What should one eat while traveling in London? I’m glad you asked! I have been overwhelmed, actually, by requests from family, friends, blog readers, acquaintances, and strangers who heard that I am traveling in London.
“Okay, so you are in Europe,” they say to me. “Okay, so there’s art and culture and fascinating people and bloody weird language permutations and beautiful buildings and elaborate ceremony and centuries of history and a bridge that is falling down, my fair lady. All very good. But what did you eat?!!”
All right, all right, all right! By popular demand, here is a blog post about food in London.
And I would like to note that we are definitely on the same page here. Truly, I believe that feeding oneself properly is of utmost importance in life. And that goes for not just physical food . . . but also spiritual food. Oh, I fed myself well in London!
Food for Mind, Senses, and Spirit: Theatre
I partook well of the theatres in London: This is some seriously good sustenance. I saw three productions that blew me away. They were quite similar in theme—which I didn’t realize would be the case when purchasing my tickets. They were about women and the societal forces that keep them (us!) in submission.
Here is a photo of the chandelier at Duke of York’s Theatre, where I saw Rosmersholm by Henrik Isben. If it had not been for the characters’ clothing, this play, written in 1886, could have taken place in modern times. The themes—politics, gender, and religion—are just as relevant today as they were 100+ years ago.
I had the feeling that I had heard the name of the heroine before: Rebecca West. She must feature large in literary criticism, and rightfully so. This play is a masterpiece that I somehow missed studying in college. It’s about the constraints of society. It’s about people who disagree with the majority opinion and must choose to either conform (and stifle themselves) or, bravely, live uniquely and work to change society (and risk becoming an outcast and losing everything).
Ditto pretty much all of the above in regard to The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. How did I miss encountering this masterpiece earlier in my life? The Three Sisters was written in 1900 and, like Rosmersholm, spotlights the plight of an intelligent woman—that is, three intelligent women, who are being stifled by the town and circumstances in which they live. Also like Rosmersholm, the production was spectacular. The choreography, costumes, lighting, dancing, and acting were phenomenal. I laughed, I cried; it was great. (Thanks to R. for recommending this theatre and production to me!)
Embarrassingly, I could not stop crying through Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, a play written last year. This does not usually happen to me. Near the beginning of the play, tears began streaming down my face and dripping off my chin. I controlled myself. It happened again in the middle of the play. Again, I controlled myself. At the end of the play, however, it was a losing battle. I was sobbing outright, though I managed to say silent. Luckily, I was sitting far back in the orchestra section (so far back that opera glasses were available for rent), so I felt inconspicuous. Also, there were empty seats around me. When the production ended, I slipped out of the theatre with a wet face and crazy eyes. Instead of descending into the Tube, I walked for a couple of miles, weeping in the dark of the London streets. OMG, I’m tearing up again—let me move on and write about something else!
But I suppose I should explain the cause of all this emotiveness. The heroine of Emilia, Emilia Bassano, is a historical figure who lived in Shakespeare’s time and may have been the “Dark Lady” he writes about in his sonnets. I do not know how much of the play was based on known facts, how much was speculation, and how much exaggeration. In any case, the play dramatizes the plight of a woman who wanted to be a writer, despite prejudice against her due to her gender, and who wrote feminist poetry (that survives today!). The play uses many of Emilia’s own words, written 400 years ago. And it is very funny. It features an all-female cast, who play both the female and male characters—which is hysterical considering that in Shakespeare’s time only men acted (men dressed as both men and women on the stage).
Food for Thought
Amidst all of this theatre going, I visited many cafes and bars, seeking out quaint places to work on my laptop. I found some adorable venues and ate some delicious food: I remember a lot of eggs, avocado, fancy cheese, spinach, nuts, and smoked salmon, along with numerous pots of tea with milk. However, I was starting to get frustrated because I kept choosing places to work where the music was a bit too loud, or the chairs and tables a bit too crowded together for comfort. And then, one day when I was feeling homesick for my quiet office in my house in Maryland, I experienced the glory of stumbling across . . . a Starbucks! I ordered a cup of tea! The barista poured milk into my tea without asking permission, but that was okay with me! The music was low! And it wasn’t very crowded! God bless the USA!!!!
