Category Archives: England

The Twelfth Floor Heterotopia

Arlanda Airport

The other day I was in a government building and asked a guard where I could find the bathroom. ‘On the twelfth floor,’ she grunted. Then she disappeared, turning on her rubber heel, keys clanking. Right, to the twelfth floor.

The twelfth floor signalled my entrance into a heterotopia of first world bureaucracy. Michel Foucault, the 20th century French intellectual, describes a heterotopia as an enacted utopia that expresses a vision of a societal ideal. A secular higher power directs meaning within these spaces. The power may be cultural or political or social as long as it illustrates the operation of a group. Some may enter the area while others are prohibited. These spaces reveal how we structure our world and respond to taboos. They possess both intellectual and practical functions. As I examined the limbo-esque twelfth floor, I better understood my community.

In addition to public rest rooms — so-called public, I had to show an appointment confirmation and passport to pass security and access them — the twelfth floor boasted a café (aptly named Café on Twelve) and empty locked rooms. I saw a man on his phone and a woman waiting for the elevator. The emptiness evoked the distance the building put between its functions and visitors. Although the visitors had been chosen to enter, they were shielded from the bureaucracy’s inner workings. Shades of pale and mossy green covered the walls like an alien’s living room. After seeing this sinister hue, the tenth floor’s plastic pink felt like the cheery. Whereas the public amenities floor intimidated me with closed doors and strange colours, the tenth floor distracted me with a bright, false cheer. Openness and restriction characterise government bureaucracy.

Foucault argues that access to space and spatial relations dictate modern life. The sites we visit define us. Frequenting a museum or being admitted to a hospital gives us a distinct social identity through which to perpetuate culture as reflected in a given area. Government buildings accomplish a similar function. Entering one of these guarded edifices associates the individual with a specific ideology, defines them according to the law and asserts their role as an ordinary citizen. The government building is a heterotopia in that it mirrors society and social relations while existing separately from the daily orbit of most citizens.

Myriad citizenship identities were being formed and performed during my visit. There were the deviants; arguing with the guards over phones and restrictions. Others acted as enforcers, upholding social norms. Some played the atemporal: they were waiting when you arrived and waiting when you left, casting them in a separate orbit from the standard 30-minute appointment. Our purposes impacted our roles. Some sought citizenship, others green cards renewals and others foreign visas. Although the heterotopia echoed the country in which we lived, our respective sections of the mirror corresponded with our social identity.

Despite our unique roles, we were all social others — individuals seeking to alter our citizenship status — in this heterotopia of deviation. A heterotopia of deviation collects individuals whose actions, and consequently identities, digress from the social norm. Foucault argues that the heterotopia of deviation has largely replaced the heterotopia of crisis (at least in modern cultures), which dominated in centuries when knowledge directed relations between groups and individuals. A heterotopia of crisis collected individuals in a critical mental, physical or emotional period. Foucault cites boarding schools, old-style honeymoons and military service as heterotopias of crisis that separated people in compromised states from routine life. Rather than cast out people in difficult periods, we rebuke people who exhibit a strange identity.

Time impacted the social and governmental interpretation of my national identity. Defining my identity as ‘deviant’ as opposed to ‘in crisis’ was a product of the 21st century’s loosened borders. Whereas immigrants to the US during the early 20th century were processed en masse on an island, modern migrants are processed in varying degrees of public view. Migration is no longer solely the product of a crisis — of money, of religion, of food, of family — that brings migrants to a new space. While contemporary migrants may be undergoing crises, the motivations are varied. I was a deviant: I was deviating from the path my country had set for me and, accordingly, entered into spaces that delicately pushed me away from others. They pushed me toward the desolate twelfth floor.

Crossing the threshold of the heterotopia ushered me into alternate temporal realms. My time within the building was sectioned: there was my appointment time; the queues, waiting for my number to be called; and my brief appointment. Time’s regimentation within the heterotopia foreshadowed the new demarcations I’d experience upon leaving: there would be the time to send my application; the window of time during which I could enter the country; the days when I’d be permitted to pick up a residence permit; the years for which I’d be allowed to stay within the country; the hours I’d be permitted to work; the day on which I’d be required to leave. My new experience of time within the heterotopia anticipated how I’d experience shared cultural time upon leaving.

