Archive for the ‘of a literary bent’ Category

Notes Preliminary to Actually Thinking About an Anti-Colonial Food Writing.
May 8, 2015

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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.

There, But for the Grace of God, Do I Most of the Time Go.
December 29, 2014

I saw this article – “Hop Enthusiasts Are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us.” – go by this morning and was all set to launch into a tirade about its basic stupidity, to point out that craft beer is in fact quite diverse (duh), even or especially in North America where there has been such an interest of late in the resuscitation of lost or neglected European styles; that if a dislike of strong hops is enough to turn one off any further investigation of craft beer, then one can hardly place the responsibility for one’s own feckless laziness with the brewers; that it was the hops enthusiasts who carved out the craft beer world in the first place, quite literally and metonymically opening up the palates of beer drinkers to a greater variety of styles and expressions.

However, then I actually read the article and was disappointed to discover that the author already knows this and makes several of these points in her piece, mostly mooting my initial indignation, but in the process also providing occasion for entirely other a freak-out that has less (but not nothing) to do with the content of the piece and more with its form and superfice. Specifically, I am truly sick of the hyperbole of attention-grabbing headlines for even the most insignificant of articles. It is bad enough with Buzzfeed and the rest of its clickbait legacy, but I find it particularly obnoxious in the case of ostensibly content-based journalism/non-fiction. Taking the Adrienne So craft beer piece as an example, we find that the article has not one, but three, titles varying somewhat in the degree of their intended provocation, all of which are disingenuous:

First, the tagline as it appears in a facebook share: “Hops Enthusiasts are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us,” which is of course untrue because, as noted above, 1) hops enthusiasts created “Craft Beer”, 2) while hoppy beers remain prominent, and hop-bombs still object of fetishistic appreciation, this has not prevented the explosion of beers in less hop-forward styles (witness the massive expansion in saison-brewing in the past few years), resulting in the availability of a wider variety of beers than in literally any other time in human history – I defy you to go into a beer bar, brew pub, or specialty beer store and be unable to acquire high quality less-hopped beer, and 3) the “Rest of Us” in the title remains unexplicated. As it happens, it does not include the author, who does like hoppy beers, and so in light of points 1 and 2 it can only refer to a complacent, dissatisfied, John Q. Public who is paradoxically presumably interested in “Craft Beer” but unwilling to learn anything at all about it.

Second, the title as it actually appears on Slate: “Against Hoppy Beer: The Craft Beer Industry’s Love Affair with Hops is Alienating People Who Don’t Like Bitter Brews.” Again, the author is not actually against hoppy beer, bla bla bla, and to the extent that the subtitle is accurate, we may see this as the typical conflict involved with the popularization of a niche product, where the level of investment and engagement of the amateur/enthusiast is not matched by the casual consumer, who is by dint of their laziness or non-interest alienated from entering the market.

Finally, the title as it appears in the article URL and consequently in one’s browser tab: “Hoppy Beer is Awful, or at Least its Bitterness is Ruining Craft Beer’s Reputation.” This is my favourite, because it is both the most daring and the most cowardly – not even waiting to be challenged before it retreats from its in-your-digital-face declaration to the softer and more ambiguous position that the bitterness (not the same thing as hoppiness, of course, which is as much or more about aromatics) of craft beer is off-putting. All of which rhetorical surround accompanies an article which ultimately makes no such strong claims. The author opens with an anecdote which highlights their own love for hops, and the realization that they have come to take this for granted, then proceeds to give a potted history of American craft brewing and some of the pros and cons of hops fetishism. It’s actually a pretty decent article in its own right, but the closest it comes to the spirit of any its titles is in the final paragraph:

Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer. So here’s my plea to my fellow craft beer enthusiasts: Give it a rest. Let’s talk about the differences between wild and cultivated lab yeast, and the weird and wonderful flavors that are created when brewers start scouring nearby trees or flowers or even their own beards for new strains. Let’s geek out about local, craft-malted barley and how it compares to traditional imported European malts. And let’s start preaching a new word: Craft beer isn’t always bitter. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally win over some of those Bud Light fans.

Which is fine, I suppose, although it is not as if this conversation isn’t already happening – arguably saisons have become new darlings of the craft world, with an attendant fixation on wild yeasts and lactobacilli and all things Belgian, and one could even make the claim that brettanomyces obsession is following a similar path to that of hops, with the Platonic ideal of a catbox-and-horse-blanket smoothie in a bottle tracing that of the 1000 IBU objet petit a, which everyone realizes is bad but irresistible idea anyway.

