Tomorrow Might Not Come, If I Don’t Let It.

November 7, 2014 - Leave a Response

Stop me before I say too much.

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I ate these sitting on the warm roof of a half-mangled pickup, last May? last June? It was late and warm and we were singing songs to stay awake, and jogging around the truck at every rest stop, feeding on the stimulation of the variety of fluorescent lights.

Two summers ago, I guess. They tasted of pizza pockets.

So ready and specific an association at hand, to my own hand, I wonder whether this did not occur to the makers. But then, who “makes” a Dorito? Where in the network, the chain of translations, is the decision made what a chip “is”, or what it is supposed to be? Was there a moment when, during the fine-tuning of the nth iteration of Summer 2013’s Limited Edition Pizza Dorito, an adjudication was made whether it was more pizza or pizza pocket, and a calculation of the relative market potentials of each? One would almost expect that had the latter presented itself to those concerned, it would have had to have won out, so receptive of novel snack-themed snacks are contemporary audiences perceived to be. So maybe it didn’t come to mind, maybe it was not ready at hand. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they wanted to produce an evocation of a good pizza, of a better pizza than a pizza pocket, or a (worse still) mini-pizza, an icon undiluted by microwave convenience. Maybe they just weren’t listening.

I was reading Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower at the time, and thinking about David Lynch, for the first time ever. Lynch, in  Lynch on Lynch  describes the genesis of the Red Room:

One night at about 6:37pm in the evening I remember it was very warm. Duwayne Dunham and his assistant Brian Burdan and I were leaving for the day. We were out in the parking lot and I was leaning against a car—the front of me was leaning against this very warm car. My hands were on the roof and the metal was very hot. The Red Room scene leapt into my mind. . . . For the rest of the night I thought only about The Red Room.

Hands on a (warm) hard body. Proust rendering momentary impressions in elaborately exploded view, so thoroughly as to reveal what is in fact not there. Pizza pockets. Mosquitos.

 

His Measure of Her Powers.

October 25, 2014 - 2 Responses

Photo credit: TCBLRarebooks.com

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A few weeks back, Esquire‘s Food Editor-at-Large Josh Ozersky published a piece on Medium (“Consider the Food Writer”) declaiming what he sees as the continuing influence of MFK Fisher on food writing in America, declaring that if the genre is to emerge from a creatively stunted and parochial bourgeois hegemony, MFK Fisher must die.

Figuratively, of course. She has been literally dead since 1992.

 

On the one hand, I totally agree. Or, to put it more carefully, I share Ozersky’s distaste for the prevailing narrative and stylistic conventions of much contemporary food writing. His critique is pretty on point:

They all grope for depth, via tropes that are now pretty much obligatory. The author will find in some plate of pie a memory of mother and, later, in the act of their own eating, a universal experience that binds us all together. Somewhere in there will always be found some fond memory of a picturesque past or exotic land, some unforgotten tomato or miraculous couscous that still reverberates, even today, and underscores the persistence of the past and the brotherhood of man.

In this way the unwavering predictability of the form threatens to eclipse – or effectively render irrelevant – the actual content. Like the readymade drama of a bad food documentary, the specificity of the life, the food itself, the creepy ephemereality of experience, all are made pat. Undeniably this is boring and usually trite, and undeniably this is -part- of MFK Fisher’s legacy. Hers was a voice that defined modern American food writing, and Ozersky is correct that she occupies a privileged position as the godmother of the genre, universally lauded by foodies and food writers alike. I can hardly take issue with the critical reconsideration of one of the giants of one’s genre. I also think that Ozersky’s compact analysis of the emergence of a particular classed relationship to food – food eating, food thinking, food writing – in the 1960s and ’70s, as a precursor to the modern ‘food culture’ phenomenon is valuable, especially as it emphasizes the publishing infrastructure behind these developments.

 

On the other hand, I think Ozersky is a bit of a fucking fouler, who should maybe fuck off and, you know, check himself.

Let us leave aside for the moment his summary dismissal of Susan Sontag as irrelevant and banal, with the lament that Fisher may not be so casually dispatched – I am not a giant fan of Sontag, but to glibly dismiss her work on, say, the representational violence of photography, or illness as metaphor, as merely part of an “indistinct din” of midcentury writing of interest only to cultural historians seems almost laughably boorish. His estimation of MFK Fisher’s own literary powers are somewhat confused, and this produces and ambiguity in how he characterizes the consequences of her influence.

Ozersky opens with the pro forma admission that Fisher’s merits as a writer are besides the point, which implies that it is her legacy with which he is solely concerned, although this is not exactly so, given that he spends the rest of the article waffling between begrudgingly acknowledging her talents and declaring her work saccharine, superficial and dull. He grants that she is at best an able epigrammatist, but, personal differences in my and Ozersky’s literary tastes aside, I think he sells Fisher unfairly short. I have always found that it is precisely in isolated quotation that her true strengths as a writer are least discernible, and run most toward the ‘superficially profound’, as Ozersky claims. I don’t believe it is necessary here to mount a lengthy defence of Fisher’s writing, but I think where she succeeds most is as a literary stylist who is able in short passages to communicate a frank and disarming – and, perhaps most importantly, unpretentious – sensuality. As one who considers himself an unfortunate, impoverished anti-sensualist, locked in a garbled and loathsome relationship of mutual misrecognition with his own body, I am not easy to impress on this front, and I am almost embarrassed by my appreciation for Fisher’s work in this respect.  If the aphorism is a form of compressed wit, I would argue that it is in her longer passages that the aesthetic richness of her prose is given space to unfold. Even if at times her romance is too high for me, I recognize that there is something special there, that is more than the “treacle” of Ozersky’s evaluation. But anyway, to each their own, I get it.

What leaves me feeling uneasy about Ozersky’s piece is that underpinning his call for what is in effect a dirtier, more conflicted, grotesque, and perhaps pedestrian, if not populist, food writing, is a very peculiar construction of what “contemporary mainstream food writing” looks like. His dystopian hegemonic landscape is populated by the likes of Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth Gilbert, Kim Sunée, Amanda Hesser, Julie Powell; the heir(esses) of Elizabeth David, Judith Jones, Julia Child . . . if this list seems gendered, it is not conspicuously so for who is included, but who is absent. What about Anthony Bourdain (inarguably as great an influence on the 21st-c voice of food writing as Fisher), Calvin Trillin, Adam Gopnik? Michael Pollan and Mark Kurlansky? What of Harold McGee, or professional bad boys Marco Pierre White and David Chang?

