of a literary bent

His Measure of Her Powers.

Photo credit: TCBLRarebooks.com


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.



exploded views

A Vortex of Cuteness, Reduced to Slurry.

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.



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.

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?

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


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.

exploded views

The Whole Beast Beyond Even Its Borders.

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



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”.


product review

On the Science Fiction Turn in Chips.

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.