Wednesday 28 September 2011

My Trader Joe's Joy, and the Disappointment of So-Called Tortilla Chips

FRIDAY: It's been over a week since I've written anything at lunch because I've been engrossed in a book. And strangely enough for me, it's a novel. I don't normally read novels, as I've never got over my post-university craving to constantly learn from my reading, not that it's made me any wiser. But to keep myself grounded I allow some fiction every now and then, as long as it's good quality classic stuff. And The New Confessions by William Boyd is definitely a modern classic, written so realistically that it's easy to mistake it for an amazing autobiography.

My lunch is vegetarian Italian sausage and cream cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and red peppers in a crusty sunflower seed baguette: a novel sandwich, I must say. As I'm going out this evening directly from work I'm travelling light today, so no 450-page novel. Instead I'm going to write about a source of pride and joy followed by one of disappointment. A year ago when I visited America my dear friend Kimmer gave me, as a goodbye present, a Trader Joe's tote bag containing a small jar of Marmite and a packet of Sen-Sens. The jar of Marmite, a staple of mine, has been consumed by now; and the Sen-Sens, a nostalgic taste of olfactory magic, as well as a pop-culture icon, are still lying unopened and on display next to my classic Photo On Car, purchased years ago in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo. But the Trader Joe's tote bag -- a gorgeously super soft and comfortable canvas bag printed in my favourite colours, red and black -- was until about a month ago lying forgotten on a bedroom shelf. I've only just started using it, stashing it folded up in my backpack or handbag to use for post-work and pre-pub shopping. And I have to admit, with a tiny bit of embarrassment, that I've fallen in love with it. For one thing, if I have nothing more to carry than a bottle of wine, it cushions the bottle so I don't have to live in fear of knocking a plastic bag over onto the pavement, possibly breaking the bottle and creating a huge mess, not to mention wasting good wine. And when I'm waiting for the bus and I've bought more than I intended, there is plenty of room for everything without things flopping around and without the big heavy macho items squashing the delicate little items under their heavy boots. And the handle is so luxuriously soft and comfortable to hold. And the bag says TRADER JOE'S in gorgeous red and black.

Trader Joe's is definitely one of the plus sides of being an American on the Pacific Coast. After all these years of its existence, it is still a fine, fine establishment and concept with a wonderful selection of reasonably priced and often excellent quality food and drink products. Every time I come back from the US to the UK, or an American friend or relative comes to visit, I always purchase or put in a request for a jar of Trader Joe's unsalted almond butter and perhaps a packet of their handmade corn tortillas -- two items I still cannot find in the UK.

This brings me to my other item of discussion. Recently I was surprised and very excited to spot a brand new product being featured at Marks & Spencer: tortilla chips that do not have wheat flour as an ingredient. Up to now I had pretty much given up on ever finding real tortilla chips in this country, eg. made of cornmeal, water, salt, and often lime. This is why I avoid anything made with so-called "corn" tortillas, because not only does the addition of wheat make them tasteless but it also imparts the texture of cardboard.

So I went back to Marks & Spencer another day, fully intending to treat myself to some non-cardboard tortilla chips. On the display was a variety of flavoured tortilla chips such as Nacho Cheese (flavoured with "Nacho Cheese seasonings"), Chorizo and Red Pepper (flavoured with "Chorizo and Red Pepper seasonings"), Mediterranean Black and Green Olive (flavoured with "Mediterranean Black and Green Olive seasonings"), and several other flavours -- but not one packet of the "Lightly Salted" (flavoured, I hope, with a bit of salt and not "Lightly Salted seasonings"). I didn't fancy some sort of overly salted -- and probably sweetened as well -- "seasonings" on my tortilla chips. I wanted plain and simple tortilla chips. So why were they out of the plain style? Could there have been a rush on that flavour? I doubt it seriously -- they probably just didn't stock very many of the plain ones. Must every British food be either seasoned with special "seasonings" or drowned in gravy or sweetened with sugar?

Sorry to be so grumpy, but I do so miss my Mexican food. It's only natural.