Why do these names – some chefs (professional or celebrity), some historians, some critics, none (save McGee, perhaps) innocent of participating in the tired narrative bathos of memorializing their first oyster / summer strawberry / fermented chick embryo – not appear in Ozersky’s sketch of the food writing oligarchy? Certainly one couldn’t exclude any of these best-selling and James Beard-awarded authors from the culinary cultural mainstream. And yet they are neither identified as part of the problem of rule nor even as aspects of -a- solution. Indeed, in spite of their success, these big names remain strangely invisible:

I’ve read moving and resonant accounts of eating, scenes that rang true from my own experience and that of other dirtbags like me. But I’ve never read them in a glossy food magazine, nor can I think of a single one that ever got nominated for an award . . .  There remains an immense, seething, varied, noisy, conflicted, confused, unclassifiable population of people who eat, and cook, and for whom food isn’t a source of community—at least not with that elite class of mandarins that currently control the field. They can all be heard, but they can’t get published or paid, which makes them invisible and unviable, voices in a wilderness that need to be heard. There is no doubt in my mind that if Fisher were alive, she would champion them. But she isn’t, and her legacy suffocates us, immobilizes us, covers us as tightly as the tenderloin in a beef wellington. Food writing today is one great echo chamber, and the voice it echoes must be silenced.

I am as tired as anybody (as or more tired than Ozersky, even) of the unexplicated, unproblematized mobilization of “community” and the trope of food as a mutually intelligible universal in food writing; food is paradoxically the great leveller and the great divider, debaser, destroyer. Food is a shibboleth. Food is a problem. And it is not for this that people call themselves ‘foodies’. But with the scene as he has set it here, Ozersky’s argument for inclusion comes to seem more akin to a backlash against the ascendance of what is pejoratively called “Women’s Fiction” in food-writing. The interrogation of the formulaic and trite is perhaps everywhere some kind of literary obligation, but to cast this mode as a gendered hegemony held in place by a bourgeois female editorial class – as similarly powerful ‘serious’ male writers recede from the analytic frame – is just gross*, and we can do better.

 

* All the more so, and the more readily legible as such, coming from a guy who has also written an apologia for his ogling of women.

 

 

i have also struggled with the internal paradox of food as the levelling universal, and that which through the caprices of taste, culture, biology, or the inextricable entanglements of all three, is the great divider, the battlefield of taste, of distinction – food as shibboleth, food as lifestyle, food as problem, food as destroyer.

 

A Vortex of Cuteness, Reduced to Slurry.

August 8, 2014 - Leave a Response

Whole beasts.

 

Something like five years into having this blog, and still not having any idea how to “have a blog”, I have decided I am going to start writing more posts that are just pictures of things that are food / have food in them, whether or not I have anything interesting to say about it. You know, for the hits.

So this, this is some cool fish sauce I bought exclusively on the grounds of it being cute. Look at those little guys. Just a vortex of cuteness reduced to slurry.

I am also going to file this under “nose to tail cooking”.

 

On Nigella Lawson, Impossible Witnessing, and the Reification of Analysis.

August 1, 2014 - Leave a Response

And......cut.

~

You will have to bear with me, as this involves attempting to take up a thread that I may have lost long ago. Way the hell back in January this Eater interview with Nigella Lawson was making the rounds (three years after it was initially posted, I now notice), and it caught my attention. I have a lazy appreciation for Nigella Lawson, based almost entirely on the one time I caught her show like four years ago and was surprised by how engaging she is, and the casual way the camera moves around the space, but I haven’t watched it since, and don’t know her cookbooks, aside from passing impressions in bookstores.

The interview itself is interesting, if fairly superficial, but I think her take on the sexualization of her image is worth attending to. Elsewhere she has addressed this topic, as in the case of her notorious salted-caramel-facial cover for Stylist magazine, and perhaps what it boils down to is her dual insistence that sensualized and sexualized are mutually reducible ideas, and that male spectatorship is not the ne plus ultra of representation. “The male gaze is such that whatever is there is seen to be there for their benefit,”  she state, “The fact that I’m fleshy looks somehow as if I am trying to display myself.” While this a more generalized sense of “the male gaze” that does not directly correspond either to Laura Mulvey’s original or revised use of the term to critique representation in narrative cinema, nor take account of the various formal strategies of visually representing women as implicitly sexually receptive, there is an important claim about female pleasure embedded here. When she says that, visual insinuations aside, the Stylist photo is about representing a sheer, unbridled appreciation of caramel, one might roll one’s eyes at what one takes an affectation of naïveté, but I think that might be missing an important point. Effectively she is insisting on not only the possibility, but the immanence of female sensual pleasure, represented in print / on television, that is not constituted for nor defined by a hegemonic male spectator.

I don not mean to suggest Nigella as a critical feminist icon, or that it is this easy to step outside the libidinal economy of patriarchy, but I think that taking such declarations of pleasure – arguably of agency – seriously, is part of the critical work of interrogating phallocentrism. To deny the relevance of the representational subject’s interpretation / experience is in a curious way to participate – actively – in their objectification, by foreclosing the possibility of a female pleasure that is not wholly interpellated and recuperated by the male spectator. By assuming the totalizing hegemony of the male gaze as that which organizes all representation and all looking, we render impossible the witnessing of a female pleasure-for-itself.

 

The reason I am coming back around to this now is that I see it as touching upon a larger issue of what we might call the reification of analysis, as it applies specifically to feminist criticism (but to which it is not exclusive, of course). I am reminded of this, if you will please forgive the incongruity of scale of importance, first by the debates over  the recently-unveiled Bill C-36 which effectively re-marginalizes and stigmatizes sex workers after the landmark Bedford case which saw the existing laws around sex work struck down, and again by the undeniably more trivial apology from the dude who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”.

