I have this never-ending list of the meals I’d like to eat after each payday. They’re usually indulgent, and when I imagine eating these meals I’m wearing something fabulous and brimming in my own company. A martini and a dozen oysters, say, in the bright velvet of Rules in Covent Garden. Steak tartare and tarte tatin at Mon Plaisir. I dream of meals in places that don’t even exist, like the revolving top of a London skyscraper with snowy carpets and seventies insides. A stupendous view, a large cupboard to hang ethically dubious coats in, and glorious prawn cocktails served in silver. No matter the fantasy, I am always the woman at the bar who knows what she wants, and leaves a generous tip.
When I first moved to London, I did used to indulge. I went from working in a bar in Manchester to raking it in as a freelance copywriter, my enthusiasm evidenced in small blisters from new pink suede shoes that hurt like hell. Flecks of oil stained my clothes from shared snacks at Morito. I ate chicken in pomegranate molasses at The Eagle in my lunchbreak, sometimes with a glass of wine. I was happy to eat my way through a new city.
That summer was glorious, but now a meal’s indulgence is also about owning a portion of time to myself without distraction, without the need to be measurably productive, a tendency that plagues me heavily and often. To order, eat and digest a meal is to give the mind space to spread out. It’s about respect, I think.
And so this is the reality of my payday meal. I take a proper break from work in the middle of the day, and walk to the quiet green of Arnold Circus in Shoreditch, where the redbrick Boundary Estate tenements hug up to an elevated Victorian Bandstand, and the Community Laundrette spins clean smells out onto Calvert Avenue. That’s where Leila’s Cafe is, and next door, the adjoining shop which sells pots of sage, cheese and avocados from Malaga. I feel like i’m using a lot of words, and that’s how I feel when I’m walking there from work after a morning of thinking endlessly about words. I try to empty them out.
When the sun’s shining, a white sheet is hoisted up outside to protect the fruit baskets, and if you sit out on the benches it’s like being on holiday. Warm skin and slow movements.
At first I suggested to Sophie that we eat at an expensive fish bar, but then I told myself “Don’t spend beyond your means just because you’re writing a newsletter about consumption!!!” Leila’s it was.
There’s lots to like about Leila’s. Soup comes full of waxy, mollying potatoes to smooth edges, and the kitchen’s open and full of wood, hanging pans and implements. There’s this great big table in the middle which holds hams, smoked fish, trays of bread and butter pudding waiting to be cut. If you imagine a “cook’s kitchen”, that’s what it looks like. There’s a place to hang a coat, on plastic pegs made by Michael Marriott. There’s also this really phallic soap in the bathroom. You have to wet your hands and sort of rub it off! It’s probably French.
Anyway, Sophie and I were so hungry by the time our food arrived that my ricotta and courgette pie was gone in 5 minutes, and to be honest I could have had another. Sophie ate a salty ham hock stew with spring greens and beans as big as the end of a thumb. We talked about day jobs and how having some tension in your schedule can help your own work happen. We also moved tables three times, Sophie chasing photographer’s light, and myself just glad to find somebody to disguise my indecision when faced with a room full of tables, different ways to sit and be.
With two spoons, we shared a wobbling rhubarb jelly in a moat of custard, so rich it could have been melted ice-cream.
I’d seen the pudding on Instagram before I saw it in front of me. In the photograph the person eating it had these fabulous ecclesiastic sleeves and so the jelly held a higher power in that first viewing. I suppose it was another pre-emptive fantasy about eating. This time I was a woman in frilly sleeves, wrapped up in the taste and smell of rhubarb for longer than is physically possible to hold a taste on your buds. Photographs of food rarely portray how fleeting a taste can be, how you want to hold on for longer.
I thought of the times I’ve eaten a meal I couldn’t really afford and then shared the experience through my phone. You can’t tell what’s been had from coins counted from various pockets, or what’s been put on plastic and worried about. I thought about it as we sliced into the pudding, about what we’re colluding in when we share photographs of restaurant meals on Instagram. Do they end up alongside pictures of other peoples’ shoes, the brands tagged, the sort I linger over, considering taking on more work than I can physically do, just to have them? I wish I hadn’t eaten the pie so quickly.
I think that’s why the waxy potatoes are good. They help you to stop digging around in it all. Sometimes I sit at Leila’s and stare into middle distance blowing and ladling soup onto my tongue, at first quite conscious of not doing anything besides eating. As if staring over the shoulder of a stranger instead of occupying myself is perverted, but as I say, this is a space to spread out and shrug off any social obligation to be good-looking whilst eating. Each month some money comes into my bank account, and I have more soup, sometimes I have a pie, and the space opens up again, slow and gently. I hang up my jacket and leave my words somewhere for an hour.