The problem is not the article or the argument itself, but that there actually is no argument. It is a type of journalism (or I dunno, “internet writing”) that assumes the form of confrontation but does not ever deliver on the promise of claims-making. On a certain level I can appreciate this as a prosaic tactic – I think it is a fruit of the desconstructionist turn that we may feel confident in a form of writing that draws us into a labyrinthine rhetorical rabbit warren in order to demonstrate or destabilize the impassible, open up other avenues of thinking, without endorsing the (sometimes) trap of “taking a strong position”. More can be said about the dangers of irony being a dominant mode of cultural discourse (I’m for it, frankly, although it is worth trying to make a distinction between the usefully destructive and the pointlessly destructive), but when it comes down to it, I don’t think that is really what is happening here. This is more like that guy at a party who engages one in absurd arguments, making provocatively absolute claims, from which he continually retreats with the defence “Well, I didn’t mean that so much as…” until one is eventually rewarded for one’s resisting the urge to murder him with the evasion “Don’t worry, I don’t even believe in what I’m saying, I just like to argue.” Which is itself a dissimulation – he doesn’t like to argue, he just likes the attention.

And so in the end, like a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein I arrive at the insightful conclusion that hyperbolic internet headlines are just clickbait, they’re just trying to get our attention! Stop the figurative presses! Where are my Pulitzers in multiple? But seriously, I bother to get into it as much out of sympathy as annoyance. I’m sure Adrienne So had a nice idea for a piece situating and thinking beyond the stereotype of craft beer as totally hops-dominated, and I don’t blame her for the triteness and cynicism of her titles and taglines (unless she wrote them, of course). This sort of hyperbolic feint-and-switch writing is something I often fall into myself, but as this confrontation becomes more and more mere veneer, a window-dressing applied whether or not there is even a cursory analysis underneath, the more accustomed to and forgiving of sucky journalism we become. We can do better.

His Measure of Her Powers.
October 25, 2014

Photo credit: TCBLRarebooks.com

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

I Fucking Love Renoir.
December 11, 2013

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Jean Renoir has been called a lot of nice names – secular saint, father of the French New Wave, the greatest of European directors, etc. Peter Bogdanovich called him “The best director, ever.” As much has been made of Renoir’s transcendence as of his humanism, but part of what has made his work so captivating for me is that his humanism is precisely not a grand, transcendent humanism, but is rather of an inauspicious and quotidian variety. To this extent I feel more comfortable proclaiming (pace Bogdanovich) that it is less that his films are “humanist” than that his characters are profoundly human. Disarmingly, vitally, human. This is not to say, in the typical unimaginative shorthand, that they are “flawed”, but that they are believable in a way that reminds one that the usual believability of cinematic characters is itself an achievement, wrought through our collusion with cinematic conventions and the suspension of disbelief (a collusion which one finds increasingly dishonourable as screenwriting becomes increasingly shitty). They do things and say things that we do not as film-viewers expect them to do or say, which produces the suspicion that they may actually live on in their world without us, rather than live only in and only for the film and its duration. This at times produces an erratic quality to his films that is familiar because it evokes something of the churning irrelevancies of a real live human life, while remaining entirely within the strictures of narrative filmmaking.

I watched his 1938 La Marseillaise (about the French Revolution, puckishly subtitled “A Chronicle of Certain Events Relative to the Fall of the Monarchy”) recently, and was struck by a scene wherein, well into the rev and with the storming of the palace close in the offing, Marie-Antoinette comes upon the King eating a dish of tomatoes:

Marie Antoinette: My lord, you’re eating in spite of the circumstances?

Louis XVI: Why shouldn’t I? The stomach is an organ which ignores political nuances. I asked for tomatoes. People have been talking a lot about this vegetable since the people from Marseille have arrived in Paris. I wanted to try it. Well madame, do you want to know what I think of it?

It is an excellent dish, and we were wrong to disregard it.

No additional context is given for the meaning of this exchange, save that in a couple of earlier scenes we hear the men from Marseille (volunteers in the revolutionary army) asking for tomatoes – which at that time were hardly considered a food across much of France, in spite of their being consumed widely in the south (as well as Spain and parts of Italy). Popular, or at least popular aristocratic and botanical opinion long had it that tomatoes were poisonous (which are, belonging to the family deadly nightshade and all, many of the elements of the plant excepting the fruit itself), or at least disgusting, and their association with the hot-blooded republican peasantry in their red Phrygian caps made the tomato a fine revolutionary icon – cinematically, even if the historical evidence is a little fuzzy.

And so in this scene we are given to enjoy what passes as both a genuinely human moment and a sly allusion to the utter cluelessness of the King in his royal isolation. The look of what might be defiance, admonishment, suspicion, that he darts at his wife (depicted unsympathetically throughout the film as very much on the side of the aristocracy) as he utters this last line is -perfect-, and the French méfier, which better corresponds to contempt and mistrust than disregard, deepens the impression that he is speaking of something deeper than taste. He’s talking about taste, he’s talking about tomatoes, he’s talking about the revolution, he’s talking about hunger. But Renoir doesn’t beat us over the head with it. La Marseilleise is a pretty triumphant film; it’s about liberté,  fraternité,  égalité, more than it’s about the Terror, but I resist saying it’s a ‘political’ film. It’s too nuanced, there is a friendly irony; the story, underneath all the songs and slogans, is, like the people who populate it, too complicated. “The awful thing about the world,” Renoir speaks through Octave in La Règle du Jeu, “is that everyone has their reasons,” and the genius of Renoir’s ‘humanism’ is not the exaltation of these reasons, but that he makes a virtue of acknowledging them. That virtue, I suppose, is sympathy.

