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Amongst the many changes I’m going to make when I come to power is this: replacing all of the information on the outside of spaghetti packs with a single, large numeral, indicating how many minutes the pasta needs cooking for.
Why don’t they do this? I don’t need all the other information. I don’t need a logo, or a cheery life-affirming slogan, and I certainly don’t need an ingredient list for the product. I know what’s in spaghetti — spaghetti. I don’t need recipe ideas, either: I evidently already have a dining plan, or I wouldn’t have bought the frigging pasta in the first place, would I? I don’t go out and speculatively buy random ingredients in the hope they’ll come in handy some day, nor do I skittishly swerve at the last minute and make something completely different to what I’d intended, just because the pasta manufacturer’s marketing department decided to fill up a bit of space with a recipe from an entirely unknown and untested source. For all I know, it could have been made up by the knuckle-dragging intern working in the post room. Do they have post rooms in pasta companies? I don’t know. Presumably the process requires some kind of communication with the outside world, but maybe they do it all via email now. Anyway.
It’s not just the pasta guys, either. You buy a little jar of Thai green curry paste, and guess what? There’s a recipe for Thai green curry on the side, as a kind of “Hey — why not consider making this?” gesture. What the fuck did you think I was going to do with the stuff? Spread it on toast? Give it to the cat? Use it as an ointment on intimate regions of my so-called body? Do you really think I’m the kind of person who’ll enter the kitchen without having some kind of game plan in place? Do I look like that kind of a asshole? Yeah? YEAH? Do you want a fight?
I don’t need this. I just need to know how long the sodding stuff needs boiling for. The figure given will be wrong , of course — no pasta ever actually takes the amount of time that’s claimed on the packet, the true period being a factor of some ineffable intersection of pasta quantity, water density, room temperature, size of pan, cast of the moon and god knows what else — a combination which St Peter whispers in your ear when you finally approach the pearly gates, but that is up until that time utterly unknowable. And yes, of course, the real test of pasta’s done-ness is always going to be in the taste and texture, I know this, I really do: but it’s still reassuring and helpful to have a guideline before you start, and the bottom line is this is the only piece of information I or anyone else needs when squaring up to pasta preparation.
So… get onto it. Don’t make me get my chainsaw out again. Nobody needs to get hurt over this. Whoever out there has control of these things, make it so. Now. I’ve got a dinner to cook.
Well, it’s 1:40 am and I’m awake. No real idea why. Could be delayed jetlag, I suppose, though I’ve been back a week and I don’t like the idea of jetlag anyhow. I feel I should be able to hop insouciantly between continents like some some globetrotting gazelle, a citizen of the world not bound by trivialities like time zones. Maybe not. Either way, for something to do, as I sit here in the study listening to a fox making disquieting noises in the street outside, I thought I’d make another list — and this time it’s of some of the best places to sit and have a cup of coffee.
1. Bryant Park, New York
My most recent haunt, and a pretty well-known one. I happened on it as a result of mere hotel-proximity, on my first grown-up visit to the city four years ago, and have sunk many a happy coffee in it since. I don’t know what it is that makes Bryant Park quite so restful. It’s basically just a large square of grass, with beds and paths and trees on three sides and stairs leading up to the rear of the Public Library on the other. It could be the presence of very tall buildings on all sides, which gives something of the quality of a hidden garden. It could also be that, standing bang in the centre of Midtown as it does, it’s the New York park that contrasts most strongly with the streets around it. I have even toyed with wondering whether the fact this block held, for the second half of the nineteenth century, a reservoir, has something to do with it — a large body of water somehow changing the energy field. Though that just sounds like so much new age bollocks, really, not least as throughout 1970s the park was by all accounts an excellent place to score drugs or get cataclysmically mugged, which you might expect to have muddied the energy waters somewhat.
Anyway. There’s lots of places to sit, and a bar in the evenings, and free wifi too, though I can’t always get that to work. This actually makes it even better. I like places where I can’t be in contact with the outside world. They’re increasingly few and far between.
