Not Much Pluck ¹

April 8, 2014 - Leave a Response

foie

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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.

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 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.

 

Oh, You Lonely Hunter.

March 31, 2014 - 6 Responses

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I had some sort of idea, some sort of time ago, that I’d like to start a series of posts with the theme of demystifying offal. In fact, I may not be the right guy for the job. I am lazy, fickle in my appreciation for the stuff, and my lack of pedagogical zeal fatally undercuts whatever culinary aptitude I might have in the first place. I am almost pathologically incapable of following instructions, and similarly disinclined to issue them with anything approaching the rigour necessary for them to be of any use at all to the type of person who follows instructions. Moreover, infected as we are with the intermingling spirits of artisanal vertically-integrated capitalism, nose-to-tail butchery, the fetishization of craft, etc. etc., there are probably more middle class white twenty- and thirty-somethings experimenting with organ meat these days than ever before. Google it. I just did and almost stopped writing this right now.

And yet I persist. There are certainly people better-equipped than myself (see above Googling. Probably literally anyone) to guide one on so gruesome a journey, and it is to them you should turn with your practical questions. But it occurs to me that this is more about taking up a thread, following a trail (of blooooooooooooooood, obvs) back into the interiority of the edible, and sometimes for some people, inedible, body – food as organ, organism, animal – that in exploded view displays a striking semiotic and emotional fecundity. Heads and hearts. Hearts and bones. Blood and guts. All of which, with their histories of uneven resistance to domestication, threatening to re-anatomize the body by dispelling the fantasy of the food animal as just a bunch of steaks taped together.

So, on the one hand this is for the fickle and lazy who just need a little kick in the ass more than they need hand-holding. Like, “Hey, eat a gross face, it’s not so hard!” Or, for example, say I, go buy some hearts, because they are cheap and flavourful and not very weird. Start with chicken hearts, maybe, because they are just wee. You barely have to clean them. Just hack them up and huck them in a ragu, or marinate ‘em and put ‘em on a skewer (my favourite brewery in Toronto does grilled duck hearts with burnt jalapeño oil and it is awesome).

Or try lamb hearts, because they are far less daunting than beef hearts, which while still fairly cheap are often closer to face size. If you live near a halal or an Asian market with a butcher, they are bound to have these (or chicken hearts) on hand, and they will likely be reasonably fresh. You’ll want to slice them open and trim the fat cap and all the little bits of cardiac machinery (this will be a quick and relatively simple process with lamb hearts, which are about the size of smallish beets; but it gets pretty interesting when you’re dealing with a cow heart the size and heft of a child’s baseball glove) – the valves, aorta, connective tissue, and gristly collagenous bits like the chordae tendinae, which are literally (and I suppose figuratively) the heart strings. You may also have to give it a rinse in case there are any blood clots lying around (there will be), which is, in its own way, pretty cool.

After this point, you can really do whatever you want with the stuff. For a first attempt with lamb, I suggest cooking it like a steak, fairly rare so it doesn’t get tough. It is a well-worked muscle but the heart has a sheerness, a smoothness, that reminds one that it isn’t just a steak or any other muscle. There is also a slight gamey quality (all but absent in chicken hearts) although it is well short of the peculiarity of even more familiar organ meats such as kidneys or liver.

On the other hand, I am very into complicating matters as much as possible. It is also about disgust. And horror. And not necessarily about getting over one’s disgust and horror. So rest assured I won’t always make it this easy. It probably shouldn’t be.

 

 

 

Across the Great Divide: Decentering the Organism and the Ontological Hangover.

February 19, 2014 - Leave a Response

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Hangovers are funny things. In all of the usual laughingly lamentable, mind-stripped-bare-by-its-bachelors-even, sorts of ways, but also in how they present an opportunity for uncontrolled experimentation with ways of feeling – ways of feeling badly, yes, but sometimes involving new plains of badness, ways of being a body that foreground one’s corporeality with terrific and – if we’re lucky – fascinating immediacy.

