Sunday, 14 September 2014

Second Cheapest on the Menu

This post first appeared on the terrific Author Allsorts site, and in lieu of anything proper to say or news to report, I re-post it here. Everything's at crisis point at the moment and Nightwardens swallows all my time. There'll be a new post soon - I just need to survive until week three of October, deliver the mss and collapse.

Here's the post. Enjoy.

‘Second Cheapest on the Menu’ was one of the many books I never finished back in my twenties. It was (ill) conceived as an autobiographical celebration of holiday food. Here’s its story.

I was ten when we went abroad as a family for the first time. I remember my mum carefully cutting the rind off a camembert at an autoroute service station. (“Is it meant to be like that?” we asked, staring open-mouthed as she prodded it dubiously.)

I guess my parents got wise to France pretty quickly, though. We went every year from then on. After each day’s driving, they took turns unfolding the big map and colouring in the roads we’d travelled on. By the time I was fifteen, the map was full, and every time we went out to eat, we’d choose the ripest roqueforts we could find just to prove we were seasoned explorers.

The family’s eating out rule was an unspoken one, but studiously observed. You could have anything on the menu, as long as it was the cheapest, or second cheapest, in its category. So dad could begin the meal by opening the menus and saying, with a flourish, “Choose whatever you want boys!”
A few seconds later he’d be selecting himself the onion soup and the poulet frites, and the message was as clear as if he’d communicated it using a series of handy flags. We chose cheap.

The second-cheapest-on-the-menu rule lasted five years. Then, one night, our world collapsed.

We were in a bistro near a campsite. It was a cool little place with red-and-white chequered table cloths; candles jammed in wine bottles; wall-mounted plates, carafes of local booze, lots of noise. The five of us sat and dad said, “Choose anything you want boys!” whilst, naturally, semaphoring his expectation that we’d go for the salad and the goats’ cheese and bacon tart. The waiter came over. I was eldest so I chose first. I went for the salad and the tart.

Then it happened. My brother smacked his lips, placed the menu carefully on the table, fixed the waiter with an innocent gaze, and ordered a steak, medium rare, with mushroom sauce and frites on the side. There was a terrified silence. Everyone looked at dad.
He nodded, and with that gesture, the world changed.

When my brother’s steak arrived, we stared at it. My tart was suddenly rendered as colourless and unappetising as a photocopy. Jon offered the meat around in carefully 
sliced morsels.

It was heavenly.

Anyway. Imagine if you will ‘Second Cheapest on the Menu’ by Fletcher Moss, a combination of childhood memoir and comic road-movie in which I travel those autoroutes again, paying homage to the family rule and only choosing the cheapest meals available in bistros and cafes up and down France. It’s got ‘hit’ written all over it, folks.

Or something close to ‘hit’, anyway.

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