Murder by Bagel

Coffee - in a box!

Coffee – in a box!

I must begin with an apology: I am sorry, New York. I know you are very proud indeed of your bagels, and have indoctrinated millions – possibly billions – around the world into believing they are superior to all other bagels, but I am not convinced. The bagels I have had so far either lack the chewy deliciousness London’s Jewish bakeries have taught me to know and love, or have the consistency of a hockey puck.

Like doughnuts, bagels are everywhere. I have yet to meet a New Yorker – either abroad or on their home turf – who isn’t terrified of carbs and I am beginning to understand why. In this country, one is assaulted by carbohydrate from all sides, to an overwhelming degree. The result is a city of people who beg for protein while chugging back coffee and diet sodas.

This is not breakfast. These are leftovers.

This is not breakfast. These are leftovers.

Take breakfast as an example: the bakery supplies my office with four bagels, pastries and muffins for each person. Because these items are twice the size I’m accustomed to at home, I eat half a pastry, half a muffin and a bagel with cream cheese and feel slightly sick. The leftovers leer at me from reception every time I head to the loo, making me feel queasy.

The one innovation I do like is the coffee box. Our helpful Baked Goods Partner has brought roughly five gallons of coffee in the sort of cardboard boxes my European colleagues and I usually associate with wine. Or, as the Italian among us says “the sort of boxes I see them drinking wine from in cartoons (because I would never be seen dead drinking wine from a box).” This, I have to try. But only after I’ve had my tea. For one heart-stopping moment, it looks like one of the boxes – the one that’s marked differently – might contain some sacred leaf, but it turns out to be decaff.

Madison Square

MSG – see what I did there?

Today’s delight is the view from the office window, which takes in Madison Square Garden. During our infrequent breaks, I take photographs and wonder how many blocks I need to walk to burn off a bagel.

The only things that are smaller here than in Europe (apart from the number of atheists) are the squares. Every time I go for a walk, I am utterly nonplussed by Google Maps indicating the presence of a “square” where I only see something that looks like the forecourt of St-Martins-in-the-Fields. Herald Square is one of these – it’s also where all the evangelists hang out, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons rubbing shoulders with one-woman cheerleading squads for Jesus.

The view from our office.

The view from our office.

Lunch is another carb ordeal, with salad on the side. 25 ciabatta sandwiches, cut into halves that are each larger than my size 7.5 glove-wearing hands, arrive accompanied by two large drums of green and goat’s cheese salad. My half steak sandwich is delicious, the salad is very nice, but at 12.30pm, the prospect of dinner at 6.30 is already making me queasy. I suggest to my colleagues that we stop off at our hotel and then walk to dinner to pre-empt the assault on our stomachs. We wander across to East 32nd St, stopping off at a Korean cosmetics shop on the way to purchase some cutesy handcream and face masks. window 3I get honey and cucumber cleasners for me, fox and panda moisturising masks for my youngest sister, and pig and cow masks for my middle sister, mostly to make the youngest sister laugh. On leaving the shop, I discover we’re in entirely the wrong part of town (thank you Google Maps!) and one of my colleagues bundles us into an Uber to the Meatpacking District.

Our destination is a seafood restaurant in a trendy area of town that reminds me of Shoreditch, but in a nice way. It’s on the second floor, water drips from the distressed ceiling and the DJ plays tracks carefully selected from the period 1975-1985. The clientele dining alongside us resemble models, the women favour thigh gaps and Botox and the staff appear to have been trained in customer service skills by Parisian waiters. They bring menus for only half the party, it takes them 30 minutes to deliver half our drinks, and they tantalise patrons by hovering nearby but refusing to make eye contact. My colleagues address these by commenting loudly on how terrible the service is, how undeserved the money that will be spent, how clearly they are distilling the gin, filtering the sake, growing the grapes for our wine.

We are instructed not to order starters as these have been selected for us, but to have whatever we like for our main. I skip over the $80-90 grills and select something that looks small: scallops on a bed of sautéed cauliflower. The appetisers arrive: grilled octopus, crispy fried rock shrimp, chicken lettuce wraps, tiny delicious pretzel rolls. I dig in, enjoying the delicious flavours.

The lobster we left.

The lobster we left.

And then they bring the seafood towers: two tiers of lobster, shrimp, salmon tartare, clams, mussels and oysters for every four people present. I nibble a couple of shrimp, enjoy a juicy lobster claw, sample a sliver of salmon and have three mussels before my appetite fails me. For the next 25 minutes I sit looking at the leftovers and wondering whether anyone ever finishes a meal in this place, feeling overwhelmed and slightly sickened by the amount of food being wasted simply for the sake of display (you simply can’t take raw fish home in a doggy bag). The staff, displaying their usual disdain, bring us our plates only once we have finished eating.

