Category Archives: Food

The Sweeney

Sweeney Todd has been very much on my mind lately. I recently saw a really excellent production of the Sondheim musical at Twickenham Theatre (ave atque vale). Then I heard that another production is to be staged at the venerable Harrington’s pie shop in Tooting, which also sounds like it’ll be worth seeing. And between these, I’ve been working on props and puppets for another Sondheim musical (come and see it, it’ll be awesome).

Sweeney Todd So who was Sweeney Todd? The tale has various forms, but the basic essence is that Todd is a murderous barber in Fleet Street (No. 186 to be precise) who kills his customers by means of a special chair (pictured left) and his trusty razor. The bodies are disposed of by his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, in the form of extremely tasty meat pies.

The story first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful called The String of Pearls: A Romance (“romance” meant something different then). Its enduring popularity led to its being retold in various versions over the decades, most of which played with the details a little – maybe Mrs Lovett was actually his lover, for instance. Oddly, the detail that he sliced his victims with a razor while preparing to shave them, which you’d think would be a pretty good starting point for such a horror story, was added in later versions. Christopher Bond’s 1970 play recast Todd as an anti-hero with a revenge motive, and this was carried over into Sondheim’s 1979 musical and the Tim Burton film version thereof.

Some folklorists would have you believe that Todd was a real figure, and certainly he shares with Sherlock Holmes the honour of being a London character so vivid that he almost seems to transcend fiction. But one thing we can be almost certain of is that he was not real. There are no surviving contemporary accounts of such a man, and the concept of a barber who kills his victims with a descending chair like some perverted version of a Thunderbirds launch sequence prior to serving them in delicious pie form would definitely be the sort of thing that would make the papers.

Stories of cannibalism were nothing new even then, and even the gruesome detail of the unwitting cannibal declaring the meat delicious was pretty long in the tooth – Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Historia Regum Britanniae of a king marooned on an island whose servant was so loyal that he gave the king a slice of his own leg, which the king declared to be the most toothsome thing he’d ever eaten, and he had the good taste not to say, “I’ve heard of self service, but this is ridiculous!”

A popular suggestion is that the inspiration came from the legend of Sawney Bean, the 15th century patriarch of a family of cannibals who preyed on unwary travellers in Galloway. The fact that “Sweeney” sounds very much like an Anglicised version of “Sawney” leads me to think they’re on to something here, although admittedly other than the cannibalism, the two stories have little in common.

However, I wonder if there might have been a source of inspiration closer to home. I’ve written before about the epidemic of food adulteration in the 18th and 19th centuries – suppose our unknown author took this to its logical conclusion? Looking for a name for the chap who’d do such a thing, he recalled an old Scottish tale. Perhaps he even adapted it from an already existing urban legend.

I’d love to explore this further, but my dinner’s ready.

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Filed under 19th century, Crime, Food, Literature, The City

Out with the old

Continuing with the festive theme started last entry (and why not?), I think I’d like to talk a little about New Year. Here in London, the New Year tradition is very simple. Go out and get absolutely hammered. If you want to really push the boat out, join the revellers in Trafalgar Square or by the river so you can hear the chimes of Big Ben as they sound. The New Year is obviously a significant day in the calendar, what with it being at the start and all. But I have to say that our tradition is lacking a little compared to those of other countries and even those of other parts of Britain.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the tradition of holding New Year on 1st January is actually not that universal. You’ve no doubt heard of Chinese New Year and are aware that it falls between January 21st and February 21st, depending when the new moon of the first lunar month falls. Well, there’s also the Tamil New Year, the Nepalese New Year, the Balinese New Year, the Islamic New Year, the Eastern Orthodox New Year and so many others that I can’t really be bothered to list them all. Suffice it to say that not everyone goes by the Gregorian calendar. Even in Britain, the New Year was only regarded as starting on 1st January from 1751 onwards. Before that, 25th March was the preferred date.

So anyway, how about the celebrations themselves? Well, we have the fireworks, of course, which are nice. And we have the New Year’s Day parade, which is also nice.

New Year festivities in Rural Scotland (NOTE TO SELF: Check this before pressing "publish.")