More Food for Thought: Books
My original strategy on book buying was that I must not buy any books. Why heft a book across an ocean, when I can have it delivered to my home?
Naturally, that didn’t work out so well. I see a bookshop, I enter it. I enter it, I see a book. I see a book, I want to buy it. Well, I compromised by buying only small, skinny books.
So now I must heft a huge pile of small, skinny books across an ocean. Sigh.
The silver lining is, skinny books are quicker to read and thus will help me reach my goal of 50 books per year. LOL.
Also: Have you read Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins? (That book about a grown woman on a train?) Well, I took a train from London to the Midlands and, very truly, the backs of houses are lined up against the train tracks! (I did not see any people suspiciously kissing, though.)
Food for Ears: Music
I traveled to the Midlands to see Kate Rusby, who was performing in Derby to celebrate the release of her new album, Philosophers, Poets and Kings. As she explained during the performance, the title track is not about philosophy, poetry, or royalty. It’s about wine: now that’s a song I can get behind! (With due moderation, that is: and there ends my similarity to the grown woman on the train.)
Kate Rusby’s performance was impeccable, really wonderful. I love the simple beauty of her folk music. She sings on universal themes like love, death, birds, and the night sky. She often takes centuries-old ballads and sets them to her own music. I adore her—thanks for a great time, Kate!
Next, I saw Thea Gilmore in concert at Union Chapel. What a beautiful venue this is! Thea Gilmore is a singer and songwriter whose lyrics are remarkable for their wit, insight, and irreverence. It felt strange (in a way that is apropos to her music and persona and vibe) to see her perform in a church. However, this is a church with a bar. Alcohol is not permitted in the chapel itself; but for some reason, irreverent, subversive music is completely acceptable. . . .
Thanks, Thea, for an amazing performance. I adore your (literal and metaphorical) voice!
Food for Companionship
As long as we’re back to playing our old game of Find the Hidden Item in the Photo (did you find not one but two fluorescent signs amidst the ornate architecture and Biblically themed stained glass in that last one?), let’s move on to the story of this photo.
While sitting in a Parisian cafe in London—not to be confused with a Parisian cafe in Paris—I asked the man sitting at the next table to take a photo of me, which he kindly did:
As the well-dressed men behind me had a serious conversation about Jesus, my companion and I had a witty conversation about, among other things, the genius of Bertrand Russell, of whom both of us, it transpired, are fans.
However, as this blog post is about food, our conversation is irrelevant. And so—per your request—here’s what we ate in London over the next few days: Yorkshire pudding with meat, potatoes, and vegetables; beer; a cocktail garnished with an origami bird (me) and a virgin drink (him); tea; Caesar salad with chicken (me) and steak and potatoes (him). Also, we wished to order gelato at one restaurant, but the waiter didn’t visit the outdoor table where he’d seated us for half an hour, so we gave up on that idea.
At one point while walking around London, half lost (and half not), we stumbled across this church. It’s called All Souls Langham Place. Do you see something notable, hidden in the narrow gap between the church and a nearby building? (I was going to try to read a deeper meaning into this; however, thinking better of it, I shall move on to the final sentence in this paragraph.) It was nice to have a companion to hang around with during my stay in London, and we parted friends (and nothing more: nobody freak out).
Food for Eyes: Art
On my last full day in London, I visited Tate Modern, a spacious museum of modern art that looks, from the inside, like an empty factory. I saw many thought-provoking and lovely pieces, but the most nourishing food there, which sat best in my belly, was the Mark Rothko room. Mark Rothko is famous for his large, abstract expressionist paintings. These works of art often have just a few, large bands of color. They are beautiful. Furthermore, studying them quietly can offer one a meditatively spiritual experience. Here’s one of the Rothko paintings I saw.
I entered the Mark Rothko room, which was lighted only dimly, and sat on one of the benches in the center. The nine paintings surrounded me. I sat and looked at the paintings, occasionally turning to peer in different directions to see them all.
After two or three minutes, something astonishing happened. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, and the colors of the paintings emerged in all their brilliance. It was like the rising of the sun: a meditative and spiritual arising that I had not anticipated.
