The entire infrastructure of our civilization – our entire species – is something that you can’t help but take for granted. Let’s make a cheese & pickle sandwich.
How to make a Cheese & Pickle Sandwich
Find a grass whose seed, when crushed, yields a powdery flour rich in carbohydrates and proteins – any of the dozens of species of wheat will do, but there are plenty others besides. If you’re genuinely starting from scratch, you might find that it’s first worth your while cultivating and selectively breeding the cereal to improve its yield. Separate off the dry outer chaff from the seeds and grind them. You’ll also need some yeast, which you can acquire from the environment by letting water in which you’ve boiled vegetables sit in the warm for a few days, or by extracting it from the skins of fruits: alternatively, you can make use of yeast spores in the atmosphere by working slowly in the vicinity of fermenting sugars; e.g. somebody brewing alcohol. Combine the flour with some water and the yeast to make a dough, let it rise, then put it in a hot box for a while to bake it. There’s your bread.
Meanwhile, domesticate some cattle. You’ll need to have started this quite a while earlier. Specifically, you’re going to need cows that have recently weaned a calf, so they’re still lactating. Manipulate the teats of the cow to extract its milk, then heat it gently while stirring it. Assuming that you don’t have the resources to identify and separate lactococcus bacteria, you’ll want to be careful not to heat the milk enough that it kills any such bacteria already in it. Add an edible acid (lemon juice will do, assuming you’ve got access to lemons; alternatively you could use vinegar, which you’ll be needing later on anyway) to cause the milk to begin separating into curds (the solid part) and whey (the liquid part) – alternatively, if you’ve got spare unweaned calves that you can kill and harvest the stomachs of, you can use rennet. If you’ve got the hang of processing cotton, you can weave yourself a square of cheesecloth and use this as a filter. Once you’ve reduced the curds as far as possible, wrap it and squeeze it in a press (you can make this by putting weight on it) for a few days, turning occasionally. Then, cover it in an airtight seal of wax (you can get this by melting honeycombs taken from a beehive), and leave it for a month or two. There’s your cheese.
Harvest some fruit and vegetables, such as – depending on availability – swede, carrots, dates, onions, cauliflower, apples, courgettes, and tomatoes, and dice them. Boil together in vinegar with cloves, mustard, and sugar added until the hardest parts (typically the swede) are firm but not crunchy. Heat a sterile, airtight container, add the mixture, and seal. Leave for a couple of weeks. Oh: you don’t have vinegar? No problem: first you’re going to need alcohol, which you can produce from fruit – apples are probably easiest; grapes are another popular choice – and yeast: just combine the two and give it a few weeks. Now, to turn that into vinegar, keep it at just over room temperature for several more weeks, stirring regularly to aerate it. Seriously: if you thought that learning to milk a cow was hard, you should have given up long before now. Anyway: there’s your pickle.
You’ll also want some butter, but by this point you’re used to a little work. Assuming you don’t have access to a centrifuge, the traditional thing to do next is to leave it sitting in a shallow pan for about 24 hours, then skimming off the top – congratulations, you’ve got cream (the remaining milk is now what you would call skimmed milk; I suggest you have yourself a cool glass of it while you start working on the next bit). Put the cream into a bowl with a pinch of salt and work it, keeping it as cool as possible while you do so, as if you were trying to make whipped cream… but keep going! If you whip it for long enough it’ll gradually become more and more solid: drain it of the excess liquid (this is buttermilk), and then form it into a ball or block. Hurrah: you’ve got butter!
Finally, you can assemble your sandwich. Slide the bread, spread butter onto the slices, and put slices of the cheese and a spoonful of pickle in between them. That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?
Why, Dan, why?
You’ll be forgiven if you’re wondering why I’ve just shared with you the most drawn-out recipe imaginable, for something so simple as a cheese & pickle sandwich.
It’s just this: think about how much was involved in that process (and I didn’t even talk about making the tools you’d need). How complex is that process, compared to everything eaten by every other animal on the planet. Otters use rocks to get into shellfish, and chimpanzees use sticks to pull termites out of nests, but apart from these – and a few other exceptions – virtually no other species we’ve ever come across does anything more than picking or hunting for their food, and then eating it. We, on the other hand – even for our simplest processed foods – put a monumental amount of effort into making them the way they are.
And as if that weren’t complex enough, we go even further. We make different kinds of bread and cheese with different kinds of flour and milk, different processes, different ages; we make different brands of pickle and butter, and then argue on the Internet about which one is the best. We make sandwiches with egg mayonnaise (boiled eggs… in an emulsion of egg yolks and oil), with roasted or cured meats of different kinds of animals, with hummus (a remarkably complicated ingredient in its own right).
When you make yourself a sandwich, you’re standing upon the shoulders of the hundreds of generations that preceded you, and all of their peers. A collective knowledge passed down over millennia. In reality, nobody milks a cow because they want to make a sandwich: but that separation is only possible because of the enormous infrastructure we’ve built up in order to support the production and distribution of dairy goods.
We are, indeed, a very strange species.
But if you actually do have a go at making a sandwich based on this recipe, let me know how you get on.
While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:
Which is the odd-one out: gypsies, turkeys, french fries, or the Kings of Leon?
In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:
Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.
Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:
The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.
Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.
When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.
Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.
Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.
As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.
So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.
The Kings of Leon
For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).
The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.
The Odd One Out
The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.
The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).
And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.
