Friday, 9 May 2008
I'm So Jammy*
*Jammy: Brit slang lucky: jammy so-and-sos!
Collins Essential English Dictionary 2nd Edition 2006
I've always believed that good things come to people who frequent bookstores.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at my local Border's and I noticed a flyer for a "Meet the Author" series at a local hotel. The author in question happened to be Jay Rayner, the Observer's restaurant critic, and a writer who I read on a weekly basis. Rayner has a new book out -- The Man Who Ate The World -- and I had just read a really entertaining excerpt from this very book in a recent edition of the paper. I remembered his description of dining alone in a restaurant for the first time (at 11) and ordering escargots, and also some anecdotes about the important role of food in his family life. His writing has a lot of humour and mockery in it (self-deprecating and otherwise), and these are qualities that I always appreciate! A funny foodie: who could be better company?
Rayner's mother is Claire Rayner -- a well-known journalist and "agony aunt" who has been a kind of "Jewish mother" to the English reading public for many years. In the first chapter of his book, titled "I Want Proper Dinner," he orients the reader to the family table.
"I always said that culturally I was only a Jew by food, and it's true that there was no room at the Rayner house for ritual or faith. The Jewish God was far too picky an eater to be given space at our table. Forego sausages and bacon? Reject shellfish and cheeseburgers, all in the name of mumbo-jumbo? Don't be ridiculous.
Yet there was, I think, something fundamentally Jewish about our way with food: the noisiness of the dinner table, the stomach-aching generosity, the deep comfort we sought from it. Food was what we did." (Rayner, p. 8)
The flyer made the special "evening" sound irresistible: key words included "champagne," "delicious three-course dinner" and the real clincher -- "a copy of The Man Who Ate the World to take away with you." I figured that even if the dinner and entertainment were a bust, I would still have the BOOK! Plus, I had vowed only recently to avail myself of the local cultural scene -- when and where I could find it. For insurance purposes, we invited two close friends who we rarely get to see because of distance and scheduling difficulties. Sometimes strangers at the table make good company . . . but sometimes they don't.
So here comes the jammy bit: out of a crowd of say, 100, we somehow lucked into being sat at the equivalent of the "head table." On my right was the manager of the hotel -- a charming, kind man whose presence ensured that our wine glasses were constantly being topped up. On the other side of him was Jay Rayner -- the man of the evening. On Rayner's right was an older woman -- all grandma on the top half, but with noticeably sexy parrot-green shoes. She turned out to be a food writer and editor with much wisdom and experience -- and lots of interesting things to say. Her husband had a delightfully sharp tongue, and I particularly remember him tut-tutting Rayner when he named The Fat Duck as his favorite UK restaurant. (Don't you know that restaurant critics always get this question?) Thus ensued a lively table debate on the merits of the Heston Blumenthal style of cooking. On Sigmund's left was a youngish man with distinctive curly hair. He looked strangely familiar, and halfway through the dinner we discovered that he was James Nathan, the 2008 winner of the Masterchef competition. As this is a wildly popular program in the UK, this charming man had the rather ego-denting honour of sitting next to practically the only person in the country who had NO IDEA who he was. Interestingly enough, Nathan had started out his professional life as a barrister (the English word for lawyer) and Sigmund ended up quizzing him on this topic before the rest of the table fell upon him with curiousity and delight.
Well, as Sigmund said, I was "in my element." Never shy about coming forward, my tongue was further loosened by the really excellent wines: a really ambrosial Riesling and something rich and spicy and red (my favorite!). Question for the wine buffs amongst us: what sort of red, of my description, might have been served with lamb? I particularly remember the moment in which I held forth at the table and described, in great detail, my newfound infatuation with cashew cookies. I was mostly speaking to Nathan, and in my memory at least, he was enthralled by this recipe -- which I could remember perfectly, as I have made it twice in the same number of days.
Funnily enough, for a foodie evening, the food was nice enough -- but hardly five-star memorable. No "menu" was provided, as is usually de rigueur at these occasions, so I am just going to have to wing it on the description. We started with a foie gras, that everyone else raved over, but that I didn't even finish because I was too busy talking to Rayner about Texas food. (He has a scene in one of his novels, The Apologist, in which the character has to quickly assemble a feast in Texas -- with the aid of several Apache helicopters with which to procure the ingredients. Rayner could only remember that one went to the Central Market in Houston, and another was dispatched to New Orleans to pick up the wine.) The main course was lamb, on a bed of vegetables (I know there were carrots and broad beans) and some mashed potatoes that have not stuck in my mind at all. At this point, it should be noted that I was fairly well-lubricated and therefore my palate was a bit numb. Dessert was a creamy molded thing that was probably a panna cotta. It came with an impressive chocolate garnish, rather like a marbled sail. I can't remember if I ate this, or just toyed with it. There were also petit fours, including some toothsome tiny strawberries dipped in dark chocolate.
In between courses, Rayner would stand up and read bits of various of his books to us. He also talked about the job of the restaurant critic -- the point of which, he claims, is chiefly to sell newspapers. Whilst a good meal is obviously nicer to eat, it is the "bad" dining experience which makes for better copy. Not only does the bad meal provide more scope for creative writing, but apparently it is also appreciated more by the readers. A negative review, it seems, is enjoyed by everyone but the restaurant owner.
Although Rayner claims that being a restaurant critic has pretty much no downside, (and didn't we foodies always suspect this?), his latest book came about because he thought that maybe he needed a bigger goal: a foodie "Everest" to climb. As the Michelin system expanded its reaches to take in New York City and other top food towns, Rayner considered that he was the proper person to "search for the perfect dinner" . . . which is the subtitle to The Man Who Ate the World. As Ella Fitzgerald sang, "Nice work if you can get it." So far I have only been able to skim the book, what with my Booker Challenge nagging at me, but as a "taster" I can tell you that Rayner eventually visited Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, New York, London and Paris -- all in the letter and spirit of gruelling research. He read (and talked) about some bits of eating that took place in Tokyo -- and it sounded like just the sort of fascinating stuff that makes me realize just how little I've really experienced in the gustatory world.
When Rayner inscribed my copy of his book with the exhortation to "Eat Well," it felt like an honor, a goal, and a challenge.