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Sunday mornings (coming down): Brunch in the UK

Well I woke up Sunday mornin’, with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.

And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more, for dessert.

Then I fumbled through my closet, for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt.

And I shaved my face and combed my hair and, stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.

 

I’d smoked my brain the night before on cigarettes and songs that I’d been pickin’,

But I lit my first and watched a small kid cussin’ at a can, that he was kickin’.

Then I crossed the empty street and caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken

And it took me back to somethin’, that I’d lost somehow somewhere along the way.

The Kris Kristofferson version of Sunday morning (coming down) is a roadtrip classic for R and me. But there are so many aspects of it that are totally unrelatable from a British background. Most notably, the idea that Sunday morning might smell of fried chicken. If anything’s being fried on a Sunday morning it’s probably breakfast – the patriotic Full English – any chickens will be being roasted, ready for the traditional Sunday lunch.

More recognisable is the later line “somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin’”. Because, as the nonsense around where Prince Harry is allowed to marry his American divorcée can’t help but remind us, the UK is still, technically, a Christian country.

This Christianity, and the Sunday lunch tradition that presumably developed alongside churchgoing habits, is the reason that it’s difficult to do a proper American brunch in the UK on a Sunday.

Although it’s possible to get brunch options in some places (for a price/a long wait), a lot of pubs insist on replacing this option with a roast on a Sunday. Which is sad, because the roasts you get at pubs are rarely ever as good as those produced by home cooking. It’s all in the timing – keep the meat hanging around and it will go dry, lukewarm potatoes can’t be revived to their golden, crisp, steaming, fluffy perfection by drenching them in watery gravy, and mass-catered vegetables are nearly always too mushy or too hard.

Meanwhile, supermarkets in London are often closed until 12pm thanks to Sunday trading laws. (Shops over a certain size can only open for 6 hours on a Sunday, and in London they reckon most of their trade will happen after 12pm…) So, unless you’re organised, it can be difficult to get the ingredients for brunch on a Sunday.

R and I have developed a few responses to this problem. Firstly, we’re contextual people, so sometimes we embrace being back in the land of black pudding and fried slices and go to the best local greasy spoon for breakfast. It’s not a substitute for brunch – it’s something completely different, as signalled by the absolute necessity of pairing it with a good cup of English breakfast tea rather than coffee (that’s my position and I’m sticking to it). Otherwise it’s a case of being organised and creating our own piece of America in our flat.

R has always been skilled at making American blueberry pancakes, and we still have some maple syrup in our fridge that we bought in DC (it’s cheap and comes in 32 fluid ounce plastic bottles – we obviously brought a bottle back in our suitcase!), so that’s often a good option. And I’ve managed to crack(!) the American omelette, which is so reliably ubiquitous in the States, but you just can’t get over here. When explaining it to someone the other day we concluded it was more like a frittata (except folded) or a pizza (because of the sheer number of ‘toppings’/fillings) than our rather anaemic UK offerings. Our current favourite to cook is basically a Western omelette but with chorizo instead of ham.

We’ve also explored the wonderful world of breakfast casseroles for when we have company. Again, this required some explanation for a British audience used to casseroles being mainly meat stew-type things rather than anything cooked in a casserole dish! Possibly my favourite foray into American brunch cookery though were the cat-head biscuits and (sausage) gravy.

My efforts weren’t quite the size of a cat’s head, but otherwise they definitely satisfied our cravings.

 

So we’re doing ok for brunch options. But there are some Sundays when our heads hurt and we’re fumbling and stumbling through hangovers and the last thing we want to do is cook. It’s those Sundays we really miss DC’s 18th Street Diner, and that life ‘lost somewhere along the way’.

On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishin’ Lord, that I was stoned

‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone

And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’, half as lonesome as the sound

On the sleepin’ city side walks, Sunday mornin’ comin’ down

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Eating American in London

More and more restaurants are opening in London with an American theme, promising American bbq, ribs, burgers, etc. You might think this was a boon to those of us recently returned from the States and homesick for the cuisine. But, to be honest, we’ve not tried very many of them since the first ones we tried were so sub par.

