Effie: Food, Inglorious Food!

Eating’s my main hobby.” Maeve paused to lick the length of her cigarette. “Well, and smoking.”

I’ve known Maeve for years now. She realised we’d be friends either when I did a duck impression, or when I went from stern to silly “just like the rest of us” at the prospect of my then boyfriend turning up. I realised how deeply and truly we were friends when she nursed me through my catastrophic, heart rending breakup with that boyfriend. She fed me red wine and cannoli (not at the same time) and said “I know pet, I know” a lot and wisely.

She gave a quasi-Gallic shrug, and lit up.
And reading. Well that’s three hobbies, but food’s the main one, y’know?”

It’s something I’ve absorbed, like Maeve absorbed the habit from another friend of running the tip of her tongue along a cigarette before she lights it. I don’t mean the everyday hedonism of enjoying food, I already had that. I just took, and repeated, the perfect distillation and articulation of our relationship with food. Food is my hobby. Food and drink are my hobbies.

Something else Maeve gave me was her copy of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, but only after I promised to take it seriously.
Effie, I don’t want to give this to you, because if I do I’ll want you to read it, take it seriously and become a vegetarian.”
I promised to take it seriously, but not that I would become a vegetarian. Not that.

I was not prepared for what that book told me, from how far removed the production of meat is from farming. I grew up in the country. I know farms to be made up of hillsides dotted with cows and sheep, of flatter land populated by pigs, of lambing sheds, milking parlours, and barns for the coldest weather. I know poultry as strutting cockerels; geese which chase you, and if they get close hiss and snap at you; chickens which raise each gnarly taloned foot carefully up, like they’re slightly disgusted, before gently placing it back on the ground.

But the farms in that book are factories. They are indoor, stifling, cruel spaces and bear no relation to the farms of my memory, or now it would seem, imagination.

I took it seriously and it scared the self-assuredness out of me. It scared me so that I became glad of the strict European Union regulations on raising and slaughtering animals. It scared me so I realised that even those were not enough for me, that the absence of cruelty was not going to be enough for me, that I wanted the animals I ate to have lived well. Meat that used to be free roaming, content animals is easy enough to find in the UK, and at only a slight increase in price. I’d often been accidentally vegetarian before (due to my obsession with chickpeas, especially chickpea-on-chickpea action – falafel and hummus!), so eating meat slightly less often and paying slightly more was not much of a lifestyle change.

But America is another kettle of fish. Or string of sausages. Or cut of beef. Or something.

And then there are the genetically modified fruit, vegetables, grains and apparently every other thing; the beautiful, shiny, brightly coloured, unperishable, flavourless ranks of regimented perfection which we encountered on our first visit to Vons, which according to the receipt we got has been “proudly serving California since 1906”.

We did a small grocery shop and bought a perfectly spherical, organic onion. It cost $1.79, which we agreed was a lot, too much really, for an onion, but there is very little middle ground between genetically modified and organic. We also bought some blue cheese. We were well versed on how awful and synthetic American cheese was meant to be, alarmingly orange and slimy, and we could see colossal, rectangular towers of the stuff on the deli counter, but this blue cheese was in small pieces, individually packaged and looked cheese-textured, not rubbery. We shopped carefully, wide eyed at the cost of what we thought of as basic ingredients, and went home to assemble a meal.

Like I said, food is my hobby, and like only an enthusiast and lifelong fan can be, I felt sorely let down by this latest edition.

The cheese, oh dear God, the cheese. The blue cheese, which is by definition one of the most delightfully offensive cheeses, was disconcertingly bland, with the wet texture of feta. The tomatoes were so offensively salty that Adi (who has been known to lick salt from the palm of his hand – I know, I’m a lucky gal) grimaced slightly and asked how much salt I’d added, which was none. The only saving grace was that the onion was so large that it was big enough to use in two further meals later in the week. Overall I was left grateful that Adi’s salary would eventually allow us to buy organic food, but so deeply sad that I would have to become fully vegetarian as well as giving up food which actually tasted of anything. Despondency engulfed me, this wasn’t how people talked about California, about LA, where peopled revelled in buying ethically sourced products and mainlined organic smoothies.

