119. Sour Dough

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Part I

Rule 1. It is exclusive.

Hushed rumours of a new restaurant were circulating on the message boards. Apparently, you had to sign up to a mailing list to get an invitation for the website address link.

Rule 2. You do as you’re told.

Everyone at the entire table had to have the full tasting menu. No exceptions. No substitutions. The menu changed slightly every day, and completely each season. Two hours after the first reviews on Food Cube, the website crashed. Bookings from then on were taken three months in advance on a rolling basis. At 10am on the first Monday of every month, fixed slots opened up for three months later. Friday and Saturday evening bookings were often sold out within thirty seconds, and it was rare for there to be a table still available by the afternoon of the day the bookings were released. Food critics and celebrities had to take their chances with the rest of the hoi polloi. No special treatment. 

The website had specific instructions with the requirements for booking a table.

We cannot accommodate food intolerances, allergies, vegetarians or vegans.

It is strongly recommended that patrons do not drive a vehicle or operate heavy machinery for at least 8 hours after dining. We can provide a courtesy car to pick you up and return you to a local hotel. Please indicate when booking your table if you require this complementary service. Driver gratuities are at your discretion.

A non-refundable deposit of £150 per person is required when booking a table.

We cannot cater for parties of over six people.

Persons under 18 are not allowed in the restaurant.

Please allow 3 hours for your meal. 

No party will be seated until all guests are present. Please arrive promptly. It is at the discretion of chef patron whether latecomers can be admitted. 

All guests must provide legal, photographic identification upon arrival. No guest may dine in the restaurant on more than one occasion. Bookings are non-transferrable. Should this occur, then the management reserves the right to cancel the entire reservation.

No recording devices of any kind are permitted in the restaurant, including cameras. Lockers are provided for mobile telephones.

Rule 3. You eat what you’re given.

This is a copy of one of the actual menus.

  • Corpse reviver cocktail (contains absinthe)
  • Vegan mushroom faux gras mousse with sorrel (and a microdose of Psilocybin.)
  • Spherified olive, pickled juniper berries and cucumber.
  • House pumpernickel sourdough bread with virgin lava bread butter. (70 year old starter, smuggled from behind the Iron Curtain)
  • Three-cheese profiteroles, sprinkled with chive dust. (Grown from the oldest variety of chives on earth.)
  • Pea and ham hock shot, with pork crackling infused foam and micro leaves. (Endangered rare breed British Landrace Pig.)
  • Quail egg with asparagus and (million year old) pink himalayan salt. 
  • Langoustine ravioli in a clear broth.
  • 50 year old Crab in an avocado shell, topped with trout roe, dusted with dehydrated miso.
  • Smoked eel, pickled radish, with celery powder.
  • Corn Fed chicken with monkfish liver and onion cream.
  • Tomato consomme. Served poured from a silver teapot into 17th century vintage teacups.
  • Salt marsh lamb with samphire, kale, mashed heritage roots and port reduction.
  • A quad of desserts.
  • Wild strawberries, meringue shards, lime basil, lemon curd, frozen goats cheese.
  • Home-made chocolate hazelnut spread on toast. 
  • A shot of frangelico. 
  • Ricotta, honeycomb and pistachio ice-cream.
  • Coffee or tea (exclusive, single-sourced estate)
  • Customers were also given a little bag of goodies (to take home for later) which contained soft tangy rhubarb and creamy custard sweets. Three jelly gummy bears, (each containing 25mg of CBD oil) and a tiny wrapped walnut brownie. (All of these sweets were clearly marked as not suitable for children due to the cannabis content).

Rule 4. Keep them wanting more.

A fragment of one of the first reviews on the home page of Pumpernickel’s website stated  “this meal heals. I felt soothed, comforted, nourished. There is an enviable depth and complexity of such simple ingredients. It’s elemental. I hugged the maître d’ as I left.” Another simply stated “I sold my soul tonight and it was worth it.”

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Part II

Brian and Laura Jones considered themselves to be innovators whose entire existence relied on being ahead of the curve.  By the time their friends heard about something, they had already done it or were booked to do it next weekend. Front row of the circle concert tickets of the next big thing. Eco-tourism. That new tv show. They’d ticked off the bucket list of things to do before you’re forty, well before that half-decade.

