Sunday, 10 May 2015

Solanum cinereum

(")Norm(") is a gentleman of great taste. For one, he has made one of the most impressive mix CDs I have ever received, which I am still floundering about trying to respond to over a year later. Sorry, Norm.

A few months ago he started a personal finance blog which I have been observing with interest, as he's very open in outlining all his expenses - and it's been interesting to compare costs. Not just on the macro level (i.e. I don't have to deal with a single snow-related expense) but also on the micro level (i.e. vegetable oil is identically priced in Melbourne and Small City, NY).

While the vegetable oil statistic is comforting, the idea that Norm bought an entire house for US$130,000 is anything but. Excellent work, Norm.

I decided to try to replicate one of his Cost Per Serving posts, where he makes a meal, and then calculates the cost of each serving. Was I desperately interested in how much the figures differed? No. Nor was I that excited about speculating on whether the differences were based on our different countries, or levels of urbanity. I was, as ever, primarily interested in getting things wrong.

So I chose Norm's February 19, 2015 winter treat, Eggplant Dirty Rice, and I used the same recipe from international superconglomerate Time Inc.

I wanted to make sure I could calculate a correct cost-per-serving, so I had to buy products I actually already owned, just so I could work out a cost metric. This meant forgoing our preferred soy sauce (of which there is plenty in the pantry) and buying a cheaper supermarket version which was flavoured sweetly for Chinese cooking. We do a lot more Japanese cooking than Chinese cooking, so the only benefit here was that it will bring the cost-per-serving down by a fraction of a cent. (Three months later - because that's how long it took me to get around to typing this - the new soy sauce is still sitting around.)

Then there was the problem that the recipe and Norm's page gave Imperial measurements, which I translated into metric, but then had to estimate as best I could when measuring the ingredients: e.g. 1.5 cups medium grain white rice is fine if you have cup measures, but oh dear there is no 354.88 millilitre line on my measuring cup.

I also had to have faith that, while I know that what I call a green capsicum is called a green pepper in the US, the general size of said fruit would be roughly the same in the two countries. Actually I had no faith that this was the case, but would continue with my horrendous brew.

So on 24 February I popped down to my local monopoly and bought - well, here you go:

So, a nice round AU$20.15 (US$15.98, that is, taking no account for exchange rate variance between February and May). This isn't the total cost of the meal though, because while I have bought a tiny tin of tomato paste I am clearly only going to use a skerrick of it. Let me try to work out how much it cost to buy the ingredients which were actually used in the recipe (I'll use US$ for all figures to allow easy comparison, with Norm's cost in bold and mine in red):

1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil: 0.15 0.14
Celery (3 stalks): 0.36 0.84
Green peppers (1lb): 1.99 1.86
Onion (1): 0.40 0.36
Eggplant (1lb) 1.99 2.51 is what I should have spent had I not bought too small an eggplant
Dried thyme (1tbsp): 0.91 0.26
Garlic (3 cloves): 0.27 0.22
Tomato paste (1tbsp): 0.15 0.30
Soy sauce (1tbsp): 0.07 0.18
Rice (1.5 cups): 0.45 0.77
Broth (2 cubes): 0.14 0.21

Total cost of ingredients in USA 6.88
Total cost of ingredients in AUS 7.65
Total cost per serving in USA 1.37
Total cost per serving in AUS 1.53

The mighty USA wins by a not inconsiderable US$0.16 per serving!

Apart from my terrible kitchencraft, lazy measuring skills and general disinterest in food unless I can convert it into calculator fun, what are the variables here?

Obviously it was the end of winter in February in the Northern Hemisphere but the end of summer here, but I can't see any clear influence that would have had on the cost of fresh food. With a smaller population to pay for the same costs of transportation, it makes sense that fresh food is more expensive in Australia. The cost of rice is probably because I bought a tiny one-kilo package of rice so I could get a precise cost-to-weight ratio, whereas Norm sensibly has decanted his rice into a storage jar, presumably from a forty-pound sack. His soy sauce also doesn't come in the world's dinkiest container, the wobbly design being paid for by muggins here. I don't understand why his thyme is so pricey - though it's clear I will be welcomed as a god if I start distributing cheap thyme across the United States.

And how delicious was it? I'm glad you asked! It was fucking awful. I only had a shallow casserole dish, the rice didn't soften, which meant I had to add a new step to the recipe involving five hours in the slow cooker. The next morning it was nice and soft, but the salt from the stock which would otherwise have steamed away had all been retained under the cooker lid. It was eventually made edible with the addition of a lot more rice.

Tune in to my cooking blog next week when I set my hair on fire while making cornflakes.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Eucalyptus melliodora

For my fifth post in five years, I'm going back to this blog's early concerns with books and how they - as physical objects - crop up in the various wanderings of human lives. I have two stories for you today: a straight-line story, and a very, very, very-very big circle of a story. That's a straight line and a circle, which in binary equals the numbers of stories I am about to tell.

Story 1:

My battered and tea-stained UK first edition
I'm not a collector of first editions, but if I come across one at a very low price, I will certainly be pleased with the find. This copy of Patrick White's The Solid Mandala comes with a torn but complete dustcover (a rarity for 1966) and cost me the grand total of £1 in 2011. After work I would sometimes wander to Charing Cross Road and spend an hour in the basement of Any Amount of Books. I bought this intending to read it straightaway but didn't get around to it until I'd returned to Australia.

There's an inscription on the flyleaf page showing that it was a gift to Sylvia when brand new - but I can't work out who gift-giving-Eric is, and whether he is from, or in, or called, Hove, or a House, or perhaps a Hovel.