If you’re a bit further north, though, you might get something a bit more imaginative and a bit pagan. One tradition in Scotland and the North of England is that of burning out the Old Year. Grampian in particular has some rather interesting traditional customs. In Stonehaven, for instance, there’s a festival known as “Swinging the Fireballs,” where people, um, swing fireballs around and people let off shotguns to let the Old Year know it’s time to leave. However, there’s also the requisite eating and drinking, so it’s all good. In Burghead, there’s the more obscurely-named “Burning the Clavie,” in which a barrel of tar (the Clavie) is set alight, carried around the town and then fixed to a stone altar. The charred remains are considered to keep evil spirits at bay and thus are used as good luck charms. Allendale and Northumberland see similar festivities. Perhaps even the modern-day fireworks owe their origins to such customs as these.

Good fortune is a common theme of New Year celebrations – this may be traced back to the ancient belief that spirits lurked in the dark (and I’m not just talking about the whisky). If you don’t fancy a bit of a blaze, a lot of noise is considered an equally acceptable way to banish evil. A peal of bells from the church is one way of doing things. Another, if you’re a member of  the Berchtesgaden Christmas Shooters (Weinachtschützen des Berchtesgadener Landes) in Germany is to let off a volley of gunfire to symbolically shoot the Old Year. Similar symbolic shootings are held in Philadelphia and were once held in Angus.

After all that noise and merriment, assuming your hangover allows such things, feasting is traditional. The idea of a feast to mark the New Year dates back to the Romans (there’s that pre-Christian thing again). In Greece, a cake is served containing a coin, the finder of which will supposedly have good luck throughout the year, presumably unless  they break a tooth on it. That would be lame. Again in Germany, the eating of doughnuts is a New Year custom, along with lucky marzipan pigs. On the subject of pastry, Parisian bakers traditionally used to bake elaborate shaped pastries to mark the start of the year.

If you want to work all that off, as well as cut through your hangover, you may wish to return to London for one final New Year tradition. Brave or possibly insane souls in the Serpentine Swimming Club, Hyde Park like to go for an early morning dip in the lake. Talk about breaking the ice!!!! No, but seriously, they often do have to literally break the ice.

Anyway, Happy New Year, chums, and all the best for 2012. Show those Mayans who’s boss.

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Filed under Booze, Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, History, Only loosely about London

What’s for dinner, Tom?

I have a special little end-of-the-week ritual that I’d like to tell you about. You know how it is on a Friday – you’re running out of food in the house, you’re tired, you can’t really be arsed to cook. In my case, as I don’t even do a weekly shop to speak of, and am a terrible cook, these issues are particularly troublesome.

Fortunately, if you’re in the Waterloo area, help is at hand. I like to make a detour on my way home to the South Bank, where every weekend,  just in front of the Royal Festival Hall (or behind, if you’re approaching from the West End) is the Real Food Market. This varies from week to week, but it’s basically a place where independent food producers can sell their wares. Many of them will do you a nice takeaway, and there’s a seating area where you can munch on your purchases. I’ve been introduced here to Malaysian, Ghanaian and Polish food. Some of my favourite food people, including Outsider Tart and Jaz & Jul’s, are often there and so tend to be favoured ports of call. Sometimes it’ll be themed (e.g. “Free From,” chocolate) but you are always guaranteed to find something utterly delicious.

Unlike Becky B and the Hungry Sparrow, whose blogs may be found to the right, I’m not much of a foodie, but I know a good thing when I find it. What’s more, it’s a great place whether I’m on my way home or heading into town for a Friday night shindig – why line my stomach with toast when I could line it with bigos or chilli? And it beats the pants off a greasy kebab for a Friday night takeaway.

This week, I found myself enjoying a bit of a nostalgia trip. One of the retailers there this week was What the Dickens? Their thing is not, as you might have thought, unidentifiable and frightening food that causes one to utter their company name (those £5 buffets around Chinatown are far better for that sort of thing). Rather, they specialise in old-fashioned dishes that have been unjustly neglected. On their stand, these delightfully vintage-clothed gentlemen were serving bacon and scallop rolls (had one yesterday, a delicious variation on the bacon sandwich) and kedgeree.