A day or so after dining at Pumpernickel, basking in the smug know-it-all glow, trying not to boast, thinking of the casual remarks they would enjoy dropping, to let those who know, know, that they had already been-there-done-that, their teenage son tragically died while skateboarding in the street. At his funeral, (no flowers please, but donations to a child hunger charity were welcomed) whenever someone asked which university Joel would have attended in a few weeks, the word “Yale” now seemed a hollow victory. Even Mrs Jones’ funeral dress was an advance, bespoke, pre-season exclusive and her Italian sunglasses frames were made from a prototype material.

The post-mortem revealed that Joel had cannabis in his system which may have impaired his judgment, and an accidental death verdict given. 

Neither Brian nor Laura ever mentioned that their son had eaten their take-home sweets. They let people believe that he smoked a few joints, as teenagers were prone to do.

The authorities deemed that no further action was taken against the woman driving the car that killed the youth, but she never got over it. She changed her name, then moved house because of the scandal, and vowed to never get behind the wheel ever again. Her depression prevented her returning to work, and she soon lost her job. Her sedentary lifestyle at home and ruminations contributed to insomnia, back pain and an apathetic low mood. To try to lift her spirits, her husband booked a special treat for them both. After months of trying, he had managed to get them a table at Pumpernickel, the restaurant that everyone was talking about.

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115. Soulsisters

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

His car had that smell. Old tobacco, men, dogs, vinyl, spilt food. Dina depressed the button to open her window a little, and he immediately pressed the master button to wind it back up.

“My car, my rules,” he said.

“I get a bit car sick when the heating’s on,” Dina said.

He wound down her window just a crack, and turned the heating knob from 24 to 21. “Take off your jacket and your shoes and socks if you feel hot. You’ll get used to it. I like it warm,” he said.

There wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t regret marrying him. She imagined how her life would be if she’d kept her shoes on, got out of the car at the traffic lights and just ran. No matter how much she repented, it never got any easier. She convinced herself he was the lesser of two evils. He had wooed her with the promise of a life as his wife, which was supposed to save her from the boredom of looking after her parents. They told him she was a wild cat that needed routine and discipline to tame her. She realised she had made a mistake just a few days into the honeymoon.

He put an app on her phone so he knew where she was every moment of the day, and wrote a shopping list of places to go to and in which order. Drive the car to town. Doctor. Pharmacy. Library. Back to the pharmacy to collect her prescription. £10 to treat herself in the charity shop, but only if he thought she deserved it. Supermarket. Home. At first, he would ring her every 20 minutes, but then, over time, the frequency of calls dropped, until he trusted her enough to do this monthly visit on her own.

The bruises were in places that didn’t show, and he was careful that she was always clean for the Doctor. Not that she was allowed to wear clothes that showed off her shape in any event. He knew what was best. She’d made a vow that her body was his so other men weren’t even allowed to look. He slashed a dentist’s tyres because he put his fingers inside her mouth, so she never went again. Those three hours of freedom every month were the best and worst, but woe betide if the supermarket didn’t have the food he wanted, or she bought something he considered to be slutty from the thrift store.

An unsuitable book fell of the shelf and as she put it back, she noticed the ‘#Ask for Angela’ poster on the library wall. The next thing Dina remembered was that she was sitting on a wooden chair, with the feeling of someone stroking her hair, even though there was no-one else there. She looked at her watch. 11.11am. She still had time. A hushed conversation with the librarian who then rang her friend in the charity shop. Within ten minutes, Dina had a free bag of clothes as a running away kit, and a lift to the train station. On the way there, she threw her phone out of the car window.

In road rage vs truck, the car always loses. Dina read about it in the paper, but she didn’t dare believe it until the police came knocking. She thought they were there to arrest her. Even though she was twenty miles away on a train when he died, Dina knew this was her fault because he’d gone out looking for her.

It took over a year before she was able to sleep again. They say that if you live long enough, you see the same eyes in different people over and over again, but she can’t take that chance. Her only ambition left in this world is to be defiant enough to hold someone’s gaze. Like she used to do.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash

102. Tony’s Theme

florencia-viadana-717233-unsplash

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

“History, as they say, will always be written by the victors.” 

Anthony Bordain, Medium Raw

I knew I’d have to introduce myself and talk at some point. I’d planned what I wanted to say, written it down, tried to practice it. I didn’t want to wing it. That wouldn’t be right. He’d been gone for longer now than the for the whole time I ever knew him. There were people in there who’d lost a lot more than I had.

