, he gave the missionary the old "smile and nod.”

The missionaries weren’t fooled, this wasn’t working. Hoping to feel the humble pride that comes from saving sinners from damnation, the missionaries tirelessly explained about their forgiving merciful God who condemned non-believers to eternal fiery torture and sent his own son to die at the cruel hands of Romans to pay for Man's whoopsey-daisy in The Beginning. The Celts could respect a God who held a grudge, demanded human sacrifice, and got mad easier than a PMSing priestess, but preferred worshipping their own gods who were more amenable to partying. Besides, the Christians advocated Peace on Earth, and playing drums loud enough to make the dirt vibrate and the walls of neighboring huts pulse did not fit the Christian ideal.

One early morning while the tribe members gathered logs and twigs of sacred trees to build a sacred fire around which to throw one helluva holiday bash, the younger missionary had an idea.

To the senior missionary he said, "Hey, we have a Son who was reborn, and that sounds pretty close to the Sun being reborn. Let's just pull the old switcheroo and tell the Celts that they can celebrate Jesus - the Son - in the middle of winter, and then they'll just be zealous believers instead of sinful party animals.”

The senior missionary thought this over, did some math on his fingers and replied: "But Jesus was born a few months ago, we can't have them celebrate his birthday now in the middle of winter... or can we?" A gleam caught in his eye, and a crafty smile played on his bearded lips.

He approached the semi-sober leader of the Celts and said "You know, it just occurred to me that our Savior, a very cool cat who promoted feasting, drinking and blood sacrifices, was born on exactly the same day as your pagan festival-- we even call him The Sun!"

The young missionary stood looking confused, "Don't you mean Son?"
The old missionary removed his elbow from the young man's ribs and continued as smoothly as a used cart salesman. “How about your Sun and our Son getting together? Instead of just worshipping the light ball in the sky, you can worship our guy and get an eternity of heaven in the bargain. There are lots of great parties in heaven." He winked at the younger missionary.

The leader of the Celts thoughtfully twirled the end of his long beard, picking out bits of the previous night's dinner at regular intervals. "Yes, well, that sounds all right. Can we still drink?"

"Oh yes, Jesus LOVED drinking. Did you know he made water into wine? And his last supper was quite the fete. He had all his pals over and they ate, drank, and toyed with the idea of cannibalism."

"Can we still sacrifice?'

"Hey, Jesus was a sacrifice, so we think he'd be for it."

"Can we still have the big tall tree with all the decorations and presents and have the young people make out under the mistletoe?"

"Uh... um... we don't think so,” the young missionary said, uncertainly. He was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with the whole idea.

"Oh, well then... I think I'll have so say noo..." Said the chief.

"But wait!“ the senior missionary exclaimed, “Jesus liked giving, didn't he? So we can keep those in, and er, he'll probably be ok with it." The cold sweat settled on the missionaries’ faces as they silently prayed that God wouldn't mind trees, decorations and presents too much.

And thus was "Christmas" born and has continued throughout the centuries under very shady and dishonest circumstances.

So Happy Yule to all and to all a Good Night!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Diwali in Delhi

We went to a Diwali party tonight that was set up for us by Beth’s contact in India, Sumitra. Sumitra runs Women on Wanderlust, a travel company specializing in women only tours around India and the world. Beth says a company like this couldn’t have existed in India ten years ago and it is proof of India’s progress. There is a rising middle class now in which wives and daughters have the money, leisure, and freedom to travel.

The Diwali party was held in the large front garden of an elegant white colonial building. There were clay oil lamps on the ground and white lights strung on every vertical surface. Large white pads – like California King sized futons – were on the ground to sit on once shoes were removed. Men in white kurtas carried silver trays with toothpicks and small bites of deliciously spiced chicken, fish, cheese, potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower. Undoubtedly the best hors d’oeuvres I’ve ever had. There was an open bar, so I decided to investigate Indian red wine. The other ladies liked it, but…happy grapes come from California.

A holy man performed a very long blessing ritual with incense, fire and marigold petals he threw in by the fistful. Then he tied red string around our wrists – the way this was explained to me is that the holy man blesses the string and the wearer makes a wish on it. Only when the wish comes true can the wearer remove the string. I could, however, be completely mistaken, so if there are any experts out there…I don’t want to hear it. I wished for good health for the trip, which failed utterly. That may have been due to user error.

