A quick break, a simple delight
Crusty bread, creamy dip, memory and the present bring bittersweet joy
The deli was in Hammersmith, around the corner from my school. At my old school, in New York, I didn’t go out for lunch; I liked the food in the cafeteria there. But in London, at my new school, the food was – well, the truth is I don’t remember. So I’m going to tell you that the food was bad. It’s up to you whether you believe me. But this is my story. What I say is up to me.
October, a bit drizzly, wet West London streets. I was living, that year, with friends of my parents in North London. Kentish Town. There was a bus that went all the way, north to west, it would have been quicker to take the Tube but I loved to ride on the top of the bus, of course I did; there were no double-decker buses in New York. You could smoke on the top of the bus: my clothing stank of smoke but I was used to that from home. My mother, the smoker, with me even when she was an ocean away. Open door at the back of the bus. The grooved floor of the bus, the worn wool fabric seats. The bus conductor, his cranked machine strapped to his chest. Tickets, please, tickets.
October, a bit drizzly, I would walk out of the school gates to the deli, I was sixteen, old enough for this freedom. Someone had led me to the deli, or I had found it on my own. You decide. A counter, a cash register, a glass cabinet filled with piled slices of ham, with “egg mayonnaise” – egg salad, back home – little curled prawns in Marie Rose sauce – cocktail sauce, back home. And a heaped pile what looked like plain mayonnaise, but for the pink blush, the faint graininess you could see if you leaned close to the glass. I bought a baguette, a pot of the pink stuff. Taramasalata. I’d never eaten if before. I became addicted. Every day, out to the deli. The Styrofoam pot with its plastic cover, the swirl of rosy, oily cream, lemony, a little rough, a little bitter too somewhere at the back of the throat. It was good bread, too, with a stretchy crust, pooled with holes in the warm white heart. Back at school, which I didn’t like though I’d said I wanted to go there, I want to live in London, but London was huge and ugly and confusing, all curves, no grid, and my North London family, well – that’s another story. Scraping the crust against the side of the little pot, curled up on the sofa of the senior common room, eyes down. Tangy, salty, soft. Chewing and swallowing.
This was meant to be a recollection of delight. It seems a little different, now. And yet: delight is here, thirty-six years later. This morning, moving through huge, ugly, confusing London, London my home, huge, beautiful, complicated London, travelling from east to south, dipping down under the river on the Overground, over and under, and at Sainsbury’s buying myself a pot of the pink stuff, a ciabatta roll which I will warm in the microwave of the college kitchen so its heart goes soft, pooled with holes, a stretchy crust, the graininess on my tongue, a dance of bitterness under the lemon bite.
It’s such a simple thing. It carries me back to the past, and I discover delight not only in what I taste but even in the memory of what I don’t dare to call – I don’t dare to call suffering, no. That unhappiness of the past, of youth, of mystery, of who-are-you-and-where-do-you-belong, the accumulation of questions that will never be answered and it is only now that you begin to consider: there are no answers. That’s fine. There’s bread, and taramasalata, and the blue London winter sky beyond the glass of your window, there is the journey home.
About the author
Lead Editorial Innovator, Vocal. Author, critic, friend, parent, cook. New book: Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge. Twitter: @EricaWgnr, Insta: @ericawgnr