After a few more minutes, something else astonishing happened: the blocks of color began to invert. Whereas I had been seeing numerals like 0, I, and II, suddenly the inverse space appeared to be prison bars. But they were not imprisoning bars; no, they were safely nestling me in the meditative space. They were keeping me in a place of understanding and compassion, while sheltering me from the outside world of ignorance and cruelty. For me, the paintings had suddenly transformed into an expression of the life of the introvert: you erect shields to save yourself from the chaos of the outside world. Your shields keep you safe from panic, while warning others not to intrude. I was honored to be shielded by Rothko’s paintings for those few minutes of my life.
A brochure I received at the Tate Modern advertised a Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the Tate Britain, a museum in a different part of the city. I wanted to go, but I had a ticket for a matinee performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare’s Globe. After the show (which was funny and silly—but not one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces), I completely forgot about the exhibition. So I stood here for ten or twenty minutes, listening to a street performer in front of the Tate Modern and, when I turned around, admiring the view of the Millennium Bridge over the Thames:
Then I moseyed on over somewhere else, whereupon I noticed that I had access to WiFi. That’s when it hit me that I should look up how to get to the Tate Britain and get there ASAP! So that’s what I did. I had to walk to the subway, take two trains, and walk to the museum. I got lost, and encountered a fellow traveler (from Sweden or Finland, I believe) who was also searching for the museum and the exhibit. We found the museum and entered 20 minutes before it closed. She had a museum pass already. As I was purchasing my ticket for £22 (about $29), the woman behind the counter warned me that there wasn’t enough time and asked whether I really wanted to buy it. I really did. Next, the man who took my ticket at the door looked at me in horror and said,
“A ticket, at this hour?!!”
I mainly wanted everybody to stop talking, so I could see the exhibit! So I quickly entered. And it was spectacular: another spiritual experience. Here are some of the Van Gogh paintings I saw. Ignoring the paintings not by Van Gogh, I focused on the masterpieces: and so they were. Looking at the paintings, I had this repeated thought: “He gets it. He gets it!” He understands this life. He understands the beauty and strangeness and spirituality and liveliness of the world. Every brushstroke, every color, is perfectly placed in those paintings. Looking at them, I feel as if I’m peering into the soul of the world, the essence of reality, something much more real than even reality itself. It’s hard to explain what I mean, but here’s another attempt:
There was a room full of paintings of sunflowers. I think these sunflowers were painted by contemporaries of Van Gogh—though I can’t be sure, as I did not dawdle to read the descriptions. I glanced at each of the paintings to see if it was by Van Gogh, until finally I came across the Van Gogh. My thoughts went like this: “Hmm, a painting of sunflowers, another painting of sunflowers, okay more sunflowers, geez lots of sunflowers in this room, here’s another vase of sunflowers, these sunflowers are kinda boring, more sunflowers over here . . . WOW—THOSE ARE SUNFLOWERS!!!!”
Yes, I had seen reproductions of that particular work of art before. No, it’s nothing like seeing the painting in person.
I made it through the ten or so rooms of the exhibit in ten minutes, which was exactly what I needed to do, as the guards started hustling people out ten minutes before the museum closed. The experience was worth every penny. (That is to say—it was worth all the pence!)
Food for a Brick in the Belly: Traditional British Fare
Then there was the day that I decided to go full-on traditional with my food. I had British tea with milk—always in England tea is served with milk—and carrot cake at a British bakery, as you can see here. Later, I had fish and chips, peas, and beer at a tavern. I don’t particularly like cake, fried food, or peas, and the beer was subpar; but I ate and drank with gusto anyway. (I thoroughly enjoyed the tea with milk.) The next day, my belly felt not so good. Despite that inconvenient fact, God save the Queen!!!!
I know, this blog post is very long. So here’s the bottom line on what to eat in London. If you ever decide to travel to this truly great city, I recommend that you nourish yourself with theatre, books, music, art, companionship, tea with milk, alcohol, and, for good measure, actual food.
I’m off to Paris now. (If you’re wondering why, see my blog post about the unconscious mind.) Until next time—bon appétit!