Sunday 23 December 2012

More Mobile Bus Rage, The Risk of Eventual Death, and Extinct Chocolate Chips

TUESDAY: Lunch is a cheese sandwich made with now-ancient French cheese which tastes as if it was made at a Neolithic settlement in what is now France. The cheese is so aged it’s evolved into a complicated cheeselike form that smells so strongly I’m afraid of getting kicked out of the Millennium Galleries atrium as a potential terrorist using stinking cheese as a WMD.

This time of year brings more irritations to the usual daily bundle of nerve shatterers. With Christmas songs blasting from every corner and the rustle of crunchy plastic shopping bags full of useless gifts jammed between overclothed bodies on steamingly overheated buses, along with deadlines of all sorts, global banking problems, and various Internet-related rages, I really didn’t need the distraction of the young lady who sat across from me on the bus this morning. She was gabbing away loudly on her hands-free mobile as if the bus were her own private universe. What made me burst out laughing was when I noticed she was taking advantage of having her hands free by gesturing, as if the person on the other end of the line could see her. The other party obviously couldn’t, judging by the woman’s blank, self-absorbed stare directed at the back of the seat in front of her.

Why do I become so enraged when I see someone talking into the air – always at high volume – with their hands by their side or on their lap and their attention miles away from the reality of where they physically are and whose sense of concentration and/or serenity they are disturbing? If they were crazy loonies talking to themselves I would wholeheartedly forgive them; but in a court of law these hands-free lovers would insist on being declared as sane as you and me – the you and me who have just had our concentration on our intense book rattled by these inane and irrelevant one-way conversations.

(My god, this cheese is a bit scary…)

As long as I’m venting rage I may as well mention an absurd statistic I read in a recent Guardian article:

“Women who take hormone replacement therapy for 10 years after the menopause have far less chance of suffering heart failure or a heart attack or death, research shows.”

If you break this statement down, you get 3 facts:

  1. Women who take HRT for 10 years after the menopause have far less chance of suffering heart failure than those who don’t.
  2. Women who take HRT for 10 years after the menopause have far less chance of suffering a heart attack than those who don’t.
  3. Women who take HRT for 10 years after the menopause have far less chance of dying than those who don't.
I’ve always considered dying a natural progression of life: something that happens at the end of one’s life, basically, no matter how long one lives. And now I learn than women on hormone replacement therapy are actually less likely to die than other people. My god, if this is true, everybody -- young and old, female and male – should take hormone replacement therapy. If all of us were less likely to die, that means the majority of us would live forever. Naturally this would put a strain on the NHS and pension schemes, but it would certainly reduce all those funeral costs.

And just think how old cheese could become in this new immortal world. No, perhaps I don’t want to think of that right now.

WEDNESDAY: Lunch is a relief: a Moroccan houmus and Philadelphia cream cheese sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes. It’s a bit sweet, as with most prepared British foods it’s got sweetener added (in this case honey); but I’ve tried to temper the treacly taste with some chopped olives.

It’s the week before Christmas and, in a fit of nostalgia for my range of winter solstice cookies I was famous for baking in the States, I decided I’d bake some of my unique chocolate chip cookies tomorrow morning so I could take a few for my workmates before the holidays. I have baked chocolate chip cookies before in this country, and I’ve eaten other home-baked chocolate chip cookies. So why is it so difficult to find chocolate chips? I went to 5 shops this morning before lunch. The closest I could find were milk chocolate chips at a pseudo-posh “neighbourhood market”. At the big Co-Op in the city centre I found chocolate chip cookie mix, ready to roll out and slice and bake, along with cake icing ready to unroll and spread on your cake. Does nobody bake from scratch anymore?

I can tell you that mixing up my chocolate chip cookies takes probably 15 minutes longer than opening a wad of preformed (and pre-sweetened and pre-salted and pre-flavoured) chocolate chip cookie mix. But it’s a fun, sensual, loving 15 minutes that even ever-stressed I can afford to spend for the quality that results.