I spent the weekend of my birthday working in London, alongside the Squiz team, who make the CMS that forms the foundation of most of the public-facing websites of the Bodleian Libraries. We’d originally scheduled this visit for a different week, but – in that way that projects sometimes do – the project got juggled about a bit and so I found myself spending the week of my birthday away from home.
But on Tuesday – my second day working on-site at Squiz’s office, and coincidentally my birthday – disaster struck! Our first clue was when the lights went out. And then, a minute or so later, when the fire alarm started going off. No big deal, we all thought, as we gathered our possessions and prepared to leave the office – it’s probably just that the fire alarm sounds as a precaution if it’s electricity supply is disrupted… but as we started to go down the stairs and smelled the smoke, we realised that there really was a fire.
The first two fire engines arrived within minutes. Apparently, they don’t mess about when a city centre office block catches light. The smoke was very visible from the street: thick grey plumes pouring out from the basement windows. Theories about the cause of the fire were whispered around the assembled crowd, and the consensus seemed to be that the substation in the basement had overheated and set alight its room.
A third fire engine arrived, and – after about a quarter hour of assessing the situation and controlling the crowd – we were told that we wouldn’t be able to get back into our building for “at least an hour, probably more.” So, being British, we therefore decamped to one of the nearby bars for networking and a round of gin & tonic. After I texted some friends to say that I hadn’t expected to spend the afternoon of my birthday in the pub, but that it wasn’t an entirely unwelcome experience, a few of them had the cheek to ask once again how the fire had actually started.
By the time we were allowed to return to the building, it was already getting dark, and we quickly discovered a new problem that faced us: with the power still well and truly out, the electronic door locks that secured the offices had become completely unusable. Not willing to abandon my laptop, keys, and other personal possessions overnight in an unfamiliar office, I waited around until a locksmith had been summoned and had drilled his way through the cylinder and allowed us into the building.
It being my birthday, I’d arranged that Ruth would come and spend the night down in London, and that we’d go out to Dans le Noir, a restaurant that I’d heard about from news articles and via friends some years prior, and always wanted to try. The restaurant has a distinct and quite remarkable theme that you probably won’t find anywhere else: that theme is that you eat unidentified food in pitch blackness.
As our (blind!) waiter, Gao, led Ruth and I by touch to our table, we suddenly realised that we’d all but forgotten exactly how dark pitch blackness actually is. When you stumble over your coffee table in the dark on a morning, that’s not truly black: there’s that sliver of light coming from underneath the curtains, or the faint glow of the LED light on the stereo. Real, complete darkness is disorienting and confusing, and to sit around in it – not even able to see whether your eyes are open or closed – for hours at a time is quite remarkable.
It took us a little while to learn the new skills required to survive in this environment, but Gao was incredibly helpful. We worked out mechanisms for pouring drinks, for checking whether our plates were empty, and for communicating our relative movements (being geeks, as we are, Ruth and I quickly developed a three-dimensional coordinate-based system for navigating relative to an agreed centre-point: the tip of the bottle of our mystery wine). We also learned that there’s something truly humbling about being dependent upon the aid of a blind person to do something that you’d normally be quite capable of doing alone: simple things, like finding where your glass is.
But the bigger lesson that we learned was about how darkness changes the way that we operate on a social level. Ruth and I were sat alongside another couple, and – deprived of body language, the judgement of sight, and the scrutiny of eye contact – we quickly entered into a conversation that was far deeper and more real than I would have anticipated having with total strangers. It was particularly strange to see Ruth, who’s usually so shy around new people, really come out as confident and open. I theorise that (in normally-signted people) eye contact – that is, being able to see that others can see you – serves as a regulator of our willingness to be transparent. Depriving it for long enough that its lack begins to feel natural makes us more frank and honest. Strange.
Back at Squiz the following day, there was still no electricity. Credit is due to the team there, though, who quickly put in to effect their emergency plans and literally “moved office” to a handful of conference rooms and meeting spaces around Shoreditch. “Runners” were nominated to help relay messages and equipment between disparate groups of people, and virtualised networks were established across the city. I laughed when I discovered that Squiz’s old offices had been in an old fire station.
Before long, the folks I’d been working with and I were settled into a basement meeting room in a nearby café, running a stack of Mac desktops and laptops from a monumental string of power strips, and juggling an Internet connection between the café’s WiFi and a stack of Mifi-like devices. We were able to get on with our work, and the day was saved, all thanks to some smart emergency planning. Later in the week, a generator was deployed outside the building and we were able to return to normal desks, but the quick-thinking of the management ensured that a minimum of disruption was caused in the meantime.
Not one to waste the opportunity to make the most of being in London for a week, I spent another of my evenings out with Bryn. He and I went out to the Free Fringe Fundraiser, which – despite a notable absence of Peter Buckley Hill, who had caught a case of the then-dominating norovirus – was still a great deal of fun. It was particularly pleasing to get to see Norman Lovett in the flesh: his particular brand of surrealist anti-humour tickles me mercilessly.
So what could have been “just another business trip” turned into quite the adventure, between fires and birthdays and eating-in-the-dark and comedy. If only it hadn’t taken me two months to finish writing about it…
This is the first in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.
2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.
It was a year of unceasing disasters and difficulties: every time some tragedy had befallen me, my friends, or family, some additional calamity was lined-up to follow in its wake. In an environment like this, even the not-quite-so-sad things – like the death of Puddles, our family dog, in May – were magnified, and the ongoing challenges of the year – like the neverending difficulties with my dad’s estate – became overwhelming.
