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Postcards from London: Discomfort Food

Airdate: December 20, 2012

           How did I get here, standing outside the locked door of a specialty grocery store on Christmas Eve, fighting back tears?  Earlier that day, I made a plan to shop for baking ingredients in the afternoon, and return home merrily at 4pm, just in time to catch those first famous notes of the Lessons and Carols from Kings College, a fitting soundtrack for whipping up a batch of holiday cheer.  How could I have predicted the holiday disaster about to unfold?

            Clutching my shopping list in the middle of Sainsbury’s grocery store, I got the sinking feeling that Christmas baking wasn’t going to be a piece of cake this year.  I couldn’t find anything I needed.  Nothing had the right name, if it was even anywhere to be found.  Powdered sugar—would that be this little pink and white box labeled “icing sugar”?  I also figured out that “bicarbonate of soda” must be baking soda.  But where on earth was molasses?  All I could find was a strange brown box called “molasses sugar,” which I did end up buying, but what the heck do you do with it??  And I completely gave up on corn syrup or the licorice flavoring for my gingerbread.  After almost 30 minutes of wandering up and down the same aisles, I had only half of my ingredients, and no complete set for any one recipe.  On top of that, it was already 4:00 and I was missing that little choir boy who starts off “Once in Royal David’s City” with his pure, dulcet tones.  I choked back frustration and disappointment; my holiday cheer all but evaporated, and made my way home in defeat, a motley and useless assortment of groceries in my half-filled bag.

            Hope returned, however, when partway through the Lessons and Carols, an internet search revealed Peacocks—a specialty grocery featuring a number of hard to find American baking ingredients—with two locations right here in London!  Perhaps Christmas could be saved after all.  I quickly mapped my route to Peacock’s from church, making sure I’d arrive well before their Saturday closing time.  What I didn’t plan on were the special early closing hours for Christmas Eve—not advertised on the website.  Behold Wendy fighting back tears as she stands before a locked grocery store, the key to all her holiday happiness trapped inside.  Not even the magical blue glowing lights of Sloane Square could cheer me as I made my empty-handed journey back to the train.

            I did eventually learn that most everything I needed had actually been at Sainsbury’s, just with an unfamiliar name.  Corn syrup is essentially the same as “golden syrup,” and molasses is called “dark treacle,” and comes in a metal cylinder which strongly resembles a can of wood varnish.  Candy canes, on the other hand, are nowhere to be found, but crushed tea biscuits can make a satisfactory substitute for Vanilla Wafers.

            I did end up spending a delightful Christmas Day at a dinner prepared by a friend from Finland who had married a Welshman.  They showed me the best English holiday I could’ve asked for, complete with party favors called Christmas crackers, a very drunken pudding, and a televised address by the queen herself. 

           Shopping disaster a distant memory, and a merry little Christmas was had by all.

            — Wendy Sherer