All I need are the damn chocolate chips…

Friday 7 December 2012

Synthesized news reports and a whole lotta sandwiches

MONDAY: I’ve been so busy carrying on with life, working on jewellery and writing projects while working extra hours at my job and keeping up with a hectic social life, that I’ve been spending my lunches reading rather than writing. But I must mention today’s surprisingly delicious sandwich made of things that needed using. My sandwich, on a surprisingly nice Asda sunflower roll, consists of houmus and cream cheese with chopped red pepper and spring onion, but also with a little nudgeon of leftover Stilton, too small to use in its own sandwich and at the extremely ripe stage. I diced it into small bits and sprinkled it on the houmus along with several torn basil leaves and a spicing of fresh ground and Cayenne peppers. And it works! Hallelujah!

TUESDAY: I have another new sandwich today: Polish cheese with Polish mustard on a lovely light and fresh granary breadcake. I suppose the cheese isn’t actually Polish, as it seems more Swiss or Emmental in character because it’s full of holes. But I bought it in my local Polish grocery, where all the cheeses are sliced off the wheel and the Polish clerk told me only that this was his most popular. I still don’t know its name. But I already feel intimate with it. It’s a nice cheese.

WEDNESDAY: I believe I’ve hit upon the best houmus sandwich yet. On a wonderfully light granary breadcake bought at a source I’ve just discovered, I’ve put a little Philadelphia cream cheese, regular houmus, chopped pointy peppers and spring onion, two sliced cocktail olives, a generous seasoning of fresh ground black and Cayenne peppers, and a very healthy handful of basil leaves Yum. This hits the spot. Yum yum is all I can say.

FRIDAY: What a wonderfully unusual lunch. Not only am I sitting in the Winter Gardens with opera singers performing in front of me, but I’m having an experimental sandwich: Caerphilly cheese on a granary breadcake with fresh ground black pepper and lemon zest. On one side of the sandwich I’ve put fresh thyme and on the other side fresh tarragon, and on half of each side I’ve got smashed raspberries. I’ve decided I like the tarragon raspberry quarter the best, although one could leave off the tarragon and/or the raspberries. I think I shall name this the Opera.

THE FOLLOWING TUESDAY: Lunch is a leftover spicy bean burger dressed with a bit of Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, a slice of red onion, and some leaf. Cold, it reminds me of a meatloaf sandwich --although most of my life’s experience with that classic American sandwich is the vegetarian meatloaf version. Quite surprisingly, I’m suddenly feeling a lot younger…

TUESDAY A MONTH LATER: It’s been weeks since I’ve posted a new blog. I am still alive, I think – I’m just very busy with everything else, which of course includes Life. But today I must write about something other than my delicious sandwich (sage and onion vegetarian slices and cream cheese on a fresh granary breadcake with sundried tomato, chopped pointy pepper, and a leaf of Red Gem lettuce).

In the Winter Garden where I normally eat my lunch, there is an exhibit today on synthetic speech presented by the Creative Speech Technology Network or CreST. I was invited to play with an electronic choir “singer” using an Xbox controller. It was a lot of fun and reminded me of my ancient Casio analogue monophonic synthesizer I played in a band in the early 1980s before graduating to first a polyphonic Roland and then a digital Yamaha. With the Xbox controls I could adjust the pitch, vibrato, and even the vowel that was being articulated.

Another exhibit allowed the user to create a story for a short comic strip and customize a synthetic voice to read it out loud, with options for the type of character (sex, age, etc.) and the emotion being expressed. This is an idea for the narration of audiobooks and other voiced text media.

This got me thinking once again about where the world is going. Consider the fallibility of computerized subtitles that enable one to watch TV with the sound off. In my local pub where this is often the case, a news story about Superstorm Sandy said that 3.5-metre baps were expected to hit the New England coast. Imagine a highly wavering child’s voice filled with rage shouting this news to you. This could be what we have to look forward to in the future of news reports: no human reporters necessary.

At least the political news reports can’t become any more absurd…

Thursday 13 September 2012

Jessica Ennis and the R Problem

Lunch today is the result of a fridge packed with reduced items that need to be used. I’ve got crab paté with avocado slices, spring onion, and red pepper, seasoned with black and cayenne peppers. It’s surprisingly nice, sophistication with zing. A squeeze of lime would make it perfect.

During the London Olympics, Sheffield-born heptathlon winner Jessica Ennis shot up to fame with her achievements and gold medals. The city of Sheffield is very proud of “our Jessica”, and it has put on public events in her honour as well as painting a central post box gold. So why can’t anybody pronounce her name correctly?

