Lists of bliss.
I've been keeping lists for years.
It should be said I'm a little weird.
I have all my diaries from the age of about sixteen, the point at which a beloved teacher told me it would be like taking a snapshot of my thoughts and feelings at that particular moment. Of course, the real power of a journal only comes later; like looking at an old photograph from your past, its potency compounds over time, moving from the banal to - well, something.
Every time I moved house, I've come with an ever-growing collection of notebooks, such that by the time I moved to Australia, my diaries filled an entire crate... you could say, my emotional baggage comes handwritten.
Over time, I've found one of the more productive prompts for memory is the keeping of lists. Making a note prods the memory and inspires you to just notice things better.
Mostly I keep lists of things I like: films I've seen and books I've read and best songs, and pointless little lists like what we'll call the family dog (Karl Barx?) many of which are simply designed to make it easier to reminisce over my personal Top 10 at the end of the year.
Maybe my favourite new list, kept for a few years now, is Eating, which takes a note of every memorable meal - Yes means I'd relive it 100%, No the opposite, Maybe when I'm not sure (and all the Maybes eventually become No) and a * means it was something really quite special.
So I was delighted to come across the Leff Scale. It's designed to be a universal index of food enjoyment, so you can safely communicate how good something is to a friend, through a common system.
Jim Leff has a version that goes like this, but I have my own take:
Rating Foods 0-10
0 - 6: Unrated. Who cares.
7: Verbalisation ('This is great!’).
9: Ugly eating.
10: Full synaptic breakdown.
For clarity, I'll humbly insert myself into the proceedings, and as the brown Bezos, we could simply refer to this version as the Leff-Bezos scale.
I've eaten a lot of 0 - 6. We all have, right? The disappointing, the average. We don't talk about those. Even a solid six is just food as fuel. It's a mindless kind of consumption.
Seven is where things get interesting. The point at which, unprompted, you'd say - 'Hey - this is great' (or words to that effect). And not just out of politeness.
Pretty much any business lunch I've had qualifies as a seven at least; we wouldn't be there if it didn't.
Sevens can be forgettable, but I've had some great ones. My favourite was in Paris; there with a friend for her birthday, we ended up getting time away from the group, getting out of the rain in Le Petit Fer Au Cheval in the Marais, a tiny little shoebox where we drank wine and ate cheese and bread and what turned out to be intestines, all ordered in awkwardly textbook French. The bartender rattled away details about everything we ate, and he made jokes where I did my best to time the laughs cause I didn't quite know which bit was the punchline.
Anyway. The food was good. Not mouthwateringly outstanding, but perfect for that moment; the cheese was chewy and tart, the wine the right kind of fruity, the bread with that delightfully satisfying tearing sound.
C'est bon, I said.
Because you have to say it. That's a seven.
I don't think it's controversial to suggest that when words fail us, we move to more primal noises. Vocalisations. Grunts. Moans. The kind of satisfied snuffling my baby makes when tucking into her favourite mouthfuls of solid food (she's eight months old, let's be real: there's more noise than actual eating).
There was a great local in London called The Shed, without wanting to sound like a wanker the premise was 'British tapas' and it was (is?) run by an utterly charming family who grew, caught and brewed everything on the menu. It was easily a solid eight in its day, but I took a friend there once who told one of the brothers/waiters, after he'd proudly explained that the special was wood pigeon that they had hunted that morning, that she refused to eat any animal that had been shot in the wild, fair chance or not the imagery was simply too violent, and to be honest that was the end of that. (I was too embarrassed to ever go back).
Most of my favourites in Melbourne hit a solid eight, no problem. It's a great place to eat.
Sentimentally, my favourite, Marion, goes way beyond that, but we're judging only the food. And for me Marion is built on more than taste - my love of the place held up by the atmosphere and the service, the quality of the wine and my over-abundance of happy memories there with favourite people. But I'd never get messy there. I'd never promise anyone that a bite would change your soul.
But aaahhh, Marion.
Even thinking about it, Marion makes me moan.
A nine is rare. A nine is special. A true nine requires some level of negotiation between eating and breathing.