The main problems are lack of cheap produce, space and labour. It is a rather sobering thought that a lot of what makes American food possible is exploitative working conditions and questionable standards in the food industry… But other problems are more fix-able. For a start, there’s a lack of love and care, leading to a an undervaluing of knowledge and a disregard of tradition. American food in the UK has been created as something generic. Although it’s trying to be the opposite of McDonalds or Burger King, it can be just as packaged and soulless. For example, what is ‘American bbq’? Anyone who’s even watched the Food Network should know that there’s no such thing. If you’re serving pulled pork alongside beef and barbecue sauce at least acknowledge that these are dishes from very different parts of the States.

Street food is likewise made with a certain lack of care. Too often I’ve had pulled pork sandwiches disintegrate in my hand because the pork was too wet and the bun too flimsy. Street food needs to be constructed with an eye to the consumer eating it on the sidewalk – there should be no need for tables next to the food truck. Also there’s almost too much commitment to, as Burger King used to put it, having it your way. In the States I became used to having things as they came in that place. I wouldn’t ask for a lobster roll with mayonnaise if I were in an area that served it warm with butter. I wouldn’t ask for Texas bbq sauce when eating pulled pork in North Carolina. The best street food should be thoughtfully designed down to the details of the best sauce and garnish to eat with it – so that to ask for ketchup should be as unthinkable at a foodtruck counter as it would in a Michelin starred restaurant.

I know – I’m a snob when it comes to American food. Except when it comes to biscuits and candy… Here at least is something you can get in its original state quite easily in London, if your craving runs to cookies and cream Hershey bars, oreo cookies, or Swedish Fish. There are at least three American candy shops between Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street tubes, and they also sell American cereal and the overly processed Twinkies (which I must admit I could never bring myself to try, even when I was in DC). Supermarkets often have small American sections alongside the Indian and Chinese sections where you can get your Lucky Charms and Baby Ruth bars. And I’ve been very pleased by the advent of Butter Finger cups for the British market (saltier and more peanuty than in the US).

Perhaps the main way we eat American in the UK is in our own cooking and in our attitude to food. We’ve started cooking our own American brunch dishes (more on this in my next post), and we’re militant about grilling outside whenever we can – even on a weeknight – and not just saying it’s too much fuss.

We also recently realised that one ‘American’ brunch tradition we can follow in London is the Jewish tradition of bagels. You can get bagels in the supermarket, but they’re usually preserved, or slightly stale, or disappointingly small. Those made in the bagel shops (which seem to have declined in popularity while we were away so are few and far between now), aren’t much better. So next weekend we might walk to Brick Lane and pick up some fresh bagels from one of the venerable bakeries up there. It won’t be quite as effortless as walking down to our much-missed local deli ‘So’s Your Mom’, but then, nothing in the UK is!

 

 

 

 

From terror to chaos? 3-9 June 2017 in London and Manchester

It’s been an emotional roller coaster of a week.

Home in London last Saturday, I was still dealing with the emotional impact of Manchester, making room for sadness and grief along with my defiance (it doesn’t make us weak or victims to mourn the dead), when the London Bridge attack happened.

It happened fifteen minutes walk from my house, where we had decided last minute not to go out for dinner, but to get pizza instead. I couldn’t quite believe that I was personally so close to another act of terrorism, so soon after Manchester. I didn’t want to believe what was happening. We spent a few hours not quite knowing the details. How many attacks? How many dead? Why was it taking so long to resolve? Were there hostages? My mind spun but emotionally I was pretty numb.

We need a new word to describe that sinking feeling when that terrible thing you knew could happen has happened, and that abstract fear of terrorism that we normally push to the back of our minds as part of a more general fear of death, comes a little closer. For me the thing that causes temporary tremors of fear is the knowledge that the scenes through which we pass everyday could so easily turn into scenes of terror. A market or a square could become a war zone. The same physically, but in reality, unrecognisable.