What I’m thinking of right now is the consequence of a late development in my drinking life, my intense interest in weirder, wilder, (especially sour) beers, and to a lesser degree, the same (minus the sour) in wines. It is perhaps best described as waking up with the immediate feeling of a balance having been tipped, as if your body is not poisoned but occupied – become home and host to the microflora of wherever, Vichte and the Zenne, Anchorage or Greensboro Bend. There is a taste that seems not so much to linger in your mouth as be produced at the source, in your very saliva; it reminds you of all that you have taken in, drink upon drink, and inspires the suspicion that some perverse innovation in the typical food-to-energy equation might have been achieved, like an internal ferment has begun that might finally coax the self-identity of the flesh out of its jingoistic discretion. Like you might be taken and changed (I mean, we’re so much provirus already, I should think the ol’ human microbiome is just waiting for an opportunity to jump the rails and go all Brundlefly).

The second most recent time that I experienced this (come to think of it, I suppose I wasn’t even hung over yet. Jesus.) was a few Sundays back, after an fully engaged afternoon at Tørst, the Evil-Twin-affiliated Brooklyn beer bar helmed by Noma/Momofuku/Fat Duck alumnus Daniel Burns, and frequented, I discovered, by the kind of magnificent, munificent bastards with whom one can slide into that easy camaraderie founded solely upon the mutual enthusiasm for cool beers.  We (my newly acquired cohorts and myself) had all sorts of absolutely brilliant shit – Bayerischer Bahnhof‘s Pineus Gose (lautered over pine needles), Stillbow Oxtisanal (aged in blueberry wine barrels, which against all odds was wonderful), Crooked Stave’s Surette Saison, Evil Twin & Westbrook’s Justin Blåbær blueberry Berlinerweisse (also improbably excellent, in spite of the recurrence of blueberries), Tart of Darkness (sour stout!) – but by nightfall I was starting to feel that my already debauched constitution (it was Sunday, and I was on a “working vacation”) mightn’t be able to withstand even so pleasant a bacterial onslaught.

To provide a little context for the above ravings, one of the more exciting turns the international craft beer world has taken in recent years is the renewed interest in wild and ambient environmental yeasts, coupled with experiments in barrel-aging. Both are strongly associated with the Belgian tradition; while we have Pasteur to thank for elaborating the mechanics of open fermentation and laying to rest the idea of spontaneous generation (although ironically, pace Bruno Latour, in the process spontaneously generating a world of microbes around us), pre-Belgian Low Countrymen  had been fermenting beer in open vats, aging them in empty wine barrels, and letting all sorts of weird-ass bacteria get involved since the 1500s. Now you have all sorts of craft and kvlt breweries eager to experiment with the old traditions, combining a venerative and curatorial spirit with an almost postmodern iconoclasm (local notables including Dieu du Ciel, Trou du Diable, Hopfenstark, and Toronto’s Bellwoods, among others), and coming out with some fantastic beers. It may be pure biophilia (or biofetishism?) to say that these beers taste especially lively, because it already takes a certain orientation toward the messiness of life for descriptions like lactic acid, horse blankets and farmyard to come off as “lively” (as opposed to, say, foetid) in an aromatics context, but blast, I have such an orientation, and these beers have such a taste. And after a full afternoon of them that Sunday – the classic Belgians and their bastard diasporic interpretations alike – I was beginning to feel as if the tastes were tasting me.

Fortunately, my next stop happened to be a quiet little bar attached to a young distillery, where they have pink gin on tap, a gin named after Dorothy Parker, and a cocktail called the fucking CANNIBAL CORPSE REVIVER Nº 2 (which I didn’t try, however, because it is tall and I do not drink tall drinks out of a fear, perhaps, of going soft). They also produce an excellent take on a jenever tasting so smartly and directly of rye that one wonders if whisky might not actually be the best (liquid) expression of the grain. As I might have guessed, the administration of a succession of gins and bitters was precisely what was required to scour my insides and restore some semblance of order to the micro-flora and -fauna of my body, so that in short order I was feeling so much less yeasty and invaded, so merely human that I could have sang a song. The incumbent ontological hangover pre-empted by the more familiar and conceptually un-challenging regular hangover. Good old gin.

Take Your Medicine.