On Diwali, gambling in honor of Lakshimi, the goddess of good fortune, ensures good luck and prosperity for the following year. Sumitra invited some teachers to help us learn an Indian card game called “Flash,” which is like poker with only 3 cards per hand. So there we were, a dozen women sitting on giant futons playing 3-card poker with highly entertained (and patient) teachers, using matchsticks for bets. I ran out of matchsticks embarrassingly fast. Give me Texas Hold’em any day. So there you have it – I went to India to drink and gamble.

Fireworks are a huge part of Diwali, and the young men at this party were quite literally having a blast. One would sink a firecracker into the lawn, run to get a lit match, run back to the firecracker, light the fuse and LEAP backwards to avoid getting hit by the explosion. Some of the guys handed out sparklers to the ladies. Others created a mine field of firecrackers at the gate to the yard and around the driveway, setting them off in such rapid succession that it sounded like machine gun fire. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, boys will be fire hazards.

I sat down at a table on the lawn with Melany and the Australian woman and listened to their conversation on being happily single. The Australian woman, in her 60s and absolutely stunning with 9 grandchildren, has multiple boyfriends at any given time. She goes out to dances and political balls regularly and has to beat men off with a stick. “They all want to get married!” she complains. She never wants to be married again, loves her autonomy, and says “I’m the king!” Melany has a similar opinion: men are fun as long as you can send them back home when you’re sick of them. They both agree that they no longer have the patience to compromise or to be anything other than blunt. I can just picture these pitiful 60 year old men trailing after them like puppies, whining “but why wouldn’t you want to get married?” Because it’s too much damned work, and these gals have been there and done that. Melany and the Australian laughingly apologize for sharing this wisdom with an innocent 25 year old, but I explain that as a child of divorce, I can understand how a dog and a gardener can easily take the place of a husband. Even a dog is too much work for the Australian, she likes her freedom. But Melany agrees – she has a dog. I’m certainly getting different perspectives on dating on this trip. And none of it is very complimentary to men.

Don’t worry, I still like men. But then, I’m 25 and don’t know any better.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Eve of Diwali

October 16th

It’s the night before Diwali and I can hear fireworks popping outside the window of my room at the fancy Park hotel in Connaught Circle. My roommate, Melany, and I met the rest of the group today – all very nice women, mostly in their 50s and 60s. Most work in or own successful businesses, many are single or divorced.

When I was telling friends in Oxford about my tour with women our mothers’ age, the general reaction was a good humored “that’ll be a story in itself!” But, as an only child raised in a primarily adult environment, it feels perfectly normal to me. And being among so many independent adventurous women is kind of empowering.

Earlier today we went to Humayun’s tomb – which was beautiful and exotic, exactly as you’d expect. A little history: it was built out of red sandstone in 1532 by a Mughal emperor’s wife (Mughal = Persian conqueror), and is the first “garden tomb” in India.

Then we went to a shrine: a labyrinth of marble-floored narrow alleyways. Beggars and sleeping children lined the walls. The little boys were quite cheeky. They greeted us with a chorus of cheerful “Hello!”s. When one of the women took out her camera, the nearest boy posed, arms outstretched with a giant grin. Cuteness like that well deserved a few rupees, but knowing that many of them are under the control of slum gangs, I was hesitant to interact with, much less finance them. Indians are strikingly beautiful people. Even the beggar women with their skinny babies are beautiful with delicate bone structure and large dark eyes. In India, more so than in any other place I’ve been, the best pictures are of people. Just take pictures of the people and you’ll come out with photographs worthy of National Geographic.

Before entering the shrine we had to take off our sandals and leave them at the entrance. Walking barefoot on hard floors dotted and smeared with wet excrement and stepping in it on the way to a sacred site is almost a microcosm of India as a whole. It’s a place of extremes.

I think I’ve come to India remarkably well prepared. I came with few expectations: I expected inconvenience and discomfort; I expected pushy salesmen; I expected beggars with infants pulling at me; I expected to get ripped off, regularly. If it takes an hour for the hotel clerks to check me in – it’s India. If we get the wrong kind of room every single check-in – it’s India. If it takes another hour just to pay for a purchase and another 30 minutes to get change (if you can get any at all) – it’s India. I say all of this because a few of the women on the trip haven’t quite attained the level of Zen required for this country. Though there are a number who are utterly uncomplaining – bless them. I figure, just accept that nothing is logical, nothing makes sense, and everything takes far longer than it should. Then enjoy the good parts.

