The Sacred and the Profane in Edinburgh
Things that seem like a good idea at 3 AM
If a pairing is to be unusual it should, I believe, have some element of whimsy about it. After all, truly great food is already a pairing of the profane and the sublime, of the biomechanical process of lifting food to one’s lips and chewing followed by the chemical process of digestion culminating in the down to earth reminder of our common humanity that is shitting it out; coupled with the ecstatic revelation that is taste, which can rapturously transport oneself to another plane of being. This emotional connection, the pleasure and enjoyment that comes from the unexpected revelation of the sublime, I consider to be the third, and silent, partner turning a quirky or unusual pairing into an ecstatic threesome.
That being said, the origin story of any pairing should be the kind of tale which can be told over a candlelit dinner table to a group of good friends; some place beautiful, perhaps a seafront restaurant on the Côte d'Azur, or overlooking the Basilica in the Piazza San Marco. Times being what they are I can’t invite you to join me there, so please, do the mental legwork and imagine something of that ilk, and regardless of your specifically imagined locale, imagine a warm summer breeze, the clink of glasses, and the satisfaction of a stomach full of good food as I unfold the tale of this, my most unusual pairing.
Our story begins at three AM in a pleasant, but somewhat downmarket Edinburgh bar. The protagonist, your humble narrator, a twenty-two-year-old Englishman come to see the sights. I am fresh out of university, wear my hair long, and time has not yet chiselled away the softness of youth from my face. I wear upon my torso the affectations of another era, an open collared shirt and a tweed jacket, although I marry this with a thoroughly modern pair of jeans and some Chelsea boots. I sit drinking with a group of three Scottish students, companions de jour, the final four people left in the bar except the exhausted bartender, who desperately wishes we would leave, last orders having been rung over an hour ago.
“Yes, but surely you can’t really mean anything.” I say, leaning forward over the table, to emphasise my incredulity. “What if it’s inedible?”
“Well then you can’t eat it after, but we can still fry it.” Says Kevin, my favourite of these companions I had found, this trinity brought over to my table by the allure of a clearly eccentric man with an English accent. It takes me a second to form a reply, a combination of all the whiskey I’ve drunk that night (a dram of single malt, subtly smoky from an island whose mountain range is named after breasts), and my perhaps not-so-subtle contemplation of Kevin, whose soft and disarming Edinburgh brogue concealed, I was sure, the brazen and tempestuous heart of a man descended from a long line of warrior poets, ‘Oh ravish me Kevin!’ I thought; but I digress.
Perhaps at this point it would be of the readers' benefit to have some context. For those few of you who are unaware, Scotland is a magical place, a land of soaring mountains; deep, mist shrouded valleys, a place of deep history, rich poetry, fierce people, and renowned across the entirety of Britain for a singular form of magic, one that is not, to my knowledge, replicated anywhere else in the entire world; the strange alchemical ability to coat anything, and I do mean anything, in batter and deep fry it. So, with this piece of knowledge imparted, let us continue.
“I don’t believe it!” I say, “surely there are limits? Barriers beyond which man is not meant to meddle.” This prompts a round of chuckling from the table, the outsider who cannot understand the complexities and power of the sacred mysteries.
“Well then, let’s prove it to you!” Says Kevin, downing the last of his drink. “There’s a twenty-four hour shop around the corner, we’ll stop there, you can buy anything you want, and then we’ll take it to this place I know a few streets over where they’ll fry anything you bring them.”
“Fine.” I say, standing somewhat unsteadily and shucking on my coat, “let us test this claim of yours.” The barman breaths a sigh of relief as the four of us stagger out into the sodden chilly night, with me holding onto Kevin’s arm, for stability of course.
It’s a short walk to the twenty-four-hour convenience store, one of those awful places you find yourself on occasions when poor foresight has left you short of cigarettes at some godforsaken hour. The harsh neon illumination bleaches everything within, rendering every unfortunate soul that staggers in there as some kind of pale wraith, robbed of all vibrancy.
“So, you really mean choose anything?” I ask. Examining the shelves for something that might give them pause.