January 27, 2014 - Leave a Response

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My earliest and most abiding memories of cod liver oil are tiny, cold, and spherical. The, if I remember correctly, vitamin A&D capsules that my mother would give to me now and then out of the fridge; little golden translucent things, a little smaller than peas, that would succumb with a gratifying -snap- as one bit down on them. Which is not how you are supposed to take them, it occurs to me now – why imprison it safely within a gelatin pearl if you’re just going to end up with cod liver oil in your mouth anyway? I think it was less out of an appreciation for the taste than the fun of popping them (see also the slightly larger, football-shaped vitamin E capsules, anyone else who grew up in a vitamin-stocked household), although presumably there was no deep, typically juvenile loathing for the stuff, otherwise I shouldn’t think this would remain a positive memory – the total failure of regular negative conditioning to condition behaviour in the rest of my life (ie: drinking a million beers, looking forward to things, etc.) notwithstanding..

But as it turns out, I like cod livers.

This was revealed to me quite by accident, or, if not by accident, by coincidence. Sometime last summer, while visiting my friend James in London, the topic of cod roe came up, which, James clarified, resembled in most important aspects – consistency, richness, if not specifically taste – liver. Indeed, at the time there was some confusion over what actually was and from whence came the gross thing he was enthusiastically recommending I try (in fairness, his enthusiasm was qualified by the advice to “Go gently, good friend”), and it was with this hazily contoured endorsement in mind that I impulsively bought a tin of cod livers at the grocery store a few months back (since discovering whelks a couple of years past, and scarcely more recently having come to appreciate anchovies, the world of tinned fish has seemed to open for me like a pelagic vista, teeming with already-tinned fish). These sat in the pantry until very recently, when, while re-reading Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, I ran across his story of “The Curé’s Omelette” – a tuna and carp roe omelette - which in context sounded delicious, even if, the words sitting thusly unadorned in front of one, some of the attraction might be lost. Now, of course cod and carp and liver and roe are wholly nonidentical, but their analogy (both gross things that are retrieved from the erstwhile darkness of the inside of a fish) was sufficient to pique my curiosity for the which of them that I actually had.

And it’s good. I see big things in the future. Who knew that something so universally loathed by the young as cod liver oil could become in adulthood something to cherish? I mean, I suppose everybody knows that actually, in principle at least, because kids are stupid and don’t like things that aren’t Bugles or Deep & Delicious Cakes or Jolly Ranchers, and for this among other reasons (inherent treachery) are not to be trusted. But that the received prejudice that cod liver oil is gross was sufficient, until dislodged by careful reflection, to eclipse my own less unpleasant memories of the thing itself, is worth bearing in mind for all of us who think that we know what we like. That said, it is less in the oil than the liver itself that the appeal resides – I just ripped it around with some smashed up little potatoes and fresh parsley and pickled lemon to cut the richness, but I think a go of it could be made just smeared on toast, provided one had the right salt.

An Historical Aside on Amphorae.

January 19, 2014 - Leave a Response

Whitewashed ribbed amphorae for oil or wine, almost the size of those dug up in the palace of Minos, stood by many a doorway. Once more I wondered how these immense vessels were made. They are obviously too big for any potter smaller than a titan with arms two yards long. As usual, theories abound. Some say a man gets inside the incipient jar like a robber in the Arabian Nights, and builds up the expanding and tapering walls as they rotate on a great wheel; some, that the halves are constructed separately and then put together; others that they are cast in huge moulds; yet others assert that they are built up from a rope of clay that is paid out in an expanding and then a contracting coil until the final circle of the rim is complete; which is made to account for the ribs and the fluting that gird them from top to bottom. I had heard, all over Greece, that they came from Coroni in the Messenian peninsula, only the other side of the gulf. It was strange that, even here, there should be such a conflict of solutions. There were only four men in the little group I asked among the beached fishing boats. If there had been more, no doubt the total of solutions would have risen accordingly.

I have been to Coroni since, and I now own one of those stupendous vessels. ‘We build them bit by bit, from the bottom,’ the potter said, ‘just as a swallow builds its nest.’

- Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani (1958)

Inexplicably, I have not yet written on Patrick Leigh Fermor, despite the fact that there has for the past year inevitably been to be found on my bedside table some or other book of his, perhaps picked up only sporadically, but read in bursts of avid pleasure. There has been a fair amount of buzz about Fermor lately (perhaps more in the British than the North American lit press) because the final instalment of his technically still-unfinished trilogy documenting his trek by foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul/Constantinople in 1933-1934 was just posthumously released. Consequently there is no shortage of profiles that do greater justice to the details of this life than I ever would. You should read them. Better still, you should read -him-.

I am not typically a fan of travel literature, nor of memoir, but like Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, Waugh’s When the Going Was Goodand parts of Greene’s Ways of Escape (and much of MFK Fisher, come to think of it, and to think of someone who is not a dead white British man), Fermor’s work captures something special. The first two books of his trilogy, A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water are tremendously engaging. His writing is dizzyingly prolix, but usually in the best and dare I say shit-eatingest sense of the word (and in the best sense of the term “shit-eating,” for that matter). Purple but without pretence. Almost too much, or perhaps just too much enough. It may depend on one’s taste. But there is a vital quality to all of Fermor’s prose, it animates his material in an irresistible fashion – I am inclined to say that it speaks to one’s blood, if one remembers that blood flows equally to the brain as to the heart and the stomach.

The quote above only hints at this quality, but it caught my eye since I’d been thinking about kvevri (hence amphora, although kvevri are cooler because they bury them in the goddamn ground) recently. But just wait until I track down that passage about getting wasted in Schwabing, you’ll be in for a treat.

 

Merry Effing Christmas, or, Giving Rum Another Chance, or, Rum Gives Me Another Chance.

January 7, 2014 - Leave a Response

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Recently, at a restaurant that I love very much and yet about which I have never written, I had a cocktail they were calling the Negroni Hivernal - basically a Negroni with rum in lieu of gin and healthy dose of Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole bitters. It was not something I had ever heard of, nor would have anticipated liking, but I trust their folks behind the bar sufficiently to give it a shot should they be convinced it’s a good idea. And it was, or is; it turns out it’s a good cocktail, with a lot of depth and activity and character. In a strange way, the rum disappears, which is to say that blind I would have known the red vermouth and Campari, but been damned had anything depended on figuring out what else was in there. Which at the least means that it was playing well and making plans with the other ingredients, for rum is not typically known for its discretion, and I cannot think of a single rum-containing cocktail that I would favour over any of gin or whiskey alternatives, under usual circumstances.

The bartender said he was pretty sure it already had a name, but he couldn’t remember it, so figured the hivernal lent a nice seasonally appropriate twist. I have since done a little “research” (the internet kind, not the drinking kind. Well, a little of both.) and discovered that the thing does have a name, several in fact. It is of fairly recent coinage, and seems to have been invented by several luminaries of the new New York cocktail scene more or less simultaneously (although I’m sure someone more in the know / less indifferent will disabuse me of this impression of simultaneity). Not that riffs on the Negroni are a rare thing; like most classic cocktails its simple composition cries out for substitution, elaboration. But when you do a thing and it tastes like A Thing than one tends to want to name it. Scott Fitzgerald (no F.) of Mulberry Project does something called the Man About Town, which uses white rum and orange bitters rather than mole, which ew (the white rum, not the orange bitters), but I like just because its name is a friendly nod to the bourbon riff on the Negroni – the Boulevardier – of which I am already a great fan. Joaquín Simó of Death & Co. now Pouring Ribbons specifies Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, no bitters, for his Kingston Negroni, and Michael McIlroy of Milk & Honey (now Attaboy) calls his version The Right Hand, which also uses dark rum and mole bitters, so arguably is the original, even if the name doesn’t quite do it for me.