Whenever I travel somewhere really cool or beautiful, I always think “I wish my boyfriend was here to see this.” But not in India. He would hate India. First, because walking around barefoot in shit would freak him out on a phobic level, but mostly because he would have no control here, over anything. You have to go with the flow or exist in a constant state of angst and irritation. My boyfriend is very logical and very stubborn. He has fixed notions on how things should be. You can’t do that here. You can’t bring those expectations here. You can’t come in thinking that if they made you King of India for a day, that you could sort the place out in a jiffy – and yet, as an American, or as a Westerner, it is so tempting to think just that.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


October 15th

I am learning an entirely new philosophy of driving. Lines on the road are mere suggestions and vehicles often drive right down the middle of them (though not straight down the middle, no one drives straight). Changing lanes is more like swerving to avoid hitting motorcycles. There are a lot of motorcycles, and what cracks me up is the women riding side-saddle on the back of them in their beautiful sparkling saris, completely relaxed and unconcerned that they’ve almost been rear ended five times within the last five minutes. Saris on the backs of motorbikes, fluttering in the wind. Amazing.

My taxi driver picked me up from the arrivals gate and ushered me past the taxi wallahs waiting outside so fast that I didn’t have time to find an ATM, not that I saw one. So I arrived at the Grand Godwin Hotel in Delhi with a $1 bill and a $5 bill in my pocket, U.S. currency. I gave the taxi driver the dollar (U.S. money is often accepted here) and checked in. My roommate had not arrived yet even though she was supposed to be here yesterday. At least she was able to arrange my pickup at the airport.

In a flash, one of the bell boys, or coolies, grabbed my bag and I followed him up to the room. The only money I had on me then was the $5 bill, which was way too much, and a 10 rupee note given to me for luck by a well traveled friend before I left. Thanks Dr. Jensen! It was definitely lucky I had that 10 rupees to give the bell boy; tips are serious business here.

I explored the bathroom, thanking God for a western style toilet. But the shower was baffling. There were a few plastic buckets under a faucet, above that was a shower head, and there was a drain in the floor. No shower stall, bathtub or even ridge to keep the water from flooding the place. There was a half-hearted attempt at a shower curtain. So even though I had been dreaming about a steamy hot shower to sooth my aching and very sick body, I couldn't bring myself to royally mess up the bathroom before my roommate got here. I could just imagine her stepping into a flood while trying to use the toilet.

My water bottle, last filled at Heathrow, had a couple mouthfuls of water left. I took a rationed gulp and crawled under the covers of the Queen sized bed. The air conditioner was on full blast and I was shivering. Throughout the week of freezing cold nights in Oxford, I dreamt of 90+ degrees India. And here I was freezing again. Sigh.

When I woke up, I drank the rest of the water and quickly realized that I would become more sick very quickly if I wasn't hydrated. After an hour of praying to the Gods that the American voices I heard in the hallway belonged to my roommate, I gave up hope of rescue. I just wanted to hole up in the safe little room – but I needed water. So I went to the lobby and spent fifteen minutes misunderstanding the concierge in every possible linguistic way. All I wanted was water. I didn't want it brought to me because then I would probably have to tip and I had no money. I explained my problem to the concierge and he told me to wait on the couch and someone would take me to the ATM since it was a busy and dangerous time of night.

A kindly young Indian man, clearly used to reassuring freaked out, lost, uncomprehending and incomprehensible tourists, took me across the street – holding his arm out more than once to prevent me from getting run over – and haggled with two rickshaw drivers. Yes, rickshaws. Bicycle rickshaws specifically. It turned out that the ATM was a long walk under good traffic conditions, but at this time of night a rickshaw was our only chance of survival.

Traveling in that rickshaw for 2 blocks was the most frightening experience I have ever had in my life. Never have I felt honestly afraid for my physical body. Never before has death seemed a real possibility. Most of the light on the street came from the 4 stories tall neon hotel signs on almost every building. Vehicles darted in and out, dodging other rickshaws, taxis, small motorized rickshaws and bicyclists. The ATM was literally a small hole in the wall. My guide from the hotel pushed our way in and guarded me while I fumbled with my card and punched in my numbers. I took out enough money to pay for my hotel room in cash, which turned out to be very wise since cash was all the hotel accepted.

My roommate called me late that night. Her plane was delayed in Chicago, and she was getting her own room in the hotel. We met for breakfast the next morning on the rooftop of the Grand Godwin and shared a cab to the next hotel, the one from which our tour would start.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Flying over Pakistan

October 15th

It’s 4am England time and I am flying over the surface of the moon – or insert strange barren planet – also known as Pakistan. I see sand, rock, and hard packed ground that may have had water there once. That last sentence makes me think about how NASA bombed the moon to see if there was any ice locked beneath the rock.