And then, on our first Wednesday morning, we walked down Arizona towards the Palisades, and at 4th street walked right into Santa Monica Farmers Market. It was, it is, a cornucopia of organic, farm-fresh, ethically raised and locally grown fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, flowers and herbs. Piles of broccoli, beets, brussel sprouts and sweet potatoes; mounds of fennel, carrots, and onions; all in abundance, riotously colourful, joyfully dirty and asymmetrical. There’s a farmer who sells grass fed, outdoor reared beef; another who sells free range chickens, but only in the spring and summer; a pig farmer who raises Berkshires which he feeds on barley and seaweed and keeps outdoors. These people are proud of the food they produce, and their prices are similar to and often cheaper than those at the supermarket. We walked home, our odd collection of purchases clasped tightly, wishing we’d known about the market and had come prepared with shopping bags, eager to try the food, reassuring ourselves that the market would be back again on Saturday, and all subsequent Wednesdays and Saturdays.

There are no sufficient words to describe the deep joy of eating such good food. It’s a feeling of redemption, an explosion of deep and complex flavours. It’s the satisfaction of being full. Full of food produced on recognisable farms by people who care not only about making a profit, but making it well. We ate sausages spiced with fennel seeds and chilli peppers. I baked them in the oven with tiny new potatoes and garlic cloves. I made a salad to cut through the velvety rich pork fat using crunchy sweet fennel, orange segments bursting with juice, salty olives, and a tiny bit of fiery chilli pepper.

After dinner we ordered a push-along shopping trolley online, not dissimilar from the one my mother had proudly dubbed the Mean Green Shopping Machine, and which we’d all roundly ridiculed her for buying. No more precarious juggling of armfuls of food for me. And no more disappointing groceries either.

Effie: Santa Monica, CA

You should understand, before I start going on about the unsurprisingly lovely climate of Los Angeles*, or rather of Santa Monica, that it’s The New Year. Not only is it The New Year, but we were enjoying the first few days of The New Year in the northern reaches of the east midlands, so think generally grey and cold. Not Canada cold, but good n cold, minus two to plus five Celsius.

We essentially walked out of the depths of winter, sat in a cold tube of farts for ten hours (oh the glamour of air travel) and stepped out into (by UK standards) a balmy summer evening. It’s like time travel, with some interesting cultural differences thrown in for good measure.

The first thing we noticed, uncommonly wide-awake and head-achingly tired at seven in the morning, was the sky. Yes, it’s blue. A happy blue. The perfect foil for the golden sunlight which warms everything so it glows with self-satisfied well-being.

The second thing we noticed was that warmth, walking in the sunshine in our shirtsleeves in January. It’s not oppressive though, maybe because it’s apparently (we were told a number of times) without humidity. As a sweaty lady I appreciate this. Sure, I sweat in dry heat from a gentle stroll, but humidity is the enemy, making me seemingly melt before simultaneously concerned and disgusted passers-by.

The third thing we noticed was the ocean. Adi pointed to it, “See there Effie? Where the buildings stop and there are palm trees?” I did see, and with every step closer to the gap in the buildings I felt a swelling wave of joy. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I bloody love the sea. It’s probably from those car journeys to summer holidays in sea-locked Britain. These inevitably culminated in the game where the winner was the first one to see the sea, and shout “I can see the sea!” shortly followed by a chorus of “Oh, yes! I can see the sea too!” and then a period of quiet contemplation where everyone (except the driver) just looked at the sea with a look of gormless contentment on their faces.

I used to live in a city by the sea in the south of Italy. Santa Monica is known as ‘the city by the sea’. The city in Italy was surrounded by hills and mountains and had a beautiful lungomare or promenade, with palm trees, trees with gnarled roots, benches and viewing platforms, and underneath, connected by steps, the beach and the beach path. Santa Monica also has a raised promenade, called the Palisades, with a park of sorts made up of palms, gnarled-rooted trees, benches, and viewing platforms from which you can see the surrounding hills and the beach and beach path. Only here the scale of it is slightly (hugely) grander, and the beach path is down some steps, then over a bridge which crosses the Pacific Coastal Highway. I’d always felt at home in that city in the south of Italy, and taken quiet contentment from walking, jogging and gaping in awe along the lungomare. I was deeply sad when I realised my time there had run its course and I should move on, so to be standing in a place which offers so much more opportunity for me (I hope) professionally, with the man I love, and to feel the same contentment was very special. Although it could just be the jet lag and its bone deep tiredness.

