Sometime in the autumn of 1996, among the so-called dreaming spires and cupolas of Oxford, I cooked the first proper meal of my life above the Levi Jeans shop on Queen Street.
For the Michaelmas term of 1996 – and for the September preceding it – I (and 15 or so of my colleagues from my college in the US) lived a fairly privileged lifestyle the likes of which I had never seen before and have only ever seen fleeting glimpses of again. And nearly half my lifetime later am I only beginning to realize the wasted opportunities that youth so nonchalantly brushes aside for the vain glories of the present (notably getting drunk and spending too much cash in the pursuit of doing so). For instance, I just recently learned that I had access to Isaiah Berlin, the great(est?) and perhaps most well-known Oxford don of the 20th century. But that is not the story I wish to tell at this moment.
When the bus (or coach if you will) finally arrived near the flat where I was to live for the next three and half months, I’d already had a pretty good tour of Oxford from the windows of that bus. My roommate and I were the last ones dropped off at our flat because it was the hardest to get to due to one way and foot traffic only streets. It was, if you will, like seeing all the prizes in Showcase #1 and passing on it for the unknown prizes of Showcase #2. And we proved to be the big winners (though not without some minor drawbacks).
First the overwhelming positives – we lived in the City Center; ours was the only flat to come with maid service; we only had to share a kitchen with four other students (as opposed to the huge dormitory on St. John’s Street which virtually required you to dine at College or to dine out, though for the first month we were there the colleges were closed); it was the nicest and most modern kitchen of all the places we could have lived; and though busy during the day, Queen Street proved plenty quiet at night since it was in the commercial district and all the shops closed up for the day relatively early by American standards. The drawbacks – warm when we arrived, it wouldn’t be long before the temperatures dropped and little was it apparent to us upon our arrival but our bedroom lacked any source of heat; the common room floor was the ceiling of the Levi shop beneath to which the speakers were mounted – I don’t believe any two-hour period ever passed while the store was open that we didn’t hear the booming bass drum of Underworld’s Born Slippy (I love the song to this day and every time I hear it I’m reminded of lounging about in that suave common room in the late morning, but it made it hard to use the common room as a study room during the day); and lastly, living with four other men who were as lazy and messy as myself – to prove how lazy and messy we were, there was a large bowl we converted into an ashtray in the common room which I can only recall being emptied once when the only non-smoker of the house stepped on it and dumped the contents all over the floor. Thankfully we had the cleaning service.
Despite the minor drawbacks of my living situation and a sinus infection which proved impervious to the best the NHS could muster, life was indeed privileged for those 3 and a half months. For the many functions and receptions we had to attend, wine was always in ample supply. And reasonable food was never far away at these events either. Most weekends there was a bus tour that cost nothing extra and which took us to view the Cotswolds, Blenheim Palace, Bath and Stonehenge, and Cambridge (the only such trip that I declined to attend). We were provided reasonable accommodation in London for a weekend where we met members of both Houses of Parliament, walked on both floors of Parliament, took a tour of the Inns of Court, drank and smoke at the Beefsteak Club and had the opportunity to watch in person the Question Time on Sunday evening (once again declined to drink at some shitty pub the whereabouts of which still remain a mystery to me).
Then there were the privileges that simply came with being students at Oxford: becoming a member of the Bodleian library; using our college’s library (my roommates and I were students of Trinity College though neither of my dons were from Trinity – one was from Oriel and the other from The Queen’s College); dining in Hall; drinking and playing table football in the college pub where beer was subsidized to the tune of about 50%!!; having access to our respective college’s JCR; and having access to the great institution that is the Oxford Union (not to mention access to its library, reading rooms and snooker tables (I never made use of the snooker tables)).
But none of this mattered unless we had food in our bellies, and though we were blessed with many receptions that offered “free” food and alcohol, for that first month, more often than not, we had to fend for ourselves because term had not yet begun. And despite the need for food, as I sit here now, I can only recall my first pub experience (the rough around the edges, townie and apparently going out of business Pennyfearthing Pub behind the Westgate shopping center) and my first pint (unfortunately at The Turl) but I can’t recall where or what I ate on that first day of my life in Oxford. I do recall wandering around the Covered Market on that first day and being awestruck by the quantity and (apparent) quality of the foodstuffs on display there, but aside from it all looking very pretty I had no idea as to what to do with any of it. Were we meant to skin the hares and pluck the pheasants hanging by their feet, upside down with white plastic bags over their heads collecting the blood? How does one cook squash or aubergine? And would I like any of it anyway?
It nearly goes without saying that if my 37-year-old self walked into that covered market for the first time I wouldn’t know how to limit myself; conversely the 21-year-old version of myself didn’t know where to begin.
Thus to Sainsbury’s we went, my roommate Mark and I. Aisles of canned goods, fresh pre-made pizzas that you only had to place in the oven (to this day my favorite pizza is pepperoni and onion), cryovaced chicken breasts without feathers, and no blood in sight. Sure there was considerably more French wine stocked on the shelves than most American supermarkets, and you could easily find Marmite and Cadbury’s products, but this was essentially just like any other grocery store either of us had ever been to back home. It would do quite nicely for our purposes.
Seeing as we needed to figure out something relatively quick or risk going broke in our first month by eating at restaurants all the time, we took turns at preparing dinner and it soon became apparent that I had slightly more aptitude in the kitchen than did Mark.
So what was this wonderful first meal I put together, one that I had no way of knowing at that time would so profoundly change my life?
Roast chicken breast marinated in some bottled marinade from Sainsbury’s, roasted potatoes with various dried herbs and olive oil, and sautéed green beans.
The meal was so completely edible that Mark bragged about it to our classmates the next day at our mandatory lecture on the political history and culture of England. Two of our fellow students were intrigued enough to either garner an invitation or to just invite themselves for an encore performance, where I had to prove that I did actually have the ability to put three edible items of food on one plate. One of the girls I had worked with back home at a used bookstore, while the other would be the one to inadvertently alter the course of my existence in Oxford, for once term began she developed an interest solely in smoking hash and gave me her New College ID for the rest of term. Trinity was nice, the food was very good, but New College was by far a friendlier place and the pub first-rate, loud and better stocked than that at Trinity.
Our meal went well. We drank wine, we caroused and we all ate a homemade meal, the ingredients of which were procured only hours earlier from the Sainsbury’s at the soulless Westgate shopping center.
Once term began the need to prepare dinner for ourselves was greatly diminished as we turned the to majestic dining halls of Trinity and New College. From just getting by on poorly prepared chicken with potatoes and green beans we were now being treated to three course dinners most nights of the week. Upon the conclusion of our meals all that was required to continue the merriment was to walk down a flight of stairs to enjoy some pints of beer while playing table football.
While I can say I’ve never worked as hard academically, I can also admit that I’ve never enjoyed my free time as much as I did while in Oxford. Never a moment passed while I was there that I could say I was bored. And in many ways the world of food was opened for me in that ancient city of learning, where I had my first tastes of Indian and Thai cuisines, and where I cooked my first meal.