Before we get to the meal, can we start with a small scandal?
Oh, let’s, even though I’m probably the only person scandalized anymore. It’s like living in a patch of crushed garlic. At a certain point you stop treating it as if it was strange. And you stop talking about it. How many ways can you find to say that everything smells like garlic?
Forgive me, though, if I point out the latest political eau de garlique:
The former owner of a pub that the current health secretary, Matt Hancock, used to frequent now has a contract to supply the National Health Service. He got in touch with Hancock via WhatsApp, saying, “Hello, it’s Alex Bourne from Thurlow.”
Well, hello, Alex. Smelled any garlic lately?
Alex’s post-pub company had no experience making medical supplies–it made food cartons. You know, the kind of thing you’d use to carry home a nice jacket potato with baked beans.
But I have interrupt myself so I can explain that to the non-British among us. A jacket potato is a potato that’s been baked. So far, so noncontroversial. The British use jacket potatoes as the base for all sorts of interesting fillings, including, unfortunately, baked beans. You have to be British to understand the combination, but in case you’re not–
How am I going to explain this?
Let’s try this: The British will put baked beans on anything except ice cream. And be happy about it.
I’m not British and I’ll never really understand the baked beans thing, But if I were and I did, and if I couldn’t make myself a jacket potato with baked beans at home, I could buy one somewhere and carry it home in exactly the kind of box that Alex’s company used to make.
You knew I’d get back to that eventually, didn’t you?
Now Alex’s company’s making millions of the vials for Covid tests. I’m not sure how much it’s getting paid for that, but Bourne says his contact with Hancock had nothing to do with getting the contract.
The National Audit Office, on the other hand, says that people (in general; it’s not talking about him in particular) with political connections who offered to supply protective medical gear were poured into a high priority channel and were ten times more likely to get government contracts than the poor schmucks without contacts.
That could, however, be a complete coincidence.
Alex’s lawyers said, “To suggest that our client has had political, indeed ministerial, help is to betray a deeply regrettable lack of understanding of how the supply chain works.”
I never did understand how the supply chain works. You probably don’t either. And I do feel regret about that. Deep regret.
Alex, it turns out, offered his services from “sense of duty and willingness to serve.”
Thank you for your service, Alex.
Just so we’re clear about this: I like garlic. It’s just that from time to time I’d like to smell something else.
The Tier System and the Substantial Meal
Britain will be coming out of its national lockdown on December 2 and England, as least, is going into a set of tiered restrictions. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will handle this according to their own sets of rules.
Tier one has the fewest restrictions and applies in the places with the fewest Covid cases per 100,000 people. It also applies in the fewest places–basically, Cornwall and a handful of small islands.
Tier two covers the largest area, and tier three, now that you mention it, also covers a pretty hefty chunk of geography.
We’ll skip the details–anyone who genuinely needs to know this should go someplace sensible–and focus on the built-in absurdities, some of which are inevitable in any system and some of which are hand-crafted by a skilled absurdity designer.
The system has to break the nation into chunks one way or another, and some lunacy will inevitably creep into that.
As a county, Cornwall has very few cases, but it does have some hotspots. Devon–the county next door–has more cases over all but has some coldspots. So someone in a Devon town with almost no cases is in tier two while Bude, on the Cornish side of the border, has a cluster of cases but is in tier one. And the two aren’t necessarily far apart. They could easily shop at the same stores and work at the same places.
This is, predictably, pissing off the people on the Devon side of the border. And making me, on the Bude side, nervous about whether our local hotspot will cook down with the milder restrictions.
In tier two, pubs can stay open but only if they’re selling “substantial meals.”
What’s a substantial meal? Everyone important is ducking that question. Environment Secretary George Eustice, demonstrating how unimportant he is, told radio listeners that a Scotch egg would be a substantial meal. But there’s a catch: It would be a substantial meal “if there were table service.”
Would you like a beer with that?
If you get it from the bar, though, sorry, mate, it’s a snack.
What’s a Scotch egg? A boiled egg wrapped in sausage, rolled in flour and breadcrumbs, then fried and at least theoretically edible.
Sorry, it’s like asking me about the baked beans thing. I’m not the best person to explain it, especially since I’ve never eaten one and had to look up the ingredients. But I can report back that the egg can be either hard boiled or soft. And George Eustice didn’t say whether it had to be a large egg or whether a medium is acceptable.
A spokesperson for the prime minister said, “I’m obviously not going to get into the detail of every possible meal.
“But we’ve been clear: bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal but it’s well established practice in the hospitality industry what does.”
It is indeed. Which is why a friend was able to post a pub photo on Facebook. The pub had replaced a beer’s brand sign–the kind that, in Cornwall, might say Doom Bar or Rattler–with one that read, “Substantial Meal. Made up Brewery.”
So you can order a Substantial Meal and be perfectly legal.
Back before the current lockdown, the communities secretary, Rober Jenrick, also demonstrated his unimportance by wading into the substantial meal debate (yes, it came up in the last tier system too) and saying that a pasty alone wouldn’t be a substantial meal but if it came with a salad or a side of fries–sorry, chips–it would be.
So basically, if you wave a lettuce leaf over it, it’s a meal. Ditto if you add potatoes to a meal that’s already heavy on the potatoes (you’ll find them inside the pasty’s pastry wrapping), that also makes it a meal.
What if you add potato chips, which the British call crisps? For that we’d have to consult King Solomon, because no one’s unimportant enough to have gone on the record about that.
Under the old tier system, “a table meal is a meal eaten by a person seated at a table, or at a counter or other structure which serves the purposes of a table.”
What other kind of structure serves the purposes of a table?
Stop splitting hairs. Somebody worked hard to put that together.
The Local Government Association, though, said it was “open to interpretation” and had a “a degree of flexibility.” Neither of which–just to be clear–was a good thing.
“It would be difficult to argue that a single sausage roll or a snack pork pie constitutes a main meal, whereas if it was served plated with accompaniments such as vegetables, salad, potatoes it could be considered substantial.”
But that was the old rules. Under the new ones, a Scotch egg, might be substantial if it’s served at a table-like structure. At least until someone comes along and contradicts that.
Tens, possibly hundreds, of hours were invested in defining all those variables: a table, a meal, an egg, how many people could share a plated meal before it turned from substantial to insubstantial. But, of course, that was under the old guidelines. With the new ones, we’ll have to start all over.
We’re not done yet, though. Can a customer keep drinking after they’ve had their substantial meal? For a few minutes it looked like they could, but nope, once they’re done eating, out they go.
Any day now, we’ll have guidance to help pubs figure out when customers are actively eating and when they’re playing with their food so they can order another pint of Substantial Meal.
It’s being worked on by the parents of toddlers.
All this reminds me of the opening Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Shosha:
“I was brought up on three dead languages–Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish. . . . I studied not arithmetic, geography, physics, chemistry, or history, but the laws governing an egg laid on a holiday and sacrifices made in a temple destroyed two thousand years ago.”
In tier three, pubs can only sell takeaways. In boxes that Alex’s company may or may not still make. It does simplify things.