I tried to feel anger and defiance again, but it’s hard to be angry with something as big as terrorism. The feeling tends to shade off into a wider despair at world events, making me and my feelings seem pretty small.

So I was pretty grateful to Donald Trump the next morning. Seriously – thank you, Donald Trump, for giving me the chance to get absolutely, blazingly, personally, mad as hell. It was a great feeling and really pulled me out of that numbness. My fury against Trump called up my deep love of my city and my mayor, both of which I wanted to protect as fiercely as a mama bear against everything that threatened them.

Who knew you could love a place so fiercely? But London, and London Bridge in particular, has been my home since my early twenties. This is where I ran around with friends, throwing drunken parties that went on all night, spilling out onto the walkway outside on nice evenings; where we started our nights out singing and drinking on the bus to wherever else we were going; and where we walked by the river to clear the hangovers, all the way down to Borough market to chase away the headaches with burgers and falafel. It might have been at the market I first tried falafel, and baklava, bright green olives and ‘drunken’ cheese. Now that I’m older it’s where I buy squid or scallops or venison for special nights in. Where we drink mulled cider in the autumn and ice-cold smoothies when the sun comes out.

This general election has increased my love of my neighbourhood and neighbours. When I was out on the doorstep, listening to voters, I was able to say honestly how I just wanted everyone to be happy in our little part of London. I want us to share this space considerately and all be patient and friendly with each other. By and large we are. Despite disparity of age and income I think people are pretty tolerant, for example of young people having fun in the Borough area, people staggering home at all hours, and community parties going on till dawn!

So it was really hard to leave London on the Sunday evening and go to Manchester for another week. And it was a really hard week, being here, while wanting above anything to be back there with my community, at the vigil, and then at the election – knocking on doors and getting out the vote.

And now I wake up to a hung parliament!

There are probably many reasons to feel concerned right now: a weak government with Brexit negotiations looming, a country split north against south, young against old, cities against towns and rural areas, Tories taking votes from UKIP by going hardline racist… but right now I can’t stop smiling, and I’m going home to London.

The upsides to being back in London

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This is the second part of my list of things that I was looking forward to getting home to when we left the States and which I’ve spent nearly a year crossing off.

Things to enjoy in London:

The Thames.

I love the river. We live next to it and we spend our weekends walking up and down it. We even got on the water recently to come back from Kew Gardens. The riverside is also a feature in many parts of London. By the Southbank Centre (a lovely place to hang out in its own right) you can enjoy Waterloo sunsets with a glass of something from one of the many pop-up bars associated with the Festival Hall, the British Film Institute and the National Theatre. Further down, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge we have the Scoop amphitheatre, which features theatre and music in the summer, a big-screen during major sporting events, and a general holiday feeling.

Borough market.

Though this market has become very busy on a Saturday, with tourists attracted to its huge variety of street food, it’s still a great place to buy good produce. We love the fish stall and have cooked mussels, scallops and squid as well as fish from here. And an afternoon spent tasting cheese from Europe and the UK makes for a good day – Neal’s Yard is just around the corner too. We’ve also enjoyed Maltby Street market, although they put their prices up recently – £8 for a sandwich might be pushing it, even in post-Brexit London.

London restaurants.

We found high-end dining in DC either a little disappointing or hugely expensive. Getting back to our favourite modern European restaurant Magdalen was the perfect homecoming. Sadly it recently closed, but at least we got to go a couple more times. I’ve also enjoyed Spanish food at Pizarro and a little Spanish place my sister recommended (I’m keeping that our secret). And Polish/Baltic food at Baltic – which is also great for its huge selection of vodka and vodka-based cocktails. This is just scratching the surface of London’s restaurant scene – we have a very long list of places we still want to try when we can afford it.

The culture!

In DC there were not many theatres. High culture was highly expensive – the only way I could get my fix was by going to the free Millennium Stage stuff at the Kennedy Centre at 6pm on an evening.