Oh man, kedgeree. This is a slightly unfashionable dish that has never quite disappeared, but which I absolutely love. It’s a lightly-spiced rice dish containing smoked haddock, onion and hard-boiled egg, often served for breakfast but equally splendid at any time of the day. It’s one of my ma’s specialities and also one of the few dishes I can cook myself and happily serve to others. It can be eaten hot or cold, is very filling and is an excellent hangover cure, not being too heavy. There are various recipes – it’s very hard to mess up, so experimentation is fine.

Its origins are uncertain, as is the case with so many foods. But the most common explanation is that it came along during the days of the British empire in India and started out as an Anglicised form of khichri. The chaps on the stall said it originated with the Scottish regiments – certainly the addition of smoked fish is quite a Caledonian thing, and the name of the dish does have a Scotch ring to it. Some versions of the origin even go so far as to say that the dish originated in Scotland and was merely popularised in India. I suspect, given the flexible nature of the recipe, every explanation has some truth to it.

So anyway, sampling What the Dickens?’ version was a must for me. Particularly as we’d had doughnuts and chocolate in the office and I badly needed something savoury to prevent a sugar coma. The stall was shortly due to close up as I arrived. The fellow serving gave it to me for half price, as they were soon closing and the rice had started to go a bit crispy in the pan (which didn’t bother me, I’m not a remotely fussy eater). They also complimented me on my raincoat, which was praise indeed given the nature of their own vintage outfits.

In conclusion, kedgeree is great.

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Filed under 19th century, Food, History, London, Markets, Waterloo and Southwark

Less passion, less protein

As a former big fat guy, I’m always mildly curious about interesting dietary concepts. Most of them are utter balderdash, of course (although if you want to lose weight, the one that worked for me was something I like to call “eating less”). Nevertheless, for curiosity and humour value you can’t beat the opinions of an uneducated self-appointed nutritional expert.

Picture unrelated.

And that brings me on to Mr Stanley Green.

There are plenty of crazy people shouting things down Oxford Street (including one who informed me, very emphatically, that God hates petrol), but North London boy Stanley Green was more notorious than all of them. He was a chap who had some interesting beliefs developed during his time in the Navy relating to “passion” (i.e. lust and aggression) – namely, he felt that there was too much of it in the world. He came to the conclusion that this was caused by an excess of protein in the modern diet.

Therefore, he took to the streets with a sandwich board that would make him an icon. Actually, there were several sandwich boards over the years, but all contained a variant of the basic slogan:

LESS LUST,

BY LESS

PROTEIN

MEAT FISH

BIRD: EGG

CHEESE: PEAS

(INC. LENTILS)

BEANS: NUTS.

AND SITTING.

PROTEIN WISDOM

I’d question how sitting is supposed to increase one’s levels of protein, although I suppose it could increase lust depending on where you’re sitting and on whom.

Green also sold a home-printed pamphlet entitled EIGHT PASSION PROTEINS WITH CARE – I’ve noticed that while you can’t fault your average crank for enthusiasm, written English does appear to be one of their weaker areas. If you’d like to read Mr Green’s full dissertation, it’s reproduced here. Green also tried his hand at longer works on the subject of passion, both fiction and non-fiction, neither of which have been published. Well, you know what they say – sex sells, so by extension anything that argues against it is probably not going to set the publishing world on fire.

Green began his crusade on the streets of Harrow in 1968 before taking on the tougher audiences of Oxford Street and Leicester Square. Although by all accounts he wasn’t as obnoxious as some of the street preachers out there, he doesn’t seem to have been universally well received. Frankly, a man with a sandwich board sounds a lot more agreeable than a woman screaming at me about how I “fornicate and take heroin” (chance’d be a fine thing). Nevertheless, a number of people took issue with his campaign, not least of whom were women who objected to being told that they “couldn’t deceive [their] groom that [they] are a virgin on [their] wedding night,” which suggests a lack of anatomical knowledge on Mr Green’s part. In later years, Green took to wearing overalls to protect himself from the spittle of those who disagreed with him. He was also arrested twice for obstruction, which struck him as immensely unjust.