In the first case we have a set of laws that intertwines the ‘benevolent paternalism’ of the patriarchal state with the radical critique of sexual relations of second-wave feminism, appealing to both social conservatives and anti-sex work liberal feminists. In the second, we have a writer realizing that the critique he developed to foreground a poisonous trope of (male) screenwriting had in a sense lost its critical teeth and become at best institutionalized and merely descriptive, at worst a means of stereotyping and reducing otherwise complex female characters. Although in the case of the MPDG I think the author’s retreat was a little obsequious, lazy, and intellectually cowardly (in lieu of his almost post-feminist sounding apology it could have been an opportunity to critically reflect on questions of authorship, viewership, and the use and appropriation of the term), in both cases what we see is the calcification of a critical apparatus that comes to participate in the violence and the silencing that it was originally intended to interrogate.

With Bill C-36, the analytically and historically useful concept of all heterosexual sex under patriarchal capitalism being a form of violence, and sex work being merely the least adorned version thereof, no longer serves to denormalize asymmetrical gender relations, but instead has come to enjoy the status of evidence itself, a form of evidence that precludes actually listening  to the voices of people involved in sex work. By way of the theory, we may take the structure for granted, the analysis becomes the object itself, the lived realities and analyses of those most directly concerned are occluded, incidental (The sex workers and those who work with them become another kind of impossible witness). With MPDG, Rabin recognizes that the term has ceased to be analytic, and instead operates as a placeholder for actual engagement with characters, texts, actual women as subjects (instead of getting into this, though, he says “This got out of hand, let’s not talk about it anymore”). This can be described as a reification of analysis to the extent that the analytic apparatus no longer helps us to engage with the world beyond its face value, but stands in / in the way, as something more real than the people, the voices, the pleasures, that are being disclosed, but which it cannot accommodate.

This kind of thing is a big deal in social science research and other academic fields, where it is has been in an unending cycle of getting hashed out since probably the 1920s, but it is also, or should be, a big deal in our day-to-day life. For all their reputation for being abstracted from the world, theory and analysis must be (paradoxically) both transcendent and immanent in, of and to the world. It perhaps sounds odd to suggest that tools for “problematizing” the world are about facilitating our engagement with the world, but it’s a hard world, you gotta get into it.

 

A Motherfucking Triumph of Goddamn Simplicity.

July 18, 2014 - Leave a Response

Radish biscuit, radish butter, radishes. Repeat.

~

There is something about radishes. Radishes and butter are such an indisputable French classic that it should seem tiresome and doltishly obvious to draw attention to them, yet whenever I come across an entry for radishes and butter in a cookbook, I am not annoyed by the laziness and pretence of the author claiming that this somehow constitutes a “recipe”. Rather, I take it more as a gesture – a reminder, to the reader, in case he or she has forgotten; and a gesture of appreciation, the devotion of the space on a page to something so simple, yet so unstoppable.

Vin Papillon has been doing this radish biscuit with radish-green butter and radishes this season, and it is nuts. I am not embarrassed to say that I am impressed. Radish butter. Duh.

 

Who Lives?

June 11, 2014 - Leave a Response

I mean, it -could- be a Negroni. I really don't recall.

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Embarrassing as it is to acknowledge, this “Death to Negronis” piece reads exactly as if I had written it, right down to the author wrapping up his tirade against lazy, pretentious historicizing with a slyly bet-hedging ‘This is Stupid, But Drink it Because it’s Good, or Drink Something Else, Literally Anything Else, Also Shut Up.’

It does little to allay the ever-present temptation to let this blog just slide entirely into the mire, because seriously, do we really need one more food blog, one more jackass delving into the historical and technical minutiae of food and food culture? It is not a rhetorical question; the answer is No.

And yet I persist. And I still love the Negroni. And odds are, unless the angel of history all of a sudden begins to beat back the winds that pile wreckage upon wreckage at his feet, in the ongoing single catastrophe that is human civilization, I will probably talk about the Negroni again; I make no guarantee that you won’t be subjected to my enthusiasm at finding a perfect half-measure amaro substitution for the Campari, or just the gin that makes the difference.

Because, in the immortal words of Buzz Gunderson, you’ve gotta do something.

The Whole Beast Beyond Even Its Borders.

May 27, 2014 - 2 Responses

First loves, best loves. Not St. John, but one of the meals that in fact eclipsed my it, that first trip to London. Brawn (head cheese) at Brawn

 

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I have been reading Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking, and I am enjoying it to an uncommon and unforeseen degree. I am not typically a great appreciator of cookbooks, I picked it up because I recognized it as a classic that I have never investigated, and it was well in line with the theme that I have been exploring of late. Indeed, it may be the very wellspring of that line where contemporary culinary culture is concerned, Henderson and his London restaurant St. John being considered by many to have inspired the recent trend in offal appreciation and ‘whole-beast’ cookery.

What is truly impressive about the book – as much as, and perhaps in spite of, its tremendous impact – is the tone and spirit with which the whole thing is imbued by Henderson. Nose to Tail is disarmingly frank and warm, the prose elegant but utterly unpretentious. This is perhaps a too-worn trope in the description of good cookbook authorship, but it does more than anything feel as if one if being addressed by a friendly acquaintance of whom one has asked some simple instructions for the preparation of an unfamiliar cut. The recipes are clear, not too clinical, and have about them a tremendously inviting quality, evincing a respect for both the reader/cook and their ingredients. The Introduction by Anthony Bourdain aside, the book is free of the sort of orgiastic, high-sensualist and all-too-often macho hyperbole that proliferates in much of the discourse on whole beast eating. It is not a gastronomy of unbridled carnivory or an exultation of the excesses of the flesh that is presented – Henderson’s dishes, while certainly meat-centric, are not excessive, but are presented as a part of the everyday, if an everyday that has come to seem sadly distant and inaccessible for many. One wants to try the recipes, not because it they present a challenge to be met and mastered or an ethical promise to be fulfilled (there is none of the pedantic moralising of someone like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, for all that I do believe there is a place for that, beyond an early suggestion that it seems “disingenuous to the animal” not to try to make use of what is to be had), but because one is given to think “Why wouldn’t I?”