I realize that the classic Sheffield accent uses the letter R in odd places, as in “I’ll gerrit” rather than “I’ll get it”. And that’s perfectly charming, as most regional accents are. But Jessica has a name that has been uniquely hers all of her life, and it isn’t Jessie Kerrenis, as everyone insists on pronouncing it. Even a well-educated friend who is a Sheffield native talks about Jessie Kerrenis. When we pointed it out to him, he slowly pronounced “Jessica...Ennis”. But when he tried saying her name quickly it came out “Jessie Kerrennis”. He couldn’t hear the R himself.

When I was very young I had not a lisp but a slightly scratchy S when I spoke. So I was sent to speech class. Through hearing my own voice I learned how to say “scissors” without sounding like they needed oiling. Perhaps the people who are so proud of Their Jessie Kerrenis should go to speech class as well, just to eliminate this one particular unnecessary R. The rest of the accent, of course, can and should remain intact.


Sunday 8 July 2012

Questions I Hate As An Expat

"I am not now, nor have I ever been, acquainted with Bob Diamond, even though I am American." This was my reply when a British friend (who is smart enough to know better) pointed out to me that Diamond, former chief executive of Barclays Bank, is American.

As I sit in the University library cafe eating my houmus and cream cheese sandwich -- spiced up by a chopped pickled hot chilli and accompanied by a summer-wonderful selection of fruit starring giant raspberries and bright juicy nectarine slices -- I can't help thinking of all the stupid questions some Brits ask me. For the benefit of fellow Americans who move to Britain -- and for the education of Brits who might ask these questions when they find out someone is an American living in Britain -- I will list them here.

1. "Why did you move to England?" If a short answer like "Job transfer" or "Family obligations" suffices, great. But often the reason someone who is not a refugee moves to another country is a hell of a lot more complicated than that. Why does anybody move anywhere? Why does anybody leave a job and take a new one? Why do some people go to university and some don't? Why does somebody dye their hair magenta? What does the world consist of? How long is a piece of string?

2. "This must be a lot of rain for you!" Well actually, even though I grew up in Southern California (where they do actually have heavy rainstorms) I moved to the UK from Seattle, famous for its rain. Nuff said?

3. "Why did you leave all that gorgeous sunshine?" Firstly, see Question 2. And secondly, if I had moved here from Southern California, I would find the variety of rain and snow and autumn colours a relief from the monotony of Southern California weather. Just like everyone in the UK is currently getting sick of rain every single day, many people who live in Los Angeles get sick of that cloud-free glary hazy sky day after day. Variety is the spice of life.

4. "You're American? I love America! I had a great time in Florida!" No offense to Floridians, but when I hear foreigners sum up the entire American experience as a 2-week holiday in Orlando, I start to fume. For one thing, Florida -- especially the Atlantic coast -- is one of the last places on this planet that I would intentionally visit. And for another thing, America -- or more properly the United States of America -- is a massive place with a massive variety of climates, landscapes, and cultures. You've got bustling metropolises, high rugged mountains, cactus-speckled deserts, gorgeous seacoasts with tidepools and long sandy beaches and rock formations, evergreen rainforests, volcanoes, plains stretching as far as the eye can see, thick forests, and moss-draped bayous. You can meet Appalachian hillbillies and Cajuns and cowboys and Hassidic Jews and Hawaiian surfers and Chinese bankers and Mexican teachers and Samoan policemen. You can see a wide range of creatures in their native habitats: bears, raccoons, wolves, armadillos, alligators, scorpions, herons, bats, eagles, chipmunks, gophers, whales, sea lions, feral parrots, and beetles the size of your fist.

In other words, there is a hell of a lot more to see than Disney World.

5. "Why on earth did you move here?" Why not?

6. "Do you go back to America a lot?" I wouldn't say a lot -- only as often as I can afford, which isn't often at all.

7. "Will you ever move back to America/Are you going to stay here forever?" I'm sorry but I'm not a psychic. Life is full of uncertainties and changes and one never knows what is lying in wait around the next corner. Never say never, and never say forever.

8. How come you've still got your American accent?" Although I've lived in the UK for over a decade, I lived the majority of my life in America. Why would I lose my American accent?

9. "You must really love England, huh?" I don't love or hate living in England. I didn't love or hate living in the US. Every place, every way of life, has its up sides and its down sides.

Be realistic, for Chrissake!