In the week of his death, my sister Becky was suffering from an awful toothache which was stopping her from eating, sleeping, or generally functioning at all (I tried to help her out by offering some oil of cloves (which functions as a dental contact anesthetic), but she must have misunderstood my instruction about applying it to the tooth without swallowing it, because she spent most of that evening throwing up (seriously: don’t ever swallow clove oil).
Little did she know, worse was yet to come: when she finally went to the dentist, he botched her operation, leaving her with a jaw infection. The infection spread, causing septicæmia of her face and neck and requiring that she was hospitalised. On the day of our dad’s funeral, she needed to insist that the “stop gap” surgery that she was given was done under local, rather than general, anasthetic, so that she could make it – albeit in a wheelchair and unable to talk – to the funeral.
Five weeks later, my dad finally reached the North Pole, his ashes carried by another member of his team. At about the same time, Ruth‘s grandmother passed away, swamping the already-emotional Earthlings with yet another sad period. That same month, my friend S******suffered a serious injury, a traumatic and distressing experience in the middle of a long and difficult period of her life, and an event which caused significant ripples in the lives of her circle of friends.
Shortly afterwards, Paul moved out from Earth, in a situation that was anticipated (we’d said when we first moved in together that it would be only for a couple of years, while we all found our feet in Oxford and decided on what we’d be doing next, as far as our living situations were concerned), but still felt occasionally hostile: when Paul left town six months later, his last blog post stated that Oxford could “get lost”, and that he’d “hated hated 90% of the time” he’d lived here. Despite reassurances to the contrary, it was sometimes hard – especially in such a difficult year – to think that this message wasn’t directed at Oxford so much as at his friends there.
As the summer came to an end, my workload on my various courses increased dramatically, stretching into my so-called “free time”: this, coupled with delays resulting from all of the illness, injury, and death that had happened already, threw back the release date of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest update to Three Rings. Coupled with the stress of the 10th Birthday Party Conference – which thankfully JTA handled most of – even the rare periods during which nobody was ill or dying were filled with sleepless nights and anxiety. And of course as soon as all of the preparation was out of the way and the conference was done, there were still plenty of long days ahead, catching up on everything that had been temporarily put on the back burner.
When I was first appointed executor of my dad’s estate, I said to myself that I could have the whole thing wrapped-up and resolved within six months… eight on the outside. But as things dragged on – it took almost six months until the investigation was finished and the coroner’s report filed, so we could get a death certificate, for example – they just got more and more bogged-down. Problems with my dad’s will made it harder than expected to get started (for example, I’m the executor and a beneficiary of the will, yet nowhere on it am I directly mentioned by name, address, or relationship… which means that I’ve had to prove that I am the person mentioned in the will every single time I present it, and that’s not always easy!), and further administrative hiccups have slowed down the process every step of the way.
You know what would have made the whole thing easier? A bacon sandwich. And black pudding for breakfast. And a nice big bit of freshly-battered cod. And some roast chicken. I found that 2012 was a harder year than 2011 in which to be a vegetarian. I guess that a nice steak would have taken the edge off: a little bit of a luxury, and some escapism. Instead, I probably drank a lot more than I ought to have. Perhaps we should encourage recovering alcoholic, when things are tough, to hit the sausage instead of the bottle.
Becky’s health problems weren’t done for the year, after she started getting incredibly intense and painful headaches. At first, I was worried that she was lined-up for a similar diagnosis to mine, of the other year (luckily, I’ve been symptom-free for a year and a quarter now, although medical science is at a loss to explain why), but as I heard more about her symptoms, I became convinced that this wasn’t the case. In any case, she found herself back in the operating room, for the second serious bit of surgery of the year (the operation was a success, thankfully).
I had my own surgery, of course, when I had a vasectomy; something I’d been planning for some time. That actually went quite well, at least as far as can be ascertained at this point (part three of that series of posts will be coming soon), but it allows me to segue into the topic of reproduction…
Because while I’d been waiting to get snipped, Ruth and JTA had managed to conceive. We found this out right as we were running around sorting out the Three Rings Conference, and Ruth took to calling the fœtus “Jethrik”, after the Three Rings milestone. I was even more delighted still when I heard that the expected birth date would be 24th July: Samaritans‘ Annual Awareness Day (“24/7”).
As potential prospective parents, they did everything right. Ruth stuck strictly to a perfectly balanced diet for her stage of pregnancy; they told only a minimum of people, because – as everybody knows – the first trimester’s the riskiest period. I remember when Ruth told her grandfather (who had become very unwell towards the end of 2012 and died early this year: another sad family tragedy) about the pregnancy, that it was only after careful consideration – balancing how nice it would be for him to know that the next generation of his family was on the way before his death – that she went ahead and did so. And as the end of the first trimester, and the end of the year, approached, I genuinely believed that the string of bad luck that had been 2012 was over.
But it wasn’t to be. Just as soon as we were looking forward to New Year, and planning to not so much “see in 2013” as to “kick out 2012”, Ruth had a little bleeding. Swiftly followed by abdominal cramps. She spent most of New Year’s Eve at the hospital, where they’d determined that she’d suffered a miscarriage, probably a few weeks earlier.
Ruth’s written about it. JTA’s written about it, too. And I’d recommend they read their account rather than mine: they’ve both written more, and better, about the subject than I could. But I shan’t pretend that it wasn’t hard: in truth, it was heartbreaking. At the times that I could persuade myself that my grief was “acceptable” (and that I shouldn’t be, say, looking after Ruth), I cried a lot. For me, “Jethrik” represented a happy ending to a miserable year: some good news at last for the people I was closest to. Perhaps, then, I attached too much importance to it, but it seemed inconceivable to me – no pun intended – that for all of the effort they’d put in, that things wouldn’t just go perfectly. For me, it was all connected: Ruth wasn’t pregnant by me, but I still found myself wishing that my dad could have lived to have seen it, and when the pregnancy went wrong, it made me realise how much I’d been pinning on it.