2. Outside Les Deux Magots, Paris
Another non-controversial choice, unless you’re achingly cool. People have been knocking back café crème outside this St Germain hotspot for a long time — it was a popular haunt for Satre and Simone de Beauvoir, not to mention Hemingway and Camus. I tend to wind up spending a good few hours outside the Magots whenever I’m lucky enough to be in Paris, not least because there’s a great bookstore just behind it (the name of which I forget: maybe I’m more tired than I thought). Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but you know what — when I’m in Paris, I’m a tourist. Actually, outside pretty much any Parisian café will do, so if you’re worried about not seeming cutting edge enough, why not hop on the Metro to the outskirts of town and find somewhere there instead. Don’t feel that you have to come back, either.
3. Outside the Seattle’s Best opposite Pike Place Market, Seattle
Especially early in the morning, so you can watch the market swinging properly into life.
4. The Meeting Place, the seafront, Brighton
The fact that the coffee here is actually pretty dire possibly indicates that the quality of the beverage on offer is not of paramount importance. With the sea, gulls, and the teetering remains of the old West Pier to gaze upon, it’s a good place to be. If the weather’s dire (which is far from unknown in Brighton) then outside the Starbucks in the Lanes is a decent second choice. (And don’t give me any crap about Starbucks not being proper coffee. Of course it’s proper coffee, you muppet. It’s not the best coffee in the world — but it’s good enough. Disliking things just because they’re popular does not make you cool. What are you, fourteen? Get a couple of extra shots in your drink like a grown-up, and go peddle your angst elsewhere.)
Hmm. Four isn’t many. I notice that I don’t actually have one for London, for example. Perhaps you need to not be local, for the perfect coffee-sipping experience… Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet. I notice also that all these places are outside. This is partly due to the smoking thing — I like a cigarette with my coffee, and there ain’t nowhere in the civilized world they’ll let you do that any more. But it’s also that I associate coffee with watching the world go by. Tea is for drinking indoors. Tea is self-referential, a medicine. Coffee is for turning outwards and taking in the other: and therefore part of the essence of a classic coffee-drinking spot is it allows you to observe a corner of the universe — without necessarily feeling that, right at this moment, you have to be an active part of it.
Christ, it’s half past two. Better try sleeping again, not least as tomorrow I have a day designing stuff for WHC2010. May your Fridays be golden. And if you’re at a loose end…
I went out for dinner last night by myself, picking somewhere fairly randomly on 8th, close to the apartment I’ve been borrowing. It was a nice place. Buzzy, not overtly unfriendly, and did very good New Mexican food.
What perturbed me was that I noticed — while lurking outside having a cigarette between courses — their delivery menu featured, amongst other things, T-shirts. The place didn’t seem to be a chain, and yet, it had clothing for sale. Said shirts had the restaurant’s slogan on them (do restaurants need slogans?), and I can’t remember exactly what it was, but basically it was existential self-definition in seven words or fewer, and the caption indicated that such a garment was quite the thing for anyone who was willing to ‘tip it, flip it, and make the world their way.’
Now, I’m from England. Our restaurants don’t come on like that. They don’t feel the need to provide life coaching. They concentrate on providing food. I tried to imagine the above, or something similar, happening in a gastropub in London: me walking in, going up to the bar, and the guy there shouting —
“Yo! Welcome, friend! Are you ready to tip it, flip it, make the world the way you want it?”
‘Well, mainly… I just wanted a beer.’
‘Dude, seriously — tell me you’re going to take this world, scrunch it up in a ball, throw it up in the air and then kick that motherfucker through the goalposts to Successville.’
‘I’ll have some crisps, if that’s what you mean.’
I have trouble even being the second-best I can be, and I can’t see a restaurant — however fine their deconstructed burrito with watercress, avocado and pickled this-that-and-the-other might be — changing that any day soon.
I’m still in New York, and hacking up and down the streets for a few days has reminded me just how much I love good food stores. I can browse in these places for hours, even if I have no intention of buying — doing so with almost the same level of beatific absorption I attain in bookstores. A quality food purveyor reminds you just how wonderful it is that we have to eat (and also how lucky we are to live in privileged countries, where what we eat can be an existential choice, rather than a matter of bitter existence). Finding an awesome food emporium is like discovering a tiny, wood-paneled and coffee-infused independent bookstore that somehow happens to stock as much as a big chain, only in far more interesting ways, and studded with prizes the big guns don’t even know exist. Wandering around these places is a kind of meditation, and time spent there will find your heart rate slowing and brain waves settling into a contented hum.
