A crisis of condiments

The question of when is a feta cheese and olive salad not a feta cheese and olive salad had never occurred to me until the night before the first big thunderstorm of the summer struck.  I was sitting in my dimly lit living room considering the events of the day for my handwritten journal when I noticed that the room had become even darker than usual as the fourth of five bulbs in the claw-like chandelier which hung sternly from the ceiling had flickered for the final time, leaving the entire space to be lit by one flimsy little filament.

It had been an otherwise unremarkable day where all I had found it worth writing on my page was the following, which occurred to me, and was originally used, during a telephone conversation with a colleague at work:  Note to self:  “much like the song by the theatrical vocalist Meat Loaf, it’s all coming back to me now.” <- – – a line to use when you have slowly begun to remember the details of something.  As I was writing the line, I literally saw the light go out before my eyes, which ordinarily was how I would have expected anyone to react when I was speaking it, but my colleague only burst into song over the phone.  It wasn’t often that you could see a light expire in that way, and it was only in that moment of clarity that I realised the reason people had been criticising the poor lighting in my flat for weeks, and even months, on Zoom meetings was because another three of the bulbs had already been extinguished.

It didn’t seem like it was all that long since I had last changed some of the bulbs in the chandelier, and I only felt indignation that I was going to be forced to do it once more – indignation in the dark being the less romantic version of a popular Bruce Springsteen song.  None of the other lights in the flat needed replacing so frequently and I couldn’t remember changing the bedroom light at all during my first two years living there, though it perhaps wasn’t surprising since it was the room which experienced the least activity.  Installing new lightbulbs in the living room would mean having to get up from the couch and go all the way through to the bedroom to get the stepladder, which would then be positioned precariously around the coffee table while I stretched to reach the high Victorian era ceiling.  It seemed like a lot of effort, especially with everything else that was going on at the time, and besides, there was so much more daylight in the summer months, and when I did feel the need to close the curtains, the claws of the chandelier made for brilliant shadows on the walls.  So instead, as a temporary measure, I decided to invest in a desk lamp which was on special offer in Lidl, and my fellow Zoom meeting participants were thrilled to see me in a new light, although I couldn’t be sure how long that joy would last.

The same June afternoon in Oban, at the same time.

I was finding myself in a period of tremendously underwhelming lunches when the feta cheese and olive non-salad salad occurred.  On the previous Sunday, I had been cooking sausages whilst listening to Jay-Z’s The Black Album during a break in Sky’s Super Sunday programme of English Premier League football, which was proving to be less super and more Sunday.  I never knew when or why having a roll with sausages at the half-time interval of televised football games became a thing, but I would always go to dad’s on a Saturday afternoon with a bag of six pork sausages from Wynne’s the butchers, and I didn’t see any reason for that to change in the circumstances of 2020.  The bangers would sizzle beneath the grill, making a sound that was not too dissimilar to a distress flare being set off into a drizzly, darkened sky, and sometimes I would wonder if the sausages were okay – which was silly since they obviously hadn’t been alright for some time.  To pass the fourteen minutes it took for the sausages to be fully cooked, I went about the task of preparing a couple of lunch boxes for the first two days of the working week.  It never took that long to put together a tuna salad, but I liked to take my time after the incident a year earlier where I ended up slicing my finger open on the lid of a tuna can, which left me with the most absurd of all of my scars.  Tuna mayonnaise was the easiest salad I knew how to make, since it only required two ingredients to be mixed together and spooned onto a bed of mixed leaves, maybe with a squeeze of lemon juice or some sweetcorn if I was feeling flamboyant or adventurous.  It was ideal for preparing on a Sunday afternoon spent in a hungover haze.

Things were going rather well that day since I had already done a full load of washing, and in these days my success was measured purely by how many tasks and chores I had completed by the time I sat down to eat.  Two was good going for a Sunday.  Once the salads were ready and refrigerated for future use, I still had time to cut open a roll and garnish it with mustard before the sausages were cooked.  I always preferred Dijon, since it seemed considerably more exotic than some of the other cast of characters which were usually found in my fridge:  the punnet of blueberries, the pint of semi-skimmed milk, the tub of Lidl own-brand Heavenly Butterly butter, four free-range eggs, ten cans of Tennent’s Lager.  There were times when a helping of Dijon mustard could almost take you away to a different place, to that foreign holiday I wasn’t able to take in 2020, although the research for my trip hadn’t quite reached the stage where I learned which type of mustard is most commonly used in Bosnia.  I wasn’t anticipating that my roll with sausage and Dijon mustard would make me feel as though I was sitting in a street cafe in Mostar, but I hoped that it would at least be something different.  To my dismay, I found that I hadn’t replenished my favourite mustard since I had used the last of the previous jar several weeks earlier, and all that I had left in the fridge was the English variety, which was strange when I couldn’t remember even buying it.

