For the past month or two, my place of work (this very website) has been plagued by a relatively harmless but deeply mystifying figure: the phantom lunch thief. What’s happened since has followed a trajectory sure to be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in an office with more than, say, 30 employees: a menacing, all-caps Post-It note was posted, instructing the thief: “PLEASE DO NOT TAKE FOOD THAT DOESN’T BELONG TO YOU.” The appropriate authorities were alerted. The authorities sent out slightly mean emails about how we’re all adults here, and even those of us who didn’t do anything wrong were embarrassed. For a few days, no lunches were stolen. But then, just when you thought it was safe to leave an Amy’s frozen burrito in the shared fridge for 12 days, the lunch thief struck again. Collectively, and publicly — all wanting to make very clear that we were innocent — my colleagues and I wondered: who does this? What kind of person steals lunch from people they work with, and why?
To find out, I had to identify one such person. First, I offered my own office lunch thief immunity (or, well, anonymity) if they came forward to tell me their life story, but nobody took me up on it. I asked Twitter, where many people expressed outrage over the very idea of lunch theft, but again, no actual thieves surfaced. I even made a Google Form about it, and nobody filled out my Google Form. I was very nearly too dejected to continue my search when I remembered: Reddit. If not there, where?
On Reddit, I found a few lunch theftdiscussion threads, and messaged about 15 or 20 users who indicated that they had stolen, or would steal, lunch from a co-worker, several of whom sounded very pleased with themselves. I told them I was a reporter, and asked if they’d be willing to elaborate on their experiences in lunch theft. Unfortunately, most relevant postings I found were from, like, four years ago, and again it seemed no one would come forward. But then someone wrote me back. Eventually he agreed to speak with me, and we arranged a phone call. His name is Rob, and he’s a programmer in his early 40s. Together we decided there are probably enough programmers in their 40s named Rob that divulging this amount of personal information was okay.
As a non-lunch-stealer, I’ve never understood the mentality either (I’ve been the victim once or twice at work, at more-often way back when I lived in student accommodation), and this interview really helped to humanise a perpetrator. I still can’t condone it, but at least now I’ve got a greater understanding. Yay, empathy!
I normally reserve my “on this day” posts to look back at my own archived content, but once in a while I get a moment of nostalgia for something of somebody else’s that “fell off the web”. And so I bring you something you probably haven’t seen in over a decade: Paul and Jon‘s Birmingham Egg.
It was a simpler time: a time when YouTube was a new “fringe” site (which is probably why I don’t have a surviving copy of the original video) and not yet owned by Google, before Facebook was universally-available, and when original Web content remained decentralised (maybe we’re moving back in that direction, but I wouldn’t count on it…). And only a few days after issue 175 of the b3ta newsletter wrote:
* BIRMINGHAM EGG - Take 5 scotch eggs, cut in
half and cover in masala sauce. Place in
Balti dish and serve with naan and/or chips.
We'll send a b3ta t-shirt to anyone who cooks
this up, eats it and makes a lovely little
photo log / write up of their adventure.
It was a simpler time, when, having fewer responsibilities, we were able to do things like this “for the lulz”. But more than that, it was still at the tail-end of the era in which individuals putting absurd shit online was still a legitimate art form on the Web. Somewhere along the way, the Web got serious and siloed. It’s not all a bad thing, but it does mean that we’re publishing less weirdness than we were back then.
Once upon a time, long before I began selling my face by the acre for features on VICE dot com, I worked other jobs. There was one in particular that really had an impact on me: writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor. Restaurant owners would pay me £10 and I’d write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there. Over time, I became obsessed with monitoring the ratings of these businesses. Their fortunes would genuinely turn, and I was the catalyst.
This convinced me that TripAdvisor was a false reality – that the meals never took place; that the reviews were all written by other people like me. However, they’re not, of course – they’re almost all completely genuine. And there was one other factor that seemed impossible to fake: the restaurants themselves. So I moved on.
And then, one day, sitting in the shed I live in, I had a revelation: within the current climate of misinformation, and society’s willingness to believe absolute bullshit, maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it’s exactly the kind of place that could be a hit?
In that moment, it became my mission. With the help of fake reviews, mystique and nonsense, I was going to do it: turn my shed into London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor.
The day has arrived… our lovely little Not Dogs restaurant in the Bullring, Birmingham has had a little update – in fact, our additions are a nod to our festival background complete with bunting and grass! Let’s go on a virtual tour…
In a potato field near the Netherlands’ border with Belgium, Dutch farmer Jacob van den Borne is seated in the cabin of an immense harvester before an instrument panel worthy of the starship Enterprise.
From his perch 10 feet above the ground, he’s monitoring two drones—a driverless tractor roaming the fields and a quadcopter in the air—that provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth, measuring the progress of every plant down to the individual potato. Van den Borne’s production numbers testify to the power of this “precision farming,” as it’s known. The global average yield of potatoes per acre is about nine tons. Van den Borne’s fields reliably produce more than 20.
That copious output is made all the more remarkable by the other side of the balance sheet: inputs. Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent…
Happy birthday to Not Dogs Birmingham! Our doors have been open at the Bullrings LinkStreet for just 12 weeks now and what fun we are having!Our fantastic Crew have welcomed many people (veggies, vegans and meat-eaters!) into the restaurant, seven days a week and were looking forward to seeing many more of you. Over the course…
McDonalds had to know what they were doing. The New Zealand branch of the franchise launched its “Create Your Taste” campaign with a special promotion: Design your own burger and get free fries and a soft drink for your trouble. Not a bad idea in theory, but then there’s the part where they let everyone share their hideous creations. There was no way that someone somewhere at the company didn’t speak up at one point and say “Hey uh, you know that the internet is just going to create the most offensive and terrible burgers possible, right?”
Three weeks ago was (give or take a few weeks because we’ve never bothered with accuracy) the end of Ruth and I’s 8th year together, and we marked the ocassion with a mini-break away for a few nights. We spent the first two nights in a ‘showman’-style gypsy caravan in Herefordshire, and it was amazing enough that I wanted to share it with you:
The place we went was Wriggles Brook, a ‘glamping’-style site in the shadow of the Forest of Dean. In a long field that twists its way alongside a babbling brook, the owners have set up a trio of traditional horse-drawn caravans, each in a wooded clearing that isolates it from the others. Two of the caravans are smaller, designed just for couples (who are clearly the target market for this romantic getaway spot), but we took the third, larger, (centenarian!) one, which sported a separate living room and bedroom.
The bedroom was set up so that children could be accomodated in a bunk under the adults (with their own string of fairy lights and teeny-tiny windows, but after she bumped her head on the underside of the beams Annabel decided that she didn’t want to sleep there, so we set up her travel cot in the living room.
So yeah: a beautiful setting, imaginative and ecologically-friendly accomodation, and about a billion activities on your doorstep. Even the almost-complete lack of phone signal into the valley was pretty delightful, although it did make consulting Google Maps difficult when we got lost about 20 minutes out from the place! But if there’s one thing that really does deserve extra-special mention, it’s the food!
Our hosts were able to put on a spectacular breakfast and evening meal for us each night, including a variety of freshly-grown produce from their own land. We generally ate in their mini dining room – itself a greenhouse for their grapevines – but it was equally-nice to have pancakes delivered to the picnic table right outside our caravan. And speaking as somebody who’s had their fair share of second-rate veggie breakfasts over the last… what, four and a half years?… it was a great relief to enjoy a quite-brilliant variety of vegetarian cuisine from a clearly-talented chef.
So yeah – five stars for Wriggles Brook in Herefordshire if you’re looking for an awesome romantic getaway, with or without an accompanying toddler. Ruth and I later palmed the little one off on JTA so that we could have a night away without her, too, which – while fun (even if we didn’t get to try all 280+ gins at the restaurant we ate at) – wasn’t quite so worthy of mention as the unusual gypsy-caravan-escape that had preceeded it. I’m hoping that we’ll get out to Wriggles Brook again.
I’m pretty sure that an outside observer, given the advance knowledge of this blog post, could easily tell when I’m in the process of getting over an illness just by the food I eat. I’m pretty sure that I have a particular ‘tell’ in the foods I look for when I’m on the cusp of recovering from a cold, like now: or, I suppose, on those rare ocassions that I’ll have drunk enough to be suffering from a hangover.
