Getting where?

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Tag: She’s going on about food again

‘very knowledgable, but never a snob’

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but Getting Where owes a lot to Anthony Bourdain.

Five years ago, I went to eat at The Kitchin in Leith – my first, and so far only, Michelin starred restaurant experience. As we were seated I looked up to find that I was put directly under a photo of the chef with Anthony Bourdain. I was happy about this, and I know at the time I definitely commented on it. It’s as though he was there to remind me that, while eating in such a lauded restaurant was an incredibly tasty and amazing experience, the really good stuff was elsewhere, and much more accessible.

Would I have jumped onto the back of someone’s motorbike in rainy Hanoi, zoomed to the outskirts of the city in some of the most incredible traffic I’ve ever seen wearing a borrowed helmet that didn’t really fit my massive western head, half terrified, half amazed as I watched my host buy ingredients from a local market without ever leaving the bike? Would I have sat on the floor of a stranger’s one-room apartment with a group of friends who didn’t speak my language, laughing, eating fried frogs legs, being shown how to wrap my own spring rolls? Would I have ignored my mother’s cautions in my head and put myself in for such an amazing, home-cooked meal if not for Anthony Bourdain’s influence?

I think it’s unlikely.

Bourdain was on my mind quite a lot when I was travelling, but particularly in Vietnam. I ate in a small handful of restaurants, but none of them were anywhere near as good as what I got walking in the street or sitting on tiny plastic stools. Not by a long way. Anthony Bourdain was the first person to put the idea in my head that that sort of thing was worth seeking out.

And thank god. There’s the kind of food you make at home, and the kind of food you get in a fancy place with a sommelier, and all manner of things in between. But what I really want when I go away from home is the kind of food other people make at home.

It’s weird to tell people you’re sad about someone famous dying. Particularly when that’s not the sort of thing you usually get affected by. No one really knows what to say to you. Not unlike when anyone else dies you’re sad about I guess. But there’s no point of reference when people don’t know what someone might mean to you.

I didn’t watch him much on TV, but Bourdain’s writing and opinions on food and travel had a tremendous influence on me. That influence continues to lead me to some of the best experiences and flavours in my life.

But the thing about this that tears me up even more is how our brains can sometimes win against us. And that we still haven’t worked out what to do about the more sinister parts of our inner chemistry.

The drive to create and explore makes you better, but in my experience, it also often comes with crippling self-doubt and all manner of other hard stuff to fight through. And my experience doesn’t even include addiction, so I can only imagine how that amplifies and twists a challenge.

You can be smart and honest and creative and prolific and kind and thoughtful, but you can also be disintegrating from the inside. I try as hard as I can to remember this about people, particularly when I’m feeling awful myself. But it’s very hard to remember the inner lives of others when your own is so loud.

I went to see Anthony Bourdain read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival when he was touring on Medium Raw. (I took a vegetarian with me. She loved it!) He was insightful and amusing and did a great job putting the snobbery of some question-askers right where it belonged. It was fantastic.

I did not wait in the ages-long queue to get my book signed. I never know what to say in those situations, and I also decided my time would be better spent in a pub with a beer and some good food talking shit with my friend. So I skipped the signing and went for the pint. I like to think he’d have preferred to do the same.

For me, it’s ok that I never got to say hello or thanks. The best I can do is keep eating everything I can try without discrimination, and encouraging others to do the same. And the next time I sit on a plastic stool with a hot bowl of something delicious, I know who I’ll be thinking of.

Europe in a single-serve pot

I had Nutella on my toast this morning, which in itself is not a rare or remarkable thing. But it came from this wee pot Miriam brought back from her hotel in Berlin, and with it came a flood of happy food and travel nostalgia.

The first time I ever had Nutella was in Germany. I was about 13 and my father had decided to bring his parents and me and my sister and mother over for a holiday so we could see where my Grandpa’s family came from and where he grew up when they lived there. My Grandpa was actually born in the US, but his brother was born in Germany and they went back there to live in Lichtenfels for a while when he was young.

Anyway, the idea was for him to get to see it again one more time, and for my Grandma and all of us to see it for the first time. It was also the first time my sister and I had been out of the country, so there was the whole exciting business of passports and wondering what a trans-Atlantic flight would be like and trying to learn bits and pieces of German (Mom says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ first, of course, we were too young for ‘beer’, but it sounds the same anyway).

We spent 2 weeks buzzing around southern Germany in a Fiat minibus with the most uncomfortable hard seats I’d ever experienced in a car up til that point. We marveled at the speedy efficiency of the Autobahn. We almost instantly turned the German word for ‘exit’ into a fart joke. We stayed in small European hotels, the like of which don’t exist in the US and so are that much more novel, specifically to a 13-year-old suddenly experiencing The Simpsons and Walker, Texas Ranger overdubbed in German on the TV and meats and cheeses at breakfast.

And Nutella. Glorious, glorious Nutella. Chocolate for breakfast! How advanced these Europeans were. Every hotel we were in had it as standard. I specifically remember my Grandpa encouraging me to swipe a few of those wee pots in the morning for use later. I was a vegetarian at the time (I know, a teenage vegetarian in Germany – my poor parents) so I lived on pommes frites, afterthought side salads (bad), spaetzle (very good!), and afternoon car snacks of Wasa crispbread with said swiped Nutella smeared on it washed down with kirsch Capri Sun.

