Wednesday, 25 September 2013

I wandered hungry like a cloud, the smell of garlic smoothly lied

Maybe the location should of been a warning  and maybe the name should of leapt out at me in large glaring warning klaxons, even it's inviting Greek music on the tanoy distracted me from the final nail in the coffin.... "Authentic Greek Cuisine" but I got taken in long enough to order food in the Bigg Market's Greek Taverna... optimistically called Simply Greek Tavern  ( 2-4 Bigg Market). In fact for an eatery that serves authentic Greek cuisine, there wasn't a lot of Greeks in the place or Greek on the menu, we had to translate backwards to know what we were ordering.

In my defence, by the time I knew I had made an error it was too late to get away. The lovely slavic waitress and the genuinely Greek manager had both been around  a few times to see if we were "aright" and hoped it was lovely. In typical English deference we nodded politely first few times then I had to say something about the alleged Greek Salad ( more on that later). Our first warning sign  should of been  when I asked our waitress if the tzadziki was proper garlicky or not. She said rather honestly that it depended on the day. I know , I know, but we were already sat down and hoping to be fed in short order. As it turns out the tzadziki was a fine medium strength, but not nearly as strong as I like it.

What really upset me was the downward slide of the experience from the moment we entered the place. It started well enough, the smell of garlic in the air, the sound of current top 40 Greek tunes wafting through the air, sufficiently Greek decor of the 70's kind abounded. Surely these were signs that our hosts had spent more money on the food than the dinning room. Our first course arrived and proceeded to underwhelm us. Consisting of  a plate of Spanakopita, or as the menu helpfully told us...spinach pie, with a Greek salad and side order of Tzadziki and bread , the items in question were ok  to passable to what the hell is this.  Beginning with the best bits, the tzadziki was properly thick, well blended with garlic, olive oil  salt and dill, though mint does just as well. It could have been stronger  and there should have been on offer a medium or a strong, but as I said, acceptable to someone who has had the stuff prepared by "genuine Greeks".  As for the Spanakopita, it was ok, a bit mild, it was missing a few signature touches  but not so much that a hungry person could not forgive the leaving out of larger doses of Feta or Ricotta cheese. The seasoning was passable and the finished product  as served while a bit thin was well baked and ticked enough of the boxes to make it an acceptable though hardly awe inspiring starter.

Where the meal fell apart was the main. We were told it was Geordie portions and so only ordered the one of the Souvlaki chicken platter and split it. Did we want rice or chips with that? Again with the bloody chips! Of course we wanted the rice, and it came with a Greek salad. Let's first tell you what each component is supposed to look like  and  prepared properly.

The meat on sticks kebab part on offer (lamb is the real stuff but you know) is supposed to have chicken  bits marinated for at least a few hours if not overnight in a combination of garlic, yoghurt, olive oil, oregano or some other herb, as well a few other not so secret ingredients. This is then grilled and served all lovingly and gloriously smothered in tzadziki that waits on the side for dipping in.  What we got was something I would get in a Polish kitchen if my Gran had roasted a chicken in the oven after having hacked it to bits and skewered it. Tender, juicy and tasting of nothing but chicken fat. If that was Greek I'm Prince Phillip.

Moving along to the salad also purporting itself to be Greek, we firmly expected a healthy portion of onions, tomato, feta cheese, olives, more herbs and spices and olive oil etc.... What we got could only be described as a miserly tiny, shallow bowl of unmixed veg that might one day when it grew up be a French salad of some sort with a totally un required single hot pepper.

Lastly, the rice we were promised should have been a heaping spread of flavoured rice cooked in chicken broth and drizzled with the juices of the above mentioned Souvlaki mixed further with a few bits of chopped savory through it. Yum, I couldn't wait.... I'm still waiting, what sat there instead in a small pile dumped from a bowl shape off Masterchef, was a small perfectly cooked cup of  white steamed rice any Chinese chef would be proud of. Besides being not nearly enough, this was in  no way Greek, not even vaguely Mediterranean and it was bland.

If you are like some people, you want to dip your roast Polish Chicken in Tzadziki sauce, it was there but hardly enough to even stain two skewers worth.

Can you tell what I think happens here? Sure you do, in fact you might have guessed by now. The Spanakopita is made somewhere else and heated up, can't screw that up. The sauce is made on the spot sometimes and there is no quality control, seems we got lucky on the day.  Lastly the chicken takes 20 minutes to make we were told, I expect that's 10 to 15 minutes to marinate in what ever they think they can fool us with then another 10  minutes in the oven. What no frying first to seal in the flavours????