Now, layers of mountain ranges that go on forever emerge from mist. I think I can make out a town because there are little house-shaped mounds forming a square. But it might just as easily be the result of erosion. Now I see the patchwork of agriculture, except everything is still brown. There is one ridge that looks like a giant iguana lying flat out in the sun. The cracks in the earth make shapes like barren tree branches, and there are long curving ridges that stretch to the horizon. The last few are sand dunes that give way to a great flat expanse patterned like alligator hide.

Forgive me for using a thousand words instead of a picture. My camera is in my bag at my feet, which I can’t get to since the seat tray is down, and the flight attendants take an hour to clear away food. Today’s fare is airline food at its worst: a gherkin, cheese, tomato and cucumber sandwich. It tastes vaguely like tuna fish. I eat half anyway (I really will eat just about anything). The dinner, served last night from 11 to 12am, as if that makes any sense, was a delicious curry, rice and lentil dish that made my throat and now persistent cough feel much better.

The TV screen in front of me doesn’t work. But, despite my Indian friend’s predictions of doom-by-Air India, the plane ride still isn’t a bad deal for the price. Then again, I still don’t know whether or not they’ve lost my luggage.

It occurs to me, as I look out the window, that if humans can survive in this landscape, colonizing other planets really shouldn’t be a problem.

October 14th – Air India and other problems

F-ing Postal Workers
I woke up coughing lungfulls of mucous. Sorry, I know that’s a terrible image. My head hurt, my eyebrows hurt, my teeth hurt. I crawled out of bed around noon and showered in water as hot as I could stand, trying to steam out the illness. Xander made me a drink of whiskey, honey, lemon, ginger and hot water that helped enough for me to think myself capable of venturing out.

I decided to try shipping the four mugs, tea, and a few thin booklets I had acquired earlier in the week. The store where I bought the mugs put them in a large, sturdy box which Xander helped me tape, wrap in brown paper, and tape again. I walked the half mile to the post office on Cowley Road.

The line was blessedly short. Post office lines in England can take hours, so I thought I was in luck. I told the postal worker that I wanted to send the box to America, and I put it on the scale for weighing. It was .75 grams overweight. This meant a shipping price of £47. But if I got rid of .75 grams, the price would drop down to £22. I gave the smug little brown man a withering glare meant to convey that I was sick, had a lot to do and not much time to do it in, and that this .75 grams was entirely too ridiculous for me to deal with right then. I didn’t say any of this. I asked “Do you have any tape so I can do this here?” “No” he replied cheerfully. The bastard.

I trekked back the half mile to the house, removed the paper and tape, and with Xander’s help, discovered that .75 grams is exactly the weight of the wrapping paper. Seriously, that is how small the difference was. I took out a couple cards and a thin booklet. Then we wrapped and taped the box again, and I walked the half mile back to the post office.

I'd like to note that upon my return to California, despite careful packing, 2 mugs were broken and the box looked like it had been hit repeatedly with a sledge-hammer. Then sat upon.

I hadn’t eaten anything all day and decided to have one last meat pie with mushy peas, potatoes and gravy at Pie Minister in the Covered Market. Then I went to an internet café on High Street to try and get some work done for my ghost-writing employer. I had to spend a few minutes reassuring Mom that I wasn’t going to catch malaria, typhoid or rabies. Over Gmail chat I promised not to pet any animals and to cover myself with Deet from head to toe. She was very annoyed that I hadn’t pumped myself full of every possible vaccination and anti-malarial.
Air India

LAX is remarkably easy to navigate compared with Heathrow. Maybe it’s just Terminal 3, maybe the other terminals are more organized. In Terminal 3, there are signs that don’t say anything useful. I couldn’t find Air India until I discovered the information booth and asked.

My “carry-on” was too heavy and had to be checked, which I really didn’t want to do considering Air India’s reputation for doing everything badly. My sense of forebodinga was not lessened when the Air India check-in clerk asked me “you don’t have anything too important in there, do you?” Which is NOT a question you want to hear when deciding whether or not to check your suitcase.

The plane boarded over an hour before its scheduled take-off. So even though I arrived at 7pm for a 9:30pm flight, I only had just enough time to fumble through security and find the inconveniently placed drinking fountain to fill up my plastic water bottle.