“I wish I’d told him how I felt. I thought there’d be the perfect opportunity, that I’d find the right words, then we’d look right into each other, and we’d know. But we didn’t, and now it’s too late. I’ve been over it a thousand times and changed the outcome but it’s still there all the time. The first thing I think about when I wake up, the last thing at night. I’m so stuck and I don’t want to live in my head any more. I can’t change what happened no matter how much I want to. We all get the same amount of time as each other every day and I want to make it matter. I try, I really do make the effort to look people in the eye. I give them my full attention. I smile at strangers, I hold a gaze, I’m affectionate and I share the moment. And it’s really fucking hard to be brave like that. It’s scary to give yourself like that. And I’ve never cried more in my life these last few months – with people I don’t even know. I’ve shared really private stuff with people I’ve just met. Held hands and hugged people and I don’t even know them. Just look at me now. Look at the state I’m in. It’s worse now than at the time. I need help. I can’t go on like this. This isn’t living. But it’s too fucking hard to do it on my own. Um… God.. I’m sorry for swearing”

I’m way too hot, what’s left of my heart is screaming. I want to get up and run out but can’t. This is the safest place for me right now. I lean forward in my chair, elbows on my knees, hands covering my face and sob. There’s a beat of silence then the group leader says,

“Thank you for sharing.”

Someone is rubbing my back. My breathing slows. I look up, sniff loudly, wipe my nose on the back of my hand and take the crumpled tissue from up my sleeve. Snivelling, I take a huge breath, purse my lips and let it out with a long, quiet “whooooo” that sounds just like the wind on a blustery night. There is no dignity in this rawness. I turn to smile at the woman who was rubbing my back and she opens her arms to me as an invitation to hug.

After the group, us two go to the wholefood cafe near the park. As I sip my thick acai smoothie and pick at a malted flapjack, Angie tells me bits of her story. How her life is either ‘before’ or ‘after’ her husband and child died in a car accident. That people she knew for years now treat her differently, how they avoid or pity her, how being a widow defines her. Some would rather not talk to her because they feel uncomfortable, and can’t stop saying how sorry they are and that they think they can’t talk about what happened because it might upset her. Consequently, none of the good times are ever spoken about either. That her life was full of children and now there are none. So she wants to meet new people who understand, and will get to know her as she is now, not then.

There’s so much they don’t tell you about loss. That time is fluid. You waste hours thinking about just one moment. That you have to make a real effort every single day to eat proper food.

Angie tells me that she can’t yet look at old photographs or videos because those images might record over the memories she has inside her own head. Those pictures of them as a family with so much promise for their future life together, make her feel bitter and resentful with hindsight. Then she feels guilty. That she cannot ever imagine meeting anyone new, and doesn’t want to, but still wants to find a way to live now. She used to refer to it as ‘her afterlife’ but realised that was morbid, so now calls it ‘Version 2.’ She says she’s writing letters that will never be read, and feels sorry for people whose entire lives are captured on social media, being replayed over and over again. How she’s had to change her online presence because their ghosts live on inside the machine. They pop up from time to time to remind her of ‘on this day two years ago…’ or ‘it’s Sam’s birthday soon’, and how an algorithm will never replace human interaction.

I say that after the initial shock, I felt like I craved human contact. That I’d deliberately go out of my way to attach myself to people who needed rescuing. I wanted to help, to feel needed. I was so vulnerable that I think I numbed myself with compassion fatigue, which is how I ended up in the group. It’s too soon to know whether it’s helping me through, but I’m prepared to put in the work to try. I don’t want to become lonely, but I also don’t want people to feel obliged to be in my life out of duty, guilt or pity.

Incredibly, as we swap numbers, we both realise that we each have two phones for the same reason. Our old lives and our afterlives. I didn’t have to explain it. She’s the first person I’ve met who not only gets why I’m still paying every month for a piece of outdated tech that I can’t bear to lose, but she’s also doing it too.

When ‘Life on Mars’ comes on in the cafe, I sense a prickle and her mood changes. I say, “Too soon for Bowie?” She nods.

I say, “I’m the same with Anthony Bordain. Tony and me used to watch his programme together every week. I hate that I can’t even do something I used to love anymore. I even went to Cambodia and Vietnam after… y’know, because we’d always planned to go and Bordain made them sound so beautiful. If someone who travels the world for a living finds a place they could live in forever, then it must be good. I think going there helped. The people have nothing there and they’re so peaceful and contented. I dunno. Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just going round in circles.”

As we walk towards the park, we both stop at the same time to look in the window of the gift shop. There’s a display of bright plastic storage boxes that look like giant Lego pieces. “Sam would have loved those.” She says, and we link arms and stroll on.