Monday 12 September 2011

Olfactory Highs and Lows and the Travesty of Sweet Pizza

MONDAY: I can't believe how gorgeously delicious my lunch is today. I've got a houmus and cream cheese sandwich with chopped spring onion and chopped red pepper -- nothing unusual for me, except that the houmus is made with black-eyed beans instead of chickpeas and flavoured with basil. It's unbelievably good. And the cream cheese is proper Philadelphia. I suppose houmus is like pesto, in that there is no reason one can't make it with beans other than chickpeas and flavourings other than just tahini, garlic, and lemon. I used to make not only basil pesto but pesto with dill and almonds and pesto with thyme and walnuts. What a joy this is -- I'm so glad I picked it up off the Reduced shelf.

THE FOLLOWING THURSDAY: As I've been going to work only two days a week this month, it's been a slow time for writing my blogs. Now that I'm back to working 5 days next week, I'm sure I'll have more to write about. Today, as I nibble a simple Stilton sandwich with hot lime chutney -- accompanied by red pepper and radish slices and Minneola and nectarine slices, as well as raspberries -- I need to quickly add to my previous rant about British food being obsessed with sweetness. Last week I had a Co-Op Stonebaked Roasted Vegetable Pizza that wasn't bad for a store-bought pizza except for one thing: a distinct and somewhat unpleasant sweetness in every bite I took. When I fished the box out of the recycling and read the lists of ingredients I was appalled. Under both "pizza sauce" and "sweet chilli sauce", sugar was the second ingredient; and under "roasted vegetables" and "rust", sugar was also a main ingredient.

Is that sick or what? Who in the world wants a sweet pizza? Mind you, I'm living in the country that loves pineapple pizza…

THE NEXT MONDAY: I'm back to working 5 days a week. I've just finished a book on postmodernity in which I've discovered that everything I do -- other than my University job -- is postmodern.

My sandwich is a JC traditional, however: basil marinated tofu and cream cheese. Fruit is another exciting combination of raspberries, blueberries, nectarines, and one lone lychee for a perfumed dessert. The perfume of the lychee reminds me of the incense cones of my childhood, first discovered at a shop in the magical Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax in Hollywood. Most people think of a "farmers' market" as smelling like fresh vegetables, with rows of just-picked produce and possibly some homemade cheeses and jams. But the magic smells I remember in the Hollywood Farmers Market were the moulded-plastic smell of the fascinating toy stall with its plastic Klik-Klak Blocks and Duncan whistling spintops, caves full of scarves scented with sandalwood, garlicky falafel vendors, and of course the smell of stardom, as the market was located in the shadow of the massive CBS building. One never forgets childhood smells: our collie's lovely warm fur, my mom's hot apple pies, the caramel corn counter in Zody's, that unique aroma of Yardley's lipgloss, and of course the inside of my mother's handbag, a bouquet of spearmint gum, lipstick, keys, and fresh white tissues.

And here I am smelling the very un-British smells of palm trees and banana plants -- blended, of course, with the British smell of packaged cakes and egg mayo sandwiches mixed with that global smell of take-away coffee.

But there is something I smell in Sheffield that I never smelled in my home town of Long Beach, California: the smell of stone-built history.

WEDNESDAY: My sandwich is vegetarian sage and marjoram sausages with cream cheese, Dijon mustard, and the usual chopped vegetables. It's not bad, although the sausage would be nicer if it were hot -- but there are no cooking facilities in the Winter Garden. Continuing on the subject of olfactory joys, I experienced the opposite yesterday on my way home from work. As I was walking past the Town Hall passing the group of protesters waving "Save Our NHS" placards, I was suddenly pelted on the head and shoulders by a boxful of ballistic chips. It's bad enough being pelted by greasy chips, especially at the end of a working day, but the insult was accentuated by the fact that the chips were soaked in vinegar, splashing me with Eau de Vinaigre de Malt. I have a friend who finds the smell of malt vinegar uncontrollably emetic; and I was tempted to run over to the youths who unintentionally caught me in their boisterous crossfire and vomit all over their shoes.

But I didn't. I extracted a leftover swine-flu-era bottle of antibacterial hand wash from my rucksack and doused some on my jacket and hair, creating a new perfume to spices up my bus ride home: antibacterial malt vinegar.

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