The Oxford Diet

Posted on November 24th, by JasonEricBell in Blog. No Comments

On my old blog, I posted installments of “the Columbia diet,” a description of all the foods I ate over the course of a week. My intention was to record what kinds of meals a college student in New York City consumes on a regular basis, as well as to mark the differences between the diet of an endurance runner and the average Columbian. Now that I’m at Oxford—and, for the time being, walking and weight-lifting and riding a recumbent bike instead of running—I think it might be interesting to keep a similar log. How does a (graduate) student eat in Oxford?

Saturday, November 16th:

For breakfast, I made a packet of Quaker oatmeal, apple and blueberry flavor, and mixed in a spoonful of rhubarb and ginger jam. I walked to the town of Binsey and stopped at a pub called The Perch. I drank a latte in the garden, under a giant weeping willow. Then, I followed Binsey Lane to the church of St. Margaret. According to Oxford myth, Lewis Carroll was inspired by The Perch to write various scenes in Alice in Wonderland, and St. Margaret’s has a tie to the novel as well. In one corner of the cemetery is a very ancient well with healing waters. Since the 13th century it has been known as a “treacle well,” and it appears in Chapter VII, “A Mad Tea Party.” The Doormouse tells Alice a story about three sisters, Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie, who live in the bottom of a “treacle-well.” Alice objects that “There’s no such thing!” but indeed, there is, and you can still visit it in Binsey. After my visit to St. Margaret’s, I backtracked across Port Meadow to Jericho, where I had lunch at a pub called The Rickety Press: a board with chicken liver mousse, ham hock terrine, cured meats, slaw, pickles, and bread. And a half pint of Peter’s Porter. On my way back home, I bought a bag of English Conference pears, sublime, sweet, soft. During the afternoon, I had a Nature Valley “Ginger Nut Crunch” bar, a flavor unavailable in the States—I’ll miss it next year. For dinner, I had a peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwich on sunflower rye bread, a handful of stilton and port potato crisps, and a bowl of Fage Greek yogurt mixed with pears. My parents sent me an enormous tub of Jif peanut butter after all my complaining about the inferior British products. How long will two pounds last?

Sunday, November 17th:

When I woke up, I had two pieces of sunflower rye toast with rhubarb ginger jam and some yogurt. It’s a mile from my accommodations to the gym, and so by the time I walk there, work out, and walk back, two hours have vanished. Breakfast slides into lunch. I showered and went to The Nosebag, which is Oxford’s answer to the meat and three. Except what an Oxford Mississippian might call “vegetables” are “salads,” and the meats are skewed British. I have learned that what counts as Oxford home-cooking is often a heavier, Anglocized version of some other national dish: beef lasagne, baked in a crock and oozing with bechamel, Armenian lamb stew, quiche stuffed with lox and watercress. My meat was the lasagne, my three salads a cabbage slaw studded with raisins and apples, a spoonful of roasted beets, and an undressed mix of cucumber, onion, corn, and peppers. Instead of a biscuit or yeast roll or cornbread, a thick slice of garlic bread. I drank a mug of filter coffee, appropriate for the meal, as bad as one finds in a Nashville gas station. Hungry in the afternoon, I tried an “Oats and Hazelnut” bar, the UK version of the Nature Valley “Peanut Butter” flavor. I started cooking dinner at 15:30, searing pork belly and shoulder, sautéing onion and garlic in the fat, simmering tomatoes, and after an hour, adding cannelloni, kidney, and butter beans. Chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and salt, another hour or so, and it was ready, topped with extra mature cheddar and a slice or two of sunflower rye. I’m not used to my own cooking anymore. My tolerance for spice has decayed since October, when I stopped making Thai food every week. After a few bites I was sweating, weeping, snot dripping from my nose. It was still delicious, and I ate it all and felt ill. Thanks to an ex-pat mistake—read kilos as pounds, bought double the meat I needed—I made a gallon of chili, enough for eight, and froze what I couldn’t eat.

Monday, November 18th:

I ate a toasted crumpet with pineapple and ginger jam and a Yeo Valley yogurt, which was too rich for a pre-gym breakfast. After hiking to the gym, exercising, and hiking back, I showered and tore through a Kashi GoLean Oatmeal Raisin bar. Although they’re awful as an ordinary snack, the GoLean bars are great following a workout. Like Gu energy gels, the GoLean bar is formulated for eating under conditions of physical stress. I couldn’t understand the appeal of Gu until I ran marathons, when I realized that maltodextrin, fructose, and salt taste incredible at mile 20. Maybe soy protein isolate is only satisfying after combined anaerobic / aerobic exercise, I’m not sure. I also ate an English Conference pear on my way to class. As a late lunch or early afternoon snack, I had a cup of carrot soup from Taylor’s (a chain of cafés in Oxford) with a piece of brown bread. For dinner, I made chili three way: egg noodles topped with my pork chili and shredded cheddar.