Take this lunchtime, for example. I’ve been off work for the last couple of days, laid low by what seems to be the very same cold that I was sure I’d dodged when everybody else got it, last month (I blame Annabel, the contagious little beast, who’s particularly keen on shoving her hands into people’s mouths). Today I’m back on my feet, but working from home: I skipped breakfast, but by lunchtime I felt able to face some food, and quickly determined what it was that I really wanted:
Egg & Cheese Wafflestack
Serves: 1 unwell-but-recovering person
Preparation: 15 minutes
Difficulty: if you can’t make this, get the hell out of the kitchen
4 × frozen potato waffles. I’m using Birds Eye ones, but honestly, who can tell the difference?
~ 30g mature cheddar cheese, grated or thinly sliced, brought to room temperature so it melts quickly
2 × eggs
A little vegetable oil
Tomato ketchup (alternatively, brown sauce works well)
Grill the waffles in accordance with the instructions. Meanwhile, fry the two eggs (“sunny side up”: keep the yolk fluid). Assemble in stacks, with each stack consisting of cheese sandwiched between two waffles, topped with an egg and the ketchup. Serve immediately. Eat as quickly as you dare.
More-lately, I’m also a big fan of making pizza. I’ve always enjoyed making bread, but over the last five years or so I’ve become particularly fascinated with making pizzas. I make a pretty good one now, I think, although I’m still learning and periodically experimenting with different flour blends, cooking surfaces, kneading techniques and so on. Those of you who know how capable I am of being a giant nerd about things should understand what I mean when I say that I’ve gotten to be a pizza nerd.
In pizza-related circles of the Internet (yes, theseexist), there’s recently been some talk about pizza cake: a dish made by assembling several pizzas, stacked on top of one another in a cake tin – ideally one with a removable base – and then baking them together as a unit. Personally, I think that the name “pizza cake” isn’t as accurate nor descriptive as alternative names “pizza pie” (which unfortunately doesn’t translate so well over the Atlantic) or “pizza lasagne” (which is pretty universal). In any case, you can by now imagine what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is an artery-destroying monster.
Not wanting to squander my dough-making skills on something that must be cut to size (proper pizza dough should always be stretched, or in the worst case rolled, to size – did I mention that I’d been getting picky about this kind of stuff?), I opted to go for the lazy approach and use some pre-made dough, from a chilled can. That was probably my first and largest mistake, but a close second was that I followed through with this crazy idea at all.
I didn’t have as deep a cake tin as I’d have liked, either, so my resulting pizza cake was shorter and squatter than I might have liked. Nonetheless, it came together reasonably well, albeit with some careful repositioning of the ingredients in order to provide the necessary structural support for each layer as it was added. I eventually built four layers: that is, from bottom to top – dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms, dough, tomato, cheese, pepperoni & mushrooms. As I went along I found myself thinking about calzone.
Using a cake tin with a removable base turned out to be an incredibly wise move, as it proved possible to separate the food from its container by simply running around the outside and then tapping the tin from underneath. It had the weight and consistency of a cake of similar size, and smelled richly like freshly-based bread and cheese: exactly what you’d expect, really. I sliced it into six wedges, “cake-style”, and served it with a side salad to my courageous test pilots.
Ultimately, though, the experience wasn’t one we’re likely to repeat: the resulting dish was less-satisfying than if I’d just gone to the effort of making four regular pizzas in the first place. It was impossible to get an adequately crispy crust over the expanded surface area without risking burning the cheese, and as a result the central bread was unsatisfyingly stodgy, regardless of how thin I’d rolled it in anticipation of this risk. Having toppings spread through the dish was interesting, but didn’t add anything in particular that’s worthy of note. And while we ate it all up, we wouldn’t have chosen it instad of an actual pizza unless we’d never tried it before – once was enough.
But that’s just our experience: if you give pizza cake/pie/lasagne a go, let me know how you get on. Meanwhile, I’ll stick to making my own dough and using it to make my own regular, flat pizzas. The way that the pizza gods intended!