Dishes are described as “sustaining”, “steadying”, or “a very good dish if you are feeling a little dented”; in several instances as inspired by previous meals to which the author admits they likely bear no longer any authentic relation (but are delicious nonetheless), and in one case as “based on a very dour recipe” (Pea and Pig’s Ear Soup). Henderson also expresses his admiration for curly parsley, for its strong flavour and structural abilities, which I find particularly gratifying given my own preference for curly over the widely endorsed flat-leaf variety has long made me feel something of a pariah and/or bumpkin. Further points in his favour are awarded for his using of the terms “lights” and “pluck” for the lungs and organs still all attached in an organized fashion, respectively, which I had no idea were still in modern usage; and for his enthusiastic recommendation of Fernet Branca as a cure for any overindulgence (albeit with the caution “Do not let the cure become the cause”).
When years ago, my first time in London, I dined at St. John, I was familiar with none of this, and I don’t think I quite got it. I knew nothing of the restaurant or of Henderson save their importance to the ‘scene’ with which I was by that time semi-acquainted, and I could appreciate that importance, historically, culturally, but on the whole I think I found the meal a little dull in comparison especially to some of my other outings that same trip. I remember we had bone marrow and perhaps a very large whole crab and maybe something involving a lot of braised kid.

And I don’t know if I would come to an altogether different conclusion now. I am certain that it would be a different experience – it could not but be, with my current take on Henderson and his project – but better, or worse, even, I don’t know. But I would like to chance it. To see whether the simplicity and forthrightness of the cooking might have a different effect on me thus prepared for it. It reminds me, in some ways, of re-watching a film that perhaps one knows relatively well but has not seen since one has come to know and care more about formal and contextual matters, or about film qua Film and a given movie’s place therein. Like this week I re-watched Citizen Kane for the first time in probably 10 years and was basically shitting myself from the opening scenes with the camera rolling through a miniature Xanadu, conveying the same subtle horror through meticulous, abandoned opulence as the unchecked natural overgrowth of Manderley in the opening pages of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Um, point being that having a better sense of the animating philosophy of a thing, its history and the conditions of its production can often lend another quality of enjoyment to one’s experience of the thing (although similarly “unmediated” experience  has its merits too, of course, of course).
Least anticipated, and perhaps provocative only because upon encountering it I am so surprised not to have encountered it so-articulated before, is Fergus Henderson’s statement of philosophy of nose-to-tail cooking and the place of vegetables therein. Mindful of the ‘carnivorous overtones’, he takes pains to declare: “There is equal respect for the carrot; once radishes are eaten, their leaves are turned into a peppery salad . . . they all make up the whole beast.” This somewhat counterintuitive assertion that vegetables etc. are part of ‘the whole beast’ is more than just an injunction to Eat Your Vegetables and not throw shit out that could be good for something; it pays quite deft an homage to the very contingency of life. And, if one chooses to so take it, it serves as a reminder that Whole Beasts are never wholly or solely the beasts they are taken to be, but are deeply implicated in and made up quite literally of other life-worlds; they are not only meat but guts and blood and other stuff, plants and bacteria and whole eco-systems. Stuff yes, but and stuff and relationships. Matter that may not be so easily disentangled, or only disentangled at great price, from the worlds of which it is a part. If one is alive to it, the threads of relationality, and even a casual assumption of material agency (although this is not so foreign to culinary discourse), can be discerned running all through the book – “Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know”, preparations must often be given just enough time so that ingredients get to know one another, time for (savoury) pie filling to find itself. The ‘whole beast’ thus materially and conceptually extends beyond the borders of the organism itself, comes to know itself on in its relation to others, and of course vegetables are part of that. How’s that for an exploded view?

But you know, this coming from a guy who includes a recipe for Warm Pig’s Head under “salads”.

 

On the Science Fiction Turn in Chips.

May 1, 2014 - 3 Responses

Death is Everywhere.

~

Perhaps I give potato chip scientists too much credit. I think I have a tendency to imagine them a league of poor man’s Ferran Adrìas, well-thumbed copies of Philip K. Dick novels in the pockets of their lab coats, eager to probe the limits of representation, memory and experience, at the interface of sensation and technology. For chips have become a bit of a technology of the fantastic. For all that vat meat and genetic engineering have a “Holy shit it’s the fuckin’ future” quality about them, potato chips evoke more of the actual imaginary of science fiction past, by which I mean space-food-pills. One could argue that diet shakes and nutritional supplements are likelier candidates for the realization of this vision, but I think that the space-food-pill is about more than sustenance and nutrition abstracted from the material particularities of food (although Matt Novak provides a nice potted overview of the relationship between space-food-pills, women’s labour, scarcity and techno-utopianism). The space-food-pill may also be thought of as a fantasy of harnessing the imaginary of food, or at least one which poses the question “Is there something that eludes us still in the experience and the enjoyment of food even when we have produced a technology that not only mimics the taste, but generates the impression of having eaten the thing?” (Cronenberg answers Yes, the Poetry of the Steak, or, that which allows us to be made crazy by the flesh)

 

Of course chips fall well short of this. They are a comparatively primitive technology, hewing all to one side of the sensual / sustenance divide, and even then to flavour over feel; but after all, ee’s just a wee chip. But over the past decade we have witnessed something that could be called by way of a shorthand ‘The Science Fiction Turn in Chips’. For a long time, North American chips had been dominated by condiment-flavours, many that already had a place relative to potatoes in their various preparations (e.g. ketchup, salt & vinegar, sour cream & onion). There are of course exceptions, and many would remember the brief explosions of precocious creativity that brought us pizza, hot dog, roast turkey & stuffing chips, but for the most part the roster remained somewhat stable, not to say conservative. In recent years, however, the market has been deluged with new flavours, such that it seems an impracticable as well as worthless undertaking to stay abreast of them, let alone offer any critical commentary. What is noteworthy about this phenomenon is that on the whole there has been a move toward the representation of more complex foods, entire meals even, and this is, I would argue, what brings the chip more in line with the spirit of the space-food-pill. Although not actually a potato chip, the Doritos All-Nighter Cheeseburger was the first chip that for me imparted a sense of the uncanny, and while this effect has been by no means uniformly achieved in the waves of subsequent experiments, the anticipation of its possibility has at least been routinized. The idea that a chip could be eerily reminiscent of the thing that it supposes to imitate, even when that thing is a salad or a sandwich of some complexity, or fuckin’ moose-meat, has been elevated from the utterly implausible to the merely improbable in a strikingly short time.