Sunday 1 July 2012

Barbecue-flavour camelids and more on excessive sweetness

From Liquid Life by Zigmunt Bowman: "The most sober and seasoned of counsellors advise the seekers after guidance to accommodate themselves to the inevitable: ambivalence is here to stay, they say; the joys and horrors of ingesting what the world peddles to us and seduces us into digesting are inseparable."

I know it's not long ago since I talked about the overabundance of sugar in British prepared food, but it's obviously been on experts' minds as well, according to the recent blitz of articles and TV programs on the subject. It's sugar, not salt, they say, that has made us fatter.

And here I was blaming the average British palate for this overabundance of sugar in foods that shouldn't be sweet, eg. mayonnaise, vinaigrette salad dressing, and Thai chilli prawns. But one article blamed Richard Nixon. In 1971, as Nixon was facing re-election, the rising cost of food caused him to push Earl Butz's plan to urge farmers to grow corn in order to produce lots of high-fructose corn syrup. This magical substance was not only a cheaper alternative to sugar, but it could be added to pizzas, coleslaw, and meat to improve the taste and give everything that "just baked" sheen. Even Coke started to use HFCS instead of sugar, which as a result increased the caloric content. By the mid 1970s, low fat items (read "Lite", "Slimline", "Virtually Fat-Free", et al) became popular with the assumption they would prevent both obesity and heart disease. To improve the taste of these low-fat items, sugar was added (or the amount of sugar increased), replacing the calories from fat with calories from sugar and high-fructose sweeteners.

And this is one of the reasons the obesity epidemic is growing, both in Britain and in the USA. Fortunately as a thin person I haven't gained weight as a result -- but I still can't stand the thought of what all that unnecessary sugar is doing to my blood sugar levels, my teeth, and my already hyperactive system. So it's not just a matter of taste.

Speaking of taste, while I was waiting for a bus the other day I spotted an advertisement for a new product. Llamas are new bite-sized nibbles baked in the shape of a llama. I can handle biting into disks and wheels and sticks, and I even used to enjoy Pogens ginger cookies that were in the shape of animals. But somehow a BBQ-flavoured llama just sounds wrong. What's next? Salt and vinegar camels? Cheese and onion giraffes? Ready salted goats? Nacho Cheese armadillos? Prawn warthogs? Basil and mozzarella locusts? Thai chicken maggots?

If I ever see packets of Smoky Bacon Software Engineers being sold in my local pub, I think I'll go move into a cave and live on lichen…

Sunday 20 May 2012

This year's observations about America

TUESDAY: I'm back at work after a visit to the United States. My lunch is one of my tuna sandwiches made with yogurt instead of mayonnaise and spiced with capers, cumin, and fresh thyme. It's good brain food for contemplating some of the interesting facts I discovered about America -- or at least California -- during my 3-week stay in the Los Angeles area:

1. SWEETENERS. I was surprise to discover that most cafes and restaurants offer at least 4 sweetening solutions for one's coffee or tea. In the tabletop dispensers, alongside the sugar packets, are packets of not 1 but 3 artificial sweeteners, all seemingly colour-coded so one may not be confused with another. The pink packets contain Sweet 'n' Low which is saccharine-based. For those who are afraid of developing some sort of rat cancer if they consume too much saccharine, there are blue packets of aspartame-based Equal. And if one wants to avoid the calories of sugar as well as the remote possibility of developing cancer or fits, there is Splenda in yellow packets which contains the sweetener sucralose. It's feasible that some more upscale and natural-foods-orientated cafes would also offer packets of brown sugar and of honey, which would provide 6 different ways of sweetening one's coffee. With all the already-existing options for ordering a coffee -- Americano or espresso or cappuccino or latte or macchiato; short or tall or grande; single or double shot; wet or dry; with room or without; with chocolate sprinkles or without; to drink in or to take out --this additional complicated choice, should you choose to sweeten your coffee, makes this popular breaktime beverage a bit of a minefield. Will workers now need their 15-minute breaks increased to 45 minutes simply to allow a good half hour from the time one orders their coffee to the time one is actually drinking it?