Tuesday, November 19th:

I had spiced Scottish porridge for breakfast. My afternoon class was moved to an awkward 11 a.m. slot, so no gym. Lunch was a peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich on sunflower rye, an apple, celery, and a Yeo Valley yogurt. For an afternoon snack, I had a Nature Valley Oats and Hazelnut bar. I went to formal hall at Lincoln for dinner. The dress code is academic robes, the hall is candlelit, a student says a Latin grace before the meal, and three courses are served, all of which give the evening a Harry Potter vibe. At Lincoln, formal hall is offered every night, whereas most other colleges make it more of a special occasion. I would almost never go, except that students are required to pay money into meals at the beginning of term, money that disappears if left unspent. I’ve read and heard that Lincoln’s food is “the best at Oxford,” a reputation sustained by gossip and hearsay. If that is indeed the case, I worry about the survival of non-Lincolnites. Lincoln’s food is better than a prison, about the quality of a middling hospital cafeteria or badly catered wedding. Every dinner starts with a bread basket. It is advisable to eat as much bread as possible, within the limits of politeness, because protein portions are pitiful for a 23-year-old man. Tonight, the first course was cream of mushroom soup, the second, a cooked (grilled, baked, poached, who knows) breast of chicken (a usual suspect on the Lincoln menu) coated in a spicy tomato sauce and served with potato wedges and green beans. Course number three is always dessert and always filling, to make up for a dire lack of quantity in the preceding dishes. “Steamed treacle sponge”: no sea creature or hygiene device, it looked like a smashed lump of cobbler crust, very sweet. A pitcher of custard, or what a Swiss girl to my right identified as such, was passed around for drizzling on top.

Wednesday, November 20th

I met my friend Sam for an early breakfast at the St. Giles Cafe. I think, but don’t quote me, that the original cafe started in 1937 and lasted until 2011 or 2012, when it changed ownership. Before renovation and a menu overhaul, the cafe was a typical greasy spoon; today it’s posher, gentrified. The full English is six pounds, or nine if you fancy an extra egg and sausage, I think? One egg, sausage, two rashers of bacon, tomatoes or mushrooms, and sourdough toast. The food was fine, if expensive, certainly not good enough to warrant another go. My class meets at 11 a.m., and we always take a tea and biscuit break halfway through. I tried a ginger nut—what we Americans would call a gingersnap—and a “Bourbon biscuit,” nothing more than a chocolate sandwich cookie, albeit one with a history reaching back to 1910. After class I hurried to the Ertegun House to catch the middle of Matthias’s talk on semantics, wolfed down half a cheese sandwich, and walked back across town to my transcription seminar. Before I started working in the library, I bought a bag of Revels from a vending machine. Revels are an assortment of chocolate balls with various centers: raisins, coffee, caramel, malt, orange, chocolate, and toffee: I was underwhelmed. For dinner, I had a sardine sandwich on sunflower rye, radishes, an English Conference pear, an apple, and a Yeo Valley yogurt.

Thursday, November 21st

For breakfast, I had two crumpets with pineapple ginger jam. I went to the gym, and afterwards, had a bowl of plain Onken yogurt, sweetened with a spoonful of coconut sugar. At least to my taste, Onken is a poor yogurt, thin and gluey, but the grocery was sold out of Fage. Every Thursday, the English graduate student lounge hosts a free lunch, usually lunch meat, baguettes, cheese, fruit, chips, cookies, etc. I made myself a sandwich with ham, salami, gouda, hummus, lettuce, and tomato, and had an apple. For an afternoon snack, I finished off the radishes with salt and pepper. I made pancakes for dinner, Bob’s 10 Grain, with blueberries and real maple syrup—expensive, but a flavor from home I miss badly, worth a heavy bag of ten pence coins. The pancakes were difficult to cook correctly, because my electric range heats irregularly, the pan I inherited from the suite’s former occupants is bent on the bottom, and I made the batter too thin. But I have rarely had such a good dinner: a sentiment I express almost every night.

Friday, November 22nd

I had Onken yogurt mixed with blueberries and a bowl of Kashi 7 Whole Grain Puffs cereal with coconut sugar, went to the gym, showered, and had lunch in Deep Hall, Lincoln’s resident pub. Meals in Deep Hall can be charged to our pre-paid accounts. The selection of sandwich fillings is weighted towards mayo: tuna mayo, chicken mayo, sausage and watercress coated in mayo, cheese and mayo. I ordered a roast turkey and stuffing sandwich, fortunately mayo free. My experience of “roast whatever and stuffing sandwiches,” a popular genre here (the best I’ve had so far included pork rinds and apple sauce), will always be mediated by that episode of friends where someone steals Ross’s “moist maker.” Needless to say, the Deep Hall take on Thanksgiving leftovers was not up to Ross’s standard:

Dr. Leedbetter: We’ve been getting reports of some very angry behavior on your part.
Ross: What?!
Dr. Leedbetter: Threatening letters, refusal to meet deadlines, apparently people now call you mental.
Ross: Yeah.
Dr. Leedbetter: We want you to speak to a psychiatrist.
Ross: Oh no, you-you don’t understand. Ugh, this is so silly. Umm, this is all because of a sandwich.
Dr. Leedbetter: A sandwich?
Ross: Yeah. You see my-my sister makes these amazing turkey sandwiches. Her secret is, she puts a, an extra slice of gravy soaked bread in the middle; I call it the Moist Maker. Anyway, I-I put my sandwich in the fridge over here…
Dr. Leedbetter: Oh, you know what?
Ross: What?
Dr. Leedbetter: I-I’m sorry. I, I-I-I believe I ate that.
Ross: You ate my sandwich?