But even as this heterotopia acted upon us visitors, it also acted with us. This was how I arrived at the twelfth floor. Although the building could have been closed in a fortress of hidden governmental rules, society’s insistence on viewing itself as a democracy required it to be at least partially open. So I had the terrace café and a toilet amidst an alien-green hallway of closed doors. My heterotopia of bureaucracy asserted that my society was open, even as it partitioned my time, directed my identity and determined my movement.

Curry Powder, Culture and History

Saag salad from Indikitch

Pep, spice, and zing together in a handy container: curry powder is the Western cook’s shortcut to bold Indian flavour. But there’s more hiding in the little jar than just turmeric and ginger. Although curry powder imparts an Indian aura onto ingredients, the spice blend is a recent Western invention born from the home cook’s desire to add a dash of exotic to an otherwise routine dinner. Curry powder shouldn’t be regarded as a relic of colonialism. Cultural adaption has integrated curry powder into Western culinary tradition, allowing chefs and eaters to appropriate the ‘other’ through a nation’s widely recognized dishes and emblematic ingredients.

Curry powder is a pre-packaged blend of spices, leaning heavily on turmeric for colour, cumin for flavour, and dried chillies for heat. Since the introduction of the first British-produced curry mix in 1780, manufacturers have added and subtracted spices for a profile that suits their nation’s current cultural taste and goes well with the most popular dishes. While the mix should taste noticeably ‘Indian’, throwing some seasonings into a jar and labelling them curry powder is a distinctly Western habit, absent in India and other curry consuming countries. Whereas an English recipes call for varying amounts of curry powder to make Butter Chicken and beef curry, Indian recipes list the specific spices required to flavour a specific dish. When an Indian cook reaches for a spice blend, they’re likely grabbing garam masala: a combination of peppercorns, mace, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices.

Curry paste

In the same way that the notion of curry powder is uniquely Western, ‘curry’ as a term for a soupy, stew-y main is absent in India’s culinary lexicon. Curry is likely an Anglicism of kari, a southern Indian Tamil word indicating a spiced sauce for meats or vegetables (and, possibly, spice tree).[1] Evidence suggests that dishes resembling the modern curry have been cooked in region surrounding modern India for approximately 4,000 years, making curry one of the longest continually prepared dishes.

Curry’s European history is shorter, but not without its mysteries. Portuguese traders may have brought the dish from their colonies in Indian to Europe during the 17th century. Others argue that curry was an English invention, dating to the 1747 when Hannah Glasse included a recipe for a rabbit or fowl stew with coriander and black pepper in The Art of Cookery (later editions included ginger and turmeric as well). The term has existed in English since 1390 when Richard II commissioned The Forme of Curey, with ‘curey’ coming from French cuire, to cook, and referencing a stew-like dish. In a 16th century account of a trip to India, a Dutchman describes a sauce-y fish recipe as a carriel. Given the dish’s varied origins it makes sense to examine curry as a Western dish largely independent of Indian tradition. This perspective removes the tricky notion of authenticity, allowing each curry-infused dish to exemplify a European way of interacting with foreign cuisine.

Chicken Tikka Masala

As a uniquely Western product, curry powder communicates exoticism by subtly shifting the flavour profile of a common ingredient from a given country’s culinary lexicon. Take Coronation Chicken, a curry-infused chicken salad Rosemary Hume created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. While the dish has earned a reputation as an unwelcome lunchtime intruder, it epitomised worldly Britain when it was introduced. In The Constance Spry Cookbook, Spry remarks on Hume’s deft manipulation of curry powder to produce a sophisticated taste that wouldn’t alienate coronation attendees, ‘I doubt whether many … detected[curry powder] in a chicken dish which was distinguished mainly by a delicate and nutlike flavour in the sauce.’ Spry juxtaposes curry powder — and the curry it evokes —with ‘delicate’ and ‘nutlike’. Spry depicts curry powder without the creamy, sweet trappings of Englishness as strong and brash, qualities that are not to be associated with the young Queen.

Nevertheless — aside from its garish yellow-orange hue — coronation chicken rarely assaults the palate. Hume’s inclusion of familiar ingredients — mayonnaise, raisins, Worcestershire sauce — mollifies British tastes, filtering exoticism through a veil of familiarity. In Coronation Chicken, curry powder signifies mid-twentieth century sophistication, marking potentially threatening foreign flavours as acceptable through secure, English ingredients.