2. DOLLAR BILLS. For the past few years I've been using a wallet I purchased in the UK, so I never noticed how awkward American dollars are. I recall them being the same colour and size regardless of denomination, and I remember them being narrower than British notes. But I never realised they're actually longer as well. This fact required me to fold up the ends of my American bills to fit into my British wallet, further confusing the one-dollar-looks-the-same-as-twenty-dollars issue. As a result, whenever I paid cash for something, I had to pull the entire folded-up wad out of my wallet, unfold it, and examine the bills, making me appear to be either a wealthy entrepreneur who always has a wad on them or else like a foreign tourist. I don't need to explain which I felt the most like...

3. CHICAGO CATERING. I discovered this problem the last time I flew from Terminal 3 at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and I was reminded of it again this time before I caught my domestic connection: this terminal is not veggie-friendly or even light-eater-friendly. As one has to purchase their food on American domestic flights, with an extremely limited menu of options, it makes sense to buy your meal before you get on the flight. But nowhere could I find a small vegetarian or fish sandwich to purchase. So once again I had to hope that whatever the "snack" offered for sale on the flight would suit my diet.

4. FEMALE SPORTS FANS. Female American sports fans tend to talk very loudly in a masculine manner and bob around a lot. In contrast, female British sports fans don't seem to feel the need to act this way, unless they happen to be loud masculine bobbing types.

5. CUSTOMER SERVICE. The staff at the innovative grocery chain Trader Joe's are even friendlier and more outgoing than the staff at the UK supermarket chain Asda. And the depressed and preoccupied staff at my local two Co-Ops don't hold a candle to the self-obsessed life-hating rudeness of the staff at my mom's local drugstore Rite-Aid.

More observations next time...

Monday 9 April 2012

Travelling Through a Wormhole and Preparing to Visit America

FRIDAY WEEKS AGO: Lunch on this icy cold day -- with the streets clear but solid snow left where tyres don't touch -- is tinned pink salmon with yogurt, capers and caper vinegar, chopped red pepper and spring onion, tarragon, a little Chinese 5-spice, and a few drops of Tabasco sauce. It's interesting, and I quite like the impulsive pinch of 5-spice I put in after previously deciding on the tarragon. I think next time I would avoid the tarragon and use perhaps parsley. Yes, that sounds right. The drops of Tabasco work perfectly, and a couple of drops of sherry would set it all off perfectly.

TUESDAY WEEKS LATER: I've been so engrossed in the wonderful poetry, wit, and beat-pop-art-era commentary of The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O'Hagen that I've been neglecting writing during my lunchtime. But I finished the book today, and now I can get back to my own observations about life, the Brits, and lunch.

My flight to Los Angeles next month is booked, so I've got to start thinking about what I want to take (could I smuggle out some Stilton for my mom?) and what I want to bring back (a selection of Mexican and Southwest chile powders, some masa harina, Louisiana-style dried red beans, and Trader Joe's almond butter and handmade corn tortillas). I'd like to bring back a pitcher of my mom's margaritas but they wouldn't travel well.

While I'm in America I plan to do the things an American West Coast native misses while living in a Yorkshire city, such as take a few walks on the beach, listen to the seagulls overhead, see a lot of palm trees, eat good Mexican food, have a bagel with Nova lox at a good Jewish deli, and sit in my mother's back garden and feed peanuts to the bluejays.

THURSDAY MANY WEEKS LATER: I honestly think I accidentally stepped into some sort of wormhole, emerging Many Weeks Later. What happened to the time? Since my last blog it's been winter and spring, with a winter snowfall suddenly occurring yesterday after a week of summer. And I'm still in Sheffield preparing to fly to Los Angeles. I'm supposedly at work just before the long Easter weekend, but I'm not sure I really know exactly where or when.

But I do know what my lunch is: an Edam and sun-tomato sandwich on a gruyere and onion roll. Very simple yet satisfying. Men in suits are standing near me in the library café, and the fridge on the other side of the panel protecting me is grinding away at a deafening volume.

Although I always travel very light to the US, with my carry-on-sized wheelie bag and my backpack, I may have to buy a couple more suitcases before I return to the UK, as my British workmates want me to bring back a suitcase full of proper Mexican food and bagels, and my supervisor wants me to bring back another suitcase full of proper California wine, eg. the gems California keeps for itself and not the rotgut like Blossom Hill and Jackrabbit that UK wine shops pass off as the California wine experience. But I'm afraid, in the interest of not only my travelling-light habits but also my weak back, that I'm not doing such a thing at all. They will all just have to save up for their own trips to California to experience these things.

