Imagine a restaurant without a front door and a fourth wall. That’s Towpath, situated in the narrow storage units of an old warehouse on a London canal. It’s normally open for business, and to the elements, for eight months of the year, embracing weather and a vital urban community. In Towpath: Recipes & Stories, cafe co-owners Lori De Mori and Laura Jackson offer up a slice of canal-side life before the pandemic that will inspire your own COVID-careful conviviality.
Their seasonal recipes are achievable at home—taking your roast squash, lentils, or grilled cheese sandwich up several notches—but most of all, De Mori and Jackson inspire us to do the best we can with what we’ve got. Cook what’s at hand, nourish who’s near, and look forward to the spring. For safety’s sake, we may have to put social gatherings on hold. When we meet again, our next meal together may need to be outdoors. As they say at Towpath, a bit of weather just adds to the adventure.
Although we still have weeks before we tuck up for winter, there’s the unspoken feeling that whatever flowering and fruiting the year holds has mostly happened. The harvest is in. And we are tired. All that furious pedaling, however exhausting, created an energy of its own, and now that we’ve slowed down, its light has dimmed. And we feel a bit flat. A bit whatever the opposite of sap rising is.
None of this is helped by the last Sunday in October’s turning back of the clocks, that dubious gift that gives us a single morning’s extra hour of sleep in exchange for months of unnaturally (at least to those who haven’t been born into them) long, dark nights. The sun stays low in the sky all day, no longer even skimming the top of the buildings that face us on the other side of the canal. On a clear day, it still shines on Towpath for a few hours in the morning, then again for less than half an hour as it traverses a gap between buildings and finally, briefly, just before dusk, which descends in the early afternoon and leaves the canal properly dark and desolate by the time we close at 5. If we ever needed our own personal reminder that we are on a moving planet, tilting this way and that on its journey around the sun, this is it.
It isn’t as if our customers desert us when the season turns. Bright mornings are still lively. Loads of regulars come for one last lunch. And then there’s always a handful of people who “discover” Towpath right before we close, and are bereft at the thought of living without us until March. Their enthusiasm puts a little spring in our steps. But by 3:30 the canal feels eerily deserted. A bit of a wasteland. It’s as if our whole workday has been compressed into something much smaller, and nice as it is to get out early, there’s something oddly dissatisfying about it all.
How do we keep ourselves from plodding through the days until the end of the season? We are tired, true. Be we are none of us plodders. There are two things really—one last dinner and our final night of fireworks, the latter of which has been a Towpath tradition since very early days.
The Last Dinner, (which I am refraining from calling “the Last Supper,” as that carries all the wrong connotations) is a relatively new experiment. It began in 2018 when we thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get our Towpath ‘friends and family’ round the same table?” They’ve been buzzing around each other all year long, so much so that some of them have already become out-of-school friends of ours or each others. Who are they? An amorphous group whose primary identifying characteristic is an eagerness to eat Laura’s cooking and/or stand at the bar talking with us, however inclement the weather. Any of its number is more likely to avoid Towpath during a ferociously sunny weekend than when it’s raining horizontally. Which means that we can invite them all for an al fresco dinner in November certain that no one will ask, “What will we do if it rains?” They already know. We will wrap ourselves up, drink wine, fill our bellies and try to stay dry. Then we’ll go home to sleep in our warm, cozy beds. This is not Glastonbury with its muddy tents. If anything, a bit of weather will make it all more of an adventure.
This year, the meal fell on a Friday and Laura decided on a loosely based Shabbat dinner, a nod to our shared Jewish heritage and some beloved old family recipes. We began with potato and onion latkes with sour cream and applesauce (the recipe passed down to my dad from my great-grandmother Pearl, whom we all only ever knew as Baba.) Then there was Laura’s mum’s chopped liver and chopped herring, scattered with egg and gherkins, and looking attractively 1970s Time-Life cookbook photo-ready on the plate. There were golden loaves of challah, the braiding of which was perfect, though not quite as self-evident as Laura’s aunt had assured her it would be. This was followed by kneidlach and chicken broth (also known as matzo-ball soup.) Laura lamented that the balls were too hard. According to my mom, when you make them for loads of people this is unavoidable. No one else seemed to notice. The main course was tzimmes—beef brisket with sweet potato, potato, carrots and prunes—Laura’s version of her mum’s recipe (from her own mum as well as Claudia Roden and a South African Jewish cookbook writer named Myrna Rosen.) A bowl of tangerines would have sufficed for dessert, but in keeping with the food-to-get-you-through-a-Siberian-winter theme, we finished with lokshen pudding, (sweet noodle kugel) and poached quince. We did not, you will be happy to know, serve the syrupy Manischewitz wine of my American childhood Passover seders, but more bottles than it would be polite to tally of a spicy red Grenache from the Ardèche.
As it happens, it did rain a bit during dinner. Our friend Enrico (whose chair was wedged happily between captivating dinner companions, though awkwardly between our open awnings) gamely held an umbrella in one hand while eating with the other. Another friend, John, had presciently worn a raincoat and gallantly positioned himself as a sort of shield for the rest of his table.
It was very late by the time everyone left, and a handful would be back for breakfast in the morning. It’s naïve to think that the problems of the world could be solved if we just all sat around the table and ate dinner together. But it would be a good start.
This excerpt from Towpath: Recipes and Stories by Lori De Mori and Laura Jackson (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020) appears by permission of the publisher.
Laura Jackson cooked at Rochelle Canteen and at the Auberge de Chassingnoles in France before coming to Towpath. Her food is seasonal, honest, unfussy and comforting—and she delights in making everything from pickles to ice cream. She takes her inspiration where she finds it—so long as it’s about making the ingredients shine.
Lori De Mori is the author of four books about Italian cooking and food culture, including Beaneaters & Bread Soup. Her writing has appeared in Gourmet, Saveur, and Bon Appétit, among numerous other publications. Towpath is her first book about one of her own culinary adventures.