No thanks, I…I had a big lunch.

Maybe it’s the contemplative nature of autumn, perhaps its all this talk of cider and scrumpy, but I spent a good deal of the past weekend thinking about small town food traditions, especially the really odd ones I encountered while living in the Southwest of England. There it seems that every little hamlet you happen into has its own signature food or drink. Many of them are ingenious and delicious. Some are creative, but, er…well…

I remember one that furrowed my brow. I watched it being made, in my dorm, by a fellow named Trevor. Trevor was a quiet accounting student whose great ambition in life was to marry Grace Jones. He spent the entire fall term slowly pouring a bottle of 20-year-old port into a wheel of his home town’s signature cheese. Every morning he’d remove a little circle of wax he’d cut out of the top, pour about a tablespoon in, and cover it back up again. By the next day the cheese had absorbed the port and was ready for more. I never got to taste it, since it was the one Christmas dinner responsibility his family entrusted him with while he was at school. However I confess that it always seemed to me like a waste of a perfectly good bottle of port and a fine wheel of cheese. I can see him in my mind’s eye to this day, running off toward train the day before Christmas vacation, maroon scarf blowing in the Devon breeze, his port-soaked cheese swaddled in a towel like a baby.

Trevor’s hometown tradition was completely conventional, however, compared to that of another classmate, Ian. In his village, he said, it was a centuries-old tradition to prepare a small cider barrel for every male child born in town. When the child turned one year old the barrel would be filled. However before it was sealed an entire ham would be put into it, suspended by a leather cord. The barrel would then be stored for 20 years, after which time the liquid would have reduced to less than half its original volume and the ham and cord would have disappeared completely. On the boy’s 21st birthday a party would be held in which all the men in town would gather, open the cask and degrease their car engines with the liquor inside. No, that’s a lie. Actually, he said, they’d drink it. I left Exeter before Ian’s 21st birthday and never heard from him again. I presume because he was dead.

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