As with all of my visits to my home country, I plan whilst there to consume as much Mexican food as possible. (Obviously with my small appetite I mean as often as possible, not as much in quantity as I can stuff down my gullet.) And hopefully there will be at least one Chile relent burrito in this schedule. The other culinary pastimes that I miss from living in Sheffield and that I want to experience are lunch at a decent Jewish deli (with proper bagels and Nova lox), a Thai meal or two, a Greek meal, and at least one of my mother's excellent margaritas. And recently I've had an odd nostalgic craving that I'd like to indulge just once before I die: I'd like to have a proper plain buttermilk doughnut.

Obviously there is the other side of this coin. For instance, there is a list of unique British and even Sheffield items I'd love to smuggle in so that my American friends and family can benefit: a chunk of proper Stilton cheese, another of crumbly Wensleydale cheese, some haloumi cheese (which is possible to find but ridiculously expensive in America). a bag of Rooster red baking potatoes, some Longley Farm yogurt and cottage cheese (the best examples of both these items in the universe), a bottle of Scapa single malt whisky, and a few mini casks of wonderful ales including one of Blue Bee Nectar Best, one of Ossett Pale Gold, one of Mordue Worky Ticket, one of Thornbridge Jaipur, and one of Abbeydale Deception.

On second thought perhaps I should just hire a container to ship a few things back and forth...

Saturday 21 January 2012

A New Year of Lunches and More Talk About British Food

WEDNESDAY LAST YEAR: I love the surrealism of daily life. I'm sitting in the Winter Garden on this cold wet day, nibbling a sesame seed bagel with smoked salmon, Quark, and sliced red onion accompanied by a couple of chunks of pomegranate while listening to the grey-haired and Santa-hat-sporting octet known as Sheffield Accordions play French cafe music and Christmas carols while I read about radon spas in Japan. Excuse me while I catch my breath…

Only a couple of minutes have gone by, and the six accordions are playing "When The Saints Go Marching In" while I read about radium suppositories. Fortunately I have finished my lunch.

Denmark has just introduced a "fat tax" on foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat. This is all fine and good, as is the proposed 10% "fat tax" on sugary drinks to cut obesity, especially in children. These are good health moves, as are banning useless and dangerous trans fats and lowering salt content in food items -- although Tesco still insist on creating salt licks out of their smoked salmon and smoked mackerel.

David Cameron has said that the UK coalition is considering levying the same "fat tax" on foods with more than 23% fat content. France already bans the making of high-fat and high-sugar foods for school menus, and this has worked fine. But the concept of high-fat foods should concentrate on items like Big Macs, chips, and processed food, not cheese as was specified in the British analysis. What about all of us skinny vegetarians with normal cholesterol levels who rely on cheese as a source of protein and texturally yummy relief from the potential boredom of an endless diet of vegetables, pulses, and grains? Not only are we skinny and healthy, but one of the reasons we're happy is because of that wonderfully wide and delectable world of cheeses. What would life be without Camembert? Without Stilton? Would a life without Wensleydale, Gorgonzola, mature Cheddar, buffalo mozzarella, feta, and haloumi really be worth living?

What about those folks who are actually buying and eating fried butter? Don't you think the Government should punish them instead? Let us be with our cheese boards, our toasties, our pizza, our Welsh rarebit. After all, man certainly cannot live on cheese alone. One must have bread and crackers as well!

THE FOLLOWING MONDAY: Lunch is another creation of leftover bits: the last of the Stilton, Cheddar and Kelham Island Beer Cheese on a fresh breadcake with chopped green olives, chopped red pepper, and the last sprigs of fresh dill. And once again, like many leftover creations, it's a winner. I'm eating a winner in winter in the Winter Garden, and here I sit, surrounded by pigeons, bundled up in my scarf under the shade of a giant fan palm. And some asshole of a young man just stomped loudly intentionally frightening away the pigeons. Why do so many people hate pigeons? These are my friends, these urban flyers. In fact I recognised the one in front, for whom I was about to accidentally drop a sandwich crumb.

A WEEK LATER ON WEDNESDAY: Being so close to Christmas one never knows what entertainment one will find at lunchtime in the Winter Garden. A month ago it was paralympic table tennis contender Farrel Anthony demonstrating his prowess, and the next week the grey-haired Sheffield Accordions. Last week there were a couple of choirs, and today a drumming circle is setting up to perform.

