Bill Bryson and the cheese plate

In the middle of the night, the weather turned. I woke up hearing rain and got up to close the windows. It wasn’t raining hard; just a soft, regular rain. I rather liked it.

I try not to get up in the middle of the night because it’s so difficult to then go back to sleep. I fought it for half an hour or so but it was no use and around three or so I turned on the light next to my bed and read. I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which is quite good. He uses the old refectory he lives in in eastern England, which was built around 1850, to discourse on everything from the gluttony of 18th-century Englishmen (he records a typical dinner, in 1784, of one country parson: Dover sole in lobster sauce, spring chicken, ox tongue, roast beef, soup, fillet of veal with morrells and truffles, pigeon pie, sweetbreads, green goose and peas, apricot jam, cheesecakes, stewed mushroom, and trifle) to the complicated drudgery of washing clothes (back in the day, before laundry detergents, stale urine was often used to remove stains).

A number of years ago, I had a very brief conversation with Bill Bryson. He called me rather out of the blue to tell me that he’d selected a story I’d written on French cheese to be included in an annual anthology of best American travel stories. At the time I was unfamiliar with who Bill Bryson was and more than a little skeptical of editors who called or wrote wanting to include one story or another in some anthology they were putting together. Of course, the “payment” to be included in these compilations was usually a copy of the book, at best. It wasn’t much of a deal for the authors who were expected to be “honored” to be included.

So when Bryson called me up, I was rather gruff and short on the phone with him, as I recall it. I’m sure he was quite perplexed. It wasn’t until after the book was published that I realized that it really was quite an honor to be included (nonetheless, my “fee” was five copies of the book).

Anyway, I was reading about what gluttons the English were and it made me rather hungry. It’s something books have done to me ever since I was a little kid. I remember reading Robinson Crusoe when I was maybe eight or nine years old and I became quite obsessed about raisins because Defoe talked about them so much. So here I was at three in the morning reading about Dover sole in lobster sauce and cheesecake and I got quite hungry. I started scouring my room. The mini-bar had little bottles of Don Julio tequila and Maker’s Mark bourbon, but that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. There were also a couple of dark chocolates which had come with turn-down service and I quickly ate those but I was still hungry. Damn those gluttonous Brits. On my desk, still under plastic wrap, was the fruit and cheese plate that had been sent up when I’d checked in. It was looking the little worse for wear but certainly there had to be something still edible on it. I peeled it back and poked a finger at the soft cheese. It had some blue stuff on it, but that was probably normal, right? I spread the cheese on a stale cracker, ate it, then cut a green apple into quarters and ate that as well. Then, because I was thirsty and there wasn’t anything else in the room, I poured myself that Maker’s Mark. And got back into bed.

These are the things you do when you travel alone. You get up at three in the morning and turn on the light and start reading about food which makes you get up and scour your room for a bite to eat and before you know it, you’ve got a bourbon in your hand and cracker crumbs in your bed. After a bit, I turned the light off and tried to go back to sleep. But that wasn’t working out very well. Never mind. In a couple of hours the sun will be up and I can go down for breakfast.