The fourth thing we noticed was the homeless population. Well, the fourth thing we noticed was a man, dressed in a red T-shirt, gold chain around his neck, anorak tied around his waist, standing on the corner of Ocean and Broadway. He had a bag wedged between his feet, his hands deep in his trouser pockets, and his chin tilted skywards as he let forth a stream of ululating, incomprehensible lamentations, the sound of which followed us up Broadway to the Third Street Promenade. The fact that there is a sizable homeless population revealed itself as we drank American strength (horribly weak) coffee and wandered further around the neighbourhood: the man we had seen on the steps down to the bridge, staring wistfully out to sea, muttering gently to himself, had just woken up from his sleeping bag bench bed, and was homeless; the beautiful, stoic, middle-aged woman who had been slowly pushing her laden shopping trolley, grasping her many layers of cardigan about her, was homeless; the man still ensconced on his bench-sleeping bag throne in the middle of the promenade outside the generic coffee house where we’d got our coffee, and who shouted and railed against the abhorrent music whining from the café’s speakers, was homeless; and the little old lady, endlessly hacking into a free napkin trying to dislodge some illusive scrap in her throat, was homeless. Apparently the scale of this is due to Santa Monica traditionally being very liberal (and this in a state renowned for being liberal), and having been subject in its entirety to rent control. This meant that people with lower incomes were able to continue living in their rent-controlled apartments while around them the neighbourhood gentrified. When rents were deregulated many apartments were no longer subject to rent control and people who were able to live here were gradually pushed out.

The fifth thing we noticed were the fire trucks. As a child I’d played with tiny American vehicles which were heavily chromed and shiny, rolling them along countertops, down table legs and over rugs gripped tightly in my chubby little fists. They were different from the serious, life-size, red, British fire engines I occasionally saw on the TV, or when the firemen came to visit the school fete. Standing, post-coffee, sweating gently in a glass-fronted, airless phone shop we watched three all-American fire trucks wail by. They looked odd, blown up to full size with no hand guiding them along. The same inordinate amount of spotless chrome and white and red paint shone in the sun, and they wailed in a very un-British way. As if they weren’t screaming loudly and proudly enough that they were good and clean and American, each truck was topped with an American flag which trailed and snapped frantically behind. Later on we walked past Santa Monica Fire Department Headquarters. All three of the bays were open, the fronts of the trucks looking out onto the street, about twenty uniformed fire officers stood in line, smiling proudly at a camera held by a legging-ed woman, while another directed them take a step here and tilt a chin there.

At the end of our first day, we’d had coffee, bought groceries, set ourselves up with mobile phones and orientated ourselves in our new, immediate surroundings. I was left with a familiar feeling of the potential of a place, which is also different every time. Getting to know Santa Monica and Los Angeles; getting to know where to buy coffee which isn’t piss weak, mass produced and served with a tired smile; getting used to the sound of sirens and look of fire trucks; getting used to such a stable and present homeless population; getting used to seeing the sea every day; getting used to putting sunscreen on in the morning, because it is going to be sunny.

Sitting on the roof, watching the sun go down, Adi said “I know this feeling will wear off, like, we’ll get used to it, but just look at where we are.”
“It won’t,” I replied. “You’ll notice it less frequently, and you’ll have to do mundane shit, and you’ll notice things which piss you off about life here, but you’ll like that you get to be annoyed by them, that you’re not a tourist. And then you’ll be sitting with a group of friends, your LA friends, friends you’ll have made here, and you’ll be in a restaurant by the ocean, and you’ll look at yourself and the life you’ve established and the fact that you’re under a palm tree, drinking a beer and it’s a normal fucking Friday, that you’re not on holiday, and you’ll feel the same joyful, disbelieving smugness you feel now.”

Adi sipped his beer, unsure if he was convinced. I sipped mine, completely certain.

 

 

*Los Angeles has five distinct climates: Coast, City, Valley, Desert, Mountain.

Effie: Flight and Fight(ing) Jet Lag

After being kia ora-ed and welcomed aboard our Heathrow – LAX Air New Zealand flight, a sufficient quantity of time had passed for Adi and me to exchange worried glances and mutterings about how long it would be before we could have a drink. Service, it was announced, would begin mercifully soon afterwards, and we heard the approach of the trolley, its attendants, and their offerings of a merlot-cab blend, a pinot noir, a chardonnay or a sauvignon blanc.

