It was foggy the day I left for London. A thick blanket of low-hanging clouds swallowed the Blue Ridge mountains that surround my small Appalachian hometown that day and I couldn’t decide if it was a good omen for my travels ahead, or a foreboding sign of impending doom. I went with the former, seeing as how I’ve always fallen more on the optimistic end of the attitude spectrum. Tired from a long red-eye flight, I wiped the sleep from my eyes and stepped outside Heathrow airport, my bags heavy with an overabundance of unnecessary belongings … my heart heavy with the first inklings of homesickness. The fog, I’d noticed, had followed me all the way to London, and I was having trouble seeing anything thanks to the dark, cool mist that had settled in all around me in the early hours of that first morning in England.
I remembered the words to a Carl Sandburg poem just then:
“The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city, on silent haunches … and then moves on.”
I’d always loved that poem, my affection mostly due to the fact that the words were stitched onto a small, frilly pillow that I kept in my bedroom as a little girl. I sat, patiently awaiting the big bus that was going to take me to my new home for the Fall Michaelmas term at Oxford University, and I felt the so-called “butterflies” beginning to creep in. Butterflies? I wondered about this expression as I sat on the long metal bench outside baggage claim, its lone occupant. To me, it felt more like a flock of seagulls had taken residence, as the nerves had fully set in at this point … making themselves right at home in my otherwise empty stomach.
“Man, I’m hungry,” I said to no one in particular, as there was no one particularly close by save for a few lonesome travelers and an elderly gentleman who was puffing casually on a cigar. I’ve always been prone to thinking out loud – a habit that I genuinely try to break on a daily basis, I kid you not. Makes you seem a little crazy, I’m lovingly told. The distinct aroma of the cigar hit me then, something I remember because it reminded me of my grandfather, who had passed away just the day before. I used to twirl around in his cigar smoke, hypnotized by the swirls of gray smoke spiraling through the afternoon sunlight that poured in through the window next to his favorite chair. Sitting on that bench, I watched as the sun tried its best to burn through the thick fog coverage in those early morning hours outside Heathrow, and I felt an intense mixture of happiness and sadness all at once.
I rummaged around in my carry-on, in the hopes that my fingers would land on something worth eating. A half-eaten pack of breath mints, some questionably old chewing gum and and an empty candy bar wrapper were all I found. Great. I began counting the number of hours I still had to wait before reaching my next destination and could actually locate some decent food, and I became quickly disheartened with my calculations.
“Hungry are you?” The man with the cigar had watched my hopeless rummaging and with a friendly smile and an extended arm, he offered me a package of chocolate cookies. Thank you! I’d said with genuine gratitude, my loud-ish American accent cutting through the quiet, foggy morning air. “‘Not at all. Not at all. ‘Biscuits’ we call them here … I suppose you’d say ‘cookie,’ right?” I supposed I would.
I’d told him I was waiting on the bus to Oxford and that I was afraid I’d miss it, what with all of this fog making it so hard to see everything.
“Ah you’ll get used to it,” he’d said, waving his hand around in the misty air as if that’s all it took to get a handle on things. “London fog is as sure a thing as London Rain. It’ll grow on you, just you wait and see.”
I boarded my bus about 30 minutes later, taking a seat by the window. The fog was finally beginning to burn off then, and I turned to give the man a wave goodbye, as we’d had the nicest conversation while we awaited the arrival of our respective rides. He’d disappeared by then and in his place – perched ever so comfortably on the edge of the bench – was a small black cat, contentedly cleaning his face with one extended paw. It was the darndest thing.
The cat may or may not have been a total figment of my imagination, I will admit that – a product of the still-dense fog or the hallucination-forming hunger from which I was still suffering, chocolate biscuits or not. I’ll never really know.
The bus rolled along through the morning and into the early afternoon, and I watched as London faded slowly away into the background.
Chocolate London Fog (Earl Grey) Cupcakes with Honeyed Buttercream RECIPE
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
6 Earl Grey tea bags or 2 tablespoons loose Earl Grey tea
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks, at room temp)
2 tablespoons whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons honey
for the cupcakes: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Line your muffin/cupcake pans with cupcake liners.
Add the milk to a small saucepan and steep the tea in the milk over medium heat (you don’t want to boil or scald the milk, just gently warm it to bring the tea out). Strain if needed.
In a large bowl, sift together the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt. Using a handheld or stand mixer, slowly add the eggs, 1/4 cup of the tea-scented milk, the vanilla, and the oil. (You can discard the remaining tea-scrnted milk, as this batter only needs 1/4 cup. Starting with 1/2 cup allows for evaporation as it cooks).
Fill each cupcake liner 3/4 of the way full and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 15 – 16 minutes. Cool completely before frosting.
for the honeyed buttercream: In an electric or stand mixer, combine the sugar and butter. Mix on low speed until well blended and then increase the speed to medium, beating for another 3 minutes. Add the cream, vanilla, and honey and mix until combined.