Coronation Chicken Sandwich

Using curry powder to safely re-identify a familiar food as foreign is not solely an English phenomenon: German currywurst pours curry powder over cultural culinary touchstones such as sausage, chips, ketchup and mayonnaise, diversifying what it means to eat German. Invented in 1949 by Herta Heuwer and consumed almost exclusively as fast food takeaway, currywurst stands dot German cities. Like in Coronation Chicken, curry powder and sauce covers the protein; however, currywurst makes fewer gestures at exoticism, highlighting Germany’s traditional sausage. As currywurst remains noticeably German, karrysild — a popular smørrebrød topping of pickled herring in a creamy curry sauce — remains noticeably Danish. Unlike garam masala, which Indians use to complement a dish, Western cooks use curry powder to juxtapose their cuisine’s unmarked, normal, ingredients, permitting them to integrate the other into their cultural discourse while maintaining their culinary identities.

Certain commonalities arise among the use of curry powder in Coronation Chicken, currywurst and karrysild: the spice blend marks the dish, covers a protein, is mixed into a smooth sauce. The contrast between firm protein, smooth texture and curry spices emphasises the dishes’ non-native aspect. In English, German, and Danish cuisine, chicken, sausage, and pickled herring respectively appear in non-sauced versions. If curry is a Western catchall phrase for a sauce-based Indian dish, a creamy, stew-like texture is required to mark these curry powder flecked dishes as Indian-inspired. Whether chicken korma or chana masala, a curry combines a spicy sauce and a protein. Not only do Coronation Chicken, currywurst and karrysild use curry powder for an exotic experience, the dishes combine tastes, ingredients and textures in a similarly marked manner.

Currywurst mit Pommes

Curry powder mania isn’t limited to creamy preparations or Indian-influenced dishes. Cooks enjoy curried squash soup, Thai curry and Japanese curry, but these variances are not integrated into Western culinary vernacular to the extent of the canonical dishes cited above. When a recipe calls for curry paste or curry roux cubes, the country of origin must be specified: green curry paste is Thai green curry paste, curry roux cubes are Japanese curry roux cubes. Curry powder, on the other hand, implicitly connotes Indian food; a recipe doesn’t call for Indian curry powder, the Indian flavour is implied. Although other countries’ curry traditions — along with alternate uses for curry powder — are becoming increasingly common in Western gastronomic tradition, these preparations remain highly marked against Indian-influenced uses of curry powder.

Although curry powder may mark a dish as Indian, the exoticism is superficial, subtly altering the flavour of a familiar texture, condiment or ingredients. The generic blend of spices speaks more to the Western palate. Curry powder doesn’t only create a Westernized vindaloo, it creates explicitly European dishes. Whether Coronation Chicken, currywurst or karrysild, including curry powder in a creamy sauce covering a country’s preferred protein marks a known dish with a subtle, unintimidating, exoticism. With the expanding usage of curry spices in Western preparation and increasing influence of alternate curry traditions — such as Thai and Japanese curries — it is possible that curry powder’s reputation will shift. Instead of being a shortcut for highly marked flavour, curry powder may transform itself, becoming an ingredient that brings back memories of cleaned-up versions of foreign culinary traditions. Curry powder may demonstrate the West’s attempt to dominate the Other, but as the spice blend integrates in Western cuisines, it becomes less exotic, shifting the dynamic between known and other from domination to coexistence.

[1] There is much discussion over the translation of the word ‘curry’. For more information on its Indian equivalent see here, here and here. It seems evident that the word is an English creole as opposed to a true Indian term.

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Image Credits: Me, Sally Crossthwaite via Flickr, Stephen Rees via Flickr, Chris Poole via Flickr, Jessica Spengler via Flickr

A crayfish and rocket sandwich

Flickr via LuciAH

Chewy, crunchy, creamy: the rocket and crayfish sandwich mixes divergent tastes and textures better than any other bread-based meal. With squishy whole grain bread, toothsome crayfish, crunchy rocket and just a hint of creamy mayonnaise, the sandwich is an archetype of less-is-more simplicity. There’s a reason that this combo has become a classic grab-and-go lunch in England and abroad.