 

And so I like to think of those flavour scientists toiling away, impelled as much by their desire to advance the practice of their art as by the caprices of cool-hunting marketing executives; perhaps a rung or two lower on the ladder than the Wendell Stanleys a Frank MacFarlane Burnets who pursued the question of whether or not viruses were alive to the logical extent of destabilizing our understanding of what we meant by “life”, or the man who invented canned peanut brittle, but if mere technicians, then technicians of human experience.

 

When I encountered the new Old Dutch Bacon Cheeseburger Slider chips, my initial reaction was to be infuriated – were they seriously presuming to claim that their chip tasted not simply like a bacon cheeseburger (as if this was itself simple!), but like a miniature bacon cheeseburger? The gall! Such airs! Upon further reflection, however, I came to appreciate the possibility that this was more than base pandering to the popularity (outmoded, really) of the slider, that there was something of an intentional provocation about it. I found myself charmed by the idea that such a fine distinction was not in fact meaningless, for it prompts one to say “Okay, of course not . . . but what if?” What if there was a way to capture the nuances of space and scale on the plane of a chip? What if more than taste could be conveyed in a flavour? What if something just tasted small?

 

Unfortunately they’re basically horrible. Over-seasoned, under-theorized, vulgar and shitty, along with the rest of the Double Dutch ‘Appetizers’ line (Burstin’ Onion, Buffalo Wings & Blue Cheese, Calamari & Tzatziki). What inspired puckishness I inferred is likely totally misplaced, although I do appreciation the ambitiousness of going for ‘fermented milk, garlic, and mollusk’, or ‘deep-fried exploded onion’. Ironically, the line’s greatest failure is not in the domain of taste, but in everything else about the chips: thick-cut, wide-wale, rippled chips with flavouring powder caked on, cloyingly dense, somehow achieving simultaneously the impression of dehydration and dampness. It makes a wretched offering.

I’ve always been a fan of plain, myself.

 

Apples, As Rain or Tears.

April 24, 2014 - Leave a Response

Like the liveliness of death, is how it tastes, maybe.

~

I am totally infatuated with this calvados. I want to hold a cup of it between fantastically calloused hands as I wake up with the sun. I want to appreciate it in a yellow pavilion between rounds of Russian roulette with a jealous baron. I want to put too much of it away playing dice in the winter, drink it in my underwear while I look out the window waiting for summer to come. I want to and I do and I will. The nights are getting longer, it won’t be long.

Because this drink does something that I love in wine but which I don’t often encounter in spirits; it seems to speak to a life that it had before it became a drink. Maybe not of a place, per se, in the sense of terroir (if it speaks of a place I think it speaks of many places), but of a materiality prior to that artful abstraction that is potable alcohol (apologies for the alliteration). An earthiness, but also a worldliness, in the original sense of the word. For it tastes like apples. Apples in the world.

When one thinks of distilled spirits, one tends to imagine the essence of a thing, be it grain or grape or cane, shorn of its impurities and elevated, transformed. A pure expression. But a pure expression of what? It is difficult not to get entangled in metaphysical analogies, given the common vocabulary of spirits. In this case, however, the conventional (metaphysical) understanding of the spirit as prior to the flesh is confounded by a spirit that tastes so distinctly of apples, but not of some abstract or platonic ideal of apples, rather of apples of varying ripeness, the crisp and tart mingling with the already bruised and almost rank, in their blunt and volatile sweetness, apples that come from trees and hang on trees and eventually fall from trees, get kicked around in the dirt or covered with leaves or eaten by stupid pigs, that it can only be understood as a spirit of the flesh. Not a spirit that animates the world, but one which is animated by the world, an expression of all the impurities, failures, and accidents of life.

Note that this is quite at odds with Cartesian or transcendentalist notions of body and spirit being of irreconcilable and fundamentally different stuff. The soul in this picture is not confined for a time to this living hell of a meat bag, but rather is forged in and of that flesh. Essence follows existence.

The cheap, precious, aesthete in me hoped to find some greater insight by inquiring into the origins of the word “distillation,” however, all this yielded was a reminder of how reaching is the above metaphysical gloss. The purification of essence sense of the word seems to be of more recent vintage, rather than the animating spirit of its etymology. Distil refers, quite empirically, to the formation of drops; in fact, to the dropping or dripping of drops: destillare. Stilla = drop, the diminutive of stiria, for icicle (how cute). “To trickle down or fall in minute drops, as rain; tears,” the OED reads.

And so by speaking of distillates rather than spirits, we may be firmly back on materialist terrain, because yes, obviously alcoholic spirits are only metaphorically not metaphysically the souls of their source ingredients; but I am not above using booze as way of thinking through and around the materialist / transcendentalist divide. If the calvados may be said to be a pure expression, not of a platonic or ur-apple, but of a very worldly apple, so may I make use of these impressions to work toward some notion of essential qualities being not a priori, but contingent, accidental. And I may be congratulated for not even going the easy route and trying to talk about eaux-de-vie.

The calvados itself is Roger Groult Réserve, from the Pays d’Auge in Normandy. It is made by a small, independent producer (whom I have read employs eight people in total), an increasingly rare thing in the spirits world which is dominated by conglomerates well versed in the marketing of artisanality. In case you don’t know, calvados is simply an apple brandy made in a specific region (Calvados) in France. It is, contra something like cognac, known for its rough, unpretentious, working-class character. The Réserve is made from a dry cidre that is allowed to ferment for a year before distilling, and is then aged three years in oak barrels. I’ve tried the 8 year, 15 year, and the 20 year, all of which were fantastic, but it was the 3 year (which conveniently comes relatively cheap) that stole my heart. It is good. I don’t usually like saying that things taste like late Summer sun coming through the leaves, but there is certainly some of that. It tastes like Autumn and hay and butterscotch. It tastes like what you needed all winter.

Or I suppose to save time you could say “rustic, and a little funky.” You know, like The Band. But French.

