The Food of Eros

26 May 2005

Albeit aimed at Slow Food’s Italian readers, Slowfood is a magazine that encompasses the world. Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue, number 11, published yesterday

Like all of his friends, I envied my young buddy Alex when he started dating Helen. She seemed to have it all: intelligence, a vivacious personality, and good looks. She was perhaps not very worldly but, if anything, that added to her charm. She was very agreeable – by which I mean that she typically responded with enthusiasm to whichever movie the rest of us wanted to see, and to our choices of restaurant, which in those days always seemed to be Greek or Turkish. She always looked as though she had just had a pleasant surprise. She even looked that way after her first taste of retsina.

She was not in a state of permanent astonishment, of course. It was just the cast of her features. Her honey blonde hair half hid a wide forehead, beneath which her blue eyes shone like Curaçao liqueur. Her cheeks blushed as invitingly as ripe peaches.

Then there was her figure. I have been trying to avoid this area, for fear of being thought sexist. Let me put it this way: She had the sort of figure women admire. My dear spouse frequently observed that Helen had a beautifully proportioned figure. This put me on the spot. On whatever subject my wife expressed an opinion, any response that was less than effusive was received as disagreement, which could smoulder until it exploded. On the other hand, an enthusiastic response to Helen’s figure could well be misinterpreted, as though I had been caught stroking her bottom.

My wife and I were a dozen years older than Helen and Alex. His family and mine had been neighbours in our home town. Parents in the provinces invariably worry about their children in the wicked metropolis. Alex’s mother asked me to keep an eye on him. She so hoped he would marry Helen, “such a pretty girl, and so sensible”.

Alex and Helen were still at college. They found London expensive, but I showed them some affordable places.

The four of us like to meet at Jimmy The Greek’s, in former wine cellars in Soho. Not only was Jimmy’s inexpensive; it was famous for its mountainous servings of fresh, crusty, bread and rich, tasty, butter. Jimmy didn’t seem to mind if we economised on the kebabs and filled up with bread and butter. Except for Helen, who appeared to enjoy subsisting on a diet of salad, olives and feta cheese.

When Helen’s parents came to visit, we took them to Beoty’s, in St Martin’s Lane. Beoty’s, founded by a Cypriot in 1945, still exists today. It is a cosy, traditional, restaurant with no need to flaunt its origins. The food speaks for itself.

Had Soho not been dissipated by its own licentiousness, it might have vaulted Oxford Street. Instead, the north side was named after Fitzroy Square. Most of Fitzrovia’s restaurants were in Charlotte Street. Our favourite there was the Anemos. My wife and I wondered whether Helen and Alex would ever precipitate the ritual smashing of crockery with which the Anemos celebrated marriages among its clientele.

Or would their budget by then have stretched to the nearby White Tower, with tablecloths of the same colour? It dated back at least to the early 1950s, when kebabs seemed exotic, and its prices stayed high until it closed in the 1990s. The high ticket enabled the restaurant to be an ivory tower, maintaining private tables for the top men in the area’s many advertising agencies. To eat in the same place every day, from the same short menu, would have seemed to me a limiting indulgence, but your own table at the White Tower was a symbol of great status – and the kebabs were very beautifully spiced. Well, herbed. Thyme, if my memory serves me well, and with aromas it usually does.

My own favourite local restaurant for kebabs was then – and still is – Costa’s, in Notting Hill. It dates from the 1950s, and is as simple and unpretentious as ever. There is still a welcome from a member of the family. Costa’s is handy for a meal before or after a movie at the Gate Cinema or The Coronet. At one or the other, I saw Zorba The Greek, which remains one of my favourite films.

Helen and Alex both shared student flats not far from The Roundhouse, an alternative theatre, in a building where steam locomotives had once been re-oriented on a huge turntable.

Their neighbourhood, Kentish Town, had been working class, with the nearby railroad termini providing jobs. It, too, was re-orienting itself. Couples like Helen and Alex saw it as a first step toward the intellectual heights of Hampstead. The surviving blue collars and the aspirant blue denims (usually with fashionable John Lennon spectacles), provided insulation for Greek and Turkish Cypriots who had arrived after. They therefore found proximity more tolerable in the northeast of London than on Aphrodite’s newly independent island.

There was soon a kebab house on every corner. Shish kebabs were no longer a novelty; haunch-shaped hunks of compacted meat sweated on upright grills in the windows of Döner-kebab restaurants. It was by living in the neighbourhood that Alex and Helen acquired the taste.

Adapting quickly to metropolitan life, Alex became a connoisseur of kebabs, and Helen nibbled the odd one with her salad. She was suspicious of all other “foreign” food, including even the reshmee kebab, often served as a starter in Indian restaurants. This is a small patty of minced, seasoned lamb, grilled, but removed from the skewer before being served. The long serving restaurant critic of the London “Evening Standard”, Fay Maschler, has deemed the spicing of a reshmee kebab (often with coriander) the first test of a good Indian restaurant.

Indian restaurants are immensely popular in London, but the kebab remains associated with Greek and Turkish cuisine. Today, about 100 mainly Cypriot Greek and Turkish restaurants feature in the various London guidebooks. Kebabs have become so commonplace as to be a fast food, often bought to go.

The popular television series “Men Behaving Badly” opened with a scene in which one of two room-mates sat on a sofa and was impaled on a discarded kebab that was some days old.

I was discussing bachelor life over a few too many glasses of ouzo with Alex when he confided that Helen was not as agreeable as she seemed. She was the only woman he knew who had not joined the permissive society. Helen was – he used a phrase I had not heard in a decade – “saving herself for marriage”.

Faced with an astonishment I could not disguise, Alex protested – too much, I thought – that he had been attracted to Helen for the person she was, not just by the arrows of Eros. That was how it should be, I agreed, but Helen was a very attractive woman; her recalcitrance must be a strain. His mumbled agreement was scarcely passionate. I am no classical scholar, but the name Helen brought to mind Paris. I suggested that a weekend by the Seine might be magical. “But she would know that it most likely involved sharing a bed”.

I patiently explained that a woman would see things differently. “The point is that you will not be asking her: ‘Will you please stop saving yourself and come to bed?’ You will be proposing a romantic interlude. Romance is very important to women. She will not have conceded anything. If it happens, things will have just taken their course. That’s probably what she wants. She just feels insecure, or guilty, about giving permission,”

Alex couldn’t afford Paris, but he found an inexpensive package to Brussels. This was before Eurocrats’ expense accounts had inflated prices He was worried about Helen’s dislike of “foreign” food, I telephone my friend Jean-Paul, friend who had a restaurant in the Forest of Soignes and told him to be sure they were served the Brochettes Marocaine, and to send the bill to me. Jean-Paul had recently lost his Michelin star and thus much of his business. He had started securing reservations by offering to pick up customers from their hotels in his elegant 1950s Mercedes. He returned them in the same style. I imagined Alex and Helen feeling romantic after a digestif on the house and a ride back in a luxurious limousine.

The evening went well. On their return from Brussels, Alex told me that he had identified marjoram and harissa in the spicing of the lamb brochettes. I was surprised at his culinary connoisseurship.

“And Helen? Did she enjoy it?” My question was greeted by the broadest of smiles. Unfortunately, the post-coital glow had faded slightly the next day, when they visited the Musée des Beaux Arts. Apparently Alex had spent too long in the Rubens gallery.

Despite Alex’s dalliance with Rubens, he and Helen became engaged, a state which I thought had vanished around the time Livonia and Pomerania ceased to exist.

Helen had lost more than one inhibition in Brussels. She became a keen traveller and a more ecumenical eater – so long as the food had spent at least some time on a skewer. Variations on this theme were increasing in number. By now, Döner kebab houses in London were facing competition from Lebanese restaurants which would deliver Shawarma kebabs to your door. Alex joked, but not to her face, that her obsession with skewers was phallic.

In Brussels, Alex had enjoyed the Lambic beers and sharp cheeses at Café de la Bécasse. The following year, they went to the Octoberfest, in Munich. The beer was disappointing, but they both enjoyed the Shashlik. They also saw a performance of “Die Walkure”. Unfortunately, Helen became annoyed when Alex loudly shouted, “encore”, occasioning the fat lady to sing longer than was strictly necessary.

On that holiday, they hired a car – by now, they were both earning salaries – and took a leisurely drive from Munich to Vienna. There were enough Balkan restaurants to satisfy what had become an obsession for succulence on skewers. Alex was now also developing a connoisseurship of pastries like baclava and kadayif. In Vienna, visits to Café Central, Sacher and Lantmann had him studying the Turkish origins of coffee. Unfortunately, on their visit to the Kunsthistorichesmuseum, the battlefield of Flanders arose again in the bosomy bulges of Bruegel’s dancing peasants.

