As has likely become apparent, the “blog” part of this blog has fallen deeply into neglect, but in the meantime I have been doing some more freelance writing and pulling it together with the good folks from Invisible to make Eaten Back To Life a reality, which it now is! So instead of bemoaning my lack of fresh blog writing, go and read a book for once!
What in the hell have I been up to?
A lot of time spent staring vacantly into the middle distance, admittedly, but also we turned a pig inside out back in January, which got me thinking again / more about different schools of butchery (which grossly could be lumped into primal cuts v. ‘following the natural lines’) and whether there is a productive line of analogy to be followed between historical anatomy in the ‘the body dissected for organs contains organs, the body dissected for humours contains humours’ way (who was that? Haraway? Daston and Galison? help me out, nerds) and butchery traditions, ie: do different schools of butchery produce different animal bodies? Have different historical anatomies produced different ‘natural lines’ for butchers to follow, or (more surprisingly, perhaps?) have these forms of craftwork proceeded apace but apart?
I also got terrible food poisoning in France, ate oysters fresh out of a loch on the North end of Islay, and drank a 47 year old white wine from the ultime thule of Portugal, made from hundred(s?) year old vines trained along the baking sand to be lashed by ocean winds, that tasted very much like a delicate tangle of matter and ghost. Or, as my friend James suggested, like orange peels and old bones.
Which brings me to this other thing, which is that this summer I am running the wine list at Bar Alexandraplatz in Mtl, and will be doing my best to sneak in interesting and out-of-left-field bottles amidst the easy sippers and too-easy rippers, so you should come by sometime if you live, or happen to be, in Montreal. This coming Wednesday especially.
Also I’ve got a new book in the works with Invisible, that I am lashing into shape with John Semley as my editor, who is great and loves beef and hates Shrek and we accidentally ordered a bunch of cold wet calf brains and a cold soup(?) of fat, white, already-shucked oysters in their liquor in a literal clown’s bar as a celebration of having survived our shared, aforementioned terrible food poisoning. Due out in 2017.
More news as events warrant.
(oh, also I’m instagram now, @bitteringagent. It is pretty much what you would expect.)
My buddy Ed writing about Bar Rescue the way I like to see not-important things written about. Which is to say volubly and with lots of allusions.
Last fall I spent almost a month in Turkey, and I have yet to write a thing about it. It has crossed my mind many times in the interim, the peculiarity of this lapse, and I am still not sure how best to account for my reticence.
As one should imagine it is not for the lack of material – my entire time there was one of almost uninterrupted culinary richness, from tart, thick-skinned yogurt to sweaty chambers of steamed hamburgers on Taksim square, incredible lamb cağ kebabı to incredibly tripey kokorec, ayran every day, tea every hour, spicy pickled turnip juice, lamb omelette, eating stuffed mussels on the street corner and oranges from my friend Elif’s backyard, one hundred feet from the saltiest sea that has ever had me, mint and freshly hulled pinto beans, olives, mint, olives, mint, more yogurt, cucumbers, repeat. Listening to Bolt Thrower and Goathorn in a bathroom-sized metal bar in Beyoğlu. Watching Bergman on a laptop, drunk in a cave hotel in Cappadocia. Seeking, but being too ill-prepared to know where to look for, some trace of James Baldwin’s life in Istanbul, four decades ago.
And yet, none of this has made its way to the (figurative) page. On one level this should be unsurprising because I have been writing very little of late. But in part, it is because I don’t know that I know how to tell these stories – or, to tell them responsibly – to relate the experiences without succumbing to the sly, earnest, dishonourable exoticism of so much cultural tourism.
It brings to mind, in a sort of roundabout way, the furor that was generated a few years back by Adam Gollner’s unfortunately-titled Globe & Mail article, “Why You Should Eat in Parc-Ex, Montreal’s Ungentrified Food Paradise,” and the response published by Maisonneuve, “Orientalism, Gentrification and Irony in Parc-Ex.” I don’t mean to rekindle the the whole thing here here, but what struck me about Gollner’s piece, and what seemed to be lost in the ensuing discussion, is how easy it is to slip into a discourse of exoticization when writing about food from / in “other” cultures – at least when one is attempting to write with some literary sensibility and attention to context.
Notions of wildness, of pre-, para-, or contra-modernity, noble suffering or uninhibited celebration, even of authenticity all have their place in the elaborate discursive architectures of colonialism and Orientalism, and in their contemporary iterations. One may think of these as literary technologies – narrative, discursive technologies – for fixing Otherness in a fictional alterity (or fixing alterity as a fictional Otherness?) for our consumption. Now, we may debate the ‘real’ impact of such symbolic violence, and the extent to which Western cultural analysis itself reproduces the silencing and dispossession of the “Other” in whose defense it presumes to speak, when it presents Orientalism as a totalizing discourse, but for the moment I want to keep things a little more reined in.
It suffices as a reminder of how accessible and salient are such colonial tropes for (esp. white) authors writing within a Western literary tradition – perhaps all the more so for food writing, which is at best always balanced precariously between fluff, formal blandness, and something that occasionally pretends to a some creative engagement, and so is especially susceptible to hackneyed sentiment and cliché. Yet all the while dealing with something quite intimate and fundamental to survival and pleasure both (as much as mostly I like to use food mostly as a vehicle for jokes and self-loathing). The question we are forced to ask is how not to fall into this when such tropes are so ready to hand for the making sense, and indeed the structuring of, our encounters with difference?
There is of course a risk in using these terms – colonialism, Orientalism – too freely, thus blunting their critical edge and the specificity of the histories and relationships which subtend them. The relationship between Canada and Turkey is not a colonial one, Istanbul is not Urla is not Göreme, let alone Erzurum, Antep, etc., colonialism and Orientalism cannot be reduced to one another. Nevertheless, colonial and orientalist tropes remain, I would argue, major structuring elements for the Western imaginary and its encounters with the “East” (or various Easts). They are ubiquitous, perhaps not inevitable, but will not be evaded without some imagination and force of will.
And at the moment I am not sure I possess that imagination, or that honesty. But it’s something to work on. In the meantime, here are some pictures of food.
An article this week in La Presse has finally substantiated the rumours I have been hearing that someone was going to open a natural wine-focused bottle shop in the old space on across the street from NDQ which used to house Preservation Society and La QV. Your first reaction might be “So what? There are wine shops all over this goddamn city, I can get it from giant booze monopolies or grocery stores or by accident when I’m buying string cheese and smokes, it’s in the lift and the lorry and in the bond wizard and what are you talking about who cares?”
However, for all that QC has one of the most liberal approaches to booze access in Canada, there remains a wealth of products that are available only via the comparatively circuitous route of private importation. In this case, wines which for whatever reasons (quantity? volatility? weirdness? the spiteful arbitrariness that seems to be the ab initio of Québec bureaucracy) the SAQ allows to be imported into the province but refuses to stock on its shelves. If you’ve ever had a wine you loved at a restaurant and inquired as to its availability only to be told it’s importation privée, thus not available at the SAQ, this is what we’re talking about. Now the private import world is not actually all that hard to navigate for the lay shlub – one just has to 1) find out who the importer is, 2) get in touch with them and make an order, then 3) pick it up at an SAQ a couple weeks later once the order has been processed. The down side of this is that, with some exceptions, private importers are not allowed to sell in quantities smaller than a case (6-12 bottles, typically), so in addition to the wait, unless you’re a fancy Monopoly-man type you have to find some friends to go splits on the order.
There are any number of reasons that an importer might have difficulty getting a wine on the SAQ’s shelves, which may be best left for another time, but the long and short of it is that there are some truly brilliant (or even merely pretty brilliant) wines that are only available via private import. What this new shop of Juneau’s aims to do is make such wines available by the bottle by exploiting the what aspect of our labyrinthine liquor laws that apparently permits the sale of such individual bottles with the accompaniment of a meal, as if you were getting a drink with your restaurant takeout (but at the same time for some reason precludes just selling it off the shelf as one would at a regular dep). It is indeed a tangled regulatory web, but one which has intriguing potential for rendering many of these wines slightly more accessible.
The big question, however, will be what kind of markup will be applied. It is standard practice to mark up a bottle of wine by at least 100% in restaurants, in the hopes of making it even marginally profitable, but if we’re talking about wines that are already in the 18-40$ range, that sort of thing is not likely to fly for takeout. Juneau references the smaller system of cavistes in European countries as an inspiration, although what immediately comes to mind for me are the little caves à manger that have popped up in France (and spread more widely) which reside somewhere between a traditional caviste and a wine bar – a bottle shop with a small by-the-glass selection and a limited menu, where you have the option of drinking your bottle on premise for a hopefully reasonable corkage fee. Because of the peculiar regulatory situation in QC, however, it seems that Junueau’s Cul Sec would potentially have to operate on the inverse principle, with customers paying a markup (in addition to buying food?) in order to take the wine to go. The details so far are scant, but a similar operation exists already in Québec City, run by another private importer, Les Importations du Moine. Not having been, alas, I can’t comment on how their system works.
As should by now be obvious, I am cautiously optimistic about the project, while finding it faintly sinister that this will constitute the third business (along with resto / winebar Pastaga and specialty grocer Le Petit Coin) Juneau has opened in a one-block-radius of Beaubien and St-Laurent in the past year or so. It certainly speaks to the recent “rejuvenation” of Petite-Patrie, if one chooses to interpret the term less in the sense of “making young again” than “filling with literal youths,” but in the long run I don’t think that the conversion of a space previously housing a wine agency and a specialty conserves company into a boutique wine dep is that much of a transition.
What I am hopeful about is the potential of the shop to contribute to what I guess I am calling the désinvoltation of good wine. I say désinvoltation in lieu of the English “casualization” pointedly, because it better captures the sense of undoing something that has been made inaccessible and rarefied. Likewise, I say “good wine” rather than “fine wine” because the latter has particular connotations that I wish to avoid, and the former gets at how much of the wine that has been impressing me in the past few years – much of it “natural” wine – has had a charming directness about it. Whether frank or elusive in the mouth, it is not grand wine, it is fresh, vital, good wine. And while because of the exigencies of small-scale agricultural production and the international export thereof, it will likely never been truly cheap, but I believe there is much work, much good work, to do in the rendering of such wines more culturally and emotionally accessible. There is, of course, much more to be said about this, and I probably will, but not right now.
So we’ll see what happens with this Cul Sec thing.
In the meantime, however, this spirit of désinvoltation is very much what drives the SMALL SECRETS x BAR BARBARA project (to which I contributed the sickening bit of wordplay “Wine Bar Barbara Bar à vins) I have been collaborating on, and which is slated to have its next instantiation in a few weeks (May 16th. Keep your ears open). Details to follow, but it’s basically an illegal wine bar that serves as a forum for my pal Jordan and myself to share wines that we’re stoked on, at a negligible markup, with anyone who is interested in wine or wants to be interested in wine but basically has no idea what is going on, and to use this activity as a basis for tracing a slightly different kind of conviviality than normally prevails at a private party, a bar or restaurant, or an organized tasting. And it rules. And it’s named after my foolish cat.
refashioning of beaubien to mile-endification of petite-patrie
Moving in wine circles one often hears natural wine described as the ‘punk rock’ of the wine world, whether in reference to individual enfant terrible producers (such as Andrea Calek, most often) or to the prevailing anti-establishment ethos of a ‘movement’ which, depending on whom you ask, may not actually exist as such. Tim Atkin, a noted British wine writer, recently published an article to this effect which I was pleased to see attempted to pursue this analogy further than usual:
Punk was a reaction against bloated prog rock or packaged pop like Olivia and John. It promised to return to the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Natural wines are a reaction to over-manipulated wines made to impress rather than to drink. They hark back to some sort of prelapsarian past where wine was pure.
Natural wine, like punk, can be understood as a threat against the established orders of taste and cultural production. Its provocation straddles the aesthetic and moral divide, wielding “authenticity” as a weapon in (potentially irrelevant) battles over what even deserves to be considered “wine.” And, as is to be expected, there is an appropriate amount of vitriol and polemic to be found on both sides of these debates.
Atkins goes on to speculate as to whether the decline in relevance and appeal of punk rock contains a lesson for us about the future of natural wine. After all, claims of music journalists aside, was not punk merely a trend fueled by an able hype machine and the seductive allure of youthful iconoclasm, of which only a few credible scraps remain:
In my opinion, punk’s influence is best heard in bands that took the spirit but not the music such as Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Pogues. But natural wine is surely also, like punk, clever marketing no matter how much the organisers of the various natural wine fairs try to deny it.
This is where I think Atkins’ comparison falters – not however on the grounds of the weakness of the analogy but on his ultimate ignorance of his chosen analog. Like the majority of popular commentators on the history of punk, Atkins makes the mistake of conflating the demise of the phenomenon with the expiry of its time in the limelight. Only in recent years have music critics and wider audiences come to be vaguely aware that long after the Ramones and the Sex Pistols burned out or graduated to stadium shows and Spector Sound, there remained growing legions of disaffected, irritated, impassioned youth who continued putting on shows, piling into vans and releasing shitty, brilliant records (or, as often, tapes) for other shitty, brilliant kids.
Where is the emergence of hardcore punk in Atkins’ analogy, or Riot Grrrl? The founding of Ebullition Records and the publication of Maximum Rock’n’Roll and HeartattaCk, to say nothing of the uncountable thousands of DIY zines and labels? Where are Fugazi and Bikini Kill, His Hero is Gone and Los Crudos in this narrative? They are invisible precisely because the account presumes the significance and the relevance of punk rock were coterminous with the attention paid to it by mainstream music journalism.
So what does a revised, better-informed understanding of punk’s history (and present) contribute to such an analogy? While I don’t disagree with Atkins’ suggestion that “Time will tell which producers turn out to be the Boomtown Rats and which the Pogues,” I think that there is an interesting lesson about taste and appreciation to be considered. Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of natural wine, on an intellectual and aesthetic level, may be to destabilize and encourage reconsideration of what it means to be a “good wine” (as punk did with the idea of being a “good band”). While there are numerous natural wines that are excellent by even the most traditional standards, whether it be the turbidity of an unfiltered wine, a whiff of animal funk or the slight spritz of latent fermentation in the bottle, many natural producers have helped to create a space for appreciating qualities otherwise proscribed as faults or flaws – new avenues for experiencing and making sense of the pleasures of drinking, like feedback and screaming, outside of the conventional register of taste.
On a recent visit to Montreal, natural winemaker Olivier Lemasson commented in passing that in France for the most part no one knows or cares who he is – there he is a farmer, it is only in Montreal and New York and London that he is treated like a rock star. Indeed, it is notable that much of the furor surrounding “natural wine” is to be found among the wine critics and journalists, rather than the vintners themselves. So perhaps more important is what the story of punk rock suggests for the future of natural wine – the possibility that when the trend has subsided, there will nevertheless remain a community of committed producers and appreciators who continue to believe in the importance of a vibrant opposition to the standardized and soulless (or what they view as such). Toiling in relative obscurity and indifference to the market as the primary arbiter of taste, making what they love and loving what they make. DIY or die.
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postscript: If you have no idea what I am talking about re: natural wine, you should just come out to the salon des vignerons naturels – Les Turbulents this Sunday afternoon, April 12th, at the SAT, and drink yourself informed.
another postscript: I do think that there are other ways of pursuing this analogy – the problem of “authenticity” and how its language is mobilized by punks and wine folk; the limitations of thinking of punk as seeking an earlier “pure” form of rock n roll versus wanting to destroy music altogether or interrogate the normativity and machismo of rock n roll tout court; natural wine making recourse to an older, “more” traditional approach to winemaking v. punk treating tradition as itself stultifying and oppressive, etc.
A heads-up to all you frozen, misfortuned Montreal-dwellers that tomorrow evening I’m co-hosting an event for Restaurant Day (which is apparently a thing) where, instead of bothering much at all with the food aspect of things, we’re just going to pour a bunch of cool wines we like. In other words, we are opening a one-night-only quasi-legal (read: not legal) popup wine bar. We’ll have a small selection of natural, biodynamic, and otherwise interesting wines. Sourced from the SAQ and private importation and priced just above cost, in the interests of relative accessibility and the hopes of piquing curiosities or even, I dare say, inciting passions by exposing folks to some wines they might not otherwise encounter in the daily run of things. Expect a casual, convivial atmosphere, good jams, lots of Jura, occasional outbursts of wine prattle.
where: 33 ave Shamrock (note: this is an apt, so wear presentable socks)
Do stop by for a drink or seven. There will be light snacks afoot.