“Would you like some wine, sir?”

I looked at the cabin attendant and smiled. I smiled because I have ‘boy band hair’ circa 2010 – think ‘swept over forehead at a rakish yet somewhat vulnerable angle’. Also because I was wearing a black crew neck T-shirt with a plaid shirt open over it, and was sans make-up or jewellery. I smiled because among the sea of faces and torsos the attendants were politely trying to booze-up and send off to the land of nod, at a glance, I looked very much like a chap. I smiled because gender is a social construct linked to gender norms and expectations and I quite like to subvert these in my own small way, day to day, just by living my life in the way that makes me happy – for ‘happy’, read ‘comfortable’.

“Yes, merlot-cab, please” I said, a fraction of a second before the attendant sputtered “I’m sorry, madam!” with embarrassment and tried to placate my non-existent ire. I waved away the discomfiture and settled in properly to my first ever transatlantic flight.

The flight was long: two episodes of Family Guy; a trashy film, Bad Moms; an excellent film, Goodfellas, which Adi hadn’t seen before (I know, the horror); a little sleep; and a silly film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople long. Before we flew into the dark, I saw the picture-perfect icy flats and snowy mountains of Canada and felt the scale of the continent to which we were moving unfold beneath me, and I was a little awestruck. By the time the cabin crew were instructed to prepare for landing, the lights of Los Angeles were just beyond the horizon.

It is vast, bright, even from the air you feel its brash dirt and wonderful danger. I never liked the idea of LA that was sold to me. The cheap-looking couture, shiny, expensive, aspirational idea. The clean-living, ersatz, regimented white teeth, fake smile idea. Then I read that women-loving misogynist’s Hank Chinaski’s life in dirty, hard drinking, sun-soaked, piss-stinking LA, and I fell in love (or lust) with the idea of it. Snakes of red and white traffic slithered slowly across the twinkling grid, the black voids of hills and clouds smothering whole sections of the lightscape.

Walking out of LAX, the cool evening air touched our tired faces. The sound and bustle, the emotionless announcements, constantly moving cars, buses, taxis, shouting voices, trundling suitcases were all straight out of Airplane!. Adi asked me what my first impression was, but other than the bumpy-fronted buses, it could have been any airport. The impersonality faded as our taxi sped along the freeway. We were still looking down into the lights, but LA was so much closer, its smells and sounds flowing in through the open windows; fast food, sweet and tangy; billboards, brightly lit and out of context; road signs for movie and TV series locations, but for real; Sacramento writ large above our heads, a place I’ve heard said many times by my friend, who lives there, now just a (long) drive away; and somewhere in the distance the Pacific ocean. As the meter ticked up into the high 40’s we finally descended to street level, Santa Monica. Here the palm trees towered above us and the apartment blocks above them, and we finally came to a stop on 7th Street. We’d explore the next day, look at the ocean, orient ourselves, but for now a shower and sleep were all I wanted.

I said this was my first ever transatlantic flight. This was – is – also my first ever jet lag. I was apprehensive, I’d heard such horror stories, but as someone who enjoys getting gently pissed of an evening it’s no worse than a mild hangover. Except in its tenacity. A hangover you know (except in exceptional circumstances, like when my dear friend Jenny got married and I was a terribly behaved bridesmaid) will go if you just get through the day and then get a good night’s sleep. Jet lag stays with you (like my hangover when my dear friend Jenny got married – two and a half days it lasted) making you drink copious quantities of water and caffeinated libations, eat far more than is strictly necessary and simply long to be horizontal. I’m still battling, but LA’s out there, the seething, bustling, dirty, great mass of it, and I can’t wait to see, smell, taste and experience all (well, not all) of it that I can.

Effie: A Shambolic Story

“You should write about that,” my mother said, peering over her varifocals at me.

“Really? In a blog about moving to LA? But it doesn’t have anything to do with LA, or moving.”
(I’m moving to Los Angeles by the way, soon. Not now, soon.)

“No, but it’s about you. Paints a picture of what you’re like.”

“It’s a shambolic story. I’m shambolic in it.”

“Well, yes.”

 

Mothers, what? Or my mother. But maybe she’s right. This story is a good introduction to me, my situation. It involves food, being a bit sweaty, unemployment, mild self-loathing; all the fun of being generally a bit rubbish at being 30 and having my shit together.