I don’t have a positive pick-me-up line to put here. But it feels like I should.
And so there we were, at the tail of 2012: the year that began awfully, ended awfully, and was pretty awful in the middle. I can’t say there weren’t good bits, but they were somewhat drowned out by all of the shit that happened. Fuck off, 2012.
Here’s to 2013.
Edit, 16th March 2013: By Becky’s request, removed an unflattering photo of her and some of the ickier details of her health problems this year.
Edit, 11th July 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s personal details have been obfuscated in this post so that they are no longer readily available to search engines.
Edit, 26th September 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s photo was removed from this post, too.
For our fourth day at the Edinburgh Fringe, Ruth, JTA and I decided to take a little break from the rushing-around-to-comedy-shows game and get out and see the sights. Ruth had somehow acquired a somewhat romantic idea of nearby Leith: that it would be full of quays and boats and suchlike, and not – as we would come to discover instead – full of rain and a foul-smelling burst sewer pipe.
We started with breakfast from Snax Cafe, under Matt‘s recommendation, which turned out to be a good one, as this tiny greasy spoon/takeaway turns out to serve a fantastic selection of fried foods ready-to-eat at great prices. I opted for a fried egg sandwich, with which I quickly made a mess of my t-shirt and shorts when I accidentally spilt the yolk all over myself.
A combination of the weather quickly turning against us, Leith being significantly further away than it first appeared on a map, and the three of us still being remarkably tired since the previous day turned this expedition into a far more arduous affair than we had initially expected. By the time we’d reached the pretty little boats and bars of the waterfront, we were damp (admittedly, we’d all but JTA underdressed for the excursion: his overcoat helped protect him, but it had the side-effect of making him look like a flasher, his bare legs poking out from under it).
We escaped from the weather just as it began to get sunnier again, into a pub called the Teuchter’s Landing, which Ruth had discovered earlier during her research into the area. There, we drank beer and played some of the boardgames made available by the pub: Scrabble™ (at which I scored abysmally low, for which I partially blame rotten luck on draw after draw: my final hand – representative of my fortunes – was R-R-R-L-L-U-O; my starting hand contained only one consonant), the Who Wants To Be A Millionare boardgame (which took a significant amount of sorting to put it back into a working order, and in which we had to work around some missing pieces), and a few hands of Knockout Whist (with the most static-electricity-inducing deck of cards I’ve ever encountered: almost impossible to deal without giving each player four or five cards at the same time).
The food was good, though: we lunched upon freshly-made haggis stovies, served in mugs, with chunky chips (in further mugs) and oatcakes. And when we were done, and set out into the world again to explore the waterfront… that’s when it began raining again, even harder than before. Fucking marvellous.
By the time we’d worked our way around the docks, we were damp and tired, so we found a bus to take us back to Princes’ Street, cut across to a cheesemonger in Grassmarket to stock up on delicious cheeses, and then returned to the flat for a quick nap, because we were all pretty pooped.
Later, we went out for another helping of Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians. Being Tuesday – the day before Buckers’ day off – and close to the end of the Fringe, he was clearly exhausted, and kept digressing from the usual (awesome) shite to random stream-of-consciousness new shite. Still all funny, and some enjoyable guests.
On this day in 2005 (actually tomorrow, but I needed to publish early) I received an unusual parcel at work, which turned out to contain a pan, wooden spoon, tin of spaghetti hoops, loaf of bread… and an entire electric hob.
This turned out, as I describe in my blog post of the day, to have been the result of a conversation that the pair of us had had on IRC the previous day, in which he called me a “Philistine” for heating my lunchtime spaghetti hoops in the office microwave. This was a necessity rather than a convenience, given that we didn’t have any other mechanism for heating food (other than a toaster, and that’s a really messy way to heat up tinned food…).
It was clearly a time when we were all blogging quite regularly: apologies for the wall of links (a handful of which, I’m afraid, might be restricted). Be glad that I spared you all the posts about the 2005 General Election, which at the time occupied a lot of the Abnib blogosphere. We were young, and idealistic, and many of us were students, and most of us hadn’t yet been made so cynical by the politicians who have come since.
And, relevantly, it was a time when Paul was able to express his randomness in some particularly quirky ways. Like delivering me a food parcel at work. He’s always been the king of random events, like organising ad-hoc hilltop trips that turned out to be for the purpose of actually releasing 99 red (helium) balloons. I tried to immortalise his capacity for thinking that’s not just outside the box, but outside the known Universe, when I wrote his character into Troma Night Adventure, but I’m not sure I quite went far enough.
It seems so long ago now: those Aberystwyth days, less than a year out of University myself. When I look back, I still find myself wondering how we managed to find so much time to waste on categorising all of the pages on the RockMonkey wiki. I suppose that nowadays we’ve traded the spontaneity to say “Hey: card games in the pub in 20 minutes: see you there!” on a blog and expect it to actually work, for a more-structured and planned existence. More-recently, we’ve spent about a fortnight so far discussing what day of the week we want out new monthly board games night to fall on.