“Absolutely anything.” Replied Kevin, a faint smile playing around his lips. I wander the aisles searching; as I pass the chilled section I reach out almost absent-mindedly and snag a bottle of white wine, something crisp and refreshing after all the whiskey. “I don’t think frying that will change the flavour much,” says Kevin with a grin “All of the batter will be on the outside of the bottle, though if you really want, we can soak the wine into some bread then fry that.” I stare at Kevin in utter shock for a few moments too stunned to speak, he hadn’t said “no we can’t do that”, hadn’t demurred in any way, just blithely accepted the challenge and pointed out issues and solutions. This was a rare and wonderful individual indeed.
“No.” I say, when once again I find my voice. “there’s no bar at my hotel, this is just a nightcap, plus if you heat liquid in a sealed glass container too fast it might explode.” Kevin shrugged; such concerns were clearly for the faint of heart.
I continue my perusal for a good ten minutes, until my eyes finally alight on the perfect thing. A watermelon, large and round, green skinned and perfect, not a trace of marring or bruising on its skin, a perfect offering to the gods of grease and heat. I pick up my chosen sacrifice and carry it to the checkout, the cashier looks at me quizzically, but dutifully rings it through the till, he’s too old a hand at these night shifts to be shocked or surprised by anything. I pay, and once again we are off into the night in search of Kevin’s strange alchemist.
The neon lights outside this temple of oil spill out onto the sidewalk, I pause a moment before entering, feeling like I am on the cusp of some titanic revelation of primordial truths. A sign on the door proudly declares that, as promised, the proprietor will deep fry anything you bring in for a small charge. I clutch my watermelon one handed and take a deep breath as I push the door open. The smell of hot grease immediately assails me, a handful of similarly inebriated patrons sit at Formica tables which look to have been installed in the seventies, all conversation halts as I enter and their eyes take note of my burden; another brave soul come to challenge the alchemist whose workshop lies beyond the counter, half hidden in a haze of steam. Not one to be daunted by a frosty reception, I square my shoulders and stride boldly forward, my companions trailing in my wake. With a thump that seems louder than even its prodigious size would belie I place the watermelon upon the counter. The proprietor, a large man with a huge red beard and wearing a grease stained apron stares at me for a few seconds, his eyes then travel to the watermelon and then back up to meet mine.
“It’s a fruit.” He says, his mouth forming a grim line of disgust.
“Yes.” I agree, we stare at each other as a few, pregnant seconds pass. “The sign does say anything.” I say, slightly too late for the silence to have been anything but uncomfortable. The proprietor nods.
“You’ll just end up with a hot sticky mess.” He says, perhaps some kind of test of my resolve to enter the sacred mysteries.
“That was my nickname at university.” I quip. Another grim line forms on his face, perhaps he objects to more than one kind of fruit? I place my finger upon the top of the watermelon. “Anything.” I say, drawing the word out and feeling its all-encompassing richness roll around my mouth.
“It doesn’t have the structural integrity, it’ll dissolve.” He says.
“Damnit Scotty, then reroute auxiliary power to the integrity fields!” The words have flown out of my mouth before I could consider them and there is a gasp from the small crowd of onlookers who have gathered at this point. The proprietor remains stone-faced for a moment, and then the faintest twitch of a smile begins at one corner of his mouth, glacially becoming a full on grin; I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding as the crowd around breaks into nervous chuckles.
“Aye cap’n.” He says, “I’ll give her all she’s got!” At last a connection, perhaps he’s a trekkie, or perhaps I’ve merely passed his test. No matter, he’s giving the watermelon a thoughtful look and voicing his professional opinion. “I think chunks would be best. That way the flavours mix and you don’t have to chew through the skin.” I nod in agreement. “Do you want me to take the skin off entirely?” I pause and consider the question, giving it the full weight that such a momentous unknown deserves, I’m silent again for a long moment lost in thought.
“No.” I say, the crowd around me makes surprised noises. I turn to explain. “The chunks will be completely covered in batter, red melon on five sides, skin on the sixth. Whoever takes their first bite on the skin side loses.” There’s confusion on all their faces, clearly no one here grew up in a family as competitive as mine.
“Loses what?” Asks Kevin.
“Just loses, you know, in general.” I say with an airy wave of my hand. I turn from the crowd and back to the proprietor who is already busying himself about his duty. I watch with eager fascination as he separates the great watermelon into roughly equal sized chunks, coating each piece in batter before he places it gently into the frying basket, then lowers it reverentially into the grease. He mutters to himself as he works, although what arcane incantation he’s using to perform this thaumaturgy is too quiet and fast for me to catch. We all wait on tenterhooks for the allotted time to pass.