Or… maybe I’m just a pig.
Either way, my top choices in this very provisional list come from America, possibly controversially. The rest of the world — and even many Americans, it seems, certainly the ones living near the coasts — tend to portray the United States as a country where the ill-informed and massively-sized chow merrily down on any old crap, so long as it comes by the bucket-load, and are never happier than when stuffing a burger into every orifice. Yet the average Publix or Ralphs will have deli and meat and fish counters that would put European specialty stores to shame, not to mention acres of choice in more prosaic departments. No self-respecting American supermarket is going to offer you just one of something, be it a tin or jar or packet: they will have a choice of nineteen different brands, and many of them will be good. Unless you’re specifically looking for patés, cassoulet and the like, you’re a lot better off here than in the average French hypermarket…
1. The Westside Market on 7th Avenue (at 10th), NYC
New York is, of course, one of the great food cities, with food supplies in breadth and depth. An unassuming deli can turn out to have hot and cold food choices stretching for ten yards, not to mention a perfectly competent sushi chef beavering away in the corner. The Westside Market actually did my head in (more so than the oft-lauded Garden of Eden chain, excellent though they are). I went into near-catatonia with Opportunity Cost Anxiety at Westside, wandering round open-mouthed, like someone in town not so much from the sticks, as from the 8th century — painfully aware that I’ve only got one stomach and only had so many self-catered meals ahead of me. So I settled for buying merely seven times what I needed, and walking with a pronounced list for most of the time. It was worth it.
2. The Broadway Market, Seattle
A big, spacious store, this doesn’t have quite the sense of lunatic crammed-in cornucopia as the best New York markets, but you still want to check it out. As an added but unrelated bonus, in side streets nearby there are some extremely attractive Arts & Crafts bungalows, if you know where to look (or, like me, wander around like a lost dog until you accidently come upon them). Broadway is a bit of a hike from downtown, but it’s worth it. While you’re in the city, don’t forget Pike Place Market. It doesn’t count as a food shop, but is a cool place to walk around (especially early in the morning, watching tough-looking guys bellowing weirdly about fish) — and there’s lots of other food-related goodness in the surrounding alleyways. Seattle’s not just about depressed bands and perpetual drizzle: the food there is good.
3. Hédiard, Paris
I find the much-vaunted Fauchon (just across the Place de la Madelaine) a bit pretentious: there’s a lot of nice food there, of course, but it’s too mannered and arch, packaged as if to be part of some grandstanding gift basket. Hédiard feels more homely and comfortable, and has more game on the savoury stuff, too. There’s another great general food store in Paris, just the other side of St Germain, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Feel free to remind me. And yes, if I was including food markets, then France would move up the list, as it would if I was talking about the effortless ability of just about anywhere to chuck together a simple meal of greatness. But I’m not. Nor am I talking about indoor multi-outlet food markets of the kind Toronto has, fan of these places though I am (and I’m receptive to tips as to where to find others, too). I’m just talking about food shops here. Read the title of the blog, and don’t give me grief.
4. Selfridges Food Hall, London
It’s very good — by all accounts Harrods’ is even better, but that’s too far West for me, and I find the whole idea of Harrods obscurely annoying, for some reason — but it’s not really a patch on any of the above: and oh my God it’s expensive. Deciding to buy a picnic in Selfridges Food Hall is like picking up a copy of the Guttenberg Bible to read while you have a poo. It does have European items like rillettes, however, which can be tough to find in American stores. Though not in France, obviously. Duh.
Four is a weird place to stop, but I’m missing a number 5 for the list — not to mention 6 through 173. So — what have I missed or not yet encountered? How have I been stupid and wrong-headed and completely like a nutbag fool? If I should be in your (or any other) neck of the woods, where should I go to stare longingly at stuff?
Tell me. And be quick about it.