By the time my giant scallops and glass of Sancerre arrive I feel a little ill. I eat two scallops accompanied by a forkful or two of cauliflower morsels flavoured with pistachio and tamarind. It’s tasty, but the delicate flavour of the scallops is overwhelmed by rich sauce and in the end I can’t swallow more than half of it. I accept defeat, and offer the rest around. For the next hour I make small talk with colleagues while worrying that I may be about to vomit. The colleague on my left describes himself as “Irish through-and-through” despite being born in Long Island and warns me that Mexico is not a good place to visit, despite never having been there. To my right, my boss’s assistant tells me she things films from the ’80s and ’90s are the best. I disagree and she takes her conversation elsewhere, to someone who concurs with her. leftover lobster 2Unable to decide whether it’s the obscene quantity of wasted food on the table or impending food poisoning making my stomach churn, I suggest to my London colleagues that we leave, and we stroll through the meatpacking district before heading along Ninth Avenue towards our hotel. A stop into Duane Reade for earplugs leads to the discovery of a cosmetic pencil sharpener that’s better than any I have found in London and educates me on the existence of disposable cups with a clip-in compartment for snacks. For those who cannot contemplate carrying both a drink and a packet of crisps. One of the truly fascinating things about America is that there is a product for everything you can imagine.

The walk from 13th St to 36th dispels some of my nausea and walking up the stairs to my hotel room helps even more, but I feel queasy enough that I’m beginning to suspect the food here doesn’t agree with me: too rich, too salty, too voluminous. I consider emailing the colleague who organises breakfast to request a plate of fruit and resolve to drink more than I eat at dinner the following night.

 

 

Advertisements

New York – Arriving

My first impression of the USA is the airline. Delta Airlines and its employees are determined that I should not experience the horrors of hunger whilst in their care. It’s not that I don’t think I’ve ever been fed so insistently on a flight – but that I’ve never been fed so insistently full stop. The first hour it’s nuts and pretzels. Next it’s drinks. The US travellers, already versed in the Delta drill, enquire after biscuits – sorry, cookies – but these are not served on international flights.

An hour later, a mere hour into Judi Dench’s deliberations over whether or not to romance Bill Nighy, hot hand towels are brought out and it’s time for lunch: something that looks like curry but is described otherwise; salad, dressing that claims to contain balsamic vinegar, a rubbery substance masquerading as cheese, crackers, biscuits, a bread roll. All the joys of airline food, basically. I notice the various offerings have different names depending on whether they are being offered to Americans (Tortellini, Cobb Salad) or The Uninitiated (generic names like chicken salad, chicken with coconut, pasta). The film finishes and I wonder why Maggie Smith decided to leave what is essentially an old people’s home and therefore equipped for death in order to die quietly in a corner like a cat.

Food and drink are a recurring theme. No passenger must ever have to ask for refreshment on a Delta flight. Once the film is over, I sleep and am gently awoken – how much later? – to be offered bottled water. Doze again, and ice cream interrupts. I sleep through at least one coming of the drinks trolley. It’s as if it would be unthinkable for any Delta guest to actually have to wonder about food before it was offered. 60 minutes before landing I am awoken more definitively to choose a snack, a chicken wrap I regret the moment it touches my lips and discard immediately. Accompanied by a rock-hard tiffin and a mint, this snack would pass for lunch in many quarters I know. The cabin crew tut at my nibbled wrap. The drinks trolley appears again, while Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller make friends with hipsters and learn hip hop dancing.

At Boston’s Logan airport I buy a lobster-patterned gift for my Goth and take a few pictures of the view from the airport windows – sadly the only bits and pieces I will see of the city this visit. The welcome is aggressive. It’s not enough for border control to welcome you to the United States. No, visitors must be welcomed to Boston by a voiceover addressed from “all the people who call this city home.” Boston, visitors must understand, is “the hub of the universe.” It’s the sort of pride I’m used to seeing shot down and beaten to a pulp. How do the other American cities feel about Boston being the hub of the universe? Aren’t they annoyed at it setting itself so high? I think about the bloodshed that would occur if London decided to adopt an ambitious strapline. I’m pretty sure even something as factually correct as “The Seat of Monarchy” would result in a storming of the capital involving axes.

Boston skyline

A s crap of Boston as seen from Logan Airport

The moment I step off the plane I experience the Brit’s fear and panic of unwanted contact. As each person approaches, I brace myself for being asked how I’m doing, making eye contact, replying, trying to conceal my shudder. At security the staff are chirpy even while requesting the handover of my shoes and making me hold my hands up like a captured highwayman for a full-length body scan. I crave the surly air of menace that characterises British and European airport staff, the frowns,  silences, and half-barked commands. British airport staff don’t ask how you’re doing,  they do things like complaining that you  have an unnecessarily long name, as if at the point of naming you 30-odd years ago, your parents had just one object, to persecute airport staff executing random bag checks in 2015. The thing is, you know where you stand when the person frisking you refuses to make eye contact and communicates via grunts and hand gestures.

