The task is simple. All I need to do is write about how one particular meal has changed its status and meaning throughout history, and how this is an unavoidable truth through the passage of time. I will then go on to use this as a fitting analogy for the bourgeois bohemianism vogue that has taken hold of Hackney. Then conclude by fusing a fitting argument about the intertextuality between the two ideas of food and places and how this will inevitably lead to a hybridisation of concepts and an establishment of originality. And then let the reader judge whether or not this is a good thing or not. How difficult can it be? GAWD!
Let’s jump right in with the gobbet that food can be used academically as a format to talk about other things. Sierra Clark Burnett and Krishnendu Ray argue in their essay ‘Food in Sociology‘ how its very classifications have even defined anthropological discussion on the matter, don’t cha know. How much you can afford and how much variety says a lot about the context of a meal. Would the popularity of the full english have been so guaranteed were it not for the devaluing of its ingredients? Food, like places, change.
We’ve done middle class, and we’ve done food of the common man, with generous doses of Marx and Paine quotes to pander to the socially aware. However, let it never be said that there isn’t an alternative, and that is exactly what the Black Cat represents. The “alternative”, the bohemian. Most of what is considered alternative is the leftovers and the excluded, finding their own voice. Case in point – the cycle of gentrification. Take a run down poor area of town, it’s got the lowest rent. Anyone can afford to live there. As a consequence it becomes the least elite, attracting plenty of people seeking to lie low. The bands are rougher, the artists are savvier, the streets are dirtier. But there’s life there. In a naive student, Jonathan Larson kinda way. It’s independant, it’s original and it’s not polished around the edges, quantised or autotuned. And who wouldn’t want a breakfast that tastes like Slavoj Zizek?
So as we can see from the last two posts, the english breakfast has consisted of one basic formula: Fried meats and fats together with a topper of protein. I argued the point that through time and social change the meaning of this meal changed. However, we live in a different age than the working class stable the fry up became the last I wrote of it. This brings to my mind important existential questions. A traditional fry up doesn’t accommodate to all corners of our society anymore:
“In my research it cannot be helped – notice the traditional aspects of the fry up; it’s a very fatty, meaty dish; exclusionist even, to Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, vegan and vegetarians, ketos and let’s face facts. . . the health conscious.”
Let it also never be said that I believe in excluding people. Alternatives do exist, darling. (Apart from food critics, read only mine, there’s literally no one else.)
Multiculturalism for example, bringing with it differing religions and cultures negating the need for pork as a food staple. Not sure a sausage would cut it much in the after dinner of a Bris ceremony either. Atkins, keto, new diets both fad and ephemeral have called into question: why consume such fatty foods? Eggs?! Protein?! Don’t like the sound of that! They’re also packed with cholesterol – one egg is more than your daily recommended allowance. How about beans and tofu instead? Bacon? Let’s do away with that. Carcinogenic, don’t cha know. Healthier to smoke a cigarette. Probably. Maybe.
“This is Calcutta, Bohemia is dead.”
Once upon a time I lived on the murder mile. A good ten years ago. Times were very different then. It would seem a cultural revolution took place in the intervening decade. Shop signs have bigger and better fonts. The pavements seem cleaner, the foliage is trimmer. “Gentrification” the decryers say. (Although it was wonderful to discover Pages of Hackney are still going) Hackney has changed. “You wouldn’t have vegan cafes in them days.” Reckon I’m overthinking this? Okay, consider the title: The Black Cat. Le Chat Noir was the original cabaret nightclub in Paris. Spiritual home and stomping ground of the original bohemian artists, along them Toulouse-Lautrec and Debussy. By taking this name they’ve adopted a particular voice (and is it possible that it’s just a coincidence?).
The girls have short hair, the boys have long hair and everything else in between is welcome too. Yes it’s Hipster Hackney, where the height of fashion is Czechoslovakia, circa ’88. Drabs of grey jumpers and angular, clashing patterns on tartan and corduroy (Ed note: you’ll fit right in! Shuttap!) The staff wear vintage Levis as they pace the place, looking like a factory or dancefloor.
