Saturday, June 7, 2008

My debts to Oxford... and they're not the ones you're thinking of

My years in Oxford were quite life-changing - the thought-provoking tutorials, the plethora of inspiring, forgotten books in the Indian Institute section of the Bodleian library, graduate life.

But the element that's most relevant to this blog? Oxford is where I was forced to learn that essential life-skill -- cooking! My recent visit back there for the Rhodes Women's Reunion (celebrating 30 years of women Rhodes scholars) underscored that the essentials don't really change at Oxford. The food at hall was still weird enough to ensure that scholars will either learn to live on crisps and Coke or start/renew their culinary journeys.

On the first evening at Oxford, Jen, our lovely hostess, walked a group of us over to Balliol College, my nurturing alma mater. The smiling porter, the gorgeous green quad, the leafy promenade, the pleasant undergrads all reminded me of my time there 13 years ago. We walked into hall (think the dining hall of Harry Potter's school) and my mind flashed back to memories of long chats about the nature of death, the meaning of life, the newest Bond movie...and remembered why I tended to wear jeans a lot those days (the cost of laundry, but also the long benches meant that you have to swivel over them very inelegantly -- the frock I was wearing made the whole effort quite bothersome!)

They were serving a vegetable dish of corn and peppers with turkey cordon bleu. I opted for this combination and received a huge mound of the slightly flavored vegetables and the breaded white meat with cheese in the center. Not the best meal I've had, but adequate. I saw why I went out at the end of the first week and bought myself an inexpensive set of cooking pots, pans and ladles at Argos. A daily dose of this stuff would have killed of some part of me....
I wasn't surprised when I saw that they had closed the dining hall at Holywell Manor - our cerebral and welcoming graduate accomadations, where I learned so much from fellow-students and extremely philosophical porters (so great to see Terry and Ken there again)

I also remembered why I would save for formal hall (more dressy dinners in cap and gown with a small price tag attached). I was at high table at the Rhodes House dinner the next evening, and the elegance and delicate flavors of the meal that evening were such a great contrast to normal hall. Even the asparagus in the salad had a distinct flavor that set it apart from even the best NYC restaurant. Then came a superior chicken with potatoes au gratin. The mousse with berries hidden in it was sinful, and probably cost me two 45-minute sets on the elliptical machine. The well-chosen wines (I wish I had taken notes) rounded it all off beautifully.

So, thank you Oxford for an inimitable educational experience, but also for making me learn the basics of good cooking (I'll share my first experiments with you some time soon -- a good dal, tossed tuna, vegetable noodles, sambar...), some skill for a well-organized sit down dinner, and an appreciation of good wine (and an occasional port).

(The pix on this page: our group being led by a bagpiper from the keynote lecture by Bonnie St. John at the Sheldonian to Rhodes House; the head of the Rhodes Trust speaking to us at the Rhodes House dinner; and one of me speaking at the opening panel).

1 comment:

Preston said...

I just love the fact that you are an Oxford-educated, sharpshooting, Hudson-swimming, corporate-employed supermom whose kids ASK to have broccoli for breakfast. I mean, who else can say that???