Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Food. And Other Stuff.

Surely tea and scones count as lunch.  I think I've turned them into that on numerous occasions-- I did yesterday.  Some of that is because, while back home I have a pretty regular schedule into which I've planned lunch, traveling makes for an irregular schedule and so I find myself eating at strange times, when I have a break, not when I would have planned a meal. Yesterday, for example, I was in my flat for a lot of the day prepping my class for today and catching up on my students' blogs, so it was about 2:30 before I even thought about heading out to do anything.  As I sat on the bus into City Centre (I keep varying between spelling that word in the American and British way-- I can't decide which to use, so it's inconsistent throughout these posts.  Do I spell it the way it appears on maps or do I spell it like I normally would, the way spell check seems to appreciate?), I kept going back and forth between whether or not I should stop for lunch or for afternoon tea. Really, the debate became about whether I wanted to go to a pub at 3:30 in the afternoon or for dinner (there is a pub in central Oxford I have been meaning to try and I had decided that no matter what, I was going).  Eventually, I decided that having a large lunch really late would mean that I would be hungry for dinner at some absurdly late hour, and besides, if I had lunch at 3:30 I would miss the chance to have tea and scones (and who would want to miss that?), so tea and scones became lunch.  I've decided that the strawberry jam counts as a fruit for the day. (It also occurred to me that it's always strawberry jam. I've never been served any other flavor.  I'm wondering if that's because strawberry is the most universally liked and so restaurants default to it or if there's some kind of scone tradition that mandates strawberry jam. There is a large variety of jam in the grocery stores, so it's not that there are other flavors unavailable.)  I went back to a place my mom, sister and I had already gone (not Vaults and Gardens-- though I kind of lamented not going there after I was served my barely warm scones) because I knew it would be somewhat quiet and I still had reading to do in order to prepare for class.  (I could have easily stayed home all day and done work. But Sunday, I hadn't left my flat all day because I was cleaning and doing laundry and sometime during the day yesterday it started to seem like a waste to spend two days at home, especially when what I was doing in my flat-- reading-- could just as easily be done elsewhere.)  Plus, tea and scones make it all seem less like work.  It can't be just tea though (which I have in my flat-- I bought tea on my first grocery excursion thinking I was in England, so I should join in and have it as a staple.  It's entirely possible I'll still have some of it left when I leave. I don't drink tea in my flat all that often.  Maybe because I don't have scones or clotted cream.  It should also be noted that I bought a fruit flavored tea-- the kind I prefer but far from traditional.  So, I may only be vaguely participating in the tradition, if at all. I may just be "playing" at it.).  It's really the scones-- and the clotted cream-- that make it a party.

I have started wondering how often the Brits themselves really have tea and scones.  Tea I think is pretty regular, but I'm now wondering if the scone part is a treat they allow themselves occasionally (as opposed to the several times a week I have them-- they've become their own food group in my mind, part of the essential pyramid.).  Or, if it's just me fascinated with scones in particular... there are many shops with really fabulous looking pastries in the windows. All sorts of cakes and tarts which in mind are somehow more fattening than a scone slathered with clotted cream (I don't know why I think this...maybe because many of the pastries include chocolate which in my head is a treat to only be had occasionally.  Or maybe because they look much richer and heavier than a scone.).  But, I think that the Brits might be having those with tea.  They do look like they're pretty good-- I may have to branch out a bit.

I also decided to spend some time in the local, bookstore, Blackwells, which might also be the largest bookstore I've ever been in.  All of my students are talking about traveling to other countries, so I wanted to get a jump on planning my excursion out of England-- I'm thinking Belgium (though I said this and one of the Brookes' staff asked, "Why Belgium?  I thought that was just a place you pass through on your way to conquer someone else." which makes me think it's not a popular destination.  I've seen pictures though-- it looks really lovely. And, I've been to France, Italy and Greece.  Belgium is someplace I haven't been and relatively easy to get to by train.  I may also be going to Spain in December to meet up with a friend which is what has kept that in the periphery for now.).  I wanted to look through travel guides-- I was thinking I was going to pick the one I liked the most and buy it, but they all start at about 15 pounds which, when I convert it to dollars, seems like a lot for a travel guide.  Looking through them did give me a lot of ideas and a general sense of what I'd want to do, so I may be able to look up everything online now.