But, lo, the pitfalls! Add too much mayo and the sandwich disintegrates in your hands. Throw in so-called fun spices and you lunch on a wannabe crab cake. Too much rocket, too many crayfish: the sandwich falls apart.

Here’s how we’ll do it: grab your bread, ideally a whole grain with plenty of give. This isn’t the moment for your toothsome, crackly country loaf. Take a moderate amount of mayo, a teaspoon will suffice, and spread it evenly over the slices. Gently chop your rocket, layer it on one side and scatter the crayfish over the other. Close it up, cut it in an attractive diagonal half. Eat. Done.

On the flapjack

Flapjack

Flickr via Steven Lilley

Granola bars can be fun and baked oatmeal may be a nutritious breakfast, but when it comes to baked-oat treats my alliances lie firmly with the flapjack. Don’t confuse these with American pancakes. Flapjacks are a British treat commonly eaten with tea. At its most simple, the flapjack is a bar cookie made with oats, golden syrup, butter and sugar. But who wants to stop there? You can find them topped with chocolate, with a yoghurt coating, with dried fruit thrown in, with a caramel drizzle and with coconut or chopped nuts. No matter what variation you choose, the end product evokes childhood memories, even if your mother never tucked one into your lunch box.

While a flapjack would be a winter or fall treat in America, England’s constant drizzly grey means the buttery oat bar is a welcome snack all year long. This dense, stick-to-your-bones, bar would feel out of place on a stifling August day in Arizona. But the flapjack’s utter British-ness isn’t limited to the weather. The tendency to fall apart would be incongruous in clean, minimalist New York cafes. It’s amusing to think of the humble, high-energy treat marching into the sweet Italian merenda or the delicate French goûter. Yet, when enjoyed with a cup of tea, a few hours after the cheddar and red onion sandwich you had for lunch, the flapjack feels completely appropriate.

Although every high street café offers a flapjack (or three), this abundance contradicts the essence of flapjack. The tray bake loses its endearing crumbly bits when pre-cut into machine perfect slices. Rather than exercising self-control as the tray cools and hardens once out of the oven — and the subsequent restraint when cutting them into suitably small squares — the café flapjack encourages indulgence. It misguides you into feeling healthy for not choosing the carrot cake with 3 cm of cream cheese frosting, but it’s frosted with chocolate ganache to prevent disappointment. Arriving in the café, the flapjack transforms itself and your interaction with it.

At home kitchen you make your flapjacks as you see fit. You decide if you want them chewy or crunchy. You can make them dense or loose. The same goes for dried fruits: do you add raisins, sultanas, apricots or shun the addition of extra-sweetness? Those looking for an ‘all-natural’ variation can use honey instead of golden syrup, while those baking their childhood can reminisce over Lyle’s classic tin. As opposed to similarly home-y treats — like a chocolate chip cookie, say, or a muffin — the home cook can easily adapt the flapjack without needing a different recipe. Making flapjacks requires following an intuitive formula rather than a prescriptive recipe, marking each variation with the person who made it, the time when it was made and the place where it was enjoyed.

I couldn’t tell you when I first ate a flapjack and I assume the same goes for most people. All the components are familiar enough that the combination of them inevitably evokes nostalgia. The oats are the porridge of your childhood. The butter is what you had on toast, the sweetener what you got drizzled on top of either. No matter what you top it with, the individual components make sure that the flapjack will never become a trendy treat. Toffee? That’s those toffee apples from childhood fairs. Chocolate? Every Brit’s favorite treat. Yoghurt? It’s an icing-like sweetness. Even plain the flapjack’s restraint is impossibly British.

While variations of these memories exist abroad, it seems that there are few countries in which they play as vivid a part in the national character as in Britain. Where else does the grocery store carry ten different types of porridge oats? Is there another country as devoted to milk chocolate, toffee and stiff icing? The flapjack is memory from its craggy edges and simple process to its comforting taste and thousands of variations.

So, when’s teatime?

