Fit to Pop Over Yorkshire Pudding

July 30, 2006

This is a follow-on from our conversation about which was more uniquely American — apple pie or blueberry.  (Click here to read it.)

Shannon, Zoe and I had been out for a run at Point Reyes.  We’d kept Zoe motivated with the promise of an early meal at a famous restaurant.  “I’m ordering popovers and cornbread to start,” said Shannon.  “I hope they still do popovers — you’ll love them.”

She needn’t have worried: instead of bread, the waitress put down a basket containing three pieces of cornbread and three Yorkshire puddings.  “This is a Yorkshire pudding,” I told her, putting one on my side plate.

“It’s a popover,” she said, her voice tightening.

“It’s named after where they were invented.  How can you possibly claim to be an Anglophile, and to have been to Britain fifteen times if you’ve not had roast beef and Yorkshire puddings?”

“It’s a popover.”  Her eyes glistened dangerously.

“Perhaps if you were to ‘pop over’ to Yorkshire you’d find an angry mob waiting to lynch you?”

“They’re delicious!” said Zoe.

“Now, your American cornbread is delicious by itself.  Yorkshire puddings are especially delicious when eaten properly, as an accompaniment to beef, especially if the gravy’s good.”  The popover was the blandest Yorkshire pudding I’ve eaten in my life — almost as tasteless as fufu — made all the more so by being eaten on its own.  I went for a slice of cornbread to put some flavour into my mouth.

“We are eating them properly,” said Shannon.

“They taste even better when they’re eaten with roast beef,” I told Zoe.  “When we pop over to London England-land-shire at Christmas we’ll eat them properly with roast beef.”

“We’re eating them properly here,” said Shannon.

“As an Italian American, where would you go for a real pizza?  Would you ‘Hit the Hut’ or go to Naples?”

“I can’t wait to go to London at Christmas!” exclaimed Zoe.

I flashed a victorious smile at Shannon’s withering look.  The silence was as golden as a good Yorkshire pud.


Can’t See the Wood for the Bars

July 29, 2006

“Stop!” I yelled.

She hit the Pause button on the TiVo. “What?” We were watching a documentary on a rape and murder in a Bible Belt state. I’d asked her to freeze the picture on a man talking to camera.

“His name, it’s hilarious.”

“I don’t get it. Explain.”

“Randy Wood. He sounds like a porn star. I know you understand the ‘Wood’ bit, because that’s American slang for erection. ‘Randy’ in Britain means horny. So to a Brit this guy’s name means ‘Horny Erection’.”

“Yeah, I see that. God, that is funny.”

“You know on my website I have a section of words in foreign languages which are offensive in English, as well as English words which can be offensive in other tongues. This guy’s photo is going on it.” I tooka photo and we resumed our viewing.  (Click to see unintentional foreign humour.)

Randy Wood

Then we found that — although Randy Wood took part in an horrific crime when a drunken teenager — he’s an honourable man.  He helped the prosecution build a tight case against the instigator, who brutally murdered a former girlfriend of Randy’s.  Even the chief prosecutor and the victim’s family urged him not to go down a particular legal route, and to take a plea bargain instead.  But Randy did it because he had a strong sense of wrong and right.  As a result, he’s in jail without parole for forty years.  Had the murder taken place just yards away, in his home state of Oklahoma (thanks for the correction, Mo), he’d perhaps be serving ten.  But it took place in Texas — the one state that can make Mississippi’s justice system look liberal by comparison.  For more information: read this.

What’s Your Poison?

July 28, 2006

Like many Californian settlements short on history but long on sentiment, Santa Rosa makes much of its Historic Square.  The march of progress since 1833 has seen the Square overshadowed by an elevated section of Route 101, which is currently being widened.  The disused stone-built station has been converted into a tourist office — though it’s a sign of another kind of progress that the railway should be rolling again by 2009.