I got the chance to live with Paul for a couple of years, until he moved out last month. I’m not sure whether or not this will ultimately reduce the amount of quirkiness that I get in my diet, but I’m okay either way. Paul’s not far away – barely on the other side of town – so I’m probably still within a fatal distance of the meteor we always assumed would eventually kill him.
We’ve turned what was his bedroom into an office. Another case of “a little bit less random, a little bit more structure and planning”, perhaps, in a very metaphorical way? Maybe this is what it feels like to be a grown-up. Took me long enough.
This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.
I’ve been a vegetarian for a year and a bit, now, and it’s not significantly easier than it was to begin with. There are lots of meats that I miss. And there are some meats that I expected to miss, that I don’t. Here’s my experience:
The things I miss the most:
Fish finger sandwiches. I know they’re not to everybody’s taste, but these things are just delicious.
Chicken in convenient things. What do you mean, I can’t have the dupiaza unless it’s with chicken? You do other dishes with vegetables!
Having a wide variety of choice. If I grab myself a lazy pre-made sandwich from the supermarket, my choices are – at best – limited to cheese-and-tomato or egg mayo. There are plenty of great veggie sandwich fillings: like falafel and hummus, roasted peppers, brie and pickle, curried tofu and lettuce, carrot and rocket, or even QuornTM. But I’ve had to get used to many supermarkets giving me a choice of one or two (and this is also the case in a shocking number of restaurants, too).
And things I don’t miss as much as I expected to:
Bacon. I’ve had the ocassional craving for crispy, well-done bacon. This is odd, because as a meat-eater I generally preferred my bacon barely cooked at all. But I’ve not missed bacon as much as I’d feared, and that’s great, because JTA‘s still liable to cook it, and the smell might otherwise have been intolerable.
Steak. I occasionally feel like I’m missing out, but this is more-often because I’m stuck with a limited choice on a restaurant menu than that the steak in itself looked particularly tasty. I guess I wasn’t as attached to lumps of beef or mutton as I suspected!
Cooking with meat. I expected to have some difficulties here: I cook a variety of different things, some of them well. And of those, the vast majority had a meat component. Meat-substitutes aren’t always suitable (even where they are adequate), so I’ve had to discover a stack of new things that I can put together in the kitchen. But this turned out to be simpler than I thought… perhaps in part thanks to the number of vegetarians I’ve lived with or dated over the years.
So there we go. There are things I miss more than I thought, and there are things I’ve missed less. And there’s not a particularly strong pattern between them.
If you’ve restricted your diet (e.g. by choosing to be vegetarian), what do you miss? Or if you haven’t, what do you think you’d miss the most? I think we all know how Adam feels, at least…
The other thing (other than building Tiffany2 and a second computer, to be described later) that happened last weekend, of course, is that it was my birthday! I share my birthday with David Bowie and Elvis Presley, so if you were ever looking for evidence about how astrology is bullshit: that’s it right there (I have no musical talent whatsoever, although I’m pretty good at Guitar Hero).
I didn’t organise myself a surprise birthday party this year, but instead had a quiet – but drunken – afternoon in with the Earthlings. Ruth had asked me earlier in the week, though, if “there’s anything special that I’d like to eat?” And, of course, I answered:
“A gingerbread village under assault from enormous gelatinous bunny rabbits!”
This was a convenient request, because we already had a lot of the ingredients to-hand. So Ruth and I spent some time building, decorating, and demolishing exactly such a scene.
This, you see, is what happens when I’m given cocktail-making equipment and supplies for my birthday. Nothing makes this kind of activity make sense so much as spending the whole day drinking champagne cocktails.
I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that as the scene came together I began developing a ruleset for a tabletop wargame playable using gummy sweets.
In any case, it was a fantastic way to see in the beginning of my thirty-second year.
This blog post is about Marmite. I apologise if it makes you hungry, nauseous, or confused.
My partner enjoys Marmite. This isn’t a surprise: I’ve known it for years. Some weekend mornings I’ve seen her enthusiastically scoff down some Marmite on toast, and I’ve known times that she’s been feeling run-down and hungry and the prospect of a bit of Marmite is exactly what she needs to get her motor running again. She doesn’t eat it all the time, but she likes to keep a jar around in anticipation: Marmite lasts pretty much forever, so there’s no hurry.
It’s only since living with her, though, that I’ve seen so much of the strange sticky substance as I have. That’s not her doing, I’ll stress: she’s always respectful of the fact that I seem to just be one of those people who’s just never going to be a Marmite-eater, and she doesn’t surprise me with Marmite-infused foodstuffs. In exchange, I try not to complain whenever I can smell that the jar is open.
Her husband enjoys Marmite too. Sometimes she makes Marmite whirls, pastry spirals with a sharp taste of Marmite, and I think she does so mostly because she knows that he enjoys them so much. I honestly don’t know how often he eats the stuff other than when she serves it: occasionally, I guess.
I’ve only recently kept Marmite in my cupboard: it’s a new addition to my food supply. Are my partner and husband responsible for this? No… well, only insofar as that they once reminded me that they keep Marmite in the house: “We keep our Marmite in this cupboard,” they said, and that was that. (sometimes they disagree on which shelf the Marmite belongs on, but more often than not they’re in agreement)
But now there’s Marmite in my cupboard. I’m not sure why I keep it there. I still don’t really like Marmite, although I think that with experience I’ve learned to appreciate what others see in its flavour, even if it doesn’t sit comfortably in me.