It’s curious that I have such vivid food memories of a trip on which I’d given myself limited menu options, but then the adventure of being in Europe for the first time, even while holding up my surly teenage grunge phase business of Totally Not Being Impressed, probably had a lot to do with that. Pretty much everything was new, food or not. Fanta! Milka bars! The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ on MTV Europe, 6 months before we ever heard it in the US!

Germany was also the first place I encountered the kiwi spoon. We went to the zoo in Köln during some sort of festival where there was all sorts of free stuff, including a Zespri booth pushing New Zealand kiwis. They were handing out kiwi halves with the little plastic spoons stuck in them. If you’ve never seen a kiwi spoon, they’ve got a pointy spoon at one side and a serrated edge on the other so you can cut your kiwi in half and scoff it with the same tool – there are even two different designs! Years later when I was in New Zealand with Scott, we got some in the grocery store. When they broke back in the UK, he was so devastated I wrote to Zespri and asked if I could buy some from them. Instead they sent a wee package of 6 of each type to me for free. How’s that for customer care? I still have a few of them. They’re pretty handy, as bits of plastic go.

German Nutella pot

How many can you cram into your bag unnoticed?

But I digress. What I’m really getting at is how nice it is to be reminded of an entire experience, and of my Grandfather in general, by nothing more than a mini pot of Nutella with a German label. I tend to think of my Grandpa when I have Nutella anyway, but this may as well have been the very pot I slipped into my pocket nearly two decades ago as he slyly encouraged sugar-related mischief, as grandparents are wont to do.

Make something – you’ll feel better

Dinner to the rescue. In addition to white sauce, there are artichokes in this as well. Artichokes are one of the best things on the planet. (The wine doesn't hurt either.)

Dinner to the rescue. There are artichokes in this as well. Artichokes are one of the best things on the planet. (The wine doesn’t hurt either.)

I was in a completely rubbish mood today. The kind where you’re so bluerghhhhhh you can’t even make a very simple decision about what to do next.

On top of the other myriad causes of said mood, I was feeling a bit crap about bowing out of my original plans to go walking up some hills tomorrow. The weather is meant to be unpleasant and near freezing, and I don’t really have the right gear for those conditions. Plus my walking shoes (not even boots) don’t fit properly. And after what my feet felt like wearing them on a flat, 6 hour walk last year, I knew nearly 8 hours of walking in cold, wet conditions on mountains was probably not going to make for the most pleasant way to spend a Sunday. So I’m annoyed that I’m not more prepared in the kit department, because I’m missing out on hanging out with some cool people AND it would be good for me to experience some challenging weather conditions right now. It’s not like winter in Siberia is gonna be a picnic.

(This is how I look at a lot of things now: what is the thing in this situation that’s going to make this trip I’m taking better? It’s not so much that everything is about the trip, because it’s not. But MAKING things about the trip is a good way to keep me from that whole wimping out thing I was doing before. It’s also a good way to remind me why I’m saving money and being healthier and all that.)

Anyway, I’m happy to sit in a bad mood for a bit and let it do its thing, but after a while you need to get yourself out. And I was at the point where the only things I knew were A: I needed to get AWAY from screens and technology of ALL KINDS, and B: I needed to make something. Because every time I feel like utter shit and nothing else is working to get me out of it, the answer is: make something – you’ll feel better. This can refer to anything, but usually it means food. And even when I’m in such a strop with myself that I don’t even believe THAT’S going to work, I know that I have to just trust the proof of past experience and get to it. Because it always works. I wouldn’t be writing this post if it didn’t.

This time I made a fancy-ass pasta bake because I felt the need to pull out the big guns: Béchamel sauce.

Let me explain.

There is NO WAY to make a roux, and subsequently, a Béchamel, without feeling like a fucking wizard.

The day I nailed Béchamel without looking at a recipe was one of those times I truly understood how art and science can be the same thing. Perfecting the alchemy of the roux leads you to big, bad, brilliant things. It is impossible to feel bad about yourself, for AT LEAST 5 full minutes, once you are standing over a pot of Béchamel made by your own fair hand. Because watching it change and come together is fascinating. Because it is one of the ways a person who doesn’t do religion can explain how you can see something like god in science. Because the possibilities presented by a basic white sauce are endless. It makes everything better. And it is so simple you can barely believe it. Butter. Flour. Milk. Heat. Magic.

Most of us feel weird about proclaiming things we’re good at. I’m no different. Outside of being disgustingly over-organised, food is pretty much the only thing I am perfectly happy to say I am awesome at. To the point where it often carries me through the moments I don’t believe I’m good at anything at all.

This is the mightiest of universally useful and transferable skills. This, along with a few other food-based basics, is the band-aid for life’s troubles that lives in my brain. This, along with sauteing onions in fat, roasting a chicken to perfection, making a cake, and emulsifying the fuck out of a homemade salad dressing is something that I can bring on the road and use anywhere when I feel a bit shit.

Béchamel will not solve the world’s problems. It won’t even solve my own (that would be slightly ridiculous) – it often reminds me how to start though.