Food and the middle class

Boulder Beer

When I was a nipper, my parents had the good sense to utilise my siblings and I as kitchen hands. My Da’ was a chef, back in the day when culinary training meant being taught to cook like the French. He was a pastry king, a seafood creative, and a master of invention. Essentially though, he was also a fisherman, and he knew that the best way to eat crayfish was on a fire on the beach, an hour after you caught it. No fooking about. And us kids learnt to appreciate how simple it could be to craft tasty food.

Food was pretty simple when I was growing up. There were two varieties of baked beans, one type of pasta, and the butcher gave you a free sausage piece of luncheon (sausage meat) when your Mum popped in to pick up lamb chops. When my olds were low on cash it was inventive ways with mincemeat, and we wouldn’t get fish and chips on a Friday night. Which as an eight year old meant the world had tipped on its axis. Whether food was bad for you was determined by whether it was a Brussels sprout (my opinion) or whether it was made of sugar (my Mum’s opinion thanks to my dentist). Simple.

As the years have charged on past me, I’ve found a number of food attitudes to rant at.

Ooh, sidetrack, if you ever feel you need to work in a great ranting environment, try working in a kitchen. When I spent time learning to bake in Cambridge I gained access to the “chef’s rant”. These were an early morning special, fuelled by triple lattes, a wall of knives and kick starting the day with an hour of heavy metal. Chris (hilarious lanky dreadlocked Essex hero) and Lownes (talented ginger Welsh head chef) were frequently on fine, vocal, spatula-wielding form. It was like a one-sided talkback radio version of karaoke.

Anyway, there’s one area that I’d like to set up a soap box for today, the deification of foodstuffs, aka what the feck’s the deal with Sea Salt Tastings? Olive oil debates, hummus festivals, coffee beans harvested from a toddycat’s faeces…I searched google for “exclusive sea salts” and found a forum where someone had posted a question titled “Potentially embarrassing question: Kosher salt vs Sea salt”. Embarrassing? Gak, what a petrifying potential social faux pas! There was me getting all anxious about whether my writing might be a positive way to help build understanding for the visually impaired. I realise now I should have been stressing about whether I should pickle my prosthetic-limb-harvested South East Nigerian kumquat with aged, long handle raked black lava Cypriot sea salt. And the social ramifications if a dinner guest called me up on it.

My rally against middle class angst began when I was in my twenties. At this time my Ma and Pa made a decision to set up a vineyard in a sunny chunk of New Zealand known as Marlborough. It is important to note at this point, that they’d raised my brother, sister and I in a wee suburb in Wellington called Newlands, and that as a results we were bogans. For those not familiar with the term, it indicates that we were all about Metallica, dressing from black wardrobes, and drinking bourbon. Or “bogan and coke”. But I’m proud to tell you that we were nothing if not flexible in our approach to new taste sensations. Or free piss. Our parents shift into wine making circles meant we understood what was involved in crafting bottles of Sauvignon Bonk, and just as importantly we knew that in the end it was just piss. After all the pontificating, swirling, deep snorts and staring at the ceiling (and that’s just the inelegant old school process of removal the cork), it was designed to get us drunk. I thought I’d undone the mystery behind the world’s only serious middle class focus point for consumption snobbery. How naive I was. Somehow the wealthy masses have managed to push this ridiculous social ranking scheme into whole new realms, even lowly condiments. And beer. Gulp.

And here I will outline my own near-miss, my almost-tumble into an obsession with a hand crafted product. For many years, beer was the drink of the hard workers who built my tiny home nation. It was a brilliant social equaliser, barristers drank next to labourers, bankers with harlots (no change there, then). The beers were dull, but they were cheap. But things changed. Just over two years ago I headed back to New Zealand from Cambridge, England, a cider drinking, real ale swilling paradise. I was heading back via the beer halls of Oktoberfest, and I feared the taste-free homogenised beer scene I would be returning to. But Lo! A scattering of people had woken up and smelt the hops. America’s successful rejuvenation of small batch brewing had inspired a new generation of beer lovers in Aotearoa. I dove into Earl Grey Tea beers, chilli beers, and Hop Zombies. I was impressed by the small community feel of the brewing community, most growing beer producers were constantly helping each other get established rather than protecting their fledgling business’. It was a cute, collaborative cottage industry. But the beer prices crept ever upward, and between tiny kiwi “pints” I started to notice a snobbery that many denied, but few actually avoided. A train-spotterish obsession with hop varieties, a curl of the lip at anyone enjoying a cold commercial lager, and far too many beards. Shudder. And hipsters. One bar in particular, Hashigo Zake, was like a dungeon of pseudo elitists, and it represented so much that I had always rallied against. I broke. It. Is. Just. Beer. It was a close call. I don’t have the stomach, nor the budget, for snobbery.

So here’s a call to all those of you with lots of free time, and only first world worries and concerns. Maybe it is time to start putting a chunk of that time and a wad of cash into setting up a community garden, or running classes teaching people to cook healthy meals on a budget. Surely more rewarding than blood pressure raising arguments with dinner guests over the origin of the hand stroked ginger in your “deconstructed Moscow Mule”.

I still love a good beer though…

 
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One month in America (the United States of)

"Freedom is, the only way yeeaaaah..."
“Freedom is, the only way yeeaaaah…”

One of the things I enjoyed most about living in the UK is regionality. I loved that I could spend Friday evening interpreting Liverpudlian accents, and then on Saturday head to a fitba (soccer) match just 45 minutes away, and have to learn a whole new dialect from drunk Mancunians. And it is so much more than just catch phrases and football songs. Attitudes towards homosexuality, the monarchy and farming are all influenced by where you first learnt to kick a ball. I always put this down to a relatively long history, I assumed that it was thousands of years of inventing slang and crafting hot puddings that led to such stark cultural differences. So bugger me blind if I wasn’t surprised to discover a similar situation here in the U.S. Ok, I have to be drive a little further, maybe six or seven hours, but there are accent shifts, cowboy hat frequencies and the delicious sub genre favourite pies to consider. In shifting your location a sub(marine sandwich) might become a hoagie, a hero, or a po’boy. Or even a muffalotto (yay Birmingham, Alabama!) You might drink a Coke with this in Texas, but in New York it’d be a pop, and a soda in Colorado. As far as I can tell, the vast distances between places to live, have resulted in a faster development of differences. Which makes it so much more entertaining on road trips, discovering toasted marshmallow milkshakes in one state, then promotion of rodeo heroes to rock star status in the next. When you add these quirks to the monumental landscape changes, and an abundance of wildlife (which changes with state lines too) how can you not be enchanted? Or at least hugely entertained.

South Dakota snacks...
South Dakota snacks…

Whilst in South Dakota over the past week, we stayed in a small town called Deadwood. I’ve never seen the apparently very violent TV series, but mention of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane was enough to pique my interest. We set up camp at a motel on the edge of town, which I was delighted to see had an industrial ice machine for guests. I remember this bizarre detail from films of road trips across the West, it seems no night in a budget motel is complete without an emergency kidney removal in a chilled bathtub. As I contemplated a home-made slushy, we noted a flyer advising that a public gun fight was due to start at 6:00pm. Colour me excited! A fast trot took us to the slowly filling sidewalks (not footpaths), and we took a squat on the pavement amongst the burgeoning crowds. We were soon twitching at gunfire, grimacing at over-acting, and taking part in the trial of Jack McCall, cowardly assassin of Wild Bill. There was country music, there were gags, and there were thick layers of American cheese. But as a gent I spoke to yesterday put it, America is good at corny. And he emphasised the GOOD. And they are, I can’t imagine the re-enactment of Wild Bill’s death in a crowded saloon bar being done quite as well, yet ever so slightly badly, anywhere else. So now I want to check out medieval times, before I head over to Scotland for a rollicking highland games…

Serious hat envy
Serious hat envy

One disturbing revelation on the road, has been my growing appreciate for the culture of tipping. Like all hard-working, poorly served kiwis, the idea of people expecting a tip bewildered me. Until I experienced the results. Considerably cheaper meals helped aid the transition, but from day two I’ve happily been adding an extra 20% on top of my buffalo burger bill. Because in return for this socialised tax you get a dose of (sometimes genuine) positivity. Being greeted with a grin, and then actively engaged with just enhances my good mood, no matter the reasons for the conviviality. I get a huge menu selection, a meal to last all day, and a chat with the waitress (server…) about whether key lime pie lived up to my expectations. Oh, and “cowboy coffee”. Eek, how easily smiles can soften my stoney heart!