This alleged genuine Greek Taverna is nothing but a place where locals with no tastebuds come to brave Continental food. If you've ever eaten anywhere in Greece, in a Greek home or lived in a Greek area in any major urban centre, you would, like the lone other poor bastard in the place, sat with his ill informed mates who swore blind this was the best in town, have through the meal wondered how it could have gone so terribly wrong. He was the lucky one as he seemed to not have to pay for his erm ... meal. We being honest souls accepted that some sort of food had been brought to us, it was cooked sufficiently to not harm us and if we pretended it wasn't Greek, it might be something my wife's Jewish Grandmother in Brooklyn might have cooked for the high holydays. On these grounds and these grounds alone, I consented to pay the grossly overpriced addition of £26.70.

I told the front of house man that his ancestors were weeping and that was never in a million years Greek, or even mock Mediterranean. His body language was that of a man rumbled for selling his soul to the "you want chips with that" Gods. I suspect he doesn't eat off the menu or take his Mother there, that alone would kill her and she'd never speak to him again. I'd be embarrassed too, but if you are prepared to throw out basic standards to make a bit of money, it's a sort of business model I suppose.

If you want authentic Greek cuisine... go to fecking Greece, or London or Paris. Save your money and reputation. I may one day find real Greek food in Newcastle, but not today. Stay away from this so called Bouzouki palace, life is too short and money too valuable to throw away on confused soulless bistros that put bechamel sauce in moussaka, Oh G-d I think I'm going to be ill.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Yom Kippur: It's ok to laugh you know, in fact I command it. Part 1

I command it
Gut Yontiff on this the most holy of all days in Judaism. Yom Kippur unlike certain holy days  is a deeply dour and incredibly introspective day. It is thinking about what you have done with your life and how you can be  less of a shmuck. Even the least observant try to make an effort for this one. What G-d wants you to do is fix yourself and mean it. Having had to sit through a few sessions of self examination and watched a few others going at it over the last two weeks, I can see something that does need to change, we need to laugh, we need to be less easily offended and shocked and appalled at things , so much so that we miss the point the humorist is trying to make. We miss the target of the mirth, the not so hapless victim of the larger or smaller needle aimed squarely at the deeply offending attitude, act or person or personages. This form of humour serves to shame and belittle the offender, it satirizes and soothes the victims, it frees the sufferer in the telling by showing that there is a moment however brief and private where they to have a bit of freedom and can fight back and never forget. By denying them and those who pass on the stories the right to tell them or feel ok about telling them, you say that laughter, humour, even gallows humour is not allowed and serves no purpose in dealing with pain, suffering or hardship.

By the way before I forget.... To those of you reading this or anything else I have written, to those who know me personally, I apologize with deep sincerity and great regret for anything I may have said, not said or allegedly said to offend you. How was I supposed to know you were the self appointed arbiter of taste and protector of infirm East Namibian honey badger farmers? How could I guess that my personal choice of food or faith or clothing was going make the humourless radar go off and make me the unwanted centre of attention of the tut tut brigade in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable occasion. Oh and sorry Jerry, I will even pay the fine for that book you took out for me, so sorry, just didn't have time to finish it.

Gallows humour, ironic humour, self deprecating humour, biting scathing cutting humour, like sarcasm, is wielded as a weapon and protects the teller from the very people and institutions that would quietly and effectively subjugate and isolate them all the while hoping the victims/targets don't grow a spine or fight back. Righteous indignation is like war, the last resort because all else fails. Talking failed, shaming failed, satirizing failed, politeness failed, turning the other cheek failed, being tolerant failed, so you turn to anger, indignation and petitions followed by the age old .... you can't say that, that's a biased opinion, you're generalising  and how can you assume and the classic, even it it's true you can't say that as it might make them feel bad. Awww didummms, so pointing out to a nasty piece of work that they are nasty is something we ought not do, we should wait for them to feel bad about it themselves and change , say sorry and do an act of contrition unbidden. I would point you in the direction of many martyrs over the millennia who even today inspire but prove that ultimately nothing is ever changed until it is either shamed or ridiculed into non existence.

 What's off limits?  Death? atrocities? mass murder? ethnic cleansing or demonization through laws? Well let me tell you something, survivors of the concentration camps and the gulags of Stalin laughed, they laughed in the camps, they laughed in the line to trains, in the trains, off the trains, digging holes, putting bodies of dead relatives and friends into said holes, they laughed to remind themselves they were human. Whatever it is they suffered on the inside even years after, the humour in our homes was always dark, always sharp and served to remind us, the children and the children's children , to never forget ,  to never let it happen it again, to never do it again ourselves. And those who went on to live through or observe the depravities of other later dictators, other modern day demagogues who would save nations; used the same wit , humour and fatalism to stick a pin into the pompous and the stupid before they could get to anything as bad as Hitler or Stalin. That many would not listen till it was too late is not important, what is important is that these people knew when to spot BULLSHIT, when to point it out and when to feel like they themselves suffered for nothing when they see their own who have forgotten the lessons of even the most recent history and go on to commit the same crimes. Step by step washing away the universal justification against evil for their own narrow purposes. They and their children tell these stories to keep us, and the generations who follow  but will not read the histories, from repeating the mistakes so often visited on ourselves. These cautionary tales are designed to make us see in others, blacks, gays, the poor, people of all nations, even Palestinians as fellow sufferers.