I look at the jar of Marmite in my cupboard. “Why are you there?” I ask it, “What am I supposed to do with you?” It doesn’t answer. It is, of course, only Marmite. I realise that I’m standing alone in the kitchen, talking to my shelf, and I feel a little stupid. But it’s a puzzle that I can’t solve: how did the Marmite even get into my cupboard? I certainly didn’t buy it. Did it… put itself there?
Time for some buttered toast.
This blog post is not about Marmite. My apology still stands.
There’s something that I just don’t understand about vegetarians. It’s something that I didn’t understand when I mercilessly teased them, and it’s something that I still don’t understand now that I am one:
You know the stuff I’m talking about: stuff made out of mycoprotein or TVP or soya that’s specifically designed to emulate real meat in flavour (sometimes effectively) and texture (rarely so). Browse the chilled and frozen aisles of your local supermarket for their “vegetarian” section and you’ll find meatfree (although rarely vegan) alternatives to chicken, turkey, beef and pork, presented here in descending order of how convincing they are as a substitute.
Let’s be clear here: it’s not that I don’t see the point in faux meat. It has a few clear benefits: for a start, it makes vegetarianism more-approachable to omnivores who are considering it for the first time. I’ve tried meat substitutes on a number of occasions over the last couple of decades, and they’ve really improved over that time: even a meat-lover like me can be (partially) placated by the selection of substitutes available.
If we’re really trying here to make “fake meats”, then why are we setting our targets in-line with the commonly-eaten “real meats”? Why stop at chicken and turkey when we might as well make dodo-flavoured nut roasts and Quorn slices? Sure, they’re extinct, so we’ll probably never have real dodo meat: but there’s no reason that the manufacturers of artificial meats can’t have a go. There are dozens of accounts of the preparation and consumption of dodos, so we’d surely be able to emulate their flavour at least as well as we do the meats that we already produce substitutes for.
Why stop there? We might as well have tins of unicorn meat, too, a meal already familiar to those of us who’ve played more than our fair share of NetHack. How about dragons, or griffins, or the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary? If we’re going to make it up as we go along when we make artificial bacon, we might as well make it up as we go along when we make basilisk-burgers and salamander-sausages, too.
There’s a reason, of course, that we don’t see these more-imaginative meat substitutes. Many of the most loyal fake-meat customers are the kinds of people who don’t like to think about the connection between, for example, “chicken” (the foodstuff), and “chicken” (the clucking bird). To be fair, a lot of meat-eaters don’t like to think about this either, but I get the impression that it’s more-common among vegetarians.
But seriously, though: I think they’re missing a trick, here. Who wouldn’t love to eat artificial pegasus-pâté?
To those of you that don’t know already, I have a confession to make. After years of picking holes in and finding flaws in their various ethical or other arguments and of mocking their dietary choices, I’ve become… a vegetarian.
For some, however, this change has been a gradual one, beginning with dropping beef from my diet in January, and other red meats in March (making me, technically-speaking, a lacto–ovo–melo–pollo–pescetarian, which is quite a mouthful). Poultry and fish disappeared from my diet in April and May.
For a brief stint, I tried to remove milk, too, aiming for ovo-vegetarianism, but it turns out that – while oatmilk is a perfectly reasonable alternative to the white stuff, and there are some great soya-based dairy-free deserts – there really are no adequate vegan substitutes for cheese… and I’m just not quite capable of coping without it.
Why, Dan? WHY?
My decision to adopt a vegetarian diet is based on a few different influences, but the principal one amongst these is one of environmentalism and sustainability. Over the last few years it’s become increasingly apparent to me that the Western Pattern Diet has a hugely damaging effect in the following areas:
Water usage sustainability – studies consistently show that it takes an order of magnitude more water to produce beef than wheat, rice, or maize, by weight of food produced. Other meats fare somewhat better, being only three or four times less water-efficient per unit of weight of food, but are still unacceptably water-expensive, to me. Milk and eggs are really quite water-efficient, being (respectively) about as efficient as soybeans/rice (depending on the region they’re grown in) and maize (note, of course, that beef and dairy cattle are almost always separate breeds, so the counter-argument that beef is a by-product of milk production or vice-versa is not valid).
Food scarcity – despite worldwide crop yields increasing faster than population growth, year on year, food security is becoming a growing issue owing to desertification of equatorial regions, increased uptake of the wasteful Western Pattern Diet, and an increase in the production of biofuels. A still-growing population, the depletion of fish stocks, and a rapid increase by developed nations in biofuel demands as oil supplies dwindle will only aggravate these issues. While a widely-adopted vegetarian/vegan diet would not in itself alleviate these problems (many of which are caused by political and economic constraints), it would help to ensure that it is possible to feed our booming population in the decades to come.
Overfishing – most of those reasons, of course, are only applicable to the farming of mammals and birds, but it’s hard to deny that there are huge problems with our consumption of fish, too. We’re already reaching the point where the consumption of many species of fish is ethically very dubious, and an increasing number of species are threatened with extinction. To ensure that fish stocks remain available for future generations, we need either extremely restrictive multinational agreements on fishing quotas (unlikely), or dramatic reductions in the demand for fish.
In short, I could probably best be described as an economic environmentalist vegetarian: I’m concerned primarily with making sure that our agricultural practices are sustainable for the benefit of humans, whether currently existing or future. More on that, little doubt, in the Frequently Anticipated Questions, below.
So… how’re you finding it?
Man, I miss bacon.