Semi-authoritative origins aside, I think the Negroni Hivernal it will remain for me, because it captures something in spite being a little awkward. It’s a cute name, both appropriate and counterintuitive. Gin, which would usually anchor a Negroni, in spite of its summer-drinking and colonial associations has a wintry quality itself – cold, clear, coniferous and strange – at least I often think gin and think winter. I also think gin and think of drinking it on the rocks at a long-ago staff Christmas party in a four-story lesbian bar, because I had worn out my nerves on just about every other spirit available rum, and for the first time it occurring to me that gin might be a nice thing. Rum, on the other hand, is a hot country-of-origin spirit that nevertheless thrives in the winter by virtue of its brown sugar / caramel / molasses / spice profile. And so I have  associations with rum as well, and it feels right to make of this darker, deeper, spicier riff on the Negroni a cold-weather friend (although I suppose if the last half dozen posts are any indication, my seasonal cocktail criteria are pretty whimsical in their justification).

But what it really reminds me of is how I used to like rum. More specifically, and because it has been around Christmastime lately, it reminds me of what and whom I most often think when I think of rum and liking it, and of Christmastime and liking it (for underneath at all I am a grossly if intermittently romantic fellow). Once upon a long time ago, I decided that it was worth attempting to befriend this dude (a woman) with whom I had previously some passing but pleasant interactions. We knew one another from parties and through mutual friends and she had eyes that were kind of sleepy like cat’s eyes, but precisely in the way that cat’s eyes can be at once sleepy and burningly, terrifically alive. Tricky, intelligent eyes. I called her up one day and she said Yes she would love to hang out, but unfortunately was moving to another country the following week, but I should come to her going-away party (she lived, it turned out, on the same street as myself, but below the tracks, whereas I lived above). I did, and it was enjoyable, and I probably talked a lot about Frankenstein or not much at all and when next we spoke she said Hey how about this, how about next time we see each other we just pretend we are already good friends, and then let the getting to know one another happen from there?

What dispirited lump of a human could resist such a proposition? Not I, thankfully. When many months later she was in town, around Christmastime, she invited me out for a late night walk “with a bottle of brown in the neighbourhood she once slept in and now misses in slight brown ways” (the invitation was third persons all around), I was appropriately stoked. The bell rang sometime lateish, and when I opened the door, before I could even begin to utter words to receive her, she slipped and fell down the stairs, of which thankfully there were only three, but I assure you it made a genuinely charming impression. I’m not very good at telling stories, I realize, but this is important. She had with her a bottle of rum, and we sat on the floor in the dim, Christmas-lit living room, drinking brown liquor, eating snacks (I don’t remember what) and talking about theory and listening to, of all things, Telegram. Until we were very rum-warmed and somewhat drunk, and then we took an old saw and went into the touching, embarrassing, lazily falling snow to steal a branch out of which I could make myself a modest Christmas tree, in that neighbourhood where I too no longer sleep and also occasionally miss in what maybe I can call slight brown ways. Although I’m not sure I know what she meant by that.

I tend to look forward to the holidays, I’m not sure why. But this year I mostly felt a yawning blankness, a steady, sad, evacuation, that grew right up until New Year’s Eve, when against all odds, I had a very nice time.

(I sort of pooched the bouillabaisse though. Note to everyone, try not to crush all the whitefish under nine pounds of mussels.)

In Bocca alla Lupa

December 30, 2013 - Leave a Response

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Mindful as I am of the fact that it has been a month and a half since I have written anything about solid food, I nevertheless need to tell you about this cocktail, because I started drinking it in the summer, and only through some  diligent brain-wracking abetted finally by a spark of inspiration was I able to come up with a means by which to re-associate it with Christmas and thus reinvigorate its by now several-months-expired topicality. The origin of the drink must be traced back to what at Joe Beef they call the “Roman Coke”, the recipe for which is given as 3/4 oz grappa and a splash of Fernet Branca topped up in a highball glass with ice and chinotto, the italian bitter orange¹ soft drink best known to Canadians in the form of Brio. I encountered this drink while indulging my typically obnoxious practice of, when anywhere that anyone appears to care about cocktails, asking if they do anything with Fernet, because it is just such a great bastard of an ingredient, and I take equal satisfaction in the response Yes We Do And You Should Have One Because It Is Awesome as in No You Just Drink It Why Don’t You Shut Up And Just Drink It. Initially upon receiving the Roman Coke I was pretty underwhelmed, in part because it (the restaurant) was loud and confusing and the server didn’t seem to know what it (the drink) was and it (the drink again) just seemed to taste like a Fernet & Coke, which is all well and good and a respectable drink in its own right but I’m not noway paying 11$ for one. Or Whatever.