With his fussy little moustache, his cap and of course his placard, Green became something of a London icon over the 25 years of his preaching. Although his campaign wasn’t exactly what you might call an overwhelming success, he was pretty well-known about the town. Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway even featured Green, complete with sandwich board, in one of his catwalk shows. The Primark knock-off has yet to appear.

In his personal life, unlike most Oxford Street preachers, Green appears to have been agnostic, which does rather raise the question of what he had against lust. As you might imagine, he kept his diet simple and boring. He remained single and lived alone, dying in 1993.

In recognition of Green’s pop culture status, his writings and placard have been preserved for the nation in the Museum of London, and have been put on display. Alas, with the demise of the sandwich board as of a 2008 law introduced by Westminster Council, we shall not see his like again. That’s what the Internet is for.

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Filed under 20th Century, Food, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners, West End

Would you Adam and Eve it?

There’s a quote by P. G. Wodehouse that I think sums up my situation today. It goes thus:

I was left in no doubt as to the severity of the hangover when a cat stamped into the room.

Despite a substantial breakfast at the excellent Mike’s Café in Notting Hill (in my not inconsiderable experience, the severity of the hangover increases with the amount of time it’ll take you to get home), despite a long nap, despite having as many painkillers as is considered sensible for a person to have, it’s still with me. I choose to blame everyone except me. Particularly those damn bar staff, forcing me to buy Jägerbombs by having them there, all for sale and that.

Hold, let’s rewind and examine how I got into this situation in the first place. Along the way we will learn about some interesting bars in the West End.

You see, a friend is over from Germany, and therefore Becky B suggested a trip to the Adam and Eve in Fitzrovia. I was a little suspicious of the place (it describes itself as being based in “Noho” rather than Fitzrovia, a forced neologism that sets my teeth on edge) but was willing to bow to Becky’s recommendation. When I got there, the others were late. Curious, I asked the barman where the reserved table was. He said there was no such reservation. This was strange to me. I got a call a little later from Seb saying that they had arrived and had an entire area reserved. Now, okay, possibly the barman wasn’t aware.

However, the bar staff continued to fail to impress for the rest of the evening. One of them seemed very angry at my chums for showing up late – well, granted, it’s not great if we’re late for a reservation, but this fellow was complaining that they had turned people away because they were expecting us on time. Now, this was, I’m sorry to say, utter bollocks. The place was half empty, which for a bar off Oxford Street is amazing. If they were turning people away, that was stupid of them. And if it was really such a problem to keep the place reserved and empty, they could have un-reserved it. In either case, it’s not considered the done thing to berate your customers in such a fashion.

Another member of staff also complained to some of our chums having a smoke outside that the other staff had got the ashtrays messed up, which again is not the done thing in a customer service environment – it reflects badly on the venue as much as on any individual.

The place stopped serving at 10.30. This is strikingly early for a pub, particularly in the West End, but it’s their venue I suppose. Except that one of our party went up to get a round of drinks at 10.20 and was told that he couldn’t. When we went to investigate this strange state of affairs, for we had received no indication of last orders, the barman (the same one who told me they didn’t have our reservation) said, and I quote, “What’s in it for us if we do serve another round?” The correct answer to such an insolent question from a bartender is, “By god, you whelp of a diseased whore, I don’t know whether I’m more inclined to whip you for your impertinence or your master for his negligence, you will fetch me my drink or feel the toe of my boot up your backside!” but I restrained myself.

We did, with no end of complaints from the staff, get our drinks in the end. If it was really such an issue, they should simply have not served us. To serve us and complain and give us lip is quite beyond the pale. In conclusion, the Adam and Eve is shit.

Fortunately, Becky had an ace up her sleeve, and we went on to a basement cocktail bar on Rathbone Place rejoicing in the unusual name of Bourne and Hollingsworth. This was much more up my street. It’s a small venue, the preferred term I think is “intimate,” and the decor is very eclectic. More than one reviewer (and a member of our party) described it as being “like your grandmother’s house.” How they know what my grandmother’s house looks like is a mystery to me. The cocktail menu was superb, I am told by my cocktail-drinking friends. I stuck to beer myself. It did suffer from that cocktail bar disease of charging the price of a pint for a bottle, but the selection of lagers was suitably offbeat without being controversial. Oh, and kudos to the DJ for his taste in retro music.