Giving up beef, it turned out, was reasonably easy. Ditto lamb. But bacon: that’s something I miss. When my co-worker Liz had a bacon, mushroom and cheese jacket potato at an office lunch the other week, I could have almost drowned in my own drool. I find myself envying those vegetarians I know who don’t eat meat because they don’t like it: those guys have it so easy…
Chicken’s been challenging, too, because it’s always been a go-to base ingredient for me, and I’ve had to learn to substitute other sources of protein into my diet. Thankfully, I’ve been in a strong position: many years of cooking for vegetarians, at one point or another, has given me a pretty good understanding of what’s good for what and a decent repertoire of already-vegetarian dishes.
I tried to give up milk and milk products after realising that the ecological impact of milk production – while significantly less than beef, for a variety reasons – is still higher than I’d like. Sadly, it turns out that milk turns up in just about everything, and cheese and cream are remarkably hard to do without. Maybe some day I’ll give that another go.
On the up-side, though, I’ve discovered a reasonable number of things that I didn’t think I liked, that actually I do… or at least, that are perfectly adequate substitutes for meat products.
I also routinely slip up on the likes of isinglass (used in the production of many of my favourite beers), and gelatine (which appears in a surprising number of things), and I try not to kick up a fuss where food is being prepared for several people, of which I’m only one, in a non-compatible way. For example, I tolerate the addition of Worcester sauce (containing anchovies) as an ingredient where a meal is being prepared for several people – it’d be incredibly inconvenient to require a separation of the food at this point during cooking, and I’m happy to compromise a little where the chef’s convenience collides with my ethics.
Frequently Anticipated Questions
In order that I jump the gun and answer you before you ask:
You consume products made using isinglass, gelatine, and occasional small quantities of fish sauce… you’re not a vegetarian at all!
I guess not. But the label’s for my convenience, not yours. I use the word vegetarian because it’s the simplest-common-denominator. If I ask in a restaurant “what have you got that’s vegetarian, or would be but that it contains trace amounts of isinglass, is made using gelatine, has Worcester sauce in, etc.” I’d never get my meal. Plus, the staff would be confused. To take a mathematical model: the set of things that better-vegetarians-than-I eat is completely contained within the set of things that I eat, and the two are very nearly the same, so to call myself a vegetarian is closer to a convenient rounding error than a lie.
Also; that wasn’t a question.
Do you expect to make a significant difference?
No. But, like many moral decisions, this isn’t about making a significant difference but about doing the right thing.
If there’s a riot in your town and an out-of-control crowd begins damaging and looting the shops in the high street, you might be tempted to go out and steal a nice laptop or television yourself, too. Regardless of whether or not you do so, you won’t make a significant difference – Currys will be just as empty in the morning whether you partake of a little ransacking or not. But that doesn’t change the fact that it would be wrong of you to rob them.
On the other hand, over the course of the rest of my life I’m liable, under ideal circumstances, to make a miniscule but measurable net decrease in the demand for meat products, which might, under ideal circumstances, have an impact on meat production, thereby coming some way to achieving my ideals. Moreover, I’d like to think that my dietary choices go some way to making those dietary choices more palatable (hah!) for others, which may influence others to reduce their meat consumption too.
If the aim is to reduce meat consumption, why not simply eat less meat?
Because I can’t trust everybody else to play along.
My gut feeling is that this would work (although I haven’t read any research to either confirm or deny that suspicion): that if we all just cut down our meat consumption so that we were eating meat only once every few weeks, that we’d have a huge impact on sustainability for the future. But I can’t make everybody do this. The best I can do is to do so myself.
However, if I go just a little bit further and stop eating meat altogether, then I also help to “make up” for other people’s meat-heavy diets.
For every animal you don’t eat, I’m going to eat two!
Well, I hope you enjoy it, because you’ll probably not live too long after consuming all the saturated fats of all of the animals I don’t eat.
You mentioned that the economic/ecological reasons were the principal cause for your vegetarianism. Are there other reasons, too, like the health and longevity benefits or the cost saving?
Yes. But they’re not the principal reasons.
Incidentally, removing meat from my diet made it far easier for me to lose the second of my three 10kg weight loss goals (as part of my ongoing effort to get down from 110kg to 80kg; I’m currently at about 89kg), because it’s far easier to avoid fats when you’re already avoiding meat.
How does JTA feel, being the only non-vegetarian in the house?
He’s not… so much. These days, Ruth eats a reasonable amount of a select few different varieties of meat, and Paul… well, I’m not sure I can keep up with our favourite pepperoni-eating vegetarian, but I think that right now he’s abstaining from meat entirely, but I’m not sure.
I have a hypothesis that perhaps the world can only tolerate a certain number of vegetarians at once, so as I became one, Ruth had to stop.
What about sustainably-farmed fish/synthetic meat/a survival situation/some other hypothetical situation?
I’m pragmatic, first and foremost, so if somebody wants to demonstrate that a particular farmed fish is environmentally sound, to my satisfaction, then great: it’s back on the menu! I’m not going out of my way to look for any, though, because I was never a big seafood fan to begin with! It’s not a high priority for me to make my life more complicated by coming up with some kind of complex list of what’s okay and what’s not, when the simple rule “no meat” seems to be perfectly workable.
Survival situation: sure, I’d chow down on whatever was available to stay alive. I’m not stupid!
And synthetic meat? If it was economically-sound, environmentally-friendly, safe, and tasty… sounds like a win to me. Fetch me a plate!
Isn’t this quite a turnaround for somebody who was once quoted on the BBC as describing vegetarianism as an “eating disorder”?