But by the time the thing was mostly consumed, we realized that there was something else going on it, something intriguing, and so when the opportunity presented itself I inquired what was behind the thing and was informed as to its constitution. Now, the Roman Coke is a heck of a drink, but it is truly more of a summertime ripper, a tall drink, and in the interim since this first experience I have been screwing around with it a bit and have come up with something slightly more to my tastes, which is roughly a 1:1 fernet-grappa ratio, still topped up with chinotto but served in a rocks glass with a good hunk of ice and some manner of citrus zest to your taste (I advise orange, but grapefruit is nice in the summer). This is a somewhat different beast, and it demands further specification – in The Art of Living According To Joe Beef, they specify cheap grappa, because when you’re filling a glass with pop there’s no point in squandering one of any quality. I have found however that with this short drink ratio, the quality of the grappa matters considerably more, which is not to say that you need to use truly good grappa, but that I distinguished a real and lamentable difference between the De Negri Monovitigno di Prosecco and the standard Poli Bassano. In fact, the price difference is negligible, but the Poli mingles beautifully into the whole, whereas the De Negri retains a pronounced and unfortunate paint-thinning presence in spite of the robustness of the other ingredients. I would further specify San Pellegrino chinatto over Brio, because it’s just better. Deeper, darker, richer, bitterer, better.

Roman Coke might be a clever name, but it is not a great one, and I was pleased by the opportunity my tinkering afforded to come up with a new name. Less fortunately, this has turned out to be surprisingly difficult. I was looking for something that captured the wholly Italian composition of the drink, but still which said something about how it comes across in the mouth, or as it begins to wash the brain. My friend Matteo suggested  the Bocca della Lupa, which translates into “the mouth of the she-wolf”, invoking with a sly Capitoline Wolf reference its Roman predecessor, and deriving from an Italian expression in bocca al lupo (“into the mouth of the wolf”) which basically means to go for broke, or just fuckin’ give ‘er. He further clarified that “It’s often incorrectly translated as ‘good luck,’ but it’s ‘good luck’ meant with an ironic twist – “You’re fucking nuts, it probably won’t work, but good luck”.” Which is fucking great, obviously, but I felt that in the oafish mouth of the English speaker, Bocca della Lupa might lose some of its musicality and become the sort of name that, paradoxically, can only be uttered intelligibly when waaay into one’s cups, when one is laboriously emphasizing each syllable individually.

When more recently I was attempting to lend the name a little holiday flare, I touched briefly upon La Vigilia Buio, which translates roughly as “dark vigil,” but specifically invokes which is the Italian Christmas eve feast, La Vigilia. Thus giving the whole thing a slightly macabre, Rosemary’s Baby-esque feel that I appreciate, but not sufficiently to insist on a name that suffers the same complications in pronunciation as the Bocca Della Lupa. Then, just a few days ago, in the midst of much thinking on and drinking of the cocktail, I was reminded that was is special about the thing, what caught me from the very get-go, is that little alchemical miracle by which out of the almost coniferous medicinal bitterness of Fernet, the spirited, vinous intensity of the grappa, and the not very-much-like-oranges herby cola quality of chinotto, you get something that tastes hauntingly like -chocolate(and not, thankfully, like mouthwash). So you have what? Chocolate? Oranges? Christmas?

Behold, the Amaro Terry.²

Maybe?

¹ Specifically Citrus aurantium var. myrtifolia, if you’re interested, which is the same variety of bitter orange used in Campari and a number of other amari but not, apparently, in Barolo chinato in spite of them tasting so reminiscent of one another. 

² In case you don’t get it. Get it?

Christmas Spirits VI: Spur, Stirrup, Bridle, Sword.

December 24, 2013 - Leave a Response

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(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)

17h25

THE BROKEN SPUR, a Classic Found in the Pergola of Leon Ellis, 2d Secretary of the American Legation in Peking, in the Year 1932, and before a Buffet Dinner of Utter Charm.