Since coming back to London I’ve been like a kid in a sweetshop. R came back from a trip once to find I’d booked for us to go and see not one, but two productions of King Lear (Glena Jackson at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company version at the Barbican). We’ve actually seen three Shakespeare productions this year, as we also saw Tamsin Grieg in the National’s production of Twelfth Night. Also at the National we saw Brecht’s Threepenny Opera

In terms of classical music, we’ve seen a production of Haydn’s Creation at the Southbank Centre’s excellent, comfortable and purpose-built concert hall, and spent a highly enjoyable evening of Gilbert and Sullivan at the ENO’s Pirates of Penzance.

And there’s been comedy and fringe theatre too. Backyard Comedy in Bethnal Green was a lot of fun. I went to an evening of 11 short 10-minute plays, each written and directed by a different person and each featuring 3 actors. And we went to what I can only call an immersive theatrical event, where we travelled with Alice into wonderland and each had different adventures as the play unfolded around us: I had to peel potatoes, while R got to join the QGP (Queen’s Garden Patrol)!

 

There’s always something going on in London. While in the States we spent money on travelling, here I save for nice meals out and the theatre. Some things remain on my list as I’m waiting to find the right opportunity. For example, we’ve not gone to a proper opera since we’ve been back, and I’ve yet to go to anything at the Royal Opera House. And as we’ve been watching BBC’s Masterchef, the list of restaurants to go to has been growing. So, to misquote Samuel Johnson, I don’t think I’ll ever be tired of London.

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The upsides to being back in the UK

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When we were planning our return to the UK, I wrote a list of all the things that I’d missed and that I was looking forward to. Now, almost a year since we got back, I’ve crossed off most of them. This list got a bit long, so I’ve separated it into two posts – one about being back in the UK, the other about being back in London, the city that I call home.

Things to enjoy in the UK:

Bacon sandwiches. Known as something that has the power to convert vegetarians, British (more often Danish) bacon is a bit like a cross between the Canadian and American kinds. Thick cut and grilled so the fat is just browning but the meat is still juicy, and pressed between two pieces of soft white bread and butter, this is the taste of home. R enjoys his with Worcester sauce; I’m a purist.

Pubs. The pub at the end of our road got renovated when we got back, so we now have a really nice local! It’s a bit hipster – unvarnished and unmatched furniture, plenty of gin and craft beer, and food mostly provided by street food vendors on rotation – but we love it.

Beer gardens. It’s lovely to drink outside. Even if it’s a little too cold; especially when the sun shines. There aren’t that many in London, but we have spent some lovely afternoons and evenings in beer gardens in Winchester, Exeter and Oxford.

The seaside. So far we’ve just enjoyed this in Devon, but there’s nothing like a good long walk along a coastal path, boats clinking at their moorings, the smell of salt – followed by a pint of beer or cider, with a view of the sea.

British countryside and birdsong. We recently had a weekend away, camping, on the border between England and Wales. The walks in woodland, carpeted in bluebells and wild garlic were just lovely – and a great foraging opportunity – and every morning we woke (rather grey and cold and early) to the dawn chorus. Though I loved the red flashes of cardinals and the cries of blue jays in the States, I’m happy to be reunited with my native wood pigeons and blackbirds.

British Indian and Chinese food. I wrote about how different the American version of Chinese can be. Friends will be happy to know that I am now reunited with my beloved prawn crackers – which can also be picked up in most supermarkets here.

‘British’ Mexican food. Although we really enjoyed Tex-Mex in the States, in London we’ve rediscovered the chain Wahaca, where you can get really good value Baha-style Mexican.

Italian pizza. Thin and fresh, and available so many places, you can kid yourself it’s not that unhealthy. Pizza Express is great value and has nice wine – I know, pizza with wine rather than beer! – and, as I’ve mentioned, a new chain, ‘Franco Manca’ opened while we were away.

Ok, this list became a bit London-focused! I’ll leave you with these: