Monday 27 May 2019


At the last Open Day at The Institute, the Management had supplied tea, coffee and their particular line in iced dainties. I took my snout briefly out of the trough to offer a tray of them to a dad and his chap with "Hey, free food, hard to refuse!" Dad accepted but the young feller said no thanks I've just had breakfast. I looked at him in an appraising manner [built like a pencil] and asked his father "Was he one of those metabolic teenage boys who, if provided with a toaster, could polish off an 800g sliced pan between school and dinner?". Not so; but apparently the chap was a machine for consuming fried eggs.

That allowed me to tell a story about NBT, my well travelled PhD boss. He spent a few years going back and forth to the Middle East on field work - for example, he was one of the last Americans to hang out in the Shah's Iran before the Ayatollahs took over. He used to boast that he could order two fried eggs and a cup of coffee in 15 different languages. That served him well until he rocked up in a café in Anatolia. Having consulted the phrase book in advance, with great assurance he tried something like "iki kızarmış yumurta ve bir fincan kahve" but was met with incomprehension. Like a good Patriarch he repeated the phrase, slightly louder and with more assurance; at which the waiter shrugged and dived into the kitchen. 10 minutes later, the waiter reappeared with a cup of coffee and an omelet the size of a tea-tray. Only slightly daunted, Neil gave a Kobayashi shake and started ploughing through his breakfast. He figured afterwards that he must have asked for 2 dozen eggs - no wonder the waiter was aghast confused.

Some time in the 80s, after I'd stopped living with them and returned to Europe, Neil's wife Joyce bought a slow-cooker. She was out at work all day, as was Neil and their youngest daughter who was studenting in U.Mass Boston. It sounded like A Plan. They'd load up the pot in the morning and return home in the evening to a piping hot meal without the trouble of chopping onions. Chili con carne seemed like a good place to start their new efficient life. Nobody twigged that the toxin present in the skin of kidney beans, which was neutralised by even 5 minutes boiling on the stove-top, was going to be unaffected by many hours simmering at 90°C. Amy the daughter didn't even finish her plate before she departed for the bathroom; Joyce, who had a year in the Gir forest in India under her belt, succumbed after half an hour. Ever the contrarian, Neil of the Iron Stomach affected to believe that everything was under control down there. He stayed at the kitchen table ostentatiously ignoring the Vesuvian rumbles and gloops emanating from his torso . . . until even he had to run for relief. The evacuation was far more spectacular for having been held back for so long.
Sick transit gloria chili?
Other things can be cooked to perfection without coming even close to this temperature: Alex cooks a chateaubriand sous-vide at 54°C.

And because good things always come in Threes, I have another food-related Neil story:
A few years later, he was back in the Third World, with me, on a field trip to Cabo Verde. It must have been 1985 because the whole archipelago was in party mood to celebrate 10 years of independence [a while after the carnation revolution of 1974] from Portugal. We flew in by plane but had to make a few internal trips by bus. These beat-up jalopies were always crowded, not only with people but crates of chickens, sacks of farm produce and other travelling-public luggage. I started learning Portuguese in anticipation of that trip because I knew, far from expecting any fluency in English, the local criolo had something in common with the language of the recent colonial oppressors. There were were no seats when we got on the bus but Neil sat down on the lid of a robust plastic bucket. The driver suggested that wasn't a good ideas because o balde está cheio de tripa  - which I translated as the bucket is full of tripe. Doesn't bother me, said Neil, I'm not in a dress suit and I've sat on worse seats. The driver became more emphatic - please tell your pal that he's sitting [his fat yankee ass] on somebody's lunchRed faces on the visitors' side.

I'm clearly on a roll here because I have another Neil story which hinges on a, relatively benign, communication breakdown. As one of the last great Europhiles, during the 1980s, Neil would make several trips a year across The Pond, often the UK, to do some research: he'd travel hand-baggage only because it was more efficient and start off from Boston with his most raggedy socks & jocks. As he moved round the country in search of data, he'd discard these rags to make a bit of room for any treasures [Kelly's Street Directory of Coventry 1886; 6 misc. tavern tokens from Staffordshire; a History of Baden-Württemberg; 4 linen tea-towels] he might pick up on the journey. One trip he had two nights booked in a humble B&B in Cardiff. After the first breakfast, he threw his underwear in the waste-paper bin and went off for a day's work in the National Museum of Wales. When he returned in the evening, he found his discarded clothing washed and ironed on the end of his bed. I can't remember if he troubled to explain what his intentions were or whether it was less embarrassing all round if he just moved on to the next town with an extra day's underwear in the bank.

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