Can you take an identity and turn it into something else? I think it’s inevitable. It’s how things work, including food. Throughout this triptych we’ve seen how one meal can change and differ in view and status. And I think this holds a special meaning for living in times such as we do. Something is rare, people want it. In the pursuit of this special thing, the nature of it’s attainability has moved the wheels of history. Culinary necessity has shaped our eating habits, and bacon is one of its biggest victims. In order to preserve meats for days at at time without proper storing facilities pork rinds were salted to remain – ahem – “fresh”. Seasoning was only used to cover already spoiled food. This is where bacon comes from. We don’t live in such a necessity driven world anymore. And we know better than to eat something so anti-nutrition. By initially wanting bacon, this land has changed. In the pursuit of not wanting bacon, this meal has changed and will change again.
“. . . it’s get yer tits out for the vegans, I guess? . . .”
The Black Cat Cafe is on a corner of the street, amongst houses and flats, right in the center of a community. Heading in I notice a sticker on the door – “we prefer you don’t wear fur” – which just about sets the tone for ethical eating. The place isn’t small exactly, but it’s decor is busy and full. The inside looks like a modernised version of Roger and Mark’s flat from Rent. Purveying to the avant garde, the decor appeals to the main demographic intended to fill their halls, the hipster. The music is some gentle strings, sounding like a cross between a 70s ballad and the post rock atmospheres of Sigur Ros. For lighting bare light bulbs hang above with planting, and fairy lights wrapped around everything, so basic yet adds so much depth. One of the walls has posters of punk and DIY bands remade with the names of Black Cat Cafe paraphernalia. On the other side is a mural mosaic of cats and dragons in Asian art styles. And naturally, an obligatory topless mermaid picture, it’s get ya tits out for the vegans, I guess?
As the centerfold, two long tables, running parallel to the cafe floor, and it does come across like someone and their chorus line about to jump on top of it and burst into song. Large pots of dried lavender sprigs are placed in the center of these tables along with tap water jars. A bench stretches along the front window with straw blanket along it with low tables parallel on it with flyers and posters and local art exhibitions. The Black Cat Cafe certainly trying to lend their voice to a more accommodating society.
The 100% vegan menu is chalkboarded above the counter – plenty of lentil soups and salads for everyone, but I’m here for the revolutionary prospect of having my fry up expectations subverted. I order the vegan fry up and not really knowing what the hell to order with it, get a milkshake too. The counter is a hotspot of activity. It was difficult to ignore the cafe selling the much misunderstood and revered vegan cheese at the counter along with cakes and buns. Along with a pot of badges for a local cat charity on the counter. It has quite the same atmosphere of Mooshies. Cool. Hip. Trendy. Remember to grab your cutlery, seasonings and water of the shelves at the end corner, comrade.
The Peanut butter milkshake (£3.75) isn’t what you expect to accompany for a fry up but the fats of the milk mix well with the little potatoes and the slightness of the tofu. It tasted delicious, not the overly garish sweetness of over milkshakes, this glass had character, tasking less like a snickers bar. It was as thick as a plank filled right to the brim and came to the table fast. Their crisp and cool raspberry flavour would be perfect in the summer.
So, what deviates a vegan fry up from a classic full English? The name itself liberates the meal from national aspects. Freeing it up, even. It’s aroma is homely, it all has that rough, homemade look and feel. Someone’s actually spent time on this endeavour. It comes, unexpectedly, in a bowl. Throwing their hat into the baked bean debate, Black Cat Cafe plonk them alongside the rest of the fry up.
Serving as the alternative to the traditional egg proteins is the tofu scramble, its fluffier than fluff, topped with spring onion and seasoned with something I can’t quite but my finger on, I want to say turmeric or cumin but not entirely sure. The fluid from the tofu runs into the bowl which makes the scramble a little too moist. It collects everything damply together. Perhaps pressing it more excessively beforehand would have prevented it, perhaps the idea is that a little fluid holds the flavouring together more. I can’t second guess the chef. Well I can but I ain’t gonna.