Yes, I suppose it is. I’ve always prided myself, though, on what I call “correctness over consistency”: that is, I’d like to think that I’m able to do the right thing, even where it means contradicting my previous attitudes or behaviour. I believe that we’d all do a lot better if people were less attached than they are, on average, to appearing consistent, especially when they’re faced with new information. There’s no shame in saying “I was wrong then,” so long as you can show that you’re learning.
But yes, I’ve been quite mean to many vegetarians for many years, as if I needed reminding. And so yes, this really is quite a turnaround. And I’m proud to be capable of that.
Last week, I was invited to a barbeque with Oxford’s Young Friends. Despite being neither a Friend (in their “capital-F” meaning of the word: a Quaker) nor young (at least; not so young as I was, whatever that means), I went along and showed off my barbecue skills. It also gave me an excuse to make use of my Firestick – a contemporary tinderbox – to generally feel butch and manly, perhaps in an effort to compensate for the other week.
Anyway: this is how I discovered halloumi and mushroom skewers. Which may now have become my favourite barbeque foodstuff. Wow. Maybe it’s just the lack of mushrooms in my diet (we operate a cooking rota on Earth, but Paul doesn’t like mushrooms so I usually only get them when he or I happen to be eating elsewhere), but these things are just about the most delicious thing that you can pull off hot coals.
Aside from meat, of course.
Update: we just had some at the Three Rings Code Week, and they were almost as delicious once again, despite being hampered by a biting wind, frozen mushrooms, and a dodgy barbeque.
Two years and one month ago to this day, I made an idiot out of myself by injuring myself while chasing cake. Back then, of course, I was working on the top floor of the Technium in Aberystwyth, and I was racing down the stairs of the fire escape in an attempt to get to left-over cake supplies before they were picked clean by the other scavengers in the office building. I tripped and fell, and sprained by ankle quite badly (I ended up on crutches for a few days).
Last week, history almost repeated itself, and I’m not even talking about my recent head injury. Again, I’m on the top floor of a building, and again, there’s a meeting room on the bottom floor (technically in the basement, but that only means there’s further to go). When I got the email, I rushed out of the door and down the stairwell, skipping over the stairs in threes and fours. Most of the Bodleian’s stairwells are uncarpeted wood, and the worn-down soles of my shoes skidded across them.
You’d think I’d have learned by now, but apparently I’m a little slow. Slow, except at running down stairs. As I rounded the corner of the last stairwell, my body turned to follow the route but my feet kept going in the same direction. They took flight, and for a moment I was suspended in the air, like a cartoon character before they realise their predicament and gravity takes hold. With a thud, I hit the ground.
Perhaps I’d learned something, though, because at least this time around I rolled. Back on my feet, I was still able to get to the meeting room and scoff the best of the fruit and sandwiches before anybody else arrived.
Is this really worthy of a blog post? Dan doesn’t have an accident is hardly remarkable (although perhaps a little more noteworthy than I’d like to admit, based on recent experience). Well, I thought so. And I’ve got a free lunch. And I didn’t have to hurt myself to do so. Which is probably for the best: based on the number of forms I had to fill out to get root access on the systems I administer, I don’t want to think how complicated the accident book must be…
Scientists investigating this week’s catastrophic lunchquake in the Dan’s Lunchbox region have released a statement today about the techtonic causes of the disaster.
“The upheaval event, which reached 5.9 on the Tupperware Scale, was probably caused by overenthusiastic cycling,” explained Dr. Pepper, Professor of Lunchtime Beverages at Tetrapak University.
“The breadospheres ‘float’ on soft, viscous eggmayolayers. Usually these are stable, but sometimes a lateral shift can result in entire breadosphere plates being displaced underneath one another.”
This is what happened earlier this week, when a breadospheric shift resulted in catastrophic sinkage in the left-side-of-lunchbox area, eggmayolayer “vents”, and an increase in the height of Apple Mountain.
No lives were lost during the disaster. However, two jammie dodgers were completely ruined.
Recent emissions in the ring of fire area is unrelated to this recent lunchquake, and are instead believed to be associated with excessive consumption of spicy food at lunchtimes.
This week included the Cinco de Mayo, the anniversary of the overwhelming (and surprising) Mexican victory over a superior French force at the Battle of Puebla, but used mostly as an excuse for Mexican expatriates and non-Mexicans to celebrate Mexican culture. And food. Mostly food.
To mark the occasion, one of my favourite restaurants, The Mission in Oxford, announced that they were giving away free beer to customers, and your next burrito free if you came along dressed as a Mexican. The Mission already wins my favour by making the best burritos I’ve ever tasted; giving me an excuse to dress up and get free beer and more burritos is just a bonus!
We’d had a long, long day already. After work, I’d mostly been doing administrative work with helpline Oxford Friend, with whom I’m a volunteer. Ruth and JTA had perhaps been even busier, as they’d spent the evening working on the Yes to AV telephone lines, making sure that everybody who had pledged to vote was out and doing so. We all really felt like we’d earned our burritos. So we donned our ponchos and (in my case) my sombrero, and went to The Mission.
I learned two things:
The Mission remains awesome. If you’re looking for food in Oxford, I highly recommend them. And no, they’re not paying me to say this.
It’s really, really hard to cycle while wearing a sombrero. Those things catch the wind like nothing else, and unless you enjoy riding along with what feels like a kite tied to your neck (and that’s if you’re lucky enough that the neck string catches you; otherwise your hat flies off into traffic and you have to run after it, yelling and screaming), cycling while wearing one is not a good combination.
We brought home a takeaway for Paul, too, which I suspect was his second burrito of the day. Seriously: nobody celebrates Cinco de Mayo like Paul does.