 

Not Much Pluck ¹

April 8, 2014 - Leave a Response

foie

~

This is an older piece, from the Food & Trembling book, that did not originally appear on the blog. It is excerpted here because it is precisely this thread the last post talked about picking up. It represents my thinking at the time, and I believe does a decent job articulating both the messiness and the richness of the topic, in spite of the fact that reading one’s old writing is almost as excruciatingly uncomfortable-making as hearing one’s own voice recorded, saying excruciatingly embarrassing things. Forgive any inconsistencies of formatting. Also it is hella long.

~

 I.

My dear mother once called me out for beginning to manifest the “silly, stupid (masculine) bravado of engaging in who can eat the weirdest thing.” To be fair to her, and to myself, it was just shy of a calling-out; more a note of caution lest I slip into a tired and trite relationship with the bounty of the earth’s board. I, unsurprisingly, am inclined to give myself more credit than she, although I am not insensitive to the risks. It is not that I have “nothing to prove” — we all have something to prove — but toughness and traditional masculinity, after a lifetime of being realistically beyond my (weak, effete) grasp, are not high on the list. Nor do I see myself as one who seeks the thrills of danger – I am a rather fearful type: of heights, teenagers, the Amazon –  or even one who particularly likes a challenge.²

But amidst such protestations I cannot deny that I historically have had some inclinations toward extremism. I was in the flush of youth both sXe and vegan, and post breaking edge and breaking veg I have run the gamut from common lush to budding oenophile and scotch aficionado, and become quite an avid and energetic omnivore. And it is in fact in what I believe to be the honest and best spirit of omnivory that I pursue what sometimes amounts to gastronomic excess. Just as my time as a spice-lover  was motivated by a sincere love for the taste and tastes of spice (after a body-terrifying experience with a level-five Vietnamese chicken curry soup and a bottle of cheap Gewürztraminer, I have downgraded myself to a modest “spice-friend”), so too have my forays into organ meats and other odds and ends been inspired foremost by a love for and curiosity about flavour. How am I to know what a goose foot tastes like until I have tried it? Perhaps I’ll love it! (It turns out I do not.) But beyond mere pleasure-seeking, I am motivated as well by what I suppose is pride. This is where one must distinguish toughness or something like bravery from other kinds of pride. For where the sketchier bits of animals are concerned, I cannot but feel that it is intellectual dishonesty to turn up one’s nose so readily.

Perhaps that is unfair – I do not mean to begrudge anyone their squeamishness. I mean to say that such dietary prescriptions that allow us to categorize offal as revolting and unfit for consumption are by and large culture-and class-bound, and while I am not so naïve as to believe that we can with one fell swoop dash such subject positioning to bits, I personally feel behoved to try. Particularly when the results may be delicious.

Do not mistake me for one who claims a snobbish victory over those poor hegemonic diners who quail at exotic fare only to revel in my own self-satisfied and abominable fetishism, though, please. As far as the cultivation of the self goes, I am merely interested in tasting what lies beyond the curtain of my own commonplace; I do not judge others for their tastes so long as they do not pretend to speak to and through some moral dinnerary absolute. A rather considerate friend of mine makes a point of not referring to foods as “gross,” instead specifying that she does not like them as a matter of preference rather than ontology. She does this out of a concern for the intimacy and importance of food, and the profound judgement implied by disgust— profound because it is precisely an evaluation that sets itself up as pre-political but is more often than not quite the contrary. Indeed, disgust may be the most insidiously hegemonic of performances. By which I do not mean that it is put-on or insincere, but that by smuggling them in through the very gut that we are supposed to trust, disgust can safeguard certain prejudices from critical examination. Taste may be intensely personal, but that does not preserve it from being ideological. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, after all.

But how does it actually work, disgust? I am not satisfied with the explanation that it is simply a technology of ethnocentrism, classism, or racism, for those are but attributions, not explanations, and are frankly less interesting than exploring what else goes on behind the crinkled nose, what other discourses are enrolled in its justification. I once at a Russian restaurant ate a halved hard-boiled egg, topped with fish roe. In a later discussion a friend found the very idea of the thing disgusting, and said that the first association that came to mind was that it seemed somehow cannibalistic. On the surface this is absurd, or at least inaccurate. It is no more or less cannibalistic than eating either a hard boiled egg or roe on their own, and neither should logically be any more disgusting than the other, being exactly the same thing, just of different animals. Indeed, it “should” be no different from any other meat and meat combination (the club sandwich, bacon cheeseburger, hot dogs period, etc.), for it is merely a different stage in the life cycle. Chicken and fish, but unfinished. Just the raw material, as it were. She countered that it so happened that she was not a big fan of meat on meat in the first place, and the conversation drifted elsewhere, fairly enough.

But to attempt to follow this line of reasoning for a moment, I can see how on another level this does make an associative sense. The egg ‘n’ roe discomfort seems to derive from a sense of dangerous and unsettling proximity, a combination that is somehow “too close for comfort.” Which is arguably part of the disturbing frisson of cannibalism. Of course cannibalism, as with all taboos that rely upon insider-outsider distinction, depends on boundaries that are protean, contingent, and historically and culturally variable. As with incest, the other famous “universal” taboo, anthropologists have long identified that while the prohibition is ubiquitous, species-membership and kinship are variously determined, such that who counts as human and therefore inedible, or family and therefore unfuckable, is by no means self-evident according to our parameters. Nonetheless, in a sense, the logic proceeds along the lines of: cannibalism = you should not eat someone/something that is so close to you that it is almost you; incest = you should not couple with someone that is so close to you that they are almost you. Thus there is something in the proximity (both physical and typical) of the roe ‘n’ egg that in its discomfort echoes this; it cannot be mapped on precisely, but the traces are legible, if distorted (by what? A sense of the vulnerability of the egg? The unforeseeable dangers of meddling with the not-yet-fully-formed, as with genetic engineering and child sexuality?). Perhaps it is precisely the inconsistency that cannot be explained, but associative links are not in themselves worthless for their categorical ambiguity.