Now let’s turn our attention to the most variable item of the fry up: the sausage. Does it come herby and earthly? Does it crumble away at the touch of a fork? All this and more, folks. The fact that pureed pig’s innards can be changed into a meatless meal is a wonderful anyways. It’s lighter and has a softer texture to a Richmonds. Out of the pig pen for you. It’s a brave new world for the humble sausage. The vegan bacon is wafer like, tasting like a chewier ham, less brine than a pork rasher, less fat too. In general the meat substitutes are far lighter and go down a lot easier. And I loved these potatoes; small, with skins, crispy and bite sized and come salted heavily. Dip into the beans to warm up against the Hackney cold.
The mushrooms were there, all herby and earthly, sliced and fried. They had a glossy cover to them, perhaps from oil, perhaps they were sweated a little. I placed one fully in the mouth whole and let my tongue run over it, full of fluid and one chew away from bursting, they’re glossy against the dry potatoes and tofu.
The beans and potatoes together make it a carb heavy meal, perfect for a calorie cheat day or a hangover recoverer. But topping off the fats is the pancake. Leave it till last to soak up the fluids from the rest of the tofu and mushrooms. The pancake is crispy on the edges and soft in the middle like a cookie, and has a sweet taste of batter to it, like a peshwari naan. I’d like to see the cafe use these differently, perhaps stretch them out into a dessert too? Having said that, the milkshake acts like a sugar wash of a meal full of starches and salts.
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
The queues are a problem to be honest, and I think I know why. There’s only one till. Nine times out of ten this isn’t a problem but all it takes is one guy who’s card isn’t working, or the till to crash and it’s a bottleneck of eight or nine people and that takes up most of the shop’s floor. Any retail workers worst nightmare. The staff are eager, and there’s plenty of them; I counted four with two chefs in the back. They’re collected, calm but energetic, it’s organised chaos. Most of the time the staff are on top of it but surely they’d rather bust a queue than apologising about the wait, prevention being the best cure, after all. Although to their credit, unlike Maggie’s, where customers came in a steady trickle, customers are an endless presence.
There’s a bookshelf next to the cutlery stand which is all commercially available; Chomsky paperbacks and all the other very grown up topics and writers. In the corner by the door is a stand for magazines and comic books. Among them I spy V For Vendetta. It’s very busy for a sunday morning brekkie trip, some people bring in the doggos, mums and dads feed their little ones bouncing on their knee. And during my stay there I overheard conversations of essays in progress and yoga classes. Living up to stereotypes? Or signs of progression? The place is indeed very trendy. Surely if I hung out long enough I’d be rubbing shoulders with Stewart Lee and Thom Yorke. And it was difficult to ignore Ewan Mcgregor hacking away at a typewriter wearing a stringed vest in the corner with a pained look on his face.
“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”
― Thomas Paine, the American Crisis.
Like a rock on a hostile shoreline withstanding wave after wave the fry up has persisted, stubbornly so, staying a staple of your average person’s diet. I don’t think a “traditional” full english is going to go anywhere anytime soon. But I do feel like we’re seeing changing times, just like I did all those years ago when buildings started getting bought up.
The changing times shift in alter to fit their means. The fry up is now facing the 21st century down with an accepting facelift. New fad diets have called into question the need for particular staples of food on the plates. Carbs, the thorn in every weight conscious diets – cut up potatoes with the nutritional skin on. Not fatty fatty chips or fried hash browns. And you wouldn’t have entirely vegan cafes in them days and you wouldn’t have tofu and pancakes on a traditional fry up.
“Gentrification” the old school eaters say.
But on the other hand, bohemianism is tomorrow’s new style. What we see as eccentricity now will seep into mainstream. It’s a symbiotic relationship, we need new ideas, fresh ideas, diversity to keep the society going. We approach them with skepticism. Somewhere in the middle we meet. As it is with food, so everything else follows. Change is inevitable. Embrace it.
To sum up,
Smashing pancakes though.
Do you like a meat free breakfast, comrade? How do you like beans on your plate? Have you ever had a fry up in a bowl? Have you been to the Black Cat Cafe? Agree? Disagree?