Dinner was a bowl of chili with crackers and celery.

Saturday, November 23rd

I caught the 9:01 train to London, almost fell asleep on the train. At Paddington, caught the wrong train, District instead of Central Line, got off at Edgware Road, again picked the wrong train, a Hammersmith City line terminating one station short, Moorgate instead of Liverpool. I decided to walk the difference. I find it impossible to get a visual purchase on London; the neighborhoods change slowly, both architecturally, ethnically, and economically; but I understand I was in East London, Spitalfields. Starved by 11, I went straight to St. John Bread and Wine, bought a doughnut filled with vanilla custard and an Eccles cake, and ate both standing in front of Christ Church. I had been doughnut-less for months and months, my expectations were high—supposedly the best doughnut in London—but I was disappointed. Too light and delicate for my taste, like a sugar dusted cream puff. A doughnut should glisten with the hot oil in which it was born. The Eccles cake was addictive, puff pastry around a giant lump of currants. I wandered Spitalfields listening to an audio tour of the neighborhood by Queen’s College. Frying Pan Alley, Petticoat Lane, etc. Continued to Brick Lane where I started a second tour narrated by Tarquin Hall. The tour started at Beigel Bake, which I took as my cue for lunch, a bagel with salt beef and mustard. What is this salt beef stuff? Very salty corn beef, or closer to a pastrami? The mustard searing. And the bagel not so good, too soft and sweet. All together, the sandwich was wonderful, at least if you like eating a pile of fatty meat standing at a counter with strangers. Traces of the Jewish neighborhood remain, like a Jewish star inscribed on a drain pipe or the brick sign for CHN Katz, a string shop long closed. For the most part though, the road has transformed into a Bangladeshi community where hipsters and yuppies go to get their kicks. Down Brick Lane the smell of spice is profound, street art everywhere, and everywhere tourists taking pictures of the graffiti. I took a coffee break at a little shop called Vintage Emporium. Hipsters, how I have missed you. A majestic shaggy grey dog was sitting on a leather chair. The barista had the most ridiculous shag, too, but nice, took my 1.80 rather than break a  20, for a delicious americano. Also detoured into a record shop called Rough Trade East, incredible selection of vinyl and CDs, wish I had more time and money to educate myself there. Rough Trade is part of a shopping complex inside the grounds of the Old Truman Brewery, which once produced thousands of barrels of thick black porter. The tour lops onto Whitechapel Road, following it until Mile End. On my way back I stopped at Whitechapel Gallery. After reviewing the Susan Lucas exhibit, I was most definitely ready to start an improvised neo-pub crawl in Clerkenwell. I started at The Dovetail, a Belgian beer bar, where I had a bottle of Boon Geuze. I sipped and wrote for an hour, then moved to The Craft Beer Co., assuming incorrectly that they would have Mikkeller on tap. I didn’t want to spend a bundle on American ale I can find cheaper at home, so I had a half pint of Acorn Old Moor Porter, adequate and representative of the style. Ready for food, I walked to The Longroom, a bar that makes its own salt beef. I ordered a salt beef plate with mustard and pickles, and a third of a pint (I have no idea why they sell thirds, two-thirds, and full pints, maybe they don’t have the juice glasses most halves are served in) of Ubu Amber Ale, which reminded me of Lagunitas IPA—but not as good. The salt beef here was even saltier than Beigel Bake’s, which I suspect, maybe unfairly, is purchased from a huge and distant supplier. I made a decision to walk to King’s Cross Station, and on the way, saw The Quality Chophouse. The owner of Ducksoup in Soho had told me about their wine list and food, so I let myself go a little over budget. Drank a glass of 2012 Cascina Tavijn Vino Rosso, a ruché blend, went well with a blackface lamb salad and brown bread. With time to spare, I had a 50 mL glass of 1936 Chateau Sisqueille ‘Rivesaltes,’ easily the oldest wine I’ve ever tasted. An unusual experience of history, to experience, sensually, the thing entering the world and existing before the Holocaust, Hiroshima, etc. Exhausted, I made it back to King’s Cross, back to Paddington, and back to Oxford without mishap.

Sunday, November 24th

Had a bowl of Kashi puffs with brown sugar and an apple for breakfast. Went to the gym, grocery shopping, and made myself lunch: crumbed ham with mustard, mayo, and lettuce on garlic parsley flatbread, carrots, and sweet chili potato chips. During the afternoon, I had a Hobnob’s “Medley,” which is a candy bar, cookie, granola mashup: “raisins, milk chocolate, cereals, & biscuit chunks.” Verdict: I would rather eat a candy bar, a cookie, or granola individually. Also, I had another apple. For dinner, I had peanut butter and pineapple ginger jam on Irish wheaten bread, some crackers, a pear, and Fage 0% yogurt mixed with green grapes.

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