When this place closed, Becky once more led the way – this time to an utterly charming place on Charing Cross Road, a members-only theatre bar known as the Phoenix Artist’s Club. I fell in love with the place instantly, it’s a proper boho old-school West End boozer. I’d love to say something meaningful about it, but by the end of the night I was utterly trashed and dancing like a twat. I should apologise to everyone who was forced to listen to me singing along to ‘Stars,’ as I recall my justification at the time was that Les Miserables is fucking awesome.” 

When the bar closed, the survivors staggered through the ruins of the Gay Pride event to get a cab back to Becky’s place in Notting Hill. I forget exactly how things ended, although I did wake on the floor, staring at a bra (I don’t think it was mine). Hungover as all hell, we grabbed breakfast at Mike’s Café on Blenheim Crescent. Mike’s is an extremely old-skool place that offers a very hearty breakfast at a very reasonable price – I accessorised mine with one of their gorgeous milkshakes. With Notting Hill increasingly falling prey to chains, it’s good to know you can still get something really special.

Now I’m off back to bed. Goodnight.

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Filed under Arts, Booze, Clubbing, Current events, Fitzrovia, Food, Geography, London, Notting Hill, Soho, Theatre, West End

Fame, of a sort

You know, one of those odd things that always surprises me is how often I get recognised. I don’t mean this in a big-headed way, though inevitably it’s going to come across as such.

Allow me to explain. Now, I’m fairly distinctive, visually speaking. I don’t know what it is – I don’t think I’m outstandingly handsome, but nor to I think I’m memorably ugly. I do have distinctive hair and fairly distinctive clothes, but I get recognised even when dressed normally and when my hair is short. I’m not exactly in the public eye, despite the popular perception that the life of us bloggers is an endless round of parties, soirees and women throwing themselves at us demanding sexual favours (in reality, that sort of thing is mostly restricted to weekends).

Yet I am always recognised. And I don’t mean by former work colleagues or friends-of-friends. I mean by everybody. People I’ve met maybe once at a party for a minute or two. People I’ve walked past. I’ve even had people treat me with great suspicion because they felt sure we’d met, though I denied it (in this case, the person in question was up to something semi-legal at best, so perhaps suspicion was justified). I am at a loss to explain this.

For example, take the other day. I was on the South Bank, where there was a rather good food festival on. The previous day I’d stopped by on my way to rehearsals (did I mention I’m in a play next week? You should totally come and see it) and got a pork and apple burger that was utter heaven. That day, I was pleased to note that Jaz and Juls had a stall there.

Jaz and Juls, if you’re not familiar with them, are a company that produces organic hot chocolate. Now, as you know, I’m a complete monster who cares little for the environment – I devised a braking system for cars recently that worked by choking the wheels with dead kittens. However, I do enjoy good chocolate, and Jaz and Juls produce very good chocolate.

One of these days, I'm going to fire that picture researcher.

See, one of the problems I have with hot chocolate is that it can be a little bland – too watery or just plain flavourless. For this reason I have little truck with instant hot chocolate. Jaz and Juls has the advantage of actually tasting like it’s made out of chocolate. There are several winsomely-named flavours – I’m somewhat limited in the ones I can pick due to my inability to say the word “choccy” in a non-sarcastic tone of voice. However, I recommend “Orangey Tang.” although “Gingerbread, Man” and “Chilli con Choccy” are also very enjoyable. Enjoyable for everyone else is my inability to drink it without spilling it down my shirt.

Anyway, so I went up to the stand, and was instantly greeted with a “How are you?” of recognition from the young lady manning the place. Womanning the place? I forget whether militant feminism is still a thing. Which was a little unexpected. I mean, yes, I’d bought hot chocolate from these people before, but that was a while back in Camden. Unless I’m their only customer, I was a little freaked out at being remembered. Not unpleasantly so. I did briefly try claiming that I was actually one of a number of identical Toms produced by a factory, and she offered the alternative explanation that I may in fact be a Terminator.

Damn that researcher. Damn him.

This led on to a discussion about how the T-1000 never has to worry about forgetting his keys, and the difficulty of finding one’s glasses when one is already wearing them. It was all rather jolly. Maybe you had to be there.