Then I was on the plane. The moment when the wheels leave the ground, that first moment of feeling nothing but air under me, always makes me grin like an idiot. Every time.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wrapping up Oxford

I’m getting some pressure to move on to India, so I’m going to try to please my public (Hi Mom!) and get on with it. But, I have to wrap up Oxford first, because I did some pretty neat stuff outside of pubs and eating myself silly.

I bought my travel journal midway through the week at Scriptum, a magical little store that specializes in Italian leather-bound journals and other writing equipment that could be from the last century. Upstairs they have bookends, Italian Carnivale masks, a fox head, and a model ship, along with used books, notepads, address books, and a few smaller journals. Downstairs is wall to wall gorgeous leather, wrapped around thick stacks of paper, in colors and styles that have been in vogue since forever. Writer friends, I know you love your moleskins, but these are far, far sexier. The store will stamp the leather for you if you want your journal to say something, like “Travels” for instance, but I had too much trouble committing to a genre. Maybe next time.

Later that evening I stumbled upon Evensong at Hertford College. In America, I frankly dislike organized religion – everything about it. The zealots, the nonsensical/insane practices, cannibalistic rituals…I can’t find anything good enough to redeem the bad. But in England, I feel completely differently. In England, religion and aesthetics go hand in hand. Truth is beauty, beauty is truth – Keats could have just as easily said that about English Christianity. It is beautiful. The churches, the music, even the ministers make me believe that the human spirit can transcend the animal and become sublime. Despite all the warm fuzzy feelings I get from English Christianity, it’s still, well, Christianity, and I get a little nervous around it. Going into a chapel, holding a book of Common Praise, standing up and sitting down along with prayers, it all gives me the heebie jeebies. And what if I do something wrong? At least I’m past the stage where I thought priests could read my mind (I was six, it’s not that weird). But as soon as the choir began to sing, I was put at ease. Such incredible beauty. And the minister, a round happy-looking woman, preached a message of acceptance and friendship. Oxford is particularly glorious in its secularism. They take the best parts of God and the best parts of man; zealotry is not allowed to spoil intellectual achievement or community.

Later in the week, Xander, Miranda and I met up with some journalists for drinks at the King’s Arms near the Sheldonian theater. Don’t ask me how Xander knows these people; he knows everybody. One was a reporter for radio, and the other a journalist for the BBC – Jamillah Knowles, if you want to google stalk. Despite my aspirations to become a journalist, I don’t get to hang out with journalists very often (like, at all) so this was a real treat. I didn’t want to come off as a rabid reporter wannabe, so I just let them talk. Lovely people! I love journalists. Intelligent, unpretentious (though that could be because they’re British), interesting, witty…sigh. I want to be a member of that club. Jamillah had just come back from Calcutta, so we got to talking about India. She was in town for a couple days covering the Museum of Science’s Steampunk exhibit and wanted to do a bit of sightseeing on her down time. Since the Pitt Rivers museum was on both of our To Do Lists, we wound up making a plan to go together with Xander as our guide the next day.

We needed a guide. Let me tell you, the Pitt Rivers museum is extremely hard to find. I didn’t even know we were there when we were stepping around giant fake dinosaur footprints in the front lawn. But the museum is worth the search: Skeletons of extinct monsters, touchable stuffed displays of creatures you wouldn’t want to touch if they were alive, cases of shrunken heads and totems. The building itself looks like it was made from the bones of a prehistoric beast.

On my second to last day, I had to check off the remaining items on my To Do list: climbing to the top of St. Mary’s (about a mile of narrow staircases for one of the best views in town – terrifying, tiring, and totally worth it); and taking a walking tour.
Walking tours around Oxford cost around £6.00, the cheapest entertainment in town next to buying a pint. Our guide took us in and out of a few of the colleges around the older parts of Oxford, into quads, dining halls and chapels. And I don’t remember one damned fact from the whole thing. I do remember feeling incredibly humbled and in awe standing beneath the portrait of Lawrence of Arabia (the spitting image of Peter O’Toole) in the dining hall of his old college.

The very last thing on my To Do List was to walk through Christchurch Meadows, the home of the luckiest cows in the world, and the smuggest squirrels.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Meat Pies and Other Staples

One more post devoted to food. I can't resist.

Inside the Covered Market in Oxford are gourmet groceries galore. There is such pride and care in these stores. One gets the feeling that the butchers have been butchers for generations, that the tea is a legacy, and that Ben's cookies are absolutely the best in town. Ok, that's not a feeling, that's a fact.
Butchers hang fresh kills outside their doors and pile sausages in their windows, and the tea shop stores its tea in 90 year old Chinese canisters.