The day after the Beatles' final concert, and a week after the premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
More interesting is the address scribbled on the dust jacket flap:

Nashleigh, Nashly Farm, Chesham, Bucks 
For a long time I assumed this to be the possibly grand home where Sylvia and this book dwelt, and I was pleased recently to find that Nashleigh Farm is a very grand country house which is currently up for sale, so you can click your way through its rooms, gardens and awful collection of miniature bottles at this link, or just admire it in the picture below. Nashleigh Farm itself is a few fields away from Chesham Prep School, where Stephen Fry broke his nose two or three years before Sylvia cracked the spine of The Solid Mandala.

I don't have £1,895,000, but as a Melburnian I am flabbergasted that this comparative pocket change buys a 10-acre, 6-bedroom, 6-reception room farm four minutes drive from a Tube station.
However, if you were going to write your address in your own book, you wouldn't take two stabs at spelling it, and you wouldn't scribble it on the dust jacket. You might do the above if you heard the address on the radio or telephone - so I doubt this particular first edition ever made its way to Nashleigh Farm. I will never know the story behind this book's first 47 years, but I'm hanging on to it now.

The novel disappointed me when I first read it - it was only the second White novel I had read, and it didn't excite me nearly as much as Voss had. But then last month I re-read it after having made my way through all White's earlier novels chronologically, and I settled into it completely. It might be the shortest novel he wrote, which could be a positive, as I personally took a long time to adapt to his languid, almost leaden narratives. I now see his novels are packed with incident, but almost all interior. Minds crackle and gleam in White, but everything else rusts and falls over.

Story 0:

Shortly before I left the UK, and directly after a morning of laps in the public pool, I borrowed Adam Mars-Jones's Cedilla from Jubilee Library in Brighton. This was mostly because I like cedillas, and I liked even more the very funny front blurb for the book. In other circumstances I would not have borrowed Cedilla, because it was the second novel of a series of which I had not read the first; and because it was so long I knew I wouldn't finish it before the date printed on our aeroplane tickets. But I threw myself into it anyway, admired the hell out of the portion I managed to read, returned it to the Jubilee Library in Brighton, and then bought the book (remaindered) in Melbourne.

In good time I found the first book in the series, Pilcrow (remaindered again I'm afraid, Mr Mars-Jones) and enjoyed that just as much. I'm waiting for books three and four to be written, and would like to take this opportunity to reassure Faber and Faber that I will pay full price for them. So in retrospect it was a fortuitous day when I walked out of the Prince Regent Swimming Complex with wet hair and damp goggles and straight into the Jubilee Library.

The Prince Regent Swimming Complex and the Jubilee Library are separated by a small and windswept square, featuring a small and windswept Pizza Express. All of these lie on Brighton's shortish Jubilee Street, later the title of a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The song, to its discredit in my view, mentions neither the Tesco Express nor the Yo! Sushi.

Anyway, I had resigned myself to having a few years' wait before reading any more of Adam Mars-Jones's work - but then I found the earlier book pictured below, a harrowing mid-eighties collection of short stories by AMJ and Edmund White, called The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis.

with found object bookmark
These are deeply horrifying stories of loss, mostly set in critical illness wards where the first few men were sent to die of AIDS by a culture that knew little more of AIDS than the fact that nothing was known. It is chastening to be reminded of just what a holocaust AIDS was in the 1980s, now that the passing of time and the mostly-successful management of HIV means that I had largely forgotten about its impact on society when I was a child. These stories were published when I was about eight years old, at which time I was being given nightmares by this famous TV advertisement.

But while the stories themselves humanise and bring to reality the personal toll AIDS must have taken on society - and particularly on gay society, demonised as carriers - again, it is the physical that really forges a connection. My second-hand copy of The Darker Proof was bought for a few dollars from a charity shop. Wedged halfway through was a ticket stub for a 1992 'Dance Party - FOR women BY women' at the Sarah Sands Hotel, just a few minutes walk from the charity shop.

The Sarah Sands is now a Bridie O'Reilly's chain pub. I went there to take a picture.

They haven't gone so far as to chisel the original name off.
I wonder who that predecessor reader was, and if she had a good time at the dance party, and what made her buy this book, and whether she lost someone close to her - and if, 22 years later, it all seems like another world? Or could it never?

I sat here in Melbourne and read the book. In the short story A Small Spade, a couple - Neil and Bernard - have a weekend away from London. They travel to Brighton, which is a nice surprise for this reader as an ex-resident, though given its fame as Britain's most gay-friendly city, not too much of a narrative surprise.

Neil is fired from his job for being "antibody-positive". In 2015 I was foolishly a bit surprised to realise or remember that this might have happened. Particularly so given that Neil is a hairdresser. Wouldn't his hairdressing co-workers rally around in We're Here, We're Queer fashion? In the end they rally amongst themselves in more of a We're Queer And We Don't Want To Catch Anything fashion. On the Sunday, Neil and Bernard decide they need a swim:
It took them a few wrong turns, all the same, to find the swimming pool, but when they got there it was open. It was also called The Prince Regent Swimming Centre. 'Isn't that just as piss-elegant as you'd expect,' said Bernard as they queued for tickets. 'Other people have pools. The Prince Regent has a Swimming Centre.'
'I think it looks stunning. There's a water slide.' 
... Beside the water slide, the swimming centre had a separate diving pool, and a supervised lane for serious swimmers...
It was from this very lane that I had emerged to discover Adam Mars-Jones's writing. But it had taken me around the world to make this discovery. In a way I'd chased one of his stories from the UK to Australia, and then another had chased me back, in a giant tracing of meridians, as a circumference around an unknown.

I think what I've learned is that, over time, the centre always becomes complex.