Grocery shopping in the city is a drag, but I made a life-altering discovery at around 9pm last night: Trader Joe’s sells Weetabix. Having been separated from my favorite cereal since my departure from the UK, I was a little apprehensive. Fortunately I was not disappointed. After my morning run, the fibrous bricks turned into that wonderfully familiar and fantastic wheaty-oaty-almondmilky-mush-goop.
For those of you unfamiliar with what Weetabix is: look it up. Buy some. It’s amazing. It kind of goes in the same category as mushy peas, Marmite, prawn jacket potatoes, cubed swede, scotch eggs, tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches, and Vimto. Yeah, it’s that gross bizarre British food, the type you see Gordon Ramsay going apoplectic over. But as any British food connoisseur will tell you, its Britishness is not derived simply its geographic provenance, but from the fact that this cereal product is weird, disgusting and wholly satisfying (like much indigenous British cuisine).
My purchase last night was made out of pure nostalgia, a vaguely Proustian pretension towards 400 empty calories. There’s probably no particular reason why I enjoy Weetabix except for the fact that it was my morning breakfast in Sixth Form (US translation: my final two years of high school overseas) and I simply learned to like it. Sitting with the choristers at Ely Cathedral before morning choir practice, tea and oaty slush constituted the morning fortification before wondering into the giant (and cold!) medieval structure in which to work. As it’s 6:30 AM and 26°C here in New York, the necessity for high carbohydrate intake is not as drastic as it was at school.
But as I ate this morning, the same question that may face you continued to stare me in the face: what exactly is Weetabix? It’s a dry cereal, sure, but turns into a cold porridge product as soon as it comes into contact with liquid. It’s not like your typical American shredded wheat product, which maintains some crunch and dental satisfaction, for at least the first couple of minutes. Weetabix is a totally different ballgame – it basically turns into baby food. In my head I know it’s a cereal, but there’s no texture. I know it’s kind of like porridge, but it’s cold. I know it’s good for me, but there’s no distinct flavor to speak of. It just… is.
Explaining this to the typical acculturated American adult is often hard, as the response I often get ranges from bemusement to disgust, all preceding a question which begins with the word “why?!?” It’s a big question, as telling people simply to try it and learn to get into the groove of this culinary relic is a tough sell. When I asked choristers at Ely, the response was pretty eloquent: “Duh, it’s Weetabix. Don’t they have that in America?” They ate this stuff up like you would not believe. Bacon, eggs and sausages were all readily available, but I was assured that tea and Weetabix were the way forward.
But an hour later, as I watched the choristers being trained by the Cathedral organists, the question of “why!?!” with the implications of “what the…” and “huh?” were thrown around again. Every morning in the cathedral, boys aged 7-8 are trained up in the probationary stages of their chorister careers and told to do the following:
(1) Don’t breathe with your lungs, breathe with your tummy (I admit my inner asthmatic still can’t get my head around this one).
(2) Let’s read some plainsong. In neumes. On 4 lines. Go.
(3) Psalms for today: a spelling bee.
Kadesh (Ah-desh? Ey-desh?)
Moab (One syllable? Two?)
Leviathan (Species of mid-Atlantic cockroach)
Philistia (there’s a cream for that)
Some of the responses you get from time to time can be pretty priceless. One vegetarian chorister inquired as to why anyone would place an explosive inside a bovine creature. I was confused until I realized the word he was referring to in the psalm: abominable (yes, pronounced a-bomb-in-a-bull). But with exposure, repetition and practice, these musicianship skills become essential – after all, there’s an evensong every day. All the Psalms have to be gotten through, your breath support has to last, and there’s always a plainsong hymn at the service because that’s just the way it is.
But the trick with teaching the kids is not necessarily to treat it like it’s totally out of the ordinary, but to gently get them used to the idea, accepting it for what it is and learning to relish in it. If you think about it, there’s nothing quite as strange or archaic as the English Evensong. 30 or so singers, usually male (though that is slowly changing) gather in the evening, frock up, swan in, croon and bark either in Latin or Elizabethan English for 45 minutes or so, and leave. Not only that, they do it every day, in large drafty buildings, for few but faithful congregants, often singing overblown Victorian and Edwardian tunes that lost have lost their emotional impact over time. The music borders on the tasteless, even corny. It’s literally a scene out of Thomas Hardy, the Anglophile’s wet dream.
And yet it’s totally charming, addictive and wholly comforting on the condition that you take it for what it is. You can ask what it is all you want, but the truth is it’s lots of things to many different people. For the boy choristers, it’s an education. For the organists and singers, it’s a profession. For the congregant, it’s a service. For the voyeur, it’s a piece of living history, at once relic and living entity, as well as a means of having a total-sensory experience: you hear the choir, you see the stain glass windows, you touch the prayer book, you smell the mold, and you can even taste the damp air, the sub-climate within the icy stone walls. It can becone a routine or constitute an occasional visit, as it’s there day in and day out to end your workday, much like your slightly bizarre morning cereal with which you started.
If I could head to an evensong today, I would. Playing one would be even better. While my religiosity and faith are up in the air, the therapeutic nature of psalm playing, the routine, the repetition is something I would give anything to have today. Anything to counteract the senseless repetition and recurrence of violence from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Orlando. I’m not a cathedral organist anymore, but the longing to be party to something which simply fosters beauty and comfort feels overwhelming. I envy my British counterparts headed into the office this week. In lieu, I’ll practice and get the closest comfort I can from my Weetabix, a thing apparently more complicated to explain to Americans than gun control.