Now this is the kind of small agriculture I'm talking about. I mean look at it! It's not pre-packaged, it's not plastic-wrapped, it's not in neat little cartons, it's real, honest food that came from a farm, or a field, or - a duck pond. But it came from somewhere nearby, delivered by someone who was proud to have produced it.
Ok, enough of my waxing poetical about raw meat – here is my new favorite place in the world: Pie Minister.
Next to the ancient butcher and tea shops, Pie Minister is jarringly new. But there is nothing more traditional or comforting than a meat pie. And meat pies are all they do – with sides of mashed potatoes and mushy peas. Have I mentioned my unhealthy (literally) fixation on meat pies? Oh how I love them.

And I love all their variations too. Put anyting in a pocket of pastry dough and I'm happy. Incidentally, that is the exact recipe for a Cornish Pasty: anything wrapped in pastry dough. There is a very old joke that the Devil never dared to go into Cornwall for fear of ending up as a filling in a Cornish Pasty - since those Cornish wives would put anything in there.
Before I leave the subject of food, at least in Oxford, let me pay homage to my favorite mocha, found in Puccino's coffee shop just outside the Covered Market.As much as I have touted the improved tastes and culinary skills of the English in these last two posts, sometimes they revert back - behold this version of ... cheese fries with ketchup and mayo? Oh dear God, that's disgusting.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Farmers Market to Table

I would like to, once and for all, dispel the myth that British food is bad. It was bad. But from when I first went there in 1992, and they poured thick cream over everything and had terrible coffee, to now- Britain has undergone a gastronomic revolution.

The Farm to Table movement has hit big, and not just with CelebriChefs. Xander and Miranda used to have a box of vegetables from the surrounding farms brought to their door once a week by a guy on a bike. Now, they walk a few blocks to the Farmers Market every Saturday.
Their farmers market is small, in the gymnasium of an elementary school, but the vegetables are fresh out of the ground, the bread is unmistakably homemade, and blonde woman with peaches and cream skin sells jams she makes out of berries picked around Oxford – is that not heaven?

England has 350 farmers markets and counting. In London, Borough Market is a weekly foodie event. Xander and Miranda had a CSA before Southern California even knew what one was (many of us still don’t). If you ask me, England is on the cutting edge of the culinary scene which is quickly heading back to small production, family farmers, and free range meat and quality produce. It’s so easy to bandy the term “quality produce” around, so let me take a moment to define it: fruits and vegetables that make the farmer proud because they are the best he can grow. You can’t buy that at a supermarket. Off we went to the glorious farmers market before breakfast or coffee. Which meant that I was Shopping While Hungry. I bought a loaf of crumbly, moist, gorgeous bread, a jar of jam from miscellaneous local berries, and a Greek spinach pie as big as my hand. We walked back via the regular supermarket so Xander and Miranda could finish their weekly shopping, and I was as happy as a pig in mud taking pictures of the exotic offerings.
I love how the Twix "biscuit fingers" comes with "Free Tea with Every Pack". Claim your Cuppa!
The "boozy" pie. In a can.
The walk back to the house was long, so we decided to stop midway at Costa Coffee on Cowley road for some caffeine and The Guardian. Miranda went for the coffee, Xander found the newspaper, and I planted myself at the table – starving. My Greek spinach pastry was looking awfully good. I figured that since we were getting three coffees, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I ate my pastry. Three bites in and Xander goes out for a cigarette. We have our coffee, lug the groceries home, and I dive into the bread and jam.
Hours later, or maybe the next day, I’m telling them how some of the English peculiarities are surprising me. Like the invisible queuing system in pubs that only the English see and only the bartenders understand. We begin talking about some of the differences in manners one might not expect, and it turns out I committed a horrible faux pas. A faux pas so severe that Xander was driven out in shame to smoke a cigarette: I had eaten a pastry in the coffee shop which had not been bought there. He explains that if an English person had committed this offense, another English person might very well have scolded the perpetrator, ensuring mortification through public embarrassment. But because I ate my pastry in a perfectly natural and entitled way, bystanders likely assumed I had somehow received special dispensation. As an American, it’s news to me that there are bystanders staring at me eating a pastry in a coffee shop. This seems a bit paranoid. But, it was enough for Xander to not want to be seen in my company, so I felt extremely sheepish.

The offending pastry.