The spectre of cannibalism was invoked again over a lunch I passed not long after with a colleague, in this case regarding a plate of calf brains sautéed in brown butter with capers and sage.³ Curious to try the dish, and in fact utterly enchanted by the flavour, my companion’s response was, nonetheless, “I feel totally cannibalistic eating this.” But why! Zombies? Is it because of zombies? Because that is a train of associations I suppose I can follow. Zombies are certainly the most visible residents of the public imagination to regularly feast on brains, 4 and to the extent that we do not deny the living dead their human status, they consequently qualify as cannibals. And of course, prior to the modern concept of the zombie, zombies were strongly associated with voodoo, which, emanating from the ineffable Blackness of European Colonial fantasy, has the cannibalistic savage waiting slavering in the wings, if not already present. So, fallacy or no, it could go something like this: Zombies eat brains. Zombies are cannibals. Ergo, eating brains is cannibalistic. As skeptical as I am of this link, I will admit that even I sometimes confusedly think of movies like Cannibal Ferox as zombie films, if only for the company they keep.

As an interesting twist upon the cultural specificity of cannibalism(s), it has been argued that zombies cannot rightly be considered cannibals, because something in the process of becoming the undead severs of the bonds of species. Zombification then amounts to itself a sort of speciation, a redrawing of the lines of self and other and a rearticulation of the terms of recognition that accounts for zombies not simply devouring one another. The living dead are thus no longer in continuity with the living (we are familiar with these ideas in the case of vampires), but in competition, with unique physiology, dietary needs, and reproductive incompatibility to seal the deal.

It is perhaps testament to the disruptive power of cerebrophagy (not a real word) that the zombie-as-brain-eater has so firmly taken root in popular culture, given that this permutation of the zombie is of so particular and recent pedigree. Whereas we can place the birth of the “modern” zombie as inarticulate, shambling corpse that feeds on the flesh of the living with George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, it is not until Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 Return of the Living Dead that the idea of the zombie hungry specifically for brains is introduced. As much as I resent Return for planting the seeds of the “fast zombie” that has grown to be so obnoxiously ubiquitous with films like 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s shitty Dawn of the Dead remake, O’Bannon manages to bring a genuine pathos to the zombie in a scene where the beleaguered humans are able to interrogate one they have captured and immobilized (and chopped in half, if memory serves). For all that Return plays zombies for laughs (tag line, “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”), it is quite chilling when the zombie haltingly explains that it eats brains – “Not people, brains” – in order to relieve “the pain of being dead.” Suddenly we see zombies not as mere monsters, but again as human beings, feeling human beings who are trapped in dead, decaying bodies, feeling the blood pool in their extremities, the worms that chew their flesh, and are driven mad by the agony. Through which the one thought that resounds, loud and clear, is brains. Brains will ease the pain.

It can’t be all zombies, this brain-eating qualmishness; but where else to look for insight? In the brain itself ? Is there something in (or rather, of ) the brain, as an emblem of our differentiation from the “lower” animals (more so, arguably, than our dextrous hands) that strikes one as too close to home? Is the brain the face that, being our own, is the hardest to face? Or is it just that in our techno-secular metaphysical hand-wringing, the brain is the likeliest candidate for a seat of the soul, and thus such similarity suggests just a little more commonality with the lower orders than we are comfortable with?

 

II.

In the midst of all of this it occurs to me that there has been a fundamental shift in my relationship to food over the past few years. Namely that disgust now plays a profoundly diminished role in determining what I eat. Rather, I no longer make a place for disgust in my thinking about food, and when and where it attempts to assert itself, I subject it to a sound rationalist beating about the face and neck before I will submit to its influence. As potentially unhealthy as it may sound, I suppose I am proud that I think twice before I trust my own disgust.4

But thinking twice only gets one so far. For in my organ-eating adventures I have come up against a phenomenon both formidable and puzzling — pure post facto (or perhaps per facto, “during the fact”) physical disgust. Which is to say that I am gradually coming to be of the opinion that I “have a hard time with organ meats.” This despite my willingness at the level of principle (the principles of equality—no part of an animal shall be judged as less worthy of consumption than another by any standard than that of taste) to embrace them.

Having a fairly staid meat-eating existence prior to becoming vegetarian, I entered the fray with quite an admirable potential for new experiences. My experience with organ meats or other kinds of offal was restricted to the haziest of recollections of not being super keen on liver, but that was about it. Not long ago I was at a restaurant well-renowned for its in-house, nose-to-tail butchery, and I ordered the devilled kidneys on toast. “Do you like kidneys?” my lunch date inquired, and to my reply that I didn’t know, for I wasn’t sure I’d ever tasted them, responded, “Well, be careful—they’re good, but intense. A friend of mine had them here and it fairly blew out his palate for the rest of the day.”

This, coupled with my faintly shimmering hangover, should have given me pause. Rather, the pause that this gave me should have translated into an order of something a little more mild-mannered, but no, I went ahead and ordered the kidneys, and no sooner than the first bite was ninety-five percent convinced that I would be unable to take another, let alone finish the dish. Luckily, she being of sterner stuff than myself, my friend obligingly traded her own breakfast – bacon, eggs, fèves au lard, and boudins both blanc and noir, that happily I was able to dispatch with aplomb.

Two things were striking about this experience. The first was that despite my professed skepticism about taste and total recall, with that first bite came a flash of recognition that immediately transported me back several years and across an appreciable expanse of ocean. I was with a friend in Palermo, and we had found our way to what was reputedly one of the oldest focaccerias in Italy. I don’t recall most of our meal, but we were fixated by the spectacle of a man in the centre of the vaulted stone dining room working over an immense steaming pot of . . . something? He was armed with a large utensil that apparently sported just enough of an edge that he could alternate slicing chunks of what appeared to be lard from the gigantic block thereof on his left, and some mysterious mass of pressed-together meat on his right,5  which he would toss into the pot. Meat. Lard. Stir. Repeat. His other duty was to provide sandwiches that consisted of a roll torn open and spread with more lard, a helping of meat, and a fistful of some coarsely-grated pecorino.

I was not a committed meat eater at the time, but nor was I any longer a committed vegetarian, and so I could not resist the beauty and simplicity of such a sandwich as this. I purchased one, went in for a taste (I waited until we were outside, thankfully), and before my teeth even had a chance to meet and complete the bite, spat it out into the street. “It’s not bad . . . I just can’t eat it,” I explained, explaining nothing. Luckily, this time also I was accompanied by a friend who, were I so shameable, would have put me to shame by her ability to enjoy such fare. “This,” she said, through gravy-stained lips, “is possibly the most delicious thing I have ever eaten.”

Which brings us back to the second thing that was strange about the devilled kidneys on toast, that I was not able to fully articulate at the time. I remember saying, while passing the dish of kidneys across the table, that I could fully understand why this food was good and how people found it delicious, but I was nevertheless unable to eat it. It was not until many months later, when at the very same restaurant (lessons learned? Fie!) I ordered the calf brains that I fully realized that there was something to the taste of much organ meat that I really couldn’t handle, even if I otherwise found the food quite pleasing. For here again I was only able to have a couple of bites in total, and again was saved by my companion who in spite of her own psychological difficulties with the idea of eating brains (“It feels cannibalistic”), found the taste itself irresistible.

Whereas I, who had no conceptual difficulties, and in fact believed strongly in the idea of eating offal, found the brains delicious, but inedible. This has been a bit of a hard thing for me to get my head around, but it seems to best express the situation. Most acutely in the case of the brains, I found the taste overall to be quite pleasing, but there was something, some strange quality of richness,6 that I have difficulty even identifying in accordance with my existing lexicon of tastes, and which my body seems to reject wholly of its own accord. I have chosen to accept this paradox because it opens up an interesting space where desire, pleasure, taste, and appreciation no longer rest in as easy and predictable relationship to each other as was previously assumed.

Am I “turned off” of organ meats, however? Can the answer be both yes and no? I will not likely order brains again anytime soon, but that is by no means certain. Even at the time, I had my own suspicions that perhaps had I not been remotely hung over, or had I been already steeped in some luxurious sensuality, I would have been more ready to appreciate the strange richness. Perhaps if I ate them at night? Or you know, drunk? Still, I cling doggedly to the idea that this is not so much a matter of trying to prove something as it is a curiosity about the particularities and the contingencies of one’s own limits, and around these limits, the potentialities for gustatory enjoyment. Just as I stated before that I like to think twice before I trust my intellectual disgust, I am not in any final way convinced by my own physical disgust.

It is, I hope, not in the spirit of unflappable masculine fortitude, then, that I will continue eating somewhat off the beaten path, but out of a willingness to believe that there is a sort of truth in the tastes of others, and that in being able to share that taste (here I mean both taste as the preference of the person, and taste as a quality of the food), some small achievement can be made in the way of the chasm of irreducible difference that separates all people from one another becoming somewhat less yawning. So that when we greet each other across the abyss, you may not recognize my face, but the voice at least will be familiar.

(2010)

 

 

¹ A confession: nearish to press time and still lacking a title for this piece, I turned to MFK Fisher’s “The Trouble With Tripe,” from With Bold Knife and Fork (1968), in hopes of finding some inspiration. Therein I came across a number of terms for offal with which I was not previously acquainted. Most notably “lights,” as what I suppose is a euphemism for lungs, and “pluck,” referring according to the OED to “The heart, liver, and lungs (sometimes with other viscera) of a beast, as used for food.” It is upon the leeway of “sometimes with other viscera” that I stake the legitimacy of my employing it here, although I am happy to have my etymological suspicions confirmed by the following reference, from the Edinburgh Evenings News of the 28th of June, 1904: “The Sheriff inquired the meaning of the word ‘pluck’. The prosecutor explained that it referred to the internal organs which could be removed at one pull or pluck, the liver, lungs and heart.” Whether or not this explanation is apocryphal, it is therefore no great mystery that “plucky” has come to mean much the same thing as “gutsy,” even if the roots of the expression have grown shrouded to all but the butcher set. A close runner-up for the title was “Something Offal,” which I thank the gods that I did not use, because I have little stomach for puns.

² I recently realized that I do not like to be challenged. I prefer to take something manageable and quite within my capacities, and needlessly make it more difficult for myself. It is much more satisfying to move a mountain than a molehill, and no less so when one the mountain is of one’s own making.

³ So delicate a name as cervelles (the diminutive of the French word for brains) is a prime example of the old wisdom that if you give it a pretty French name, suckers will eat anything.

4 This has not always been the case. Although even when I was vegan I was of the cloth that “eating animals does not strike me as wrong as such—it is the cruelty and injustice fostered in the process that I resist,” I was still quick to declaim in rather moralizing terms foods that I thought were downright disgusting (Clamato juice and sour cream were two favourite targets), for at heart I am something of a judgemental fucker (I prefer to see it as a “principled criticism”) and even then showed a similar flare for oratorical hyperbole. But what relationship does this bear to my late carnivory? Is it an inevitable consequence of the type of slackening opprobrium necessary to make the shift from vegan to omnivore? Or was it part of some broader change in orientation that allowed this transition in the first place? In order to return to meat-eating at all a new personal threshold of revulsion was necessary (or causal), and it could be that disgust fell to the wayside before the success of a program the rigour of which demanded that if I was going to eat animals, it would not do to be finicky and particular about, as it were, “the nasty bits.” Certainly my own turn toward the aestheticization of excess in my early twenties (roughly simultaneous with my starting to drink) played a facilitating role, although it’s hard to say whether that was an influence or a outcome of my quite predictable trajectory from extreme asceticism to extreme indulgence. I suppose I blame Jean Genet.

5 For years I assumed it was some kind of liver, because it seemed at the time to ring some rusty bell in the far off reaches of my brain that associated that taste with what I remembered of liver. One day while reading a magazine article on Sicilian cuisine, I came across a passing reference to what sounded like the focacceria we had been to, so renowned for its sandwiches. It took some investigative work of which I am moderately proud, including a lot of puzzling over translations of Italian words for animal parts, but I eventually solved the mystery of said sandwich. Lard, lung and spleen of veal.

6 There is also, more in the case of the kidneys, the lung and spleen, and some blood sausage, than with the brains, a sort of “tastes like dust” association that I have. I know that dust and richness are not usually considered kith, let alone kin, but I can’t seem to shake it.

 

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