Marshmallow milkshakes. So so wrong. But just a little bit right...
Marshmallow milkshakes. So so wrong. But just a little bit right…

In between bursts of travel along the interstate highways, I’ve been spending a week at a time back in Boulder. This gives me time to get to grips with all I’ve seen, and to write of it, and try to draw conclusions from my experiences. Of course it’s not seven days huddling over my laptop in a library. I’m getting to attend birthday parties, meals and gigs with all sorts of people, and to share my insights, and build on them with each engagement. One thing I’ve noticed on these occasions is that many people seem to possess a more natural ability to offer a compliment, and indeed to accept one. I’ve seen this numerous times, and although occasionally there are obvious motivations, in general it just seems to be a selfless kindness. And I’m warming to it. I’ve spent a few years growing my inner cynic, thanks to spending long periods of time dwelling on the wrongs I see being done in the world. And time in England (with the help of witty comedic heroes like Frankie Boyle and David Mitchell) helped craft a bitter (with a twist of witty) edge to my writing. And I guess at times, my personality. So now I’m feeling somewhat invigorated for getting a chance to tell someone they look stunning, without them waiting for a punchline, or assuming I’m envisioning them manacled to a wall in a nurses uniform.

Dan helps me find something new to wear in Denver
Dan helps me find something new to wear in Denver

So sunny days, gun slinging, chocolate and peanut butter pie, I’m hooked. As an eye-opening, expectation twisting adventure, the US is brilliant, but it’s the depth of cultural experience that is proving my greatest thrill. I’m looking forward to countering cowboy experiences with visits to native American reservations, tasting even better tequila, and (weirdly) further rattlesnake encounters. But already this trip has changed my opinions, inspired dozens of writing ideas, and exceeded my expectations. Magic.

Burro

On drawing all the grins we can from life

Cowboy

I guess not being in my thirties any more, I’ve begun spending time looking at how I can make what remains of my time on this colourful wee planet as “good” a time as possible. Good. Positive. Not complicated terms, not particularly poetic, but they’re the best expression for what I mean. I want to continue to chuckle, guffaw and grin, I want those who I enjoy spending time with to draw positivity from me, and I want to find someone I admire and respect to share my experiences.

I’ve spoken (typed) before about understanding what makes me “happy”, but I also think it’s important to draw joy from as many aspects of life as possible. I also believe I need to avoid counteracting this with too much stress about the past or the future. Life throws enough challenging events at us independent of our own fears and regrets. We don’t need to compound these with our own neuroses.

Some time ago I started with minimising the negatives. A good friend and probation officer (not mine…) once convinced me that there’s no point in having regrets. She explained that every choice we make, everything we’ve undergone, made us who we are today. She was able to help me cull my most significant regrets, or at least turn in them into something I could handle. I find that remorse keep me locked to the past, they’re a result of placing too much weight on a choice I once made, and failing to take what I’ve learnt and move on. I was (slightly) younger when this information was imparted, I was to a degree an idealist, and I had someone I cared for and shared with, that I thought would be with me forever. But over the years since then, particularly after discussing this with others, I’ve realised that this approach is far simpler if you’re happy with who you are, right now. If you’re convinced you’re in a shit place, and that you’ve put yourself there through your choices, this bouncy, positive ideal is a bit of a struggle. Maybe even offensive. So maybe we also need to look at ways to avoid collecting the regrets in the first place.

Each day we’re faced with choices. From whether to tell our second-best-friend that we believe their soon-to-be love bride is a terrifying, soul leaching mistake, to assessing whether flip-flops are appropriate footwear in Rattlesnake Canyon. Some of these decisions deserve serious consideration, but too often I’ve dumped too much energy on the simplest, most inconsequential decisions. How many online reviews do I read, agonising over which travel camera to buy? It’s a camera, bruv, not a double mastectomy. Rather than sweating the smaller stuff, I’ve realised I should be dedicating more time to the other end of my choices, the results. If I don’t learn from my choices, I’m Homer Simpson without Lisa or Marge. If I don’t pay attention to the outcomes, I’m unlikely to learn from the greatest tutor of all, experience. But just as importantly, if I examine the entrails of my choices, I can usually find something positive or constructive in even the worst seeming outcome. If I fail to pay attention, and determine only that I made a “wrong” choice, I miss the chance to grow from the experience. This was hugely important in moving beyond my last relationship, and something I failed to do when my marriage went tits up. And the only thing I readily think of when I consider my regret status, is that painful separation from my once wife, Claire. At least today.

The most recent area I’ve been considering, is how I might use my competencies in one area of my life, to improve another. Specifically, harnessing my ability to derive satisfaction from my work, whether it is chainsaw sculpting or working for the most evil Irish bar owner in Britain, in order to improve the areas in which I tend to flail. Like finding someone who wants to share the incredible experiences I’m going to continue to lift from life.

While I was picking up a range of coffee-making, dish cleaning and scone baking skills in Michaelhouse Cafe, I had an affable, passionate manager, Dean. He steered me from lagers towards real ales, and he introduced me to the idea of finding a whiskey that works for me. You might be thinking “top bloke, job done”, but he had one more trick up his occasionally philosophical sleeve. When I left the kitchen in Cambridge to return to New Zealand, he told me my approach to baking was like something from “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. I had an idea that this meant I tried very hard to find joy in whatever it was that I ended up doing. It was only three years later when I read Robert Persig’s book. The author explores the way we can derive quality from life. Even if we’re faced with difficult or monotonous tasks, chores or jobs, it’s all down to our attitude. He uses his characters to give examples of two different ways we can leverage “quality” from life. The first is the “romantic”. These people focus on being “in the moment”, and care little for the workings of the things they experience. The other point of view is the “classical”, these people derive joy from understanding the mechanics of what they are doing, they attempt to understand all the intricacies of their experiences. Like with any good explanation of opposing ways to reach the same destination, Persig’s protagonist, Zen, decides the most worthwhile approach, the one most likely to result in the best quality of life, is a mix of the two approaches.

When I look at my approach to work, to performing tasks in order to make enough money to live, I can see my approach is a useful mix. When I was learning to bake, starting work at 6:30am on midwinter mornings, I biked to work through the snow with an ipod soundtrack accompanying my slips and falls. My fellow early starters and I used banter, “chef’s rants”, and cooking competitions to drag giggles from long hours of hard, hot work. I struggled towards the perfect complement winning scones, the most splendid  pizzas, the finest five grain loaves. And it was rare I had a bad work day.

But when I look at my attitude to relationships, I have always been a romantic. I am always trying to achieve better, more memorable moments, and I’m disappointed when I can’t contribute significantly to the happiness of the person I focus on. I have been entirely willing to set such things as “the children question” aside, so that I can just create incredible, beautiful, memorable events. I’ve run to the other side of the world for a chance of a life eternal with someone I barely know, ignoring the difficult questions, like whose family to spend Christmas with, differing opinions on the ideal temperature for beer, and the Northern Hemisphere inability to handle Vegemite. As a result of these ill-informed, spontaneous bursts of romance, I have had some incredible, passionate  relationships, but eventually they have had to end. I failed to address the mechanics, the framework. I rarely looked towards the inevitable frustrations, the tearful departures, believing passion and faith would be enough.

I know now I need to balance my romantic idealism, to engage with a woman (sorry lads) who doesn’t want things I can’t offer. I need to ensure I learn from my choices. And I will try to harbour no regrets. I’ll let you know how that all works out for me some time.

Putting nostalgia in its place

Cowboy haunts

Over the past week we’ve been travelling through landscapes which acted as backdrops for my childhood dreams. The canyons here in Colorado and Utah, the wildish west, are adventurous tales brought to life. The vulture monitored ravines that once harboured black hatted, unshaven gangs, are now a sanctuary for the ghosts of their notorious deeds. They make it so easy to slip back into the imaginary world of the eight year old boy or tom boy, casting a wary eye over the crevices and ravines, and stretching the fingers on gun hand. But it’s not just gunslinger territory. Scattered amongst the seismically ruptured landscapes are the physical evidence of dinosaurs, dream feeders for all us overly imaginative kids that wished for dragons, but were willing to settle for thunder lizards. All I needed was a couple of jawas and I’d have encountered the holy trinity of my childhood.

Nostalgia is an incredibly effective editor of our past, triggered by our senses and our emotional states. I’ve found it is at its best when unprovoked. Hearing “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and being drawn back to a long hot summer mowing lawns, attempting to accelerate mullet growth through sheer will power, and scamming beers from liquor stores. When I try to engage nostalgia on command, the results are usually underwhelming. Introducing a younger girlfriend to The Dark Crystal was seven levels of uncomfortable. At its lightest it is pleasant, fuzzy recollection, accompanied my a half grin and a half stare back at a version of the past. But it can also be a powerful distraction, thanks to our memory’s ability to summarise chunks of our past in the same way a movie studio makes a film trailer. Take the highlights, the most evocative shots, the funniest lines, the flash of half-nudity, and add a stirring two minute soundtrack. The highlights of old relationships, road trips with the boys/girls, and your first gig, are recalled with 92% higher frequency than the negatives. Probably.

I think there are problems though when we begin to yearn for the past with more passion than we can muster for creating a fulfilling future. I remember being told that my high school years were going to be the best of my life, and I am so glad that this wasn’t the case. If that’s actually true for anybody, what the fuck happened? Did they take their foot off the fun pedal the day they left the prefabricated classrooms, arbitrary rules, and inadequately enforced stress on conformity? Did the responsibility of making their own decisions, and owning their own failures take the sheen off the rest of their lives? Most of the fundamentals of who we’re to be, are decided by the first seven years. And then I swear I learnt so much more of life well beyond my teenage years. The thirteen to eighteen year stretch was a volatile time, decisions magnified by hormones, choices made with too much consideration, or none at all. They were days spent combating insecurities with bravado, then watching the bravado wilt, crushed by one harsh comment from a teenage witch.

Another powerful nostalgic diversion is that pseudo romantic favourite, lost love. An entire relationship can have its defining memories drawn from the few sublime punctuating moments, rather than the seemingly endless low-on-passion, high-on-drudgery hours/months/years that drew you towards a tearful/noisy/embarrassing conclusion. If I’ve been having troubles in a relationship I admit at times I’d get teary eyed reflecting on prior romances with piss poor recollection. “It was so much easier with [name omitted to protect the innocent], maybe we should never have split up…” Of course if you then mix in two jugs of ale and a functioning mobile phone, Queen Nostalgia’s destructive powers are revealed. Then again, one of the quickest ways to correct any misconceptions over why you split up with your ex, is to call him/her at 2:00am, drunk, and ask them for an explanation.

If we tie ourselves up  too much in what has been, or what could be, we will lose momentum, we become less dynamic, less capable of making decisions at least partially informed by instinct. And I’ll happily invent a statistic that reveals that if we’re in a state to listen to our “heart” or “instinct”, or “Women’s intuition”, then the resulting decisions are considerably more likely to be super positive. We can’t recapture our youth, our first loves, the thrill of that first stage dive. We can though retain our youthfulness, have the courage to leave a destructive relationship for the right reasons, and relearn how to listen to hearts in order to discern how we should move forward. And never stop crowd surfing. Ever.

Nostalgia has its place, ideally behind me when making decisions, but leap frogging to the present to remind me that my life’s been blessed by many astounding moments, beautiful friendships and roller coaster relationships. Of course that won’t stop me scouring thrift stores today for cowboy boots and ten gallon hats, in preparation for a foray into “The Badlands”, South Dakota…

First week in the U S of A

Cabin deck

International differences in slang are ripe for giggles. Whilst at my sister’s backpackers in Derry a Canadian came into the kitchen laughing, and telling us that her boyfriend was double-fisting in the garden. At this point I realised that the fanny pack wasn’t likely the only snort-worthy misreading of intentions I was likely to encounter, should I visit the America’s. A couple of days ago Francoise and I went for a walk around the Farmers Market in central Boulder, and then for a stroll through the bohemian quarter. At one end was a “Cheesecake Factory”, and whilst jittering at the number of © and (™)’s on the menu, I noticed they served “root beer”. “wass that then?” I asked. Quickly I was led to Mountain Sun, a brew pub which happens to make their own root beer. Now for Kiwis (and Aussies) the giggles might have already begun, as a “root” in the Southern hemisphere, is another name for sex. I guess a root beer lowers everyone’s inhibitions? But when I was asked whether I’d like to take it away in a “growler” my poker face gave way. Down under (don’t even start) a growler is a cheeky euphemism for a woman’s lady-parts. Of course we passed a playground on the way back to the car which had a beaver on full display, and at this point I’m sure my estimation in Francoise’ eyes must have dropped. If not then I’m sure we’ll be friends forever.

One of the things that’s sometimes struck me about a couple of the Americans I met whilst travelling, is that they tended to vocalise almost everything that passes through their minds. “That’s a big ol’ bus” as a bus goes by, or “mmm-mmm, that’s red wine alright” as they take a sip of (yip) red wine. Occasionally these same individuals also dropped over the top responses to minimal stimuli, “Oooooh my Lord! Sweet Jebuz wrap me in a chunky Kentucky man’s bathing costume and throw me to the coyotes…” in response to a traffic light shifting from amber to green. I’m so used to growing up in New Zealand, a world of muttered, muted understatement, that this broadcasting of one’s inner monologue always used to seem a little…attention seeking. Like the red headed cousin that’s lost the focus of their neurotic parents attention and decides to shove dry roasted peanuts up their nose until the cough-cry-snot combo has the desired affect. This morning I went on a bird hunting hike with a group of around 25 citizens, most in their 60’s, and I had to shift my perspective. The harmonic vocalised enthusiasm that accompanied every hummingbird spotting was endearing when matched with widened eyes and “o” shaped lips. I’m glad my inner cynic has given way, I’d sooner listen to a chorus of oohs and aaaaahs of appreciation, than a cacophony of scornful derision. Expressed happiness trumps arched eyebrows and rolling eyes heavenwards.

Amongst the childish observations, I’ve also jumped in the deep end, and been trying to draw real learnings from my experiences and conversations. One thing I’m finding is that there seem to be serious concerns that the US Government is working hard to reduce people’s freedom to choose. The implementation of the Patriot Act utilised a nation’s fears to introduce Big Government in a nation built on rejecting State control. And since then it seems further erosion of freedoms, many which appear to contravene the constitution, are causing angst, though maybe not for enough people. Despite this though, there’s still an underlying belief amongst people I’ve met so far, that they should be able to achieve anything they want, as long as they’re prepared to work for it. And just as importantly, they have picked their own paths through life, avoiding “convention” when it ran contrary to their needs. And up until recently the mix of federal and state leadership promoted this. Imagine 50 regions with different environments, different laws, different attitudes. Americans have been able to choose to live in the area that suited their desired lifestyle, from gun control laws to attitudes towards homosexuality. I love the idea of those sorts of personal freedoms. But it seems increasing federal powers threaten the ability of States to maintain this degree of independence. Hopefully Americans still have the will to protect their freedom of choice, hopefully they won’t sacrifice it in fear, so that the state can “keep them safe”. Hopefully they continue to insist that the Government support the right of the individual to be just that, an individual.

So. At the moment, I’ve got a bit of a man-crush on the US. Ok, I’m on holiday, I don’t have to fight others for a job, I don’t have to be concerned over my children’s education. My glasses are definitely rose tinted. But each day I find a dozen grins, a half dozen chuckles, and several stunned shakes of the head. Soon I’ll have to staple a bungy cord between my forehead and my chin to stop my jaw hitting the ground so frequently. As far as I’m concerned, this is an incredible land, and I can’t recommend enough that people come here and give these people and this country a big hug.