The most concerning thing about the English mustard was the colour, which although yellow and not completely unlike mustard, was deeper and more watery than I could recall that particular type of mustard being.  As though it was imitating mustard.  It was a colour that even I would struggle to wear on a tie, and even then I didn’t really notice it until it was already becoming familiar with the bread.  I happened to take a cursory glance at the lid on the mustard as I was returning it to the fridge and realised that it was dated ‘Best Before End December 2018’.  Of the other condiments which were kept on the shelf on the inside of the refrigerator door, the wholegrain mustard had expired in August 2018, the tube of El Paso chunky guacamole was last good in November 2018, there was a half-used bottle of tonic water which I had opened for some guests prior to Christmas 2019, and somehow I had procured two jars of tartare sauce.

It was difficult to tell how something like this could have happened.  As much as I tried while I was biting into a roll with Cumberland sausage and eighteen-months-past-its-best-before-date mustard, I couldn’t put myself in mind of my shopping habits two or three years earlier, and so the recriminations were more difficult to apportion than those, say, from an argument during the summer of 2010 were.  

The summer of 2010, as well as being forty-one years later than and not nearly as sexy sounding as the summer of ‘69, was the year that I did four festivals with a former girlfriend.  She had sent me a text message the Friday before since it was the decade anniversary of our journey to the Isle of Wight Festival and the satellite channel Sky Arts was screening highlights of the weekend.  It was the first time I had heard from her in around five years, and while it was very nice to spend an evening reminiscing over old memories, it also served to reopen the old wound of our decision to see The Black Eyed Peas instead of Muse at that years T in the Park.

The trek to the Isle of Wight was a lot longer for me than it was my friend since she was studying in Portsmouth at the time, and I never could remember very much about the journey, which I think consisted of a train to Glasgow, the overnight National Express bus from Glasgow to London Victoria, a further bus journey to Portsmouth and then a hovercraft across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, before taking one final bus to the site of the festival.  The route, in all, took almost twenty-four hours, and back in a day where I hadn’t yet discovered that you could enjoy alcohol between places as well as at your destination.  

It would be the festival, and the summer, where I discovered a surprising love of the hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who I was aware of but had never taken the time to listen to before he was the headline act on the first night of the festival, where we also saw such artists as The Strokes, Blondie, Biffy Clyro, Vampire Weekend, Pink, Crowded House, and Paul McCartney, though it was Jay-Z who stuck out the most.  I was never as blown away by a musician as I was the first time I saw Jay-Z perform, and I spent the rest of that summer listening to The Blueprint 3, which was the album he had released the previous year and something I would never have considered listening to before the Isle of Wight.  We saw him play again the next month at T in the Park, where he was below Kasabian on the main stage billing and it didn’t make any kind of sense.  Even ten years later we could agree that 2010 was the summer of Jay-Z.

We had the type of falling out that two people can only ever have at a music festival the following afternoon when we couldn’t agree on which band we would see early in the day.  The Hold Steady were one of my favourite bands and played on the main stage, while at the same time on the second stage, a band my friend really liked – Bombay Bicycle Club – were appearing.  It was the only split we disagreed on over the weekend, and it didn’t seem fair for one to make the other miss a band they wanted to see, so we decided to go our separate ways and meet at an agreed point after their respective sets finished.  The Hold Steady came to an end first, and since I was at the meeting point early, I decided to walk a little further to the large open-air area where a large screen had been erected so that people could watch the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was taking place in South Africa at the time.  I was able to see the final ten minutes or so of the match between Argentina and Nigeria, though the game’s only goal had already been scored much earlier and nothing of any significance happened in the parts I saw.  By the time I returned to the agreed meeting point my friend had already arrived, and I could tell that she was furious at having to wait for me.  My case wasn’t helped by my defence that, in actual fact, I had been there first but decided that rather than wait around I would go and watch the football, and besides, she couldn’t have been waiting for all that long anyway.  The ensuing argument was still in my mind the following month when we were trying to decide whether we should see Muse or The Black Eyed Peas in the headline slot on the Friday night of T in the Park.  Although I had no strong feelings about either act, my preference as a fan of music would have been to see Muse, while my friend believed that The Black Eyed Peas would be more fun.  I had no appetite for debating it, so we went to the second stage and saw Fergie, will.i.am and co.  We never did see the summer of 2011.

In the dark

The recriminations from ten years earlier were fresh in my mind the night before the first big thunderstorm of summer 2020 was about to strike.  In reality, a thunderstorm to me seemed to be a lot like a really beautiful romantic relationship, in that they were always something I saw other people talking about or posting pictures of on social media, yet they somehow always passed me by.  It was a Wednesday evening and I was thinking about the salad boxes I would prepare for the last two days of the working week.  I had decided whilst shopping earlier in the day that I would buy some feta cheese and make use of the jar of green pitted olives that was sitting in the kitchen cupboard, just in case they too had expired in 2018.  In my mind, they were going to make for the most delicious lunches of the week, and I could hardly wait to put them together.  I went through to the kitchen and took the ingredients from the fridge and cupboard with the sort of enthusiasm I imagined eating my lunches with.  It was in that moment, like the words of the theatrical vocalist Meatloaf, that it was all coming back to me.  The question of when a feta cheese and olive salad isn’t a feta cheese and olive salad would be asked and answered with the realisation that while I had gone out of my way to remember to buy Dijon mustard, I had forgotten to buy salad leaves.

Links and things:

Six months and all I have to show for it is this Spotify playlist – my Spotify playlist for the month of June 2020

This week I have mostly been listening to…


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