Then I spilt hot chocolate down my shirt.

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Filed under Current events, Food, London, Markets, Meta, Waterloo and Southwark, Weird shops

Together at last

Yr. Humble Chronicler is no stranger to bizarro treats. In fact, I tend to view weird food as kind of a challenge. So when I came across this chocolate bar…

Mo's Dark Bacon Bar

I must admit that my curiosity was piqued. A chocolate bar containing bacon sounds like the kind of idea you only come up with when stoned. In theory, a great idea – chocolate = good, bacon = good, ergo chocolate + bacon = very good. In practice, this sort of equation does not necessarily work out, as I discovered for myself when trying to combine puppies with jet engines.The question is, would this be a successful combo of good things that brings great joy (like Star Wars Lego) or a terrible idea that induces vomiting (like Alien vs Predator)? At the risk of encroaching on The Hungry Sparrow’s territory, I felt it was my duty to investigate.

First, though, a little bit of background. According to sources, bacon was invented in 1610 by Sir Francis Bacon, pictured right [citation needed]. It’s a delicious and flavoursome cured meat – one of Yr. Humble Chronicler’s vegetarian friends has said it’s the only animal product that has ever made her tempted to abandon her principles. It’s spawned an entire cultural movement, Bacon Mania, devoted to the dead pig derivative in all its forms. We’ve seen the arrival of the Bacon Explosion, bacon vodka and even the bacon alarm clock among many other exciting if cardiologically inadvisable innovations. Yr. Humble Chronicler has watched with interest, partly due to the diet – when you’re calorie-counting, articles about bacon are the equivalent of hardcore pornography.

Bacon’s position in our collective culture is nothing new – after all, it’s a central part of both the Full English and Full Irish breakfasts. And what’s more satisfying on a cold early morning than a hot bacon roll (I’ll have mine with HP Sauce and a hot coffee, please). I didn’t add a question mark there, because it’s a purely rhetorical question – nothing is more satisfying.

The bacon mania concept appears to have come about in the 1990s. One popular theory has it that it’s due to the rise of the Atkins diet, a terrible idea that excludes carbohydrates but allows high-protein, fatty foods (though regular readers of this blog will recall that this idea is nothing new). Personally, I favour the idea that it has arisen for the opposite reason – as a rebellion against healthy food. Just as the rise of French haute cuisine led to the creation of the bluff, basic and patriotic Sublime Society of Beefsteaks in 18th century Britain, and just as the strait-laced chastity of Victorian England led to some truly perverted underground movements (no, you can’t have a link to those), so people’s dislike of puritanical diet movements has created a demand for gluttony on an obscene level. This, one presumes, is at least in part the origin of such concepts as the doughnut burger and the giant Jammie Dodger.

Of course, examples like the above are extreme – you have to really want to stick it to the diet faddists to go to that kind of effort. Ben Goldacre achieves much the same thing by dissing Gillian McKeith in his blog on a regular basis, which I include purely because it’s funny. Bacon, on the other hand, requires little effort. Throw it under the grill, heat it to taste, put between two slices of bread, lovely. No embellishments needed, it’s delicious enough on its own. Dieticians will shake their heads sadly at you, but really screw them because you’re eating bacon and you can’t be bothered now.

So, back to my point. The whole bacon mania thing appears to be largely a North American phenomenon, at least when it comes to some of the crazier concepts arising thereof. So when I was strolling through Teddington the other day on the way to rehearsals for the play I’m in, I was intrigued by the sight of the aforementioned chocolate bar in a shop window. I strolled in, paid really quite a lot of money and walked out with a bacon-containing chocolate bar.

So how was it? Well, not as bad as you might think. The chocolate was absolutely gorgeous – really rich, and sweet enough to take the edge of the bitterness but not enough to overwhelm it. But as for the addition of the bacon? Well, I’d give it a resounding “meh.” There isn’t really enough bacon in it to make a difference – in fact, the chocolate is so rich that you can barely even tell that it’s bacon in there. At best, at its most concentrated, the bacon adds a slight saltiness to the bar. So, my conclusion basically would be that “it’s alright, but it would be better without bacon in it.” And this is why I’m not a food critic.

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Filed under Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, Suburbia