And at one side of the Historic Square is the Aroma Café, a long, single-storey building.  It’s here that Shannon and I often go to write.  It’s the antithesis of Starbucks, and at peak times there are queues out of the door.  We regularly drive twenty minutes to get to it.

After 16 years of travelling in the States, it’s the first place I’ve found that does really good tea: Irish Breakfast.  I learnt to buy 20oz cups, rather than pots because I found that by the time I reached the end of the pot the tea was so strong I got a caffeine headache — something I’d not had since giving up coffee fourteen years ago.

There’s a wonderful, understated quirkiness to Aroma’s.  Your order is taken with your name on it, so you and the staff get to know one another on a first-name basis.  There are no staff uniforms, and the young crew come in a variety of clothes, a multitude of piercings and a gallery of tattoos.

There’s free wireless connection, but that’s where the welcome ends because the power sockets are papered over with notes saying ‘You will be asked to leave if you use this socket’.  Shannon and I bring extended battery packs.

The gorgeous Shannon in her native habitatShannon in the Aroma Café

But if the warmth of the welcome to laptop users is un-American, the health information is not.  There are cards posted at the counter — and even in the toilets — telling you just how much caffeine is in your beverage (see picture – click for larger view).  And in a nod to its effects, the café has a free water dispenser with proper beakers.

Caffeine guideCaffeine content

It begs the question as to whether the owner is afraid of patrons either ‘driving under the influence’ of caffeine, or concerned about future lawsuits relating to kidney stones due to dehydration.  And it finally puts paid to the myth about tea having more caffeine than coffee.

A Flying Fish

July 27, 2006

Sonoma County has bought old quarries and turned them into recreational lakes.  We took the kayaks down one afternoon for a paddle on one of them.  Shannon had her dog, Skipper, on the prow of her boat.

We’d been on the water about twenty minutes when I saw a large bird of prey hovering a hundred feet above the water.  I pointed it out to her.  “An osprey,” she said.  As soon as she’d said that, it tucked its wings in and began to drop.  It hurtled towards the water and flared its wings as its talons splashed through the surface just forty yards from us.  The huge effort in changing direction was so impressive that neither of us will ever forget it.  As it beat its wings and lifted away, we could see that it had seized a decent-sized fish.  Neither of us spoke until it had landed in the top of the tallest tree overlooking the lake and began to eat its fish.

“I’ve always wanted to see that in real life and I never thought I would. Never,” I said.

“Me too,” she said.  “And we saw it together.”

The ripples from the splash reached us.

Manhattan vs. Womanhattan

July 24, 2006

We were lying in bed watching TV, our laptops on.  Suddenly she stiffened.  “I have to go for a walk.”  She saw my look.  “Don’t’ worry, it’s not you.”

I waited, watching the real-life American carnage on CourtTV.  She came back five minutes later and got back into bed.  I put an arm around her.  “Want to talk about it?”

“That frikkin’ agent in New York rejected my proposal.”

“Did he tell you why?”

James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces apparently wrecked the market for autobiographical works from unknowns after the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book was revealed not to be a memoir.  The agent said it would be several months before editors commission such works again, pointing to some edits she might make in the interim.

“Most writers would kill for a rejection like that,” I said.  “He’s telling you it’s marketable in a few months, and that you can use that time to edit it.”  She smiled weakly.  “He’s also a man.  Didn’t I say that this is very much a woman’s story, and that you should focus on your experience as a mother?  His hobbies are yachting and golf, for God’s sake — he’ll never understand it.  You’re going to break the heart of every mother in America with this book.  Approach a female agent and you’ll sell your manuscript in a matter of months.”

“Thanks, babe.  You’re right.  You know, this is one of the things that’s so great about our relationship.  This whole mutual support is so powerful.”  We talked excitedly about the edits, and I made her laugh about how the male agent’s going to feel when he sees her book soaring up the bestseller lists.  She rejected the idea of looking for an agent on the West Coast, at least for now.  “I’ve just always wanted to be able to say ‘I’m going to see my agent in Manhattan’.”  I didn’t question her — we all have our dreams, and I want to make hers reality.