Fine dining rarely cultivates nines, because we feel too forced to be polite and therefore hold back. Amisfield got me close; a winery in Queenstown where they'll serve you gorgeous foraged food, paua in its own shell and the like, and the setting and the calm lulls you with enough disgracefully good wine to get you improper.
Nine can involve some form of unkindness. In Birmingham at the curry house Shimli Pinks, I ate my first dinner in three days while on a comedown from some bad e. We'd wanted thrills, but it had made us all exhausted and paranoid. In a stupor, I ate; and my last remaining fragments of serotonin that weekend released in celebration of that lamb karahi. It was hot and satisfying, reminded me that the end of the world wasn't as close as it had felt ten seconds before. Stopped me from falling into the trapdoors of my own mind. A curry that saved me.
For that reason, nine is dangerous territory for keeping score. After all, in a drunken state, a meal is always messy. I've had dirty kebab wraps that were an easy nine, because it was past midnight and I couldn't catch the grease. I've been knuckle-deep in plates of ribs where I felt more animal than man, more meat than me. I've never killed my own meal, but I feel if I did, I might devolve, become immediately at one with my base instincts. Full caveman.
A nine is the point at which one loses decorum, double-dips, steals more than their fair share from the shared plate. A nine inspires misbehaviour at the table, is hellish for our reputations, but where good food gets sainted.
You almost never eat a ten. I can think of hardly any.
There was a family meal in Jordan where somehow they had folded an entire intact lamb into an oven, and the spiced rice cooked within its belly was mesmeric. But even then, looking back... I was still in control of myself.
There was Dar Yacout in Marrakech, where the theatrical, episodic courses of the evening - cocktails on the roof in the rough part of town, baklava with musicians, hot sweet tea, starters, they all sucker punch you into a stupor such that by the time they're serving the banquet food you're eating it half in a trance.
But maybe. Maybe there was a real one. Maybe my only ten was Tokyo, in a very modest, respected but mid-priced sushi restaurant, where we had queued for hours just to get a table. This was my first taste of negitoro, raw tuna belly, perhaps the fattiest substance known to man, certainly more delectable than any fish has a right to be, much as a really beautiful human being can almost seem a different species.
I took a bite - it melted. And time did too, like Dali's dripping clock. Maybe it caught me by surprise, because I'd heard it would be good but in that moment felt I had simply never tasted anything like it. All those layers, flavours, complexity, almost everything imaginable in that bite, more than a perfect steak, more than aged wine or heritage whisky, better than all the junk food combined.
My wife said she watched me eat that one mouthful for over a minute. I swear my other senses simply shut down; I was temporarily blinded, deaf, struck dumb and unresponsive beyond what I could taste. The music was dulled, I was alone in the room, slowly sinking to the underworld. I was mere seconds away from resuscitation. It's one of the few times in my life I've dreamed while knowingly still awake. A bliss point.
But (a lie)
I wish all this were true, in its entirety, and it is.
But there's something sad and disturbing, too: great chefs try their best, but just as a handmade knife can't beat a cruise missile, a chef-prepared dish can't out-punch commercial food science.
When you don't filter by memorable meals but the unmemorable ones, you realise how much our brains are hijacked.
Our limbic systems get hacked by big food anytime we let them - dear reader, it was they that coined the term 'bliss point' - and the precise combination of salt, sweet, umami, texture, intensity of flavour, is constantly being dialled in by food scientists to make us crave.
Take anything decent from a packet at the 7-11... reach unconsciously for the next mouthful, grab at the bag til it's gone. If you've ever glanced at those sweets and found them vanished, and felt a little nauseous. If you've raided the over-priced hotel minibar for Pringles and felt their taste only an instant - that blank space is a jacked ten. They got you.
Real tens get killed by fake ones.
You have to keep lists, hold onto the special ones, because if your body really does keep the score, our appetites are getting gamed daily.
Our only counter is memory for the ones that really count. Like... my childhood memories, of my mum's food.
Mum's food is always obligatorily ten.
Because one day I'll no longer have it, and I'll never have it again.
There's simply no score for that on Leff.
photo: Creative Square