Lobster

Live lobster for your flight?

The feeding frenzy continues at the airport. The women ahead of me in the immigration queue ask each other if they are hungry, admit they are not and decide they should eat a meal before boarding their flight. They don’t have to look far. Whereas in London you’re winning if at the end of your 20-minute dash to the gate there’s a Costa vending machine pissing out overpriced tepid coffee before you board your long haul flight, in Boston, comfort depends on being constantly assured that refreshments are available. The five-minute amble to my gate encompasses three branches of Dunkin Donuts, several sandwich, vendors, a bar and a seafood restaurant where you can purchase a live lobster to accompany you on your flight. At the gate, Dunkin Donuts is engaged in a face-off with Wendy’s. I’m intrigued by the concept of rich meaty chilli as a side to one’s burger, but I’m sure I’m about to be fed yet another snack by Delta.

I am not wrong. No sooner  are we in the air than nuts and “tea, coffee and Coca-Cola products” are handed out. I am about to blurt out a plea for tea when I remember the last tea handed to me was black and notice that the trolley contains only cream for coffee. Not to worry, I’ll have a tea – several teas – at my hotel. Except that I won’t. Because in my morning hurry, the big glaring error in my packing process was tea. Loath as I am to uphold national stereotypes, this is one I cling to like a shipwrecked child. Morning is unthinkable without tea. I spend the next 5 minutes assessing the severity of the situation. The two London colleagues travelling to London this week are European and therefore partake not of the sacred breakfast leaf. But there must be somewhere in this most global of cities where I can purchase Proper British tea. Our New York office, worked in by at least one British employee, may even have some. I can’t possibly go tea-less for a week, that would be misery. At the end of these brief and panicked ruminations, the pilot informs us we’ll be landing in 15 minutes and cabin crew stand over me until I surrender my empty nut packet and half-empty cup.

Logan airport is positively militaristic compared to La Guardia, where I am immediately assaulted on a arrival by a food hall, for those who find baggage reclaim too hard to face without a meal under their belts. It occurs to me that perhaps we set our sights too low in the UK,  hoping only for the chance of a wee before we go to check whether our worldly goods have successfully joined us at our destination.

Once again, the dread of contact surfaces, but my driver appears to have been briefed on the proclivities of Her Majesty’s subjects. He barely speaks and does not introduce himself. I find out that his name is Pierre from the ID on the dashboard. This is so overwhelmingly comforting that it makes up for the strangeness of a car fitted out with magazines, water bottles and tissues. The airport is more central than, say, Heathrow and in 10 or 15 minutes we’re in East 37th St, crossing over Lexington Avenue, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue and Broadway. The shops on West 37th are often gaudy pageant dress places that wouldn’t be out of place on Fonthill Rd in Finsbury Park. My first impression is that the skyline is immense, and overwhelming, like a constantly repeating Canary Wharf, unbroken by anything small or old-fashioned. The Empire State is a teeny-tiny building compared to its younger brethren, a little dinky tourist charm, the closest thing to a cathedral.

Pierre the driver adds to his charm by sighing loudly as we hit the toll road and not once – never – addressing me. He’s better than most Uber drivers in London at this rate. I hope he has been sufficiently briefed to be aware that I have no idea whatsoever whether or not to tip him, and then I start bracing myself for the hotel staff. They will want to proffer information I don’t need and ask me how I’m doing and it will take all the British brusqueness this weary traveller can muster to allay the assault.

Upon arrival I am handed an incubated chocolate chip and cinnamon cookie – my warm welcome – and handed my passkeys and Wi-Fi code. In my room I am saddened to note the presence of a coffee maker I have no idea how to use and the absence of a kettle, or any tea that isn’t camomile.

Delta Airlines has eliminated my appetite for a full-sized dinner, so I wander down to Lexington Avenue to look at the market and purchase some spicy roasted corn on the cob from a Venezuelan lady. Chrysler BuildingAlso two t-shirts for my niblings. “Boys or girls?” asks the vendor, her hand hovering between a Princess t-shirt and a NY taxi one. “Girls, but I don’t want to give them anything gender-normative,” I reply, feeling like an absolute wanker as I grab one blue tshirt with New York emblazoned on it and one red one with a yellow taxi on the front.

I spy the Chrysler Building and take a quick photo, find Macy’s, the closest museum and my nearest 7-11 and ascertain that Dunkin Donuts is more prolific than McDonalds. It’s barely 7pm, but I think I will save exploration for another day. I have five of them ahead of me, after all.