John Lanchester

John Lanchester

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 19 2000 9:00 PM

John Lanchester

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I often ponder a remark of Tom Wolfe's, to the effect that the reason Balzac managed to write 60 books was because he had no labor-saving devices to "help" him. Yesterday I had to go into town—that's central London—to do a variety of labor-saving-device-related chores. For instance, my shiny new printer, which prints in lavish Technicolor, but eats through cartridges like a sumo wrestler with a tapeworm, needed yet another fix of its favorite supplies.

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Anyway, the silver lining was the chance to go to the greengrocer. Our part of town has an excellent fishmonger and butcher, but it doesn't have a place to buy half-decent vegetables. We don't have farmers' markets in England; or rather, we're only just beginning to have them: The single one in South London is open only on the third Saturday of the month.

On my way home, I therefore parked illegally outside a shop called Villandry and ran inside to see what looked good. This is a snooty French-run deli with high-grade, distinctly uncheap imported produce. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to have all that much stuff in. The new-season Italian asparagus looked fine, fat, and white, but it cost £10.80 (about $17) for a small bunch. I did a double take when I saw the price. £10.80 for about eight asparagus? To be worth that much it would have to leap into the pan on its own and then wash up the plates after you'd eaten.

Then I saw something looking green and healthy and fresh at the same time as, through the window, I saw an approaching traffic warden. Broccoli tops. I'd never heard of broccoli tops, indeed I would have been hard pressed to tell you whether broccoli had a top, but on the other hand they were £1.20 a kilo—the cheapest thing in the store by far. I grabbed a bunch and headed for the tills. On my left, a well-groomed-seeming woman, looking a little like Anne Bancroft, was buying caviar. On my right, a man who looked like a 60-year-old Danny DeVito having a bad hair day was brandishing two different brands of matzo meal while trying to hit on the counter assistant, who looked like Sarah Michelle Gellar. "So you've never tried the French one?' he was saying. "Meme que vous êtes Français?"—even though you're French? She didn't blink. "I'm from Romania," she said.

I arrived at the middle till. The woman there looked at my bunch of greenery. "I have no idea what that is," she said. "Broccoli tops," I said, more confidently than I felt. "One twenty a kilo." Anne Bancroft, Danny DeVito, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and I all looked at each other, and then at her. Everybody shrugged. I bought the broccoli tops and beat the warden to my car.

In the evening, while my son was running around the kitchen, I tried to work out what to do with the greenery. I had thought there might be something in a wonderful 19th-century Italian book called The Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi (a huge hero in Italy, hardly known elsewhere), but no. I tried Alan Davidson's amazing new Oxford Companion to Food. You never look in this book without finding something remarkable. On this occasion, I learned that broccoli "is one of the most puzzling members of the cabbage family," for the surprising reason that "although shopkeepers and shoppers can easily distinguish it from the cauliflower, botanists cannot"—in fact, they are both the same species, Brassica oleracea. Weird. This seems to me worthy of an episode of The X-Files, one of the jokey ones that wins an Emmy. But no hint about how to cook the tops.

In the end I went for a stir-fry. It isn't even clear whether you eat the leafy bit at the top or the thick stalky part at the bottom, so I decided to chop them and cook both. "Dangerous," I said to my son, as I picked up the kitchen knife and started chopping. He said, "Dan'gus." As he did so I slipped and cut myself deeply in the middle pad of my right index finger. I can't quite figure out how I managed to do that, since I'm right handed and was holding the knife in that hand—but anyway I did.

The received wisdom in kitchens is that sharp knives are safer since you don't have to press as hard and are thus less likely to slip. True—but when you do slip and cut yourself, you really cut yourself. As a result, although I usually touch-type, I'm writing this by the hunt-and-peck method, making great use of my right middle finger. My index finger is still throbbing under its plaster. As for the broccoli tops, the leaves had almost no taste and the stalks were inedibly chewy, and I recommend never trying them.