My Experience Working at the British Library

British library in the distance
Two weeks ago now I packed up my bags and hopped on a train to London to research at the British Library.  Despite searching for advice on how to approach the formidable place, I didn’t much know what to expect.  Some articles talked about the hierarchy of reading rooms — The Guardian think rare books is the place to be — while others mentioned the awkward photo taken for your reader’s card.  Few answered my questions: which reading room should I have my books sent to?  What documents do I really need to show?  How early do I have to get there?  Is it really that busy?  What do I do for lunch?  Where do I put my things?  Will I find a seat?

It’s up to me to answer those questions for you.

In January my independent study supervisor suggested I head to the British Library to research as Bristol’s library is woefully understocked regarding food culture.  I looked online and discovered that in order to use the reading rooms, you need to register for a reading pass.  I quickly pre-registered online, which involved filling out a quick questionnaire.  They gave me my reader number, which I then used to create an online account.  This allowed me to search for and request books in advance of my visit.  All the books you request get sent to your basket and from there you can figure out how long it will take to get them sent to a reading room.  You can choose to send them to any reading room and select the date you want them to arrive.  It’s simple, though takes a few tries.

How to decide which reading room?  Unless you’re researching a topic for which there is a specific reading room, there are few guidelines for choosing which study space to send your books to.  I chose what appears to be the typical choice: humanities 1 (or hum 1).  It’s one of the larger reading rooms, with plenty of seats and a hint of natural life.  The room is on the first story of the building.  When you enter, you walk up two flights of stairs and walk to the back of the floor on the left.  There are big glass doors marked humanities one.  I enjoyed my choice and found that there was plenty of seating for me every time I went (which was, at one point, in the middle of a Friday afternoon).  It may be one of the “less serious” rooms, but that was fine with me.

What documents do you really need to show? After registering online, bring the reader’s number you were given, the list of books you need with shelf marks (do this even if you’ve already requested them), proof of address (I brought a four month old check, which was fine), proof of signature (I used a passport) and any supporting documents (I brought my student card).  When you go to the Reader’s registration room, on the far right side of the Upper Ground floor, you’ll need to demonstrate these documents before you can complete your registration.

What time do I need to get there to make sure I’ll get a seat?  I read a few posts and articles that advised making sure to get to the library early because it gets busy.  I didn’t exactly find this to be the case.  When I arrived on Friday at 2:30 pm, I found a seat nearly straight away.  There were several other empty seats in the reading room.  On Saturday morning, I decided to arrive as soon as they opened.  I needn’t have worried.  The reading room was a ghost town for the first hour I was there.  Ditto on Monday morning.  Get there within the first hour or so after opening and you should have plenty of choice as to where to sit.

Note: When you enter the reading room, before getting your books from the desk, you need to find a seat (you’ll need to give them your seat number to collect your books).  It might be inconvenient to not find space, but you don’t have to worry about awkwardly walking around holding books.  There’s a cafe outside where people sit, so you can always wait around in hopes that someone will leave the reading room.

What do I do for lunch?  The library has a “restaurant” (it’s really just a hot bar and salad bar) and a cafe at which you can purchase food.  Feel free to pack something in your bag (you’ll be putting it in a locker) to eat as well.  I saw some people run outside to the Pret across the street for a meal.  People left their belongings at their desk when taking breaks (be sure to take your reader’s card with you!).  I tried both the restaurant and the cafe and, though slightly more expensive, preferred the restaurant.

Where do I put my things?  There are coin operated lockers on the lower ground floor for you to use.  On the day I left, I brought my weekend bag with me and shoved it in there along with my tote bag.  They have clear plastic bags for you to put your computer, pencils, phone, earphones, reader’s card and anything else you might need to take into the reading rooms.  You’ll have to open up your computer when you leave, so bringing your laptop case into the reading room can prove to be a needless hassle.  Nevertheless, I brought mine with me every time.  I never had any trouble getting a locker, though they are free for everyone to use so can be hard to come by at the weekend.  In that case, there’s a cloak check you can use.  If you don’t have pound coins, they have change machines so you can get some.

What if I don’t finish with my books at the end of the day?  You can hold back a couple books for up to three days.  They’ll be waiting for you at the issue desk when you return.

All in all, I loved my experience at the British Library and can’t wait to go back!

Did I forget anything?  Any other questions you have about using the reading rooms at the British Library?  Ask me!

