If Memory Serves: Steak And Kidney Pie

If Memory Serves chronicles moments from my dining past, perhaps explaining why I'm so damn strange.

We lived just off Hampstead High Street in London.

This was back in the days when Brits in search of a decent meal headed for French restaurants. On trains you could buy tomato and butter sandwiches on bland white bread. Shops wrapped fish and chips in a day's worth of newspaper to soak up grease. And in the pubs you could order iffy black puddings and organ meat pies.

Maybe that's why the most popular dining spots in our part of town--besides the four-star French place under our flat--was a Kentucky Fried Chicken and the nearby McDonald's. Aside from high tea, apple tarts and Sunday roast, British cooking had a much deserved reputation.

Now I was never really a timid eater. I first tried oysters at the age of five or six...after which I puked in the middle of a restaurant--but that's beside the point. Still, until well into my twenties I avoided non-sausage offal. In other words, as long as you disguised the stuff by, say, squeezing it into a "casing," everything was fine.

So, one day we came home from wandering around London town to a very noticeable odor. My dad was doing a little British home cooking, having bought the fixings for steak and kidney pie at the neighborhood market. Keep in mind our flat was about 40 square meters--a one person kitchen, the bathroom outside and down the hall. All we could smell was stewing, bubbling innards.

I came home to turn on Match of the Day (United had taken on City), but the aroma kinda left me wavering in a corner near the door, where a little air seeped in.

I'll admit to picking through the broth for pieces of muscle and fat, leaving offal in the tray. But the broth was different--murky and meaty beyond my understanding, leavened by a buttery crust. Steak and kidney pie was a common dish, but it tasted of wealth and richness.

British cooking somehow improved through the 80s and 90s. The country's economy picked up and the so-called 'gastro-pub' movement took off. Gordon Ramsey appeared on the scene and London became a culinary destination, up and down the economic spectrum.

And me, from that point on I began to think about foods--why we like and dislike certain items, why a delicacy in one era or in one culture is frowned upon in another. If you think about offal too much, the purpose of each organ kinda puts you off. But Roman banquets might include whole roasted skylark, the tongue of each bird cooked separately and used as a garnish. The Chinese, of course, put an extraordinary value on bird mucous. Both were examples of upscale dining--and those who dined on such generally survived the meal.

Eventually, I decided to risk it, trying tripe then tongue, chicken liver, foie gras--yes, even kidney.

Hell, one day on a radio show in Pennsylvania I popped handfuls of roasted crickets.

This is what a steak and kidney pie can do. Really, aside from fugu, improperly cooked poke salat and canned beets, most non-taboo items are worth trying.

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Our flat is above the law firm. There used to be a French Restaurant where the Bombay Bicycle club stands now. And if you walk downhill and turn onto Keats Grove, you'll pass the spot where my friend Ned stepped in the biggest pile of...well, guess that's only of interest to teenage guys.

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