The brilliant thing about British supermarket chains is that they put mini stores on almost every street corner, meaning organic arugula and Oyster Bay wine are just steps away no matter where you are. And it also means that pre-made lunch options are a cinch, whether you’re a fan of char-grilled vegetable couscous for £1.59 (about $2.50) or edamame-and-butter-bean salad for a mere £1.99 (about $3.15). Getting a wholesome lunch in England is an inexpensive cinch, even if you’re confronted with Cadbury’s chocolate at every checkout line. Getting lunch in DC? I don’t have a window in my office, but if I did I’d be looking out at a Staples, a Potbelly, and a Corner Bakery, none of which seem to be tempting me with the siren call of whole grains and exotic vegetables. Yes, there’s always my hometown import, Pret A Manger, but my monthly spending there is starting to rival my mortgage, and the staff give me the same kind of judgmental looks that bartenders give alcoholics.
Photograph by John WilwolOne of the best perks about working at a magazine is the sheer number of diet books that get sent our way (one of the not-so-great perks is having to get rid of all the five-pound political biographies). I'm absolutely fascinated with them; not because I'm any good at going on a diet, but because I find the disparity of advice absolutely hysterical, and there's usually at least one reliable recipe if you ignore calls for non-fat cooking spray, Splenda, and soy products. Here's what I've gleaned from the diet books I've read over the last year: If you cut out carbs, fat, meat, dairy, animal products, fruit, and sugar, and exist on a high-fat, non-fat, vegan, meat-based, exercise-heavy diet of vegetables, you'll manage to not only lose weight but also keep it off. Astonishing.
I think mon pauvre père rapidly realized that this Paris ruse was less a way to refine my grasp of le subjonctif and more a way to spend a few months in a wine-and-macarons-based stupor, but he went along with it pretty decently (I think it was as good an excuse as any for him to spend a few weekends propping up the bar in Les Deux Magots himself).
According to a new tool released by the USDA, 4.4 percent of Americans live in a “food desert.” I have no official statistics to back up the purely imaginary claim I’m about to make, but I’d estimate that 99 percent of Brits live in a Mexican-food desert, without so much as a Chipotle or a California Tortilla to call their own—one of the tragedies of England being 5,000 miles from Mexico (the other is the complete absence of mariachi bands and piñatas from the British cultural lexicon). Before I was 22, I’d never enjoyed an enchilada, scarfed down quesadillas, or patronized a taco truck at 2 AM.
After almost four years in the States, however, and one summer traveling around the South with my Georgia roommate, MacKenzie, I’m now madly in love with Mexican food and particularly grateful that there’s an entire holiday here dedicated to freedom and tequila-based drinks. At home, we make the following recipe roughly once a week, so it has evolved from an early attempt at authenticity to a full-blown homage to jalapeños. I made it for English Mummy last night, thinking it might dramatically alter her world view, but it turns out she spent a summer traveling around Mexico in the 1970s, so she merely said, “No refried beans?” before diving in with gusto.
Happy Cinco de Mayo! If you’re considering making margaritas, try shaking one part tequila, one part Triple Sec or Cointreau, and the juice of ½ lime over ice instead of using margarita mix: infinitely better-tasting and better for you.
There is, however, one element of the royal wedding of which I thoroughly approve, and that’s the groom’s choice of cake. In addition to having a traditional English fruitcake at the reception, Prince William has requested a chocolate biscuit cake, which is apparently a favorite of his from childhood. Bear in mind that “biscuit” is British English for “cookie,” which I hope will make this sound a lot more appealing than a floury cake made from fried-chicken side orders. Chocolate biscuit cake is a nursery favorite, combining cookies, chocolate, syrup, butter, and raisins in a refrigerated slab of sugary goodness; the final product is dark and fudgy, with crunch from the cookies and chewiness from the fruit. You can also add brandy if desired, but because it’s uncooked, be careful whom you serve it to. (There’s nothing tackier than drunk toddlers at a formal event, and this isn’t the Olive Garden.)
My mummy is coming to stay next month, meaning I’m already making preparations: purchasing Earl Grey tea and marmalade, cleaning, and preparing an invisible, Teflon-esque coat of armor, which I’ll use to repel any maternal criticism. (On a recent visit she complimented me on my weight gain and told me I was getting bunions.) I’m joking, mostly. My mummy is lovely, and her visits are usually complicated by only one thing: she’s lactose-intolerant. This is a giant problem in our house, where a quarter of our grocery budget is routinely spent on cheese, and my loyalty to dairy is matched only by my loyalty to my husband, who’s much nicer and more patient with my family than I am.
I vaguely remember eating “macaroni cheese” as a child along with all the other bland, casserole-type things we were fed—tuna bake, fish pie, cottage pie—but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to appreciate it. When I was out in London’s Soho one night about five years ago, I stumbled into the Boheme Kitchen & Bar, where I drunkenly scarfed the better part of an entire plate of mac and cheese and discovered that it was really, really good. Admittedly, almost anything is really, really good when you’re drunk, which is pretty much the only reason that Jumbo Slice in Adams Morgan is still in business. But this particular macaroni-and-cheese combination had an interesting addition: spinach. And because it gave a nice texture to the dish, as well as the illusion of healthfulness, I’ve been adding it to my own rendition ever since.
Sounds easy, no? Here are my credentials in terms of cooking: I have none. I’ve never taken so much as a basic knife-skills class, and I ate a radish for the first time in 2008. But I’m British, so that takes care of at least a part of the equation. And I grew up in a very food-oriented house—my stepmom, a former caterer, was trained at Cordon Bleu; my mom and stepfather are organic beef farmers; and my dad was a hardcore gastronome, who once gave me a glass of Château Margaux when I was doing my French homework at age 13 (I like to think it distinctly improved my work). So I grew up cooking and eating a lot, in London, which contrary to popular opinion has some of the best restaurants in the world and where it isn’t always raining.
I also worked as a waitress for six years, which gave me three important skills: (1) I can fan out an avocado prettily on a plate, (2) I know how to unblock a toilet, and (3) I can open a bottle of wine in less than five seconds. Curiously enough, it wasn’t until I gave up being a waitress and became a journalist that I started cooking properly.