Suzi Feay: At the Sharp End

'What six bucks actually got me was a lump of soggy, cold pasta drenched in cheapo mayo and a few flecks of basil'

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A petrolhead friend of mine once outlined to me his theory of TV car advertising. This is someone who seriously knows his motors, who, on seeing some gleaming beast purr by, will say something along the lines of: "Of course, you know it's just a Vauxhall Cavalier under the bonnet, don't you?" His theory was that cars are advertised for precisely those qualities they most lack. See a zippy little number chicaning effortlessly round hairpin bends, and you can deduce that the vehicle in question handles like a cake on a rollerskate. If you see a baby being tucked lovingly into its car seat while the voiceover coos about safety, then the panels and roof are constructed from tracing paper. In ad-land, the poverty-spec motors always belong to the Comme des Garçons-clad clones with the vast designer apartments.

So what about this word "gourmet", then? Last time I bought a boxed sandwich I was amazed to find out that it wasn't any old chump who had inserted flakes of candle wax cheese into two flabby pieces of preservative-laden bread - there was a mission statement from a frowning, hirsute chap in chef's whites, assuring me that every bit as much effort went into this as into preparing a "gourmet" meal. I mean, do they they think we're complete idiots?

It brought back with a shudder the gourmet meal I recently endured at the airport in Chicago. Be warned that once you pass security there are no restaurants or shops (cheers, Bin Laden! Yes, it's his fault). If you have hours to wait for your flight, your only hope is the Bud on the "beeyurr" trolley, the sweets concession and the - yum! - gourmet chilled food counter.

As a veggie I was feeling half-starved in the States anyway. When restaurants are routinely called things like Ted's Big Beef Shack, have a steer's head outlined in neon in the window and the only thing you can eat is the fries and the paper napkins, it didn't come as a surprise that all the sandwiches on offer at O'Hare contained chicken, turkey, ham, or all three. (I went to a formal dinner where the main course choices appeared to be steak or salmon - but what the meat-eaters actually got was steak AND salmon, on the same plate.)

So, sarnies were off. But what's this? A plastic bowl filled with what looked like - peering through the film - quite decent-looking linguine with pesto for six bucks. "Gourmet", it said. Well, I wasn't expecting pesto with ligurian olive oil and basil flown in from Genoa (what is this, an airport?), but failing to read the label properly turned out to be a grave error. This was by far the nastiest thing I have ever eaten as a vegetarian, and possibly even the most unpleasant thing I can imagine eating.

I had failed sufficiently to consider that typically Italian delicacy "pesto-mayo sauce" or "sarse" as they say. The impression of greenness was perhaps accentuated by the film lid.

What six bucks actually got me was a lump of claggy, soggy, cold pasta slicked with gloopy, cheapo, synthetic mayo with a few flecks of basil and about half a dozen infinitesimally small squares of red pepper. You gasp at the level of cynicism that would present this pile of catsick as though it's cordon bleu. I was forced to fill up on Reece's peerless Peanut Butter Cups, whose "chocolate" coating tastes like a cocoa-bean once waved at it but declined a closer acquaintance, but whose advertising makes clear that it is just what it is - cheap, sickly and fun.

At least my veggie meal made it on to the flight - they don't always with British Airways, who treat vegetarians like they're kosher nut-intolerants with coeliac disease. A friend's pre-ordered dinner was once mistakenly given to the passenger next to us. We waited several minutes while he got stuck in, until it became clear that no further vegetarian meals were forthcoming. My friend alerted the flight attendant, who in turn addressed our fellow traveller. "Sir - are you a...?" It was the last available meal on the flight. We all three lunged at him and wrenched it away while his jaws were still chomping. Even if you're not a vegetarian, book the Asian vegetarian dinner on BA, it's seriously delicious (where are they getting the Bombay mix?). But whatever you do, don't steal it from a hungry veggie, especially not one coming from O'Hare.

****

Having dealt at great length with my tummy, let's head further south. When I respond to emails from book PRs begging for review coverage, I don't expect my sometimes harsh comments - tried it, didn't like it, not half as good as his first one, she's a bit past it, isn't she? - to be relayed straight back to the quivering, sensitive author. I mean what are PRs for if not to parlay unwelcome tidings in terms the poor dears can safely assimilate?

Unfortunately, that's just what happened with the new novel by the actress turned writer Nichola McAuliffe. Would I be sending out for review her new one, entitled - brace yourselves, gentle readers - A Fanny Full of Soap?

"Most off-putting title ever," I typed briskly back (hardly fair of me, when in the same post arrived a book called Nationality: Wog). This sally caused a bit of offence in the writer's camp, and apparently led to some ribald comments about my own, ahem, "arrangements", given my evident unfamiliarity with soap and water. Well, I've always found asses' milk and rosewater entirely satisfactory, and am happy to confirm that McAuliffe's book is extremely amusing and not overly concerned with feminine hygiene. As for her new career, it's something to fall back on if the parts dry up. Oh good grief! What did you think I meant?

Rebecca Tyrrel is away

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