Three weeks later she forwards me an email from a female agent in Manhattan.  The agent is interested and wants to see more of the manuscript, together with a marketing plan.  “See that?”  I told her.  “It came on the twenty-first.  Your lucky number’s three and mine’s seven.  Three sevens are twenty-one.”  We set to work editing the documents.

After the Fireworks

July 23, 2006

Shannon and I were in San Francisco for July the Fourth.  We watched the spectacular firework display from the swimming club near Fisherman’s Wharf, where she trained for the Treasure Island triathlon last year.  Some members of the club chose to swim out into the harbour of Aquatic Park to experience them at closer hand.  “I’m going to be in the water next year,” she said.

The following afternoon we ran from our hotel on Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf.  It was a warm summer afternoon, with none of the fog so typical of the Bay Area at that time of day.  We ran along the sea front in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge and then out along the curving west pier of Aquatic Park, the spent cinders of the star shells from the firework display underfoot.  When we reached the end of the pier I spotted a seal bobbing in the water.  “Look,” I said.

“You hear stories about them biting swimmers,” she said.

“I’ve scuba-dived with them and never felt threatened — they’re very playful.”  The seal disappeared.

“I really feel like a swim.  Fancy coming?”

“Shanny, there’s a time and a place for it.  You’ve got a sore stomach and you’re finding running difficult.  Imagine what it’ll be like with the cold-water shock.  And you must never get into water where you can’t see an exit point.”

“Over there,” she replies, pointing at the beach two hundred yards away.  She’s already astride the harbour wall.  “Go on, dare me to do it.”

“No.”  I know that she will always rise to any dare.  “What would I tell your parents when I meet them for the first time?  ‘I’m sorry, she sank before I could save her’?”


“Not a bit of it.  Just sensible.”

“Come on, dare me.”

“Absolutely not.” I decided my best strategy was to resume my run.  After a few seconds she followed me.

Lying in bed later she said,  “Thank God you didn’t dare me, my stomach’s agony.”  A few days later she had an emergency scan for a suspected hernia that turned out ‘only’ to be a torn stomach muscle, with a blood-blister the size of a grapefruit.


July 22, 2006

“I’m going to take you on my favourite ride now,” said Shannon as we left Zoe and Jonah at the water park.  “You know Zoe loves big-thrill rides like Top Gun, but she refuses to go on this one again.  Think you can handle it?”  She squeezed my hand.

“Of course,” I told her, squeezing back.  “The scariest ride back at home was the dive-bomber.  I went on it nine times in a row when I was twelve.  I couldn’t afford a tenth time.”

Delirium is a giant pendulum that swings up beyond the horizontal as the passengers are simultaneously spun around on the end, legs dangling.  Disembarking passengers looked genuinely shaken.

We reached the front of the queue and dashed for seats next to each other.  Bars locked down over our shoulders.  “No going back now,” she said.  “Sure you can take it?”

“I’m more worried about whether you’re going to be able to take this,” I replied.  I reached for her hand as we swung higher and other passengers started screaming uncontrollably.  The fluctuation in g-force was literally breathtaking — taking us from weightlessness to face-sagging g-force and back with increasing rapidity.  “This is what it’s like getting emails from you,” I said.  She struggled to turn her head to look at me.  “I have no idea what to expect.  It could be loving, or you could be tearing a strip off me.  It can be really unpleasant.”

She can’t free her hand from my grip.  “You bastard — I can’t hit you because my other arm’s locked down.”

“See what I mean?” I replied.  “Mood swings more violent than this ride.”  We both howled with laughter as the ride hurled us upside down.  “And that was last Tuesday morning,” I yelled.

We staggered off the ride, hand-in-hand.  “You really meant what you said, didn’t you?” she said, wiping away tears of laughter.

“Yeah.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way — you know that.”