A Day in Oxford, and a Discovery

I woke early this morning, took one last walk to the Thames and said goodbye to London (“Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!”)

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I arrived in Oxford a bit later that morning. Oxford is a lovely, inspirational, aspirational city. The weight of the years grounds her in grand heavy halls, while her graceful spires raise her up in adulation. Her many colleges evoke recurrent architectural themes honoring the glories of ages past and a future unknown. Her beauty is eternal, for one age and all.

After arrival, I tried to check in at Balliol College, where I was to stay in one of the dorm rooms, but the room was not yet ready, so I instead joined a walking tour of the town. Theo is a recent graduate, who studied literature at Oxford. He is unemployed at the moment, and doesn’t know quite what he would like to do with his life. But, for now, he gives a wicked tour! He reviewed the history of the town, and pointed out many sites such as a pub where Clinton didn’t inhale and some of the buildings used in Harry Potter. It was a free tour and well worth every pence! (don’t worry! I tipped!)

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After the tour I settled into my room, which was purely functional, but clean. It had a gorgeous view of the quad and the Balliol College Chapel.

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From there I went in search of lunch. I immediately sought the Eagle and Child, which is where the Inklings (ie Tolkien and Lewis) first read some of their works. I approached with reverence and glanced at the menu and sign. Something was amiss. It was then I realized that this was part of a chain of pubs. I don’t know when this happened, and was torn. It was like arriving at the end of your pilgrimage only to find that the shrine you hoped to visit is now a mosque. Of course, that doesn’t keep Christians from visiting the Hagia Sophia and appreciating her beauty and import, but they just no longer worship there.

I considered my options and what the Inklings would have done. In the end, I opted to go to the Lamb and Flag across the street. Theo had said it was better, and further pointed out that the Inklings had gone there as well.

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I started with a pint of Lamb and Flag Gold. Mmmm, beer.

For lunch I wanted something truly British, so had the Steak and Ale Suet Pudding. This was something I didn’t think I could find at home. So, how was it? The peas were bland, the carrots were bland, the potatoes were bland. The pudding wasn’t actually awful as a starting point, but needed salt, perhaps some pepper and herbs. Everything was frankly underseasoned.

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It was then that I noticed the condiments on the table and fully understood British food. There were tomato sauce (ketchup), salad cream, mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, and brown sauce (steak sauce). All in addition to salt and pepper. I added some salt and pepper to everything, some vinegar to the potatoes, and some brown sauce to the pudding and had a revelation.

British food isn’t poorly made, it’s poorly eaten. We come to Britain with an American (or French or Italian) expectation of an expert cook, who will season and flavor everything correctly. Theoretically, we, with a few exceptions, should add only salt and pepper. As foodies, we think of the chef as the artist, and we must be careful not to bastardize his dish. But in Britain such thinking is turned on its head. The chef prepares the basic meal and applies a crumb coat, a much more minimal approach, and then we complete the preparation to our liking. British food is all about the condiments. This is why the Brits were happy to adopt chutney … It’s a great condiment! Sadly, though, this essential element seem to be getting short shrift, and this is where British food is falling apart. Too many plastic packets of mustard and ketchup. They need artisanal vinegars. They need house-made chutneys, mustards, ketchups, and brown sauces. The condiments need to be rediscovered and raised up to their proper places of honor and British food will shine as the ultimate minimalist conceptual meal.

Incidentally, I later did stop off at the Eagle and Child for a pint of cider, but that was the extent of the time I spent there.

During the afternoon I climbed a belltower, which afforded me the opportunity to take some fantastic pictures. Of course, this also involved me climbing a precarious spiral staircase. They had strung ropes as handholds, and I clenched them for dear life. Spiral staircases are inherently hazardous, I have decided.

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So where did I go to eat after my grand British food revelation? Why, Indian, of course. A restaurant from the Michelin guide, called 4550 Miles from Delhi.

When I sat down, the waitress suggested I start with poppadoms. They were good, but had I been given more than a moment to consider I would have chosen something else. I think everybody around me had poppadoms too. She was really pushing them hard, I think.

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I perused the menu trying to decide. There were so many options, and I was torn. Chicken tikka masala is the national dish of Britain, but it seemed wrong somehow. Then my eyes lit upon the Goan Fish Curry. The description mentioned the west coast and coconut. Both spoke to me of Kerala, which I grew up eating as a small Indian boy. I ordered this with paratha and rice.

The rice was nothing to write about. ‘Nuff said. The paratha is a layered whole wheat bread, and here the layers were absolutely lovely. The flavor was decent, but not as good as what I used to eat growing up. Still, certainly better than I’ve had in the states.

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Finally, the fish curry. I don’t think these were quite the regional flavors I expected. I could barely detect any coconut, if at all. And I didn’t find any sense of curry leaves. It strikes me as ore of a Punjabi rather than a Keralite dish. That said, it was thoroughly enjoyable. I ate it all enthusiastically.

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I may be having a reference point problem here. For the most part nobody ever cooks as well as mom, and I had two incredible moms cook for me. We searh the world for transformative flavors that carry us back to our homes and our childhood. These aren’t they, nice though they were.

For dessert I had gulab jamun. They’re honey soaked balls of sweetness. They were sticky, sweet, spicy, and delicious. Unfortunately I had actually wanted Kheer. *sigh*

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In the morning I got up and ate a proper English breakfast in the Balliol College Hall. The experience was a moment of perfection. Even without the throngs of students, I could imagine what this hall would be like during the semester. Staying here was a brilliant choice. (Sadly I failed to document the Balliol College Hall, so here is a picture from a similar hall at Christ Church College, where they filmed Harry Potter)

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On my way, I have some last thoughts. Oxford is a lovely city, but I can’t shake the feeling that we, as outsiders, are merely tolerated. The University is largely closed, and outside of her halls the town is rather small, and distinctly secular. Yet even if all her halls stood wide open, I think we would be only walking behind the mirror, further obscuring the mythic, ethereal reflections she offers to show the world. The real Oxford is only for those few permitted within her looking-glass world, and that is not my place.

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