Eventually, and with great ceremony he lifts the watermelon from the fryer, now coated in fried batter and transformed into great golden chunks. One, two, three times he taps the basket over the frier, then with a gleaming pair of metal tongs he lifts out the chunks and places them upon paper plates. He turns and hands me the plates. I nod at him and he nods back, the moment too intense for words. I turn and carry the plates over to the table which my companions have claimed. As I take my place on the hard plastic seat a crowd forms around our table, every patron in this establishment has gathered, and even the miraculous alchemist that is the proprietor has come from behind the counter and stands quietly at the back, his arms folded across his chest as he awaits our verdict.
Everyone is staring at me as I lift the deep-fried watermelon from the plate and bring it to my lips. As I take a bite my teeth crunch against the batter and flavour rushes into my mouth, the heavy greasy texture of the batter contrasting perfectly with the sweet, crisp flavour of the watermelon. I close my eyes, chew and swallow, a sigh escaping my lips. I open my eyes, “It’s good” I say to the waiting crowd, “great even.” Everyone begins reaching for a piece then stops as I hand down my next pronouncement. “But it’s not perfect, it’s missing something.” All eyes turn to the proprietor, who stands impassively, waiting. “I know!” I exclaim, sudden inspiration striking me. I reach into my bag and pull out the bottle of crisp dry white.
“Can’t drink in here.” The proprietor says, shaking his head.
“Come on Scotty!” I counter, “We’ve come this far into waters which only Man in his hubris dares to wade. We can’t stop now!” Again, that glimmer of a smile.
“Alright then. But just a sip.” He says, clearly, we are bound together now by some force much stronger that the transactional bonds of customer and host. I unscrew the metal cap, and holding the wine in my right hand, I take a bite of the watermelon with my left; slowly I chew, letting the flavour touch every part of my mouth, then after I swallow I take a swig of the wine from the open bottle.
All at once my soul is catapulted from my body to the resounding sound of clashing cymbals and angelic choirs. I am simultaneously ensconced, warm and comfortable within my mother’s womb, and borne forth on tumultuous seas, untouched by the waves amidst raging tempests. I open my eyes and see before me the infinite vista that is all of time and space, cognisant of my own infinitesimal part in an unbroken chain that stretches behind me into long lost primordial seas, and ahead of me from the confines of this Earth to spread amongst the stars. I reach forward with trembling fingers and at fullest stretch, I touch the hand of God, whilst beneath me on a scaffold an Italian painter rests in satisfaction, his work complete. I am everywhere and nowhere, lost in the sublime, and all too swiftly jolted back to myself amidst a world that will always now seem greyer and less vibrant by comparison.
The crowd around me are silent, vaguely aware that they stand suddenly in the presence of one who has, before their very eyes, touched the numinous. I look at my mad alchemist, my miraculous engineer of this transcendental experience, he wears a grin upon his face now, he knows the magic at work when he sees it. He says nothing as I place the bottle in the centre of the table, now an integral part of the ritual in this temple, his temple; the temple he keeps for whatever god it is that finds and places a soul in food, to be consumed and added to our own in order to forever change the nature of who we are; as we, through arcane science and magic transform it from raw ingredients, through the alchemy of fire and chemistry, into a thing so much greater than the sum of its parts. I wonder perhaps if this is how it was for him, as he set out so long ago on the path that made him the keeper of this place, did he too glimpse the divine in the profane mundanity of our earthly senses? perhaps, perhaps not, I will never know. I turn to my companions, smiling and nodding towards the food, staring perhaps slightly too intently at the glorious Kevin, who seems to shimmer with a golden light in my newfound awareness. “Dig in!” I say.
As an addendum I should note that I returned to Edinburgh some months later, Kevin and I at this point having become fast friends. We went looking for the chip shop but we were unable to find any trace of its existence although we wandered up and down the street it had been on several times. Kevin believes, rather mundanely, that it merely closed, the proprietor moved away. However, I choose to believe that it was a place somewhat out of the ordinary, and that perhaps in some other place at some other time, I may be once again bathed in its neon glow.