The more that Alex developed his interests, the further Helen strayed from her once agreeable nature. There was talk of a holiday in Italy the following year, but Helen thought it might embrace too much grand opera. She put a strong case for Greece, but this time Alex disagreed. There was, he insisted no such thing as Hellenic food; Greek dishes were merely scraps from the Turkish table. She wasn’t sure. Nor was food everything. Ancient Greek sculpture was beautiful in its line and proportion. She wanted to see Aphrodite and Pan in the National Archaeological Museum.

She was just being typically disagreeable, Alex insisted. He was like a hound on an aniseed trail that led not to ouzo but to raki. They went to Istanbul and travelled on to Izmir. There, they had a meal the memory of which still transports Alex into a reverie. All these years later, he insists it was the finest meal he ever ate. I question the use of the term “meal”, as it comprised only one course. Nor was it even served on a plate.

The “meal” comprised several kebabs grilled over charcoal on a brazier in the street. The vendor had scattered herbs on the fire, and their perfumes of parsley, mint and cumin beckoned the hungry. There was still a scatter of people on the streets, though ii was well past midnight. Most, like Alex and Helen, had just left a theatre where a famous belly dancer had been performing.

Perhaps the hour left Alex especially hungry, and sea air sharpened his appetite yet further. The kebabs were tiny, a feature of which Helen approved, but the proportions of the charcoal-sealed-exterior to the juicy interior were perfect. The kebabs were the type made of minced lamb, and known as Kõfte. There was also a flavour of crushed pine nuts, reckoned Alex, but Helen thought they were just bread crumbs.

Helen agreed that the kebabs were good but by now means the greatest meal she had ever eaten. Why did Alex find the occasion so memorable? Because of the belly dancer, Helen insisted. That was what he really remembered. The meal was just a surrogate.

She saw now what had been staring her in the face. In all her years of yoghurt and yoga. She had been dating a man who liked voluptuous women: Rubens’ models, Wagnerian divas, Levantine belly dancers.

For one long weekend, she felt rejected and resentful. Then she remembered the maxim. “If you can’t beat them, join them”. Her subsequent over-eating looked like a search for oral gratification. As her friends began to notice, they thought she was trying to compensate for something missing in her life. She wasn’t. She knew what she was doing. She would eat cheese pastries before the kebabs; aubergine instead of salad; custardy desserts; and endless Turkish delight with her sweet coffee.

Alex didn’t think she looked fat, just healthy. He did find her more attractive. When she asked, he attempted to be diplomatic and said she was more cuddly.

This was not enough for her. To his astonishment, she announced that she was to take evening classes in belly dancing. He was hugely flattered that she would do this to please him. She would never remotely have the belly for it, but full marks for trying.

She began to develop new acquaintances at the classes, and would occasionally bring home a particular friend, an Egyptian woman called Fatima. Yes, the name was appropriate, at least in English. The young lady was fat, but very attractive. Her striking looks led Alex to forgive her for the nonsense she and Helen spouted when they talked about belly dancing.

They would come still smelling of the incense they used when dancing. Helen would make mint tea, then the chatter would start. “Femininity and spirituality become one in belly dancing. This is how a woman can unveil her personality. The uniting of strength and grace, sensuality and poetry, enable a woman to achieve inner freedom. A whole world of sensations opens. The fears in your belly melt into joyful fire.”

Helen, fired with enthusiasm, did most of the talking. After a few weeks, Fatima began to look a little bored. The friendship ended rather abruptly.

If Helen’s binge-eating and her belly dancing classes had come as surprises to Alex, her next announcement was an almighty shock. She had wanted Fatima as a lover, but her feelings had not been reciprocated. Now she had, finally, found true love

Helen was leaving Alex for her belly dancing instructor. No wonder she had wanted to holiday in Greece, Alex reflected. She had, perhaps subconsciously, been on a journey to Lesbos.

I have lost touch with Helen, but I understand that she found happiness with her teacher and still lives on kebabs.

Alex wasted little time in pursuing other emotional interests. It took his mother a while to accept his paasion for Fatima, and the wedding was in the register office, but the cous-cous at the reception was the best I have ever tasted.

Michael Jackson, a British journalist and writer, is a world authority on beer and whisky

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