Store Street Espresso and Continental Stores

Piccolo Latte

When I was in London in January 2013, I ran by Store Street Espresso.  The shop looked nice, but I didn’t have time to stop, so I made a mental note as to the location.  In my rush, the mental note flew out the window and I forgot where the cafe was located.  During my trip in November, I thought I found it with TAP Coffee, but only found an answer to the ‘flat white’ query there (answer: it’s good. order it.).

Enter The London Coffee Guide, an online compendium of good cafés in the capital.  As soon as I saw  the Store Street facade, I knew that I had discovered my long-lost cafe.  I took the tube from Paddington straight there.

Store Street Espresso and Continental Stores are sister cafes, run by the same people and serving the same food and drinks. The atmosphere changes to suit the location.  I went to Store Street for Friday lunch and Continental Stores later the same day.

Store Street was bustling when I arrived at lunch time, but I had no problem finding a seat.  There were several communal tables as well as a few double ones.  They serve an extensive café food menu, complete with soup, salad, sandwiches and sweets.  I ordered the vegetarian quiche, a thick wedge of roasted red peppers and eggplant gently laced with egg and cheese.  It had a phyllo crust.  I drank a piccolo latte; served in glass, I hoped it would be like a cortado.

Store Street Espresso

My drink was good, though was more latte than cortado.  The warm milk reminded me of high-school coffee drinks.  The quiche was satisfyingly and disappointingly like a savory pie.  The phyllo didn’t drown the vegetables in crust, my favorite part.  I would have preferred more egg-custard in my slice, but for a lighter cafe-choice I enjoyed it.

In the afternoon, after working up an appetite reading, I went to Continental Stores, conveniently hostel and library adjacent.  This time I ordered a macchiato and a chocolate-cherry-beetroot muffin.  The barista me a number and I took a seat in the back of the cafe.  It was late afternoon — too late to be drinking coffee — but there was barely any space for me.  I nabbed the last table.  Continental Stores is smaller, cozier and more intimate than Store Street, better for a friendly chat than a caffeine fueled working session.

The barista quickly brought me my muffin and coffee.  I gently stirred the schiuma into the coffee, which was pleasantly nutty and dark chocolatey.  Nothing surprising, but well made and a delight to drink.  The muffin was rich and moist, though not worryingly so as coffee-shop cakes tend to be.  There were barely any cherries — I got two total — but there was plenty of chocolate.  The beetroot added a pleasant, almost floral note.

Although they’re owned by the same people, Continental Stores and Store Street Espresso use the same techniques to target different crowds.  Whereas Store Street caters to the university set with ample seating and a bright bustling atmosphere, Continental Stores puts the same good coffee and food in a smaller space to give a neighborhood effect.  Whatever reason you need a cafe, take note.  Write down the names, bookmark the page, print out an image; do whatever you have to do to remember because these are two London coffee shops you don’t want to forget.

But do yourself a favor, order a pastry and skip the quiche.

Chatting or working: what’s your main reason for going to a cafe?

Store Street Espresso on Urbanspoon

What’s it like to be an American student in England?

Cortado and work

I’m not an expert.  Yet, after nearly 3 years living in England, I do feel qualified to give some advice to other international students about starting their new journey abroad.  My university thinks so.  So does HotCourses Abroad, a website that collects testimonials and blogs from international students.  Last December, I sat down to chat with them about what it’s like to be an American student in England.  Click here to see my responses.

If you’re still looking for more advice about adjusting to life in the UK, you can find my regular blog here.

And, while I’m at not being an expert at anything, just a thought about this final term at university.  I oscillate between feeling elated that I’m nearly finished and nearly done with the all-consuming stress of essays and exams.  Then, ever so often, I remember that when I finish there will be no one there eager to drill the subjunctive into my brain or encourage me to read more critical articles on Dante.

Right now I’m so very much immersed in my little university world that it feels hard to see beyond it.  Thinking about further study — which will happen, just not straight away — I can never figure out what sounds right.  I love writing, but a degree in journalism sounds limiting.  I love Italian, but further study in Italian usually requires the knowledge of another language and I gleefully left Spanish behind in high school.  I don’t see any university yet offering a degree in food culture.

It’s an exciting time.  I’m not be an expert in living abroad, but these four years have taught me more than I expected.  The lessons extended beyond the classroom, but plenty took place there as well.

And, on that note, I’m going to go read some Dante.

What are you not an expert on?