A menu full of audio, some other delicious things — and why you shouldn’t trust a charity shop mug.
I had to go into London for work on Friday.
My weekly excursion to London means one thing: a nice lunch.
I live in the countryside now, so I think about this city lunch for days and plan it well in advance. Caribbean jerk chicken and Ethiopian curries used to be quotidian; now they are the stuff of dreams.
This week, I fancied sushi so went to the conveyor belt place near my office in Liverpool Street and had fun getting inspired by whatever passed before me. Scallop? Yes. Little pearly pink shrimp? Please. I was, to a certain extent, at the chef’s mercy. Whatever they felt like making went up on the belt and that was what I built my lunch on.
There’s an even more extreme version of this in the Japanese cuisine world. It’s called “omakase” and, translated literally, it means “I leave it up to you”.
As in: “I (the customer) leave it up to you (the chef) to delight me”. Chef’s choice, catch of the day, whatever you want to call it.
I was reminded of this again because we hosted a little BBQ at our house on Saturday. If you live in the UK you may, depending on your generosity of spirit, be smirking or commiserating (Saturday was a bit torrential).
After a bit of back-and-forth about rain-checking we decided to plough ahead. Friends arrived and, rain lashing the windows, we huddled around my dining table as I started measuring the Pimms.
Now, I’m not much of a Pimms traditionalist but I know the ratio: three parts lemonade to one part Pimms. My “part” of choice is a coffee mug, any coffee mug will do. On Saturday, I grabbed an old green one with I ❤️ NY on it (cheap for £1 from a London charity shop years ago) and started filling it.
As I stood at the table, my friend’s daughter aged 10, saw the mug and started questioning me about NY. Is that where I was from? What was it like?
I started to say it was a really big city and I wasn’t really from there, I was from the woods four hours north of there, but got no further. The ceramic handle of the mug, which I had been in the process of tilting with a full measure of Pimms, unexpectedly shattered and the severed edge I had been gripping a moment before plunged into the back of my thumb joint. The rest of the mug spun away to oblivion* (oblivion being a ruined jug of Pimms).
Cue a little bit of flapping (me), some level-headedness (others) and lots of bleeding (me again).
Eventually, I was restored to the table, a makeshift toilet-paper-and-Sellotape splint immobilising my thumb. Someone else sorted out the Pimms and Joel, on BBQ duty out in the rain, spent the rest of the day filling my plate with assorted yummy things he thought I might like.
Omakase, home BBQ style. I left it up to him.
Today, I hope you won’t mind leaving it up to me.
I’m guessing that won’t be a problem since, every time we sign up to a Substack, we cede control and let the chef (writer) choose our dinner, so to speak.
In a way, both the creation and the imbibing are a form of omakase. I get dished up whatever Substack serves and, in turn, I write about whatever my day serves. On it, I build thoughts into sentences and sentences into essays, like ingredients into meals. It’s a sushi kind of life, this. I like to pick. Have a little taste of this and that. An omakase board rather than a 40 lb spit roast. Masters of their trade, I honour and admire them — but that is not me. I can’t dive into anything too deep. I am a Fox, not a Hedgehog (this is from the 1953 Isaiah Berlin essay — and, originally, Archilochus: “a fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”). So many little ideas to riff on. Too many menu items to choose from. I’d rather try them all, than choose one and eat that forever.
The peerlesswrote recently about diegetic sounds — the background noises to life — and how we lose them when we turn on noise-cancelling headphones and curate our own inner soundtrack (podcasts, playlists or whatever). I think of the diegetic sounds of my day in London — the calls I listen to in the office, the conversations I overhear at the sushi conveyor belt or on commuter trains. They feed me just as much as my meals; often, more so. Heavily do I rely on the fertile soil of train conversations and the serendipitous pitter-patter chat of passers-by. Without them, I would be parched; my centrifugal writer’s organ, stunted.
Did you know in some parts of the world, they call conveyor belt sushi a “sushi train”? How perfect is that, for this all-you-can-eat sushi buffet life.
Now, without further ado, here follows a chef’s selection of a few of my previous Substack pieces. A sampling that I hope will delight, as any good omakase chef.
The written pieces aren’t new — but the audio recording for each of them is.
The rationale for audio-recording archive pieces now is I’ve been told by two different people this week — shout-out toand , thank you — that my audio is A Good Thing. I plan to record the whole archive eventually but, in the meantime, you can find new audio for the chef-selected pieces, below.
So: Welcome to Jill’s Bistro. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering for you.
Today’s audio menu 🎧
🥂 Aperitif: Fancy Tuna — saving the good bits, leaving the rest.
🥮 Petits-fours: Four times I was awkward this week — lessons in taking compliments and keeping your phone charged at all times.
🍢 Amuse-bouche: Think of the most awkward encounter you can — no, he’s not my son.
🍜 Tit soup: Tits at Oxford and Harvard — stewed over this for awhile.
🥟 Starter: Smart phones stole my brain — where The Notebooks all started.
🐟 Fish course: Pebbles in the river and the people who get in our way — a reminder of how awful people sometimes serve a greater purpose.
🍱 Main course: Reading all the books — because what could be a heartier, more satisfying main meal?
🧀 Cheese course: Love Letter — warning: contains cheese.
🍸 Drinks: Transatlantic litany of gins — flavours from afar to cleanse the palate.
Thanks for listening.
And if you have a favourite that I haven’t done audio for yet, drop me a line and that’ll be in the next round.
And if you want to see who was responsible for making all this audio happen — because they have the patience, technological expertise and shiny podcasting equipment that I lack — click here.
For anyone new on the scene who is wondering what the crap Life Litter is, I’ve put together this handy infographic — replete with outer space stickers pilfered from my son’s arts and crafts drawer — to explain.
This infographic was born in a really boring presentation at work. You might be able to spot the corporate-speak bubbles at the centre: “People & Culture”, “Strategy”, “Risk Management”, etc. Excuse me while I dry-heave over the buffet of corn chip sandwiches and other sad offerings of corporate parsimony.
Anyway, my mind (understandably) wandered and, conscious of not wasting my finite time on this planet, I adapted the graphic for Litter. I’ll probably add it to my About page in due course. My favourite bits are in the top-left (writing as map) and top-right (a pertinent quote from the novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel).