Packed Lunch by Jenna Mahale

• Sep 11, 2019 •

MISE EN PLACE:
the preparation of dishes and ingredients before the beginning of service

Though he might not like to admit it, my dad has always been good with food. He has a talent for improvising kitchen cupboard scraps into a meal, transforming stale bread and old sun-dried tomatoes into delicious bruschetta, or producing delicate crudités from vegetable drawer remnants. He has an innate sense of what flavours pair well together, and an ability to plate things in the artful way they do in restaurants. He often denies this gift, brushing off compliments by saying he can only make snack-food, which is really just his way of saying he doesn’t want to cook for the household.

Our relationship hadn’t always been easy. We fought, seemingly, about everything; he would pester me about not making enough of an effort to connect with my wider family, or the benefits of meditation, or how I should get an MBA instead of an arts degree. I in turn would yell at him about his disengagement with politics, his inexplicable love of the British monarchy, or the way that he treated my mother. But food was neutral ground for us.

The night before I was due to begin jury duty for the first time, I asked him to help me make a sandwich to take with me in the morning. We had argued about something recently, though I can’t remember what. It was impossible to keep track. So when I asked him to help me make the sandwich, I was partly extending an olive branch, but partly just seeking a non-hostile interaction with my father.

My mum would always stock the house with the same Polish rye bread, packaged in orange and white with chleb polski scrawled across in black. Toasted, it is crispy, airy, and flavourful. Untoasted, it is spongy and tastes a bit like baking powder. This is the main issue with turning it into a sandwich.

My dad knew exactly what to do. He diligently butters both slices, adding just a smear of English mustard. Next, he folds some pastrami onto the bread. Then, a few thin slices of cheddar cheese. And it has to be thin, you don’t want to overpower the flavour of the meat, he said. Then, he slides a large jar of pickles out of the fridge.

I balked. I hated pickles. I would toss them out of my hamburgers automatically; they had committed the crime of being slimy and sour, and appearing uninvited in my food. I even resented the pickle jar for being in my fridge, for taking up so much space and being inedible to me. Mrs Elswood (whose pickle brand it was, apparently) would grin at me from the top shelf, radiating self-satisfaction from where she was pictured on her forest-green label.

My dad picks out some of the smaller spears and lay them on the chopping board, slicing them up wafer-thin, and tucking them into the folds of pastrami so that they wouldn’t soak pickle juice into the bread. Just for texture, to add a little crunch, he says. I am suspicious, but take his word for it. He wraps the sandwich up in foil and I put it in a box in the fridge, along with a bottle of water and a bag of fruit and nut mix I had bought as a healthy civic-duty snack.

We pack away the bread and turn off the lights. The house is warm and a little humid, but the grey tile of the kitchen is cool on my bare feet. I watch him get into his bed in the dining room. I feel good, even a little excited about tomorrow. Thanks dad, I say, and I think about hugging him or kissing one of his stubbly cheeks, but I do not.


STEW:
to simmer slowly in a small amount of liquid for a long tim


Statistically, there is about a 35% chance of a person living in England or Wales being chosen to perform jury duty, but because many people are never called up while others are summoned repeatedly, there are several theories about how the selection process works. Some people think it has to do with details like how long you have lived at the same address, or whether you’ve kept the same job for a number of years; this is the sort of thing that establishes you as a steady, reliable citizen who will get called up to serve again and again.

But there are no such processes at work. The Jury Central Summoning Bureau just selects a name from the electoral register at random; if it’s yours, you go. Unless you want to pay the £1,000 fine. However, there are circumstances under which you can delay when you serve your jury duty. For me, this was the fact that my service was scheduled to start on the day of an important exam I had in my first year of university. I had received a summons to Isleworth Crown Court to serve on a jury for a minimum of two weeks. I called the number on the government website, filled out an unnecessarily complicated form, and worried a whole lot more about it than I needed to. I managed to push my service to mid-July, a time when I was sure nothing interesting or important would be happening.

It was an accurate assumption. Most of my friends had flown home for the summer after being kicked out of their student halls, or gone on holiday elsewhere. Being back in my family home was lonely in a lot of ways. I missed my flat and my flatmates and the chaos. The suburbs felt almost entirely empty, but at the same time overly-warm and suffocating. Because I didn’t have a job, all the compensation I was getting from the council for my time was comped travel and a five pound lunch stipend, which I figured I would save by bringing my own food.

The things that I had prepared in anticipation of jury duty included: this lunch, and a backpack. I packed a notebook and pen, a novel I had to read for a class, and a book of poems to read for fun (although this was Undying by Michel Faber, written as a memorial collection for his wife, so perhaps ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the correct word).

The things I had not prepared for included, but were not limited to: the obscenity of waking up at 8am in the middle of the summer holiday, how quickly I would get hungry having had an early start, and the sheer amount of time spent waiting to be assigned a case.

That last one’s not quite true. I was aware that it was entirely possibly to serve jury duty without ever being assigned a case, and this was something I even hoped for. Your service could easily go on for longer than the mandated two weeks if the case you were assigned demanded it, for whatever reason: new evidence, unexpected witnesses, disagreement between jurors. This meant that if you bided your time long enough, the court couldn’t knowingly give you a case that would extend your service
further than the allotted two weeks, and would perhaps even end your service early. I suppose what I was actually not prepared for was how difficult waiting out that time would be.

When people have asked me to describe what jury duty was like, I often liken the experience to being halfway between waiting for a flight and being in prison. The layout of the waiting room is very airport-like, with several banks of wide chairs with itchy blue seats. There are a few pallid wood tables scattered around, bearing ancient board games and peeling puzzles. The tiny patio, connected to the room by a glass door and full of wilted plants, is the saving grace of the place, for smokers and Internet-addicts alike.

The first day, I am excited about the time I am going to get to myself. Who cares if there’s no Internet, I think to myself as one of the court’s employees apologises for the lack of WiFi, and promises that they are trying to get a router installed soon. Everyone needs a detox now and again. I try the sandwich my dad made for me and it’s delicious. The flavours complement each other perfectly and the slivers of pickle add a satisfying crunch to each bite. I make a mental note to thank him again later. I start and finish the novel and the poetry collection and, feeling inspired, begin to write my own poem, about summer in different cities and wet hair and being in love.

I start sketching on day two. I haven’t drawn anything since finishing GCSE Art five years before. I look through the photo album on my phone for inspiration. I try drawing a picture of my boyfriend’s cat and accidentally give it a giant head. I decide to draw a picture of a crème caramel dessert because it looks uniform and straight-forward and end up with an image that looks exactly like an upside-down Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I go back to writing the poem.

On day three, I eat my lunch and some handfuls of fruit and nut mix at 10am and promptly fall asleep in my chair. I wake up, disoriented, with a horrible taste in my mouth and tinny music leaking out of my earphones. I go to the patio to message my friends, but it’s too hot and bright to stay outside for long. The court dismisses us early. I go home and search ‘what happens if you call in sick to jury duty’ on the Internet and find a news article titled Juror Matthew Banks jailed for seeing West End show, and think better of the impulse.

I get put on a case on day four. It’s a miracle. There are eleven other people on the jury with me, and we’re all buzzing with excitement, regardless of age. It takes so long to get sworn in that all we learn of the case before we get dismissed is that the charge is for fraud. The defendant is a tall Chinese man. His lanky frame shrinks in his suit, and he wears black square-frame glasses that are simple and unfashionable in a way that reminds me of what kids wear in middle school. An interpreter stands beside him, dressed in all black, relaying every single thing he says.

Fraud cases that come to the Crown Court must involve a sum of money greater than £5,000; an offence involving less money will be resolved earlier than this, at the Magistrates’ Court. I lie in bed that night wondering what he had done; what he had stolen, and from whom.


MESS:
a mixture of ingredients cooked or eaten together


Several months ago, a man, who I’m going to call Bai, walks into a train station in West London.

He is a student from Beijing, studying for a master’s degree in a specialised sector of engineering at a prestigious London university. He has been living in the country for less than a year. In that time, he has made friends in a somewhat unconventional way, although perhaps not in our times: Bai has met almost all of his UK-based friends through WeChat, a hugely popular Chinese social media platform. There is a group chat for Chinese students living in London, moderated by two men who organise occasional meetups, pay for trips to the cinema and dinners at pizza restaurants.

During one of these trips, one of these men makes a business proposal to Bai. His name, according to Bai, is Blade. He wants Bai to become a buyer for him. Blade says that it is totally legal, a very easy way to make money. People in China will pay a premium price for designer goods if their authenticity can be proven, and one way to do this involves importing the products from the West. This way, they receive a stamp of authentication from customs; they can be sold to wealthy buyers who no longer have to worry that their purchase has been produced by one of China’s famed
fake markets.

Blade will put up the money for the transaction, and Bai will make a small
commission for his role as a buyer. The men agree to meet at Shepherd’s Bush station, and this is where we find Bai waiting, on a cold and clear February morning. When Blade arrives, he gives Bai two brightly coloured credit cards, one red and one blue, along with the details of the products he is to purchase with them.

That afternoon, Bai leaves the back room of a Cartier shop wearing a pair of
handcuffs that only bear a passing resemblance to the watches they sell there.

MARINATE:
to flavour and moisturize pieces of meat, poultry, seafood or vegetable by soaking them
in or brushing them with a liquid mixture of seasonings known as a marinade

The Chinese have a gambling culture, you know, Glynis says, halfway through day six. She smooths her floral-patterned trousers down with trembling, wrinkled hands, and says, he probably thought he could get away with it.

I don’t know how to rebut such a nakedly stereotypical statement so I say nothing. I am looking at two credit cards through a clear plastic bag, one red and one blue. The holograms flash too quickly, and the lettering is printed in a font thicker than the regular sans serif. As it stands, we have a hung jury, split right down the middle.

It is clear that goods have been stolen under false pretences. The judge has told us that we are to not to decide whether or not a crime was committed. The question is rather, do we believe that these crimes were committed intentionally? If we sentence the defendant – and all twelve of us must agree to do this – his student visa will be revoked.

He’s at UCL, says Mike, an imposing, intimidating man with a pink face and a snarky voice. He’s at UCL doing some rocket science degree, he’s smart, and he definitely knew what he was doing.

At this, I start to laugh. I go to UCL, I say, and I know plenty of stupid people.
Including me actually, last week I tried to post a letter through a bin. Either way, you can be a genius and still make mistakes. They’re really not mutually exclusive things, I trail off, I can feel myself starting to babble.

Then, Arushi pipes up. She speaks clearly and calmly, but only makes eye contact with the table we are all sat around: I had a friend go through a similar thing a couple of years ago, it seems quite easy to get sucked into. These people, they target students who don’t know anyone, they seek them out and buy them things, and then they start asking for favours. It’s a whole operation.

Someone else says, so, why aren’t we going after those guys?

Well, we don’t know who they are, and the police don’t either. They’ve definitely used pseudonyms, what kind of fucking name is Blade anyway?

The deliberation room starts to feel smaller and hotter, and the sunlight through the windows like the heat from a slow cooker. I feel for my phone in my pocket like a phantom limb – everyone’s electronics have been confiscated to protect the secrecy of the deliberations. We aren’t even meant to discuss the case outside of the court house, but it feels like a safe rule to break.


CLARIFY:
to separate and remove solids from a liquid, thus making it clear


Pav bhaji is one of the only Indian dishes I know how to make. I usually describe it as a spicy vegetable mash to people who haven’t tried it before, but I know that it doesn’t make it sound very appealing. The ‘pav’ of pav bhaji refers to the soft rolls of bread you eat the mash with. They can be golden brioche or day-old hot dog rolls or sesame-speckled burger buns. All that matters is that you fry them in butter, or better, in ghee, until they are properly saturated.

‘Bhaji’ is actually a Marathi word that means ‘vegetable gravy’, but that doesn’t really make sense when you think about onion bhajis, round, crispy balls of fried batter and chilli, or aloo bhajis, little circles of potato bronzed with spices and oil. The bhaji in pav bhaji can definitely end up being more of a gravy depending on the ratio of potatoes to cauliflower you use. More potatoes will make the mash fluffier and solid, but it might lose a bit of its flavour. Put in too many cauliflower heads, and your bhaji is at risk of becoming watery and grainy. It’s all a matter of preference. My dad
favours cauliflower in his pav bhaji. My mum likes to go rogue and add sweetcorn to hers, or whatever other vegetable she’s trying to keep from going past its expiry date. My version has extra carrots because I have a sweet tooth, probably.

My dad is holding a potato peeler and laughing because he’s remembered the time I accidentally boiled the chillies with the rest of the vegetables. You’re meant to fry them with the onions and the tomatoes and the rest of the spices before you add the boiled vegetables to the pan. Obviously. Since he moved back in after their divorce, my mum wanted to make sure she didn’t get stuck with all the housework again, so implemented a cooking rota, among other rules. It’s his turn tonight.

Poor chap, he says, chopping up a green pepper. What happens now then?

I tell him I don’t know, someone has to change their mind. Everyone is so racist though, I’m not sure how it’s going to happen.

His eyebrows prick up. Race and racism are not among our ‘safe’ conversation topics. This is a man who has told me to avoid getting into a relationship with a black person because ‘they smell funny’ and ‘their food is very boring.’ My mum is only a little better, frequently criticising Indian women’s driving. (But mum, you’re an Indian woman, I say. She replies: I know, I’m a terrible driver.)

My parents had divorced seven years ago and, aside from the occasional explosive row, were on decent terms with each other. My father had managed to get himself in a rather strange financial situation two years ago, and needed a place to stay. He owned three different West London flats, but could not afford to live in any of them, as he said the rent money was going directly back into the properties’ mortgages and their upkeep. I am suspicious about how true this is.

He had quit his job as a project manager at a charity when he found that the role was becoming increasingly IT-focused, and he was gradually finding himself out of his depth. It seems that if you are an Indian man, regardless of your profession, people will inexplicably expect you to know a lot about computers. This specifically is a form of discrimination that he can understand.

Do you want your father to end up on the street? Because that’s what will happen, my mum would say whenever I asked her if he was leaving. One month had turned into six, and six had turned into there being no end in sight.

He had been able to stay for so long because, despite all the arguments, my mum felt guilty about making him move out. She feared that, despite him being a 50-year-old man, he would not be able to take care of himself alone. I think she also feared him.

What do you want me to do? I’ve asked him to leave already. He won’t leave. Do you want me to call the police? You really want me to get the police involved?

I think: sometimes I feel like he’s going to stab you.
I say: you can’t keep using the police as an excuse.


INFUSE:
to allow the flavour of an ingredient to soak into a liquid until the liquid takes on the
flavour of the ingredient

You may be wondering, how exactly do you expect to buy a luxury watch with nothing more than a glorified piece of plastic?

Certainly, Blade didn’t intend for Bai to get arrested just for the hell of it. The idea was to fabricate an American ‘signature-only’ credit card, meaning that the only verification process the card would go through would be a call to the bank to confirm the legitimacy of the account. Bai would arrive at the shop early enough for the time difference to mean that the bank would be closed, and unable to pick up the phone for several hours. It’s a risky method, yes, which is why you would ideally get someone else to do it.

But the first time around, it actually works. Bai goes into the first store, called OMEGA, picks out a chunky, silver watch, and hands over a fake credit card to pay for it. No one picks up the call. The store manager tries again and again for almost two hours. Eventually, embarrassment gets the better of him. This strategy, it seems, depends almost entirely on the weaponization of awkwardness. He tells Bai that the bank has approved the transaction, and apologises for making him wait, even gifting him a bottle of champagne as compensation for his time.

Bai moves on to Cartier, whose security measures are unfortunately a bit more rigorous. Bai is held in a room until the banks open. The call goes through, and he is arrested shortly after.