My sandwich is texturally exciting as well as flavoursome: some St Agur Delice cheese with chopped red pepper, chopped spring onion, and cashew pieces, imparting a yum-crunch-chomp-chew experience. It's a good holiday sandwich, it is.

Sorry, now it's back to being engrossed in Simon Singh's The Code Book...

TUESDAY IN THE NEXT YEAR: Lunch is surprisingly nice: avocado with thin slices of extra mature cheddar seasoned with guajillo chile powder, a sliced olive, sun-dried tomatoes and red pepper on a Tesco whole wheat breadcake. I do hope this child who just sat next to me doesn't chase the pigeons off like the little girl just before him. Kids these days…

On Sunday I stopped in my local pub and joined some friends at a table where there was the distinctly pungent stench of rotting prawns. As another friend, noted for once smelling like rotting prawns, wasn't in attendance, it was difficult to determine just where this smell was coming from. Was it the soup on the counter? No, that smelled pleasant enough. Was it a spill somewhere? Or somebody's breath? I finally discovered the smell was emanating from a nearly empty snack wrapper lying on the table. The contents, manufactured by Freshers of Wigan, were called Scampi Supper. Nothing more than my scientific curiosity led me to pick up a tiny crumb left in the residue of the packet and stick it in my mouth. Instantly my entire upper cavities were flooded with the pong of a recently abandoned prawn factory. It was an awful taste! I think some cats might possibly be attracted to it, especially with a name like Scampi Supper -- but at closer sniff they would be put off by the salty chemical ersatz character.

Who would buy such a thing? Worse still, who would actually eat it? And who did? And do they still have any friends?

ANO|THER WEDNESDAY: Yesterday I watched the young man sitting next to me as he nibbled on a container of raw vegetables. And I thought, surprisingly, yum! What a nice change of lunch that would make, seeing as how I've always liked raw vegetables of all types. So today I've made my version of a salad sandwich: a thin layer of St Agur Delice cheese spread topped with slices of chestnut mushroom and courgette and chopped red pepper, spring onions, and sun-dried tomato. And I've even accompanied my sandwich with carrot sticks. And you know what? It's delicious. One can obviously use whatever raw vegetables one prefers, along with perhaps a spread of Boursin instead. What a great idea.

THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY: My post-table-tennis lunch today is Polish Mystery Cheese with Dijon mustard and chopped pepper and onion. I think it's probably actually some sort of Swiss cheese -- Emmenthal or something similar. I found it in my local Polish-Iranian wonder of a deli as a remnant that been sliced off one of the deli case cheeses, wrapped in plastic wrap with the price written by hand, and left in the case with the prepacked cheese. I assume somebody chose it and then set it down and forgot about it, distracted by the delectable wonder boxes displaying all sorts of pickled herring mixtures, rye breads, mustardy condiments, sausages, biscuits, and countless other treats, all with wrappers written in Polish so one is never quite sure what one is getting -- unless one speaks Polish, of course. (Even my university-level Russian doesn't help much.)

I'm selfishly hoping that the recent Unilever pension strikes and resultant stoppages of production at the Port Sunlight and Norwich plants don't cause a respective shortage of Marmite and the sinus-clearing Colman's Mustard, two stalwarts of the British larder and two of my favourite features of the cuisine. Sometimes I wish that the sugar and sweetener factories would all go on strike, as I'm getting sick of the way so many British food manufacturers think every dish has to be sweet on the palate in order to sell. The other night I was more horrified than I've been yet with my first bite of Lyon's Thai Sweet Chilli King Prawns. My understanding, which is correlated by British Andrew's knowledge and experience, is that "sweet chilli" is a term that simply distinguishes the mild sweeter-tasting chillies from the dryer, more picante ones. But this dish tasted like it should be served over sponge cake: the sauce was so sugary and treacly it made me gag. Sure enough, on the list of ingredients, sugar was the second item listed. The dish was so sugary I was impelled to stop at once and go brush my teeth -- if I didn't fall into a hypoglycaemic coma first.

I think they should perhaps rename the product Lyon's Sweet Thai Chilli King Prawns. Or how about leaving out the ambiguous words and just calling it Lyon's Sweet King Prawns?

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