Spending time perusing travel guides also gave me time to sit in the Norrington Room of Blackwells.  It's 3 miles of shelving.  The picture was taken from the law balcony-- there's a sign there that marks it as the photo spot.  So, clearly, I'm not the only one who finds this overwhelming (and, photo worthy).

And, that's just one part of Blackwells-- what is considered the basement.  There are four other floors of books (including a used book section on the top floor, though the used books aren't significantly cheaper than the new ones. They are in much better shape than most books I've seen in used book stores though-- many look brand new.  So, perhaps Blackwells is picky about its used stock and that accounts for why they're only a pound or two cheaper than new books.  Charity shops have lots of used books too-- not quite in the same condition, but they often cost a pound or less. I would get used books there-- at least used books of the mundane kind. I think Blackwells does specialize more in used books that are important or special editions.).  You could spend a whole day in Blackwells-- and probably still not really see all it has to offer.

It was still kind of early for dinner (6-ish) but it was also cold and rainy all day and most everything except the pubs and restaurants in central Oxford closes by 5 (Blackwells is open late by comparison), so I headed over to Chequers.  It's another pub (I think it may also be an actual inn) located at the end of an alleyway (though not nearly as hard to find as Turf Tavern, especially because there's an actual sign jutting out over the sidewalk to announce its presence.  You have to turn into the alleyway of Turf Tavern to see the sign.) which has become my favorite kind of pub, mostly because it makes me feel like I've found some hidden treasure.

Chequers inside looks like what I think a British pub should look like.

But, it's food isn't really what I thought pub food was before I got here.  And, I've been to a handful of different pubs now (Turf Tavern several times-- for atmosphere and pure kitch, it's still my favorite).  It makes me think that British food has gotten a bad rap.

What I've realized about pubs (and, what I was thinking about last night that actually inspired me to start writing this post) is that they don't have what Americans think of as "pub food" at all.  I always think pub food and bar food are pretty synonymous-- and there is some bar food fare to be had at pubs (Chequers has nachos-- I may have to go back and order them though. I wonder if they are the same messy, artery clogging, vaguely gross while still being yummy concoction they are in bars in the US). But there is also really well done food.

This is pub food-- chicken and mushroom pie with potatoes and carrots and butternut squash.  (Behind it is my pimm's.  Along with scones with clotted cream, I really think Americans need to embrace this. Pimm's is really yummy-- I can't quite figure out what the liquor is. It tastes something like Dr. Pepper.  And then, it's mixed with seltzer or lemon-lime soda and has some kind of citrus fruit in it; this time, it also had mint leaves, though this is the first time I've had mint in it.  All in all, it's very refreshing.  It would be dangerously easy to suck down quickly on a warm day.)  Food is presented quite well in pubs-- presentation seems key.  And, the menus are pretty varied (though there are standards like fish and chips on every pub menu, at least in the ones I've been in).  I know I said at some point before I came over here that I don't really like British food (I think I was thinking of Shepard's Pie)-- I may have changed my mind.

I also am not quite sure what British food actually is anymore-- I get that it's bangers and mash and fish and chips, but standard fare in pubs also almost always includes some kind of curry (I don't remember curry on Turf Tavern's menu-- but it seems to on all the other pub menus I've looked at. That's actually what I tried to order first last night-- I wanted the curry but Chequers was out.  The menu is changing next week, I was told, so when the kitchen runs out of ingredients for a dish, at the moment it's no longer available.  Like the curry I wanted-- a green curry which is a different option than the red curry I had at the White Horse a couple weeks ago.  It makes me wonder if different pubs specialize in particular curries.).  I know we think of the US as a melting pot-- and it is, but I don't think there's enough attention paid to how much cultural and ethnic diversity there is in England. There is certainly more diversity here than where I live in North Carolina.  And, that diversity has made its way into the food-- so much so, that it's not really labeled on menus.  For the most part, food isn't denoted as "Thai style" or "Asian style" on the menus (I mean in pubs. In restaurants that specialize in a cuisine-- like a restaurant near me that has both Thai and Chinese food-- these distinctions are quite clear.).  The curry I tried to order last night sounded more to me like a Thai curry than an Indian one (the one in White Horse was an Indian curry)-- but in either case, it seems that curry, which isn't British (though, I get, from what used to be a British colony) is now just a part of British food.  Which means that British food is more than fish and chips and Shepard's pie-- and has me totally rethinking my uninformed proclamation that I don't really like British food.  I'm converted.

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