I’d been for a job interview. I’d been for a job interview after five weeks of unemployment skulking around this East Midlands city, famed for being ‘just the right size’. Five weeks of unemployment, during the course of which I’d had one particularly uplifting conversation with the director of a local school. She told me that the market in my brand of teaching had:

Completely dried up; no students. It’s a visa thing of course, and #Brexit (she didn’t say the hashtag) probably won’t help. We’ve had to let members of staff go we’ve had on our books for years.”

“Well, do you know of anywhere else I could try?”

“No – the market’s dead, like I said. But good luck!”

“Sure, yeah. Thanks for being so honest!”

Eight years of working hard, accruing experience; getting on with colleagues, students and admin staff; making sure my references were good; spending time, money and effort studying, reading and writing my way to an MA so I could get better paid, more permanent work, had led to this. Excellent.

So, when I finally got called to an interview for a teaching job, it mattered not a jot that the school it was in looked a touch run down, to put it politely. I mean it wasn’t stabby, but it had bars on all of the windows; forbidding dark brown, drizzle soaked bricks; aggressively deep coloured paint daubed on every internal wall, none of it matching; and dust on every surface which was just out of reach. It was also early November, and technically ‘winter’, so the heating was on full blast, each lumpily glossed cast iron radiator pumping out insane amounts of heat, given that it was about 12°C outside. Which is where the sweat comes in.

The job advert had been delightfully vague, asking for an ‘ESOL Tutor’, no mention of hours, permanence, or pay. As I tried to dab away my recently sprung up sweat moustache without wiping off my foundation, I learnt that it was not that many hours, for not that long, for not much money – half my previous salary in fact. But I answered each questions with relative ease (thanks to the experience and study) and left the impression that ‘why wouldn’t I be offered the job?

As it was a bright, mild (as I mentioned), lovely day, I decided to forgo the bus and saunter down into town, in my smart interview clothes, make up on (for once), on the sunny side of the street. It was quietly joyful, and I decided to prolong that quiet joy by bobbing into a café for a spot of lunch.

The café is a favourite of mine. Everything’s just unaccountable lovely. The staff are friendly and always seem to approve of your order, as if it’s simply so clever of you to have chosen just the right thing. The food is both wholesome and indulgent: hearty soups bursting with vegetables; fluffy cakes dripping with fruit and nuts and butter icing you know is healthy despite all the butter and sugar, because it just has to be from happy cows, or something; strong, aromatic coffee; rustic bread; and salads with all the extra ingredients which make them an actual meal. On this particular day, at lunchtime, it was packed (I know, I was shocked too), so I hopped up onto one of the high stools by the bar-like tables which run along both side walls. The shop front was steamed up from the involved, earnest conversations of the other customers. I felt content, in my smart clothes, surrounded by these office sorts, shoppers and students, and I ordered a suitably wholesome bowl of pea soup to go with my optimistically slightly smug mood.

While slurping my soup delicately, I thought a bit more about my current situation and how the teaching job would fit into things. It was maternity cover and would start in December – so another month with no money being earnt, and term ended in mid-December – so not even a full month’s work before Christmas or I’d most likely have to hand my notice in. But some money is better than no money, surely.

I glanced at my phone and noticed that the seam running up the side of my dress looked odd. It was a shirt dress, with splits up the sides. One side was more split than it should have been, showing more of my tight-ed thigh and *cough* petticoat (I know) than would be considered ideal in an interview, or when sitting on a high stool, trying to look smart in a busy city centre café. I groaned inwardly at how slapdash I must have looked, sweaty and raggedy clothed. Unfortunately, my inward groan became outward as the pea soup in my mouth was forced through my nose and down my face as I sneezed, loudly.

The café didn’t suddenly go quiet, nor did every pair of bespectacled eyes turn to face me in some sort of operatic horror. But high on my wobbly bar stool I felt a couple of eyebrows raise and jumpers twitch,  I felt the oppression sitting there with pea soup coming out of my nose, dress ripped, shambolic and drawing attention to myself, the cardinal sin in the UK I inhabit.

Imagine that discomfited shambles dropped into the polished, professional, shiny, loud and proud, environs of more southerly California. It might be liberating, it might cause mortification, whichever, or wherever in between, I’m going to have plenty of time to find out.

The mind boggles.