The jokes. the stories of the survivors, if you just go quiet and let them talk as if you're not there, would make your hair curl if you are of a deeply sensetive nature. They first of all think the alleged shocking material is tame and will tell you far funnier and starker stories , sharper and wittier things that would make Oscar Wilde ( also someone who was oppressed in his own way ) smile knowingly. Which brings me to the nub of the matter.... We remember Oscar Wilde, we remember his stories and we laugh at his victims and in so doing insure we never again do those things with full intent and malice. But do we remember the countless angry denunciatory speeches? the reams of indignant pamphlets on any subject be it voting, health care, tolerance of other people? Oh some can point to dust covered collections of political philosophy  seldom read but highly prized omnibus of editorials, but most of us will still recall with fresh and vivid attention Gilbert & Sulivan's "I've got a little list" or the self deprecating Chelmo stories. Most recently Russell Brand .These stories serve to hit us quickly , sharply and with effect to remind us that we are ourselves on the verge of doing unto others what we ourselves would not like, especially when it's been done to us.

So next time somebody tells you a story that is funny and yet sends up bad behavior or points out suffering in a sarcastic or self deprecating manner.... do us a favour..... laugh for G-d's sake...... the teller wanted you to, the now dead or incredibly old relative of the teller who told it first wanted you to. They told much worse to survive... show some respect...laugh. The ones who suffered laughed, the survivors laughed to survive, the survivors remembered so we could remember and keep the reality the pathos, the humanity amid the inhumanity alive. By being so damned serious, we deny their experiences and deny humour as a tool we can use to fight every kind of societal ill and evil. Please please please buy yourself a sense of humour and take that stick you've got up your backside out. Smile man....smell the flowers and laugh at the jokes. If you do, the bad guys won't win, the bad guys won't find it so easy to pull the wool over your eyes. Humour is the shorthand, the Index at the back of the book of civilization. Humour is like early science fiction , it serves to do what others cannot , will not or fear to do. When enough people have understood the shorthand, the real awful, nasty unpleasant things can be rolled back or stopped in their tracks.

So what am I asking you today regardless of your faith or lack thereof? Take this one aspect of your life, give it a shake, learn to laugh. Be comfortable with your desire to laugh, it's not going to kill you and it will more often than not, bridge otherwise unbridgeable diferences.

It's at this point I need to remind some of you that I'm not Jewish, I'm a Catholic. My wife is Jewish and like me, Polish. We both have families that suffered in the concentration camps, we both have family and friends that were sent to Siberia or the killing fields of Katyn and countless other killing fields in Poland and Russia. My wife's maternal grandfather was the only survivor of the mass extermination of his village by playing dead , my father and grandfather avoided death at Katyn by being arrested two weeks later than the rest, then along with almost every Pole, Jewish or Catholic in then Eastern Poland that wasn't killed on the spot, sent to Siberia followed by the long deadly march to freedom and Persia. My father's 2nd wife, as a 12 year old, was held in Ravensbruck concentration camp and saw most of her friend's and family murdered. All this to say that while we are both engaged politically and take life incredibly seriously when we need to, we are still first and foremost humorists. We are humorists because our relatives are, because the people who raised us and went through  Hell were humorists.  And it is for them we prefer to laugh than to cry.

Tomorrow in part 2 my wife will tell in uncensored detail, the anecdotes and attitudes of survivors who settled in New York, Brooklyn, Midwood. The same place and people who created Mel Brooks and moulded Woody Allen to name but a few.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Mr Drayton's Dinner date at the Stand

Mr Drayton's Dinner date at the Stand series one episode one, occurred  this last Saturday. Being the first of it's kind one went with wild expectations of all sorts of things happening, but in the end it went so well that even Alex Collier, who's brain child this was, had little reason to worry. By the way, since we are in the desolate North, dinner does in fact mean meal we eat in the middle of the day and so it was that the event ran from 1pm to 3pm, which I'm sure came as a slight shock to some people. I myself having just ate, chose to have a pint of the fine local stout sold by the Stand's bar. Which brings me to the other point, it was billed as a diner date that cost £3 to get in but if you wanted to eat, which I assure you should want to, it would be £15. I can tell you  that if anybody was put off by this, I didn't hear any complaints, in fact I would say most people ordered the meal that consisted of a lovely large salad, followed by a choice of kangaroo burger or a vegetarian option that closely resembled the kangaroo burger, then strawberries with a sorbet drizzled liberally with champagne, finished off by coffee or tea.  Well worth the price of entry and every reason to skip that two for a tenner special on Dean street.

