A breathless hot weekend and I tossed salads of bitter oranges and fennel, and ate ripe plums while chatting with friends and reading Ian Rankin’s gritty crime fiction Fleshmarket Close. A friend of mine is reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s foodie memoir Blood, Bones & Butter and calls me up to read extracts aloud. This is how Gabrielle found the space that would become award-winning restaurant Prune in New York:
And yet, even with the cockroaches crawling over bread baskets and sticky bottles of Pernod, I could see that the place had immense charm. There was an antique zinc bar with just four seats that had been salvaged from a bistro in France and shipped over. There were gorgeous antique mirrors everywhere, making the tiny space seem bigger than it was, and an old wooden banquette, and wrought- iron table bases. The floor, under all that sticky rat excreta, was laid with the exact same tiny hexagonal tiles that had been on the floor of a crêperie in Brittany where I had worked for a brief period in my early twenties. Even when gulping the comparatively fresh New York City air once back on the sidewalk, thinking I might have been poisoned in some way, I knew the space was exactly “me.” There were ten sturdy burners. Just two ovens. And fewer than thirty seats. I could cook by hand, from stove to table, never let a propane brûlée torch near a piece of food, and if it came down to it, I could just reach over the pass and deliver the food myself. I knew exactly what and how to cook in that kind of space, I knew exactly what kind of fork we should have, I knew right away how the menu should read and how it would look handwritten, and I knew immediately, even, what to call it.
Vision and courage where some of us might not have seen beyond the cockroaches and rat excreta. A friend of mine from university days, also a recovering alcoholic given that undeserved second chance, is opening a school for disabled children in Tanzania, undaunted by governmental bureaucracy, no electricity supply lines and regular flooding in the rainy season. Another friend is taking a deep breath and coming out gay at 66 years of age. Not exactly news to many of us, but we all pretend to be astonished and delighted for him. What is astonishing is that he recovered from 45 years of addiction to tranquillizers and reclaimed what was left of a truly unlived and dormant existence.
And I have discovered a new favourite food blog: eat and dust by expat Scotswoman Pamela Timms in Old Delhi, featuring street food and British Indian cooking classics and other yummy unexpected dishes. In formerly British East Africa and Zimbabwe I grew up surrounded by retired ex-India colonels and the relicts who talked about tiffin, ate kedgeree for breakfast and gave me copies of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories for my birthday. An anachronistic generation but the food lives on.
Sober living rocks. Ordinary or adventurous lifestyles, the choice is ours, but the quality of a life lived without waste or shame makes all the difference.