Monday, 17 March 2014

The end of an affair… the last doner

‘Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end’ - Cocktail, 1988

Profound words I am sure you’ll agree, and the very essence of ‘Coughlan’s Law’ put into practice. Apologies for those who have not had the sheer pleasure of enjoying the flawed genius of the 1988 blockbuster Cocktail, but I feel the above quote is apt for this post. 

This affair, if you can call it that, dates back to the winter of 2001 where a 13-year old schoolboy (me) enjoyed his fist taste of a doner kebab. At the time it was a revelation. The slightly chewy, greasy savouriness and stale cumin aroma of the shaved meat atop crisp fries drenched in degraded vegetable oil and accompanied with the clean bitterness of white onion, limp, shredded lettuce, fiery pickled chilli and lashings of garlic sauce was a veritable feast! On the £10-a-week allowance it was a real Sunday lunchtime treat, appealing to that taste for junk food that all young people seem to have. Sitting on the steps outside the bustling ‘Charcoal Grill’, I was in an MSG, fat-laden heaven, tucking into a mountain of sub-prime meat and ersatz chips. So a long-term relationship was born with this icon of unhealthiness. 

A taste for the dish was developed throughout the years and in my time I sampled many a different take on this fast food classic, call it a wrap or a gyros, it was still the same thing.  However, it was at my alma mater, The University of Leeds where I became something of a connoisseur. Quality varied of course, but for the most part I was either hungry enough or drunk enough to chow down on some very suspect foodstuff, I don’t think the suppliers of the meat will be winning any Red Tractor awards any time soon. The garlic sauce, I believe, played a big part in masking the taste of low-grade alsatian definitely past its best - the further addition of punchy chilli sauce was also something of a panacea to the slightly putrid flavours playing havoc on the tastebuds.

There also seemed to be something of a ritual behind the consumption of the kebab. The pub crawl or heavy night clubbing, the 2:00am stagger home, the blinking signs of 1,001 different takeaways (all with a varying success rate in the hygiene stakes), the smell of rancid fat bubbling away in the deep fat fryer, the shouts of other sozzled revellers trying to place their orders in stilted drunken-ese... I am sure that many of you, dear readers, will remember remember this scene well. 

A request garbled whilst trying to hold down a booze-soaked conversation with other kebab shop pilgrims. The offending article then bagged and tagged, plastic fork stuck in the top of the polystyrene box. Home, TV on and the ritual of eating the meat and chips, indulgence in something that screamed naughtiness. You knew you’d feel bad the next day but the thrill of the quick fix was too much, worth the guilt and remorse you’d feel as the last, dried out chips stared back at you the next morning, reminding a person of their debauchery the previous night. 

It went on like this for many years, the cheap thrill of the doner kebab with its seedy lure was very appealing after a night out on the tiles, but it all came crashing down around me when I had the unfortunate luck to go to the ‘The New Grill’ (Formerly Kebab Delight) on Leopold Road, Wimbledon. It wasn’t even that late but I was coming back from some drinks and I couldn’t be bothered to cook - passing the shop I got something of a craving for poor-quality, low-grade meat. I entered, slightly concerned that they were shutting up shop at 10:30pm way before the the industry’s big trading hours. Seemingly I had stumbled into the only ‘small town’ kebab shop, something that Carson mcCullers might have written about, ‘Ballad to the sad kebab shop’. 

The staff were sullen and despondent, only emphasised by the unnatural glare of powerful fluorescent lighting. The fruit machine that had once been there was gone, replaced by a depressed looking palm tree that one felt was hankering for the dry heat of the French Riviera - it was its lot in life to be stuck in a South London fast food joint, having its leaves spattered with grease and receiving abuse from drunken punters pouring cans of Fanta into its bone dry soil. 

I was distracted from my musings on the plight of this palm by the cheery but slightly weary proprietor who informed me that all they had left on the menu was Doner and Chips. ‘Fine’ I thought, ‘that’s what I wanted anyway.’ 

So without further ado, I ordered usual topped off with lashings of garlic sauce. I had a couple of cold Stellas in the fridge and, in homage to Gary Strang of Men Behaving Badly fame I decided I would indulge in the above whilst watching some late night dross on TV. Of course I wasn’t disappointed, a double bill of ‘Don’t try this at home’ followed by  a repeat of ‘Stars in their Eyes’ on Challenge. The rest of the night was set and I was looking forward to a few chilled brews and my delicious kebab. I could’t have been more wrong. 

It had been a good six months since I had eaten my last doner and chips, and looking back a couple of weeks ago I can see why. It was just filthy, fond memories of slurping up slivers of shaved meat were wiped away in seconds as I bit into the semi congealed mess on top of chips that definitely could have done with some more time out of the freezer and in the fryer. To top it all off, the garlic sauce had so much sugar in it that it rendered the who sorry mess inedible... I came to realise that this truly was the end of an affair. My night was ruined (perhaps a little far-fetched but I am sure you will allow me some embellishment for the sake of entertaining prose)

Like the narrator in A E Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad I was reminded of those ‘happy highways whence I roamed, and cannot come again’. Such it was with the kebab, a sordid and longtime love but one which I must leave behind to the mists of misspent youth and the chip shops of West Yorkshire. 

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