Imagine Peking then, just before Japan had screwed up brass enough to defy Britain, and the rest of Europe’s Legations, and ours too by the way! – and had quietly occupied most of Imperial North China while everyone sat back like a lot of spineless ostriches with head in sand . . . Imagine getting there our third trip, and knowing people, and with a fiancée who had already agreed to the banns, and the plum blossoms frosting the Summer Palace gardens where Old Buddha once strolled, before we re-entered our motor cars and went to the foot of the Western Hills where Ellis had sedan chairs and coolies waiting for the madcap, swaying, almost perpendicular climb to the very topmost ridge, past the American Minister’s temple, and the other Buddhist temples the Europeans rent, through this connivance and that with the willing priests – to Ellis’ Grotto of the Propitious Pearl. And there in the back of his living quarters was a cave in the hills, where he has to let the pilgrims go day or night, and where the mummy of a famous saint sits lifelike, covered with some sort of plaster tinted like real flesh. Imagine the view at sunset of the distant Tartar walls of Peking, just barely visible through the golden light, with everything powdered with dust which is older than time itself . . . There between the 500 year old red lacquer columns of that Buddhist pavilion we sat and though things about Jenghiz Khan, and fiancées, and sipped big 3 oz Broken Spurs served in hand engraved crystal champagne glasses. 


To 1/2 jigger of dry gin add the same of Italian vermouth; then 1 jigger of port wine, 1 tsp anis del mono or anisette, the yolk of 1 fresh egg. Shake briskly with big lumps of ice and serve cold in a champagne saucer glass, dusting the top with a pinch of powdered ginger at the last.

*  *  *

I’d like to say more about the startling pointedness of the name of this cocktail, in historical context, but I’ve got a bird to which to attend. But holy colonial nostalgia.

Christmas Spirits V: No Way I’m Spitting This Out.

December 24, 2013 - Leave a Response

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(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)

16h45

“This is basically like going the the Big Orange and dumping a gin in it, because you’ve had a bad day and you’re going to Dollar Cinema and it costs two dollars fifty right now.”

Mike’s adequate summation of Duffy’s Noon Cocktail, which just tastes entirely too much like orange juice to merit a more detailed description, but which ultimately does satisfy Brennan’s demand for “A healthy drink, to health me up between drinks.”

Christmas Spirits IV: Under A Glamorgan Moon.

December 24, 2013 - Leave a Response

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(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)

16h25

After the tepid offering from Duffy (whom frankly I had come to in other related matters trust), we figured it was time to go traditional, and thought it worth seeing what Baker had to offer in terms of a Sazerac, now that we had already gone out of our way (up the street, to the mall) to procure some Absinthe. Lo and behold, a cool bounty was in store; the drink itself was a brilliant specimen of the breed, however much it seemed to differ from any number of the various “authoritative” recipes. Robust, complex, and punchy (not like a punch but like being punched); herbal, and, as a cocktail should be, genuinely intriguing, hinting at something just beyond the veil. Just beyond the North waves, perhaps…

As Mike saw fit to toast: “To good old American ingenuity, the first cocktail invented on American soil, and to us; this is apparently as good as it gets.”

 

THE IMMORTAL ZAZARAC COCKTAIL, which Takes us Back Many Years to the Old Days before the Drouth, & to New Orleans.


This is the famous original from the Zazarac [sic? God, as if I know] Bar. Since France outlawed abinthe much of the world’s best was made by French Creole New Orleans. . . Put 1 jigger of bourbon into a shaker, toss in 1/2 tsp of sugar, add 1 tsp of Italian vermouth and the same of absinthe, or lacking this, Pernod Veritas. Contribute 2 or 3 good dashes of Peychaud’s bitters – now obtainable in all big towns – shake with cracked ice and serve in an Old Fashioned cocktail glass, and end up with a twist of lemon or orange peel on top . . . It is also made by mixing in the glass itself, just like an Old Fashioned, using 1/2 lump of sugar, saturating this with bitters, and muddling well before adding ice and spirits.


* Note: improper glassware, oh well, and a grapefruit garnish that was a stroke of insipiration, I dare say.

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