48 hours in Toronto


48 hours in Toronto. It was just too rock’n’roll to miss. I was to present a paper on the ‘Making of Nigella’ a postmodern reading of the creation of gastroporn by the goddess herself  at the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies’ academic conference at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto before flying home the very next day. Jetlag? Shmeltlag; I’d got my Melatonin tablets and was ready to face my public. Conference season is a chance to press the flesh within our communities of practice, to engage with researchers in our fields. These were my people in the world of media literacy and cultural studies and I was ready to get excited again about deconstructing the modern world.

But it was also a chance to glimpse a city that I’d never seen, to taste the culture through its fab fooderies and piece together a jigsaw even if I didn’t have time to see the big picture. With the help of my conference colleagues, twenty-something PhD students Stephanie Patrick and Averie MacDonald, I set out to find the heartbeat of the city through its food and found it in Kensington Market and in a chat over a delicious Pad Thai.  I asked them how food reflects the culture of a city and even a nation… Have a listen.

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10. The Fat of the Land

A month into our new life as faux small-holders in which the farmer does the dirty work while we scold the pigs for nicking each other’s beetroot leftovers and chat to the sheep about the imminent arrival of the ram, and Ellie has turned vegan. It was bound to happen; she’s 13. How else is she going to rebel? She’s not going to smoke while she and her sister comb the duck house for signs of sneaky cigarette butts, and the likelihood of us finding vodka bottles among the popcorn and Friends DVDs under her bed is tiny while she’s still pasting the latest Government statistics of middle class drinking on the fridge door. I write about food so of course she’s going to try to survive on crisps.

So it was with some trepidation that I drove Loulou, already a vegetarian thanks to her sister’s mighty influence, to watch chefs from The Tin Drums, the string of Brighton restaurants owned by our friends Dave and Vicky Radtke, carving up their Saddleback pigs which Loulou had known since they were four weeks old.

Since moving to the countryside last May, Climate Change, Peak Oil and the recession have been the main inspiration for Dave and Vicky whose restaurants are having an identity make-over after they swapped the eco-home they built in Preston Park for a farmhouse and three acres in the middle of nowhere to provide as much food for the Tin Drums as the land will allow. Their pigs, two for the restaurants’ pots and one for their own, have spent the last six months ploughing and naturally fertilising the land for the vegetables that will now take their place, and chickens run freely, laying just enough eggs for the family’s Saturday brunch. With the rest of the ingredients for the restaurants procured from a network of small producers within a five mile radius and the kitchens’ cooking oil providing the bio-fuel for Dave’s daily commute, it’s an eco-dream that they can put on the plates of their clientele back in the big city.

Loulou has been slowly digesting their food philosophy since the piglets arrived, sweet and squeaky last autumn but is still not quite convinced about the “happy meat? story. Had I mentioned, therefore, that we were off to witness the miraculous alchemy of piglet to pork which we would almost certainly be invited to share around their kitchen table within the next week, her memory may well have spun back to the rather more bloody Matanza pig festival we witnessed some years ago in Andalucia. Best to keep quiet, I decided.

I’m very jealous of the Radtkes. And no, it’s not because Vicky’s commitment to Bloomsbury-style hedonism is legendary and yet she still looks like a cross between a slim Nigella and Jenny Agutter circa 1982. It’s not even because they really do the small-holding thing while we’re busy suspending reality with our more Johnny Morris interpretation of life on the farm. It’s because their children have utterly bought into the lifestyle while mine spend their afternoons planning protest marches to the local abattoir. Their boys, aged seven and ten, love their chickens and their pigs, but when their time comes, their response is rather more down to earth than my vegan and vegetarian children’s would be. Even when the frantic squawking of their chickens alerted me to the murder of a young cockerel by one of our terrier pups last week, it was met with acceptance and even a lick of the lips. As I retrieved the still warm, still whole body, imagining how our kids would react if a friends’ dogs had killed one of our brood, Louis, the elder of the two peered at the body nestling in my arms. “Ah, Philip?, he said calmly. Monty ran in to check on the news. “Is he dead, Mummy?? he asked, gingerly patting him. “Can we pluck him??

So I wasn’t surprised to find Monty and Louis studying the Tin Drum chefs’ knife skills as their former playmate held back for the family’s dinner table was sliced into enough charcuterie, hams and chops to keep them in supplies for the next few months.
Vicky busied herself with the leeks and carrots that would accompany the head for a stock as she told us proudly of the dignity of the pigs’ departure on the Monday morning. She had been determined not to cause any distress to the pigs (or to Dave and herself) and to let them saunter into the trailer in their own time – however long it took. No herding, no cajoling as they rolled and basked in the spring sunshine before strolling up the ramp to sniff at the fruits smeared on a plank among the straw. Once in, it was a ten-minute ride to the abattoir before pottering from the van into a holding pen of more straw. Then it was over, in seconds. The kids listened intently to her story, the boys finding further confirmation that their parents are just as committed to humane animal husbandry as they are in avoiding the unnecessary shot of adrenaline that toughens the pork served in their restaurants. I watched Loulou’s brow furrow and wondered what she would tell Ellie about her day.

As I presented a roast tenderloin from one of the deliberately unnamed pigs, delicately rubbed with home-grown sage and thyme for our Mother’s Day feast the next day, Loulou was more silent than usual. She is clearly confused about where she stands on the meat issue now; she may still refuse to eat the stuff, but her sister has taken to eating cardboard which just doesn’t have the same panache as her previous foray into activism. Dave and Vicky are nice people, and Monty and Louis don’t appear to have psychopathic tendancies. The narrative of their carefully raised, well fed, caringly dispatched pigs has unravelled a new thought process in the inner foodie hard-wired into her DNA.

I may be wrong, but I smell change ahead…


I learnt a trick once. If you put something that you really wanted and then lost in an imaginary bubble and let it go, it will come back if it’s the right thing to do.

I did it with the Nigella book. I had been offered the job when a biographer dropped out at the last minute and I was seconded to meet the pressing deadline. But, as my pen was poised to sign the contract, the editor’s boss dashed my dreams and put his own favourite writer in place. I was gutted. I had dreams of dining with Nige and Charles, plates of her mother’s roast chicken balanced on our knees in Tracy Emin’s bed as we watched reruns of The West Wing. So when the phone rang and my would-have-been- editor told me I’d lost the gig, I dragged the kids out into the garden and told them to imagine me and Nigella arm in arm. We adjusted the view until we were both fondly smiling at each other, chatting happily about our mothers’ favourite recipes and then I ordered them to put the vision in a bubble, close their eyes and repeat the mantra.

Refusing to let the rejection get me down, I decided to email the would-have-been-editor and ask her to meet me to discuss other projects. If she had liked my writing enough to give me the job in the first place, she should like me enough for another. She invited me for a coffee.

When I arrived, she was smiling almost the same smile as Nigella had done in my bubble. She told me that she was taking me to lunch, that the other writer didn’t feel she could cope with the deadline and a small child and that if I wanted it, the job was mine.

I can’t say, but I’ve just put something else I really, really wanted and lost in a bubble. I’ll let you know if it comes back.