The main point of contention between the jurors who want to declare him guilty and those who don’t is that Bai did not tell the police about the first watch after he was arrested. Some think this suggests that he thought he could slip away with it. Others believe he probably just didn’t want to cause more trouble for himself. The language barrier certainly doesn’t help to make things any clearer.

Jurying, to me, becomes an exercise in compassion. With a gridlock of evidence and non-evidence, how are you supposed to forgive a person for their choices? It comes down to questions like: do you like the the way they look? Do they seem trustworthy to you? Who you respect more is more than likely who you align yourself with. Is the shouting man in the curly wig a no-nonsense barrister or a loud bully? In this way, it is an incredibly inefficient tool of the justice system. Because these answers are so very dependant on little more than absolute chance.

It is day seven, Glynis is complaining about her hip, and I am just about fed up of arguing with her and eating the same sandwich for lunch every day. I think about saving my sandwich today, heading down the road for lunch and spending a little money instead, but the foreman tells us that because this is our first full day of deliberation, we are not to leave the room, except briefly for using the toilet and taking smoke breaks.

After about an hour, it transpires that several other people have not read this part of the jury summons guide. They have not brought their lunches with them. Incidentally, this situation exclusively affects people on the side of ‘guilty’. A unanimous decision is quickly reached.

The judge agrees with our decision. In a way, the whole fanfare of a public jury is just posturing, because the judge can overturn any verdict that comes out of it. But you can tell that this is what he wanted all along. Judges often give hints. Bai puts his hands together and bows several times, thanking us through his tears. There is only one person in the benches designated for public bystanders and she is crying even harder; she is standing with her whole body trembling, but on her face is a smile. I
think she looks a bit like an angel in her long, ruffled, white dress, and I wonder if she is Bai’s girlfriend. I smile at both of them purposefully, and quickly realise this is a mistake when I feel like crying myself.

I take the train back from the court house. The station closest to my house is a National Rail stop. The trains are owned by South West Trains and their colour scheme has always felt like home to me: warm red and yellow, rich, deep blue, like an exotic bird. The carriages are roomy and stable, and I like that you can still use the Internet on your phone in them, I like feeling connected. I tell everyone who will listen about the court verdict like it’s my victory.

AGE:
to leave a product over an extended period of time (often months of years) to aid in improving the flavour of the product


When my dad finally moves out, I am not living at home. It is September and he texts me pictures of the room he’s moved into, in an apartment in the same town, incidentally with another Indian family. Their flat is smaller than ours, but it’s all beige carpet and bright white walls and abstract art prints, just like our home.

He runs out of money by October. I visit him before he leaves for India, to stay with family. He gives me a duffel bag full of old CDs and books and unused candles, as well as two plastic boxes containing all of his paperwork for safekeeping.

In the months that follow there are lots of angry emails, and even more angry texts. I know that he blames me for making him leave. Eventually I told my mother that if he didn’t go, I would, and I wouldn’t come back. I know that he forgives me when he can. He sends me Youtube clips from The View , Hindi music, and photos of kulfi ice cream sandwiches. I’m not sure whether the distance has been better or worse for our relationship.

On one hand, I can ignore him if he says strange, provocative, upsetting things. On the other hand, the instant messaging format allows him to send me those things in very quick succession, and then attempt to counterbalance them with twenty pictures of baby animals. I think the Internet in general offers a kind of anonymity to people that makes them less careful about what they say.

When I get my first real internship at a magazine in the summer, it is unpaid, save for comped travel and a five pound lunch stipend. I text my dad to say that I’ve started making his jury duty sandwiches again. I tell him I’ve bought a jar of pickles for my flat, and that I am finally an adult. He tells me that I will be an adult when I start being able to eat baked bell peppers, my absolute least favourite.

Jenna Mahale is a London-based freelance journalist and recent UCL graduate. Her work has been published by VICE, Dazed & Confused, and Brainchild Festival. She is currently writing for the Critics of Colour x Roundhouse collective. Twitter: @jennamahale

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