Was it funny? Was it worth two hours in the middle of the day you might have normally spent at the
Grainger Market or the Byker Morrison's or even walking up and down the Shields road popping into one small shop after another ?  Well for one you won't often find Steve Drayton on the Shields road, then again, I have bumped into him there more often than I have in front of RPM, but I digress,  if you do want see Steve, he's best seen doing what he does best, being funny. Steve Drayton's Dinner date is one of those times.

Andy the Chef
The premise is mostly nothing new, a genial host sits down and talks to two colleagues from the comedy world about what makes them tick. You never know what will come up or who'll show up, and by that I mean in the crowd as well. If you think some of the people there act like they think they're comedians, it's because they probably are. What's new of course is that we now get to interview victims like Andy the Chef, who judging by his reactions was not expecting to be grilled about sauces "through it" as he brought out each course. As it happens he managed well enough in the presence of three princes of puns.

The new bit was  the introduction of  the thing that makes it a dinner date. Who would you invite to a meal at your table, living, dead, fictitious and why. As a continuing premise it should work as long as the quality of the comics is maintained. Based on the suggestions of each comic a series of pub quiz like questions were asked with answers that didn't necessarily come close to what was being asked. At times it took on a Qi feel with the panel and the audience getting into personal anecdotes, some deeply IMDB moments and other times gags that depended more on good timing than good taste. For pudding, Uncle Steve chose from a selection of audience choices for dinner companions which led to more insightful answers, banter about not knowing who that was, English embarrassment, more jokes, and of course throughout we got to vote on which of the living, dead and fictitious guests would be allowed to come, more on that later. Oh and the points don't matter.
Damian Clark
  On the bill were Damian Clark & Chris Stokes both fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe.  Damian the more in your face Australian comic being the polar opposite of the Woody Allen like Chris, who's personal life was taken out for an airing despite numerous protestations that seemed at least at times genuine, but not so genuine it didn't stop him from answering. Sensitivity was not invited and if you are easily offended by the slightest bit of controversy and mild discomfort I suggest you stay away. I had told Steve before the show that my wife and I were ok with a bit of personal abuse, but he assured me that it would be a clean show with no abuse of  paying guests. Clearly he had a different definition of clean to say... that of Rev Paisley, but it wasn't your standard comedy night of pick on the people brave enough sit in front. There were a few blue bits and that's why it's fun to be an adult that's old enough to vote and drink.
Chris Stokes

First up was the Bill Murray v David Sedaris debate with the witty New Yorker decisively beating the apparently less than pleasant in real life and notorious difficult person Bill Murray. 1-0 to Chris so far.  Next up we got the very dead Richard Pryor and even more dead John Keats, during which we learned that comedians get thirsty too. So thirsty in fact that in the absence of a bottle of water which everybody else got, Damian Clark kindly poured some of the water from the vase of flowers into a few glasses that waited forlornly for something suitable to pour into them and made sure Chris was well lubricated.  I think Richard Pryor won that one ( it was close), but as I said before, points don't matter. Lastly we got the fictional round that got the creative juices going..... Father Christmas v Hannibal Lecter. Father Christmas had a lot going for him and was responsible for some of the more interesting improv, but Hannibal Lecter described as "not a role model as such" but "Urbane and witty" prompted a debate about the ethics of  inviting somebody over who might eat you for afters. This round too was close and  frankly I can't recall the result, but for the sheer danger and adrenaline of talking to a maniac  and hoping he considers you good enough to live, Father Christmas may have won.

If I have any criticism of the event, it's minor and it's just that all things considered, it's hard to interview people with a mouthful of food half the time and I'm sure more than a few bits of spontaneous wit were swallowed along with the veggie burger or Kangaroo. Next time I'm sure that bit of  logistics will have been dealt with. On the whole, a great concept and well worth the price of entry. Watch the edited highlights, please ignore the man taking notes at the front, I have no idea who he is, any resemblance to me is pure coincidence. Next show 28th of September at the Stand Newcastle.

Next show I'm informed will be in about a month and you should follow Steve Drayton's blog for more details. In the mean time his regular Thursday night floating party of the frostiest people in Newcastle continues with the return of the latest series of Record Player events.

THU 12 SEPTEMBER - Paul Simon – Graceland
Fri 20 SEPTEMBER - Blondie – Parallel Lines plus special blockbuster quiz
THU 26 SEPTEMBER - New Order – Low-Life vs The Pet Shop Boys – Actually
Starts 19:15 (doors 18:45) Digital Lounge. Strictly no entry after 19:15.
Tickets: £5