Renoir has suggested that La Marseillaise is the film of his of which he wrote the least, relying for his dialogue almost exclusively upon historical documents. It is difficult to confirm that the exchange over the tomatoes ever really took place (does it matter?), but we may take satisfaction in the idea that the man who would be the first King of France to be beheaded and the last to reign uttered such a thing, whether or not he was sensitive to its import.

Futures of Nostalgia / Giving Paris One More Chance.
October 26, 2013

new mcsorleys

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one afternoon last summer i found myself  in Harry’s New York Bar, in Paris (France, you know?). famously the place of origin of the French 75, the Bloody Mary, the White Lady. famously patronized by Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Gershwin. i didn’t know all this at the time; all i knew was that it was reputedly the oldest cocktail bar in Paris, a city the opinion of which as a real-shit house for cocktails I had already spent a week forming, in spite of the potential contributory factors such as the wealth of native bitters / vermouths – Bonal, Picon, Salers, Dolin – and we needed a goddamn drink. a goddamn Old-Fashioned, franchement.* 

it’s a beautiful place, not quite like the gleaming French brasseries, but with an timeworn elegance that is restrained foremost by its need to remain legibly unfussily American**. as the story goes, what became Harry’s New York Bar was literally a bar in New York, chopped up, shipped overseas, and reconstructed in Paris in the early 20th c to remedy what was even then perceived as a dearth of good cocktail bars, and it is clear that great pains are taken to give the impression that not much has changed in the décor, comportment, menu or philosophy. what was most profoundly affecting, however, was how quiet it was inside; a calm cool quiet that went deeper than the lack of music, it was as if someone had cut a chunk out of the sticky, suffocating heat of the afternoon and slotted the building in its place. it was immeasurably restoring.

 

 

i am reminded in these reflections of another old-ass bar of historic note, in a younger city, that was the source for me of very different impressions even if the two overlap in significant respects. in 1940 The New Yorker published a wonderful profile by Joseph Mitchell (him again, i know) of McSorley’s Old Ale House, at 15 East 7th st in Manhattan, then already considered an anachronism, a dusty cave rich with Old New York history. having arrived there myself 72 years later (almost as old again as it was when the Liebling piece was written), i am inclined to think it rich with the dust of Old New York as well. the place is awesomely filthy. the floor is covered in sawdust and there’s a pot-bellied wood stove in the centre of the room for heat in the winter, several of the tables are just old cable spools, and everything above eye level is black with the kind of grimey dust that feels tacky to the touch just by looking at it, once disturbed threatens to make you over in its own soft, smudged image. they serve only beer, “light” or “dark”, in small mugs, and always two at a time for some reason, two for five. the bartender has a tired-dad look about him and walks with a heavy limp, spending what time he can with his feet up on the bar. he tells me he’s been tending bar for 45 years, and he drank at McSorley’s for 2 before that.

it is strange sitting in a place that embodies so much of what the nouveau rustic of contemporary design emulates, a place that is down to its timbers just waiting to be ‘reclaimed’ and put to aesthetic work probably in a prohibition-styled ‘speakeasy’ (the former of which McSorley’s miraculously weathered without closing or becoming the latter) half a block down the street. but it is too easy and too trite to cast McSorley’s as a fading artifact of a more authentic past, for it is definitely an artifact in a dual sense – clearly decisions have been made to retain and amplify the shabby, bygone charm of the place; the satisfaction of authenticity is thus very much the product – an artifact – of a certain kind of nostalgia work. but, for all that artifactuality (i hesitate to say artificiality), these charms are no less real. when i first read Mitchell’s piece, my desire to see McSorley’s was tempered by my expectation that it would by now be a locale thoroughly and obnoxiously commodified as a tourist experience, gleaming like a TGI Fridays in the night, selling history like hotcakes, or perhaps some combination of the two. so i was pleasantly surprised to find a place so seemingly genuinely at ease with its dumpiness. admittedly, i strolled in on a frigid Sunday night*** in February when perhaps some sort of Superior Bowl was going down on the television, in the absence of any participating local squadrons, but i like to think that the cheap beer, dinge, and liverwurst & onion sandwiches maintain a certain amount of this atmosphere at all hours. in comparing McSorley’s and Harry’s the feeling i find is altogether different. McSorley’s is still sprayed wall-to-wall (and floor to ceiling) with material Americana, but it comes across as patina rather than pastiche. Harry’s New York Bar seems frozen in time, but intentionally so, and thus artificially; trapped somewhere between dignity and Disneyland. whereas McSorley’s feels more like it’s suspended between the 1860s and an insurance fire. i think there’s a lot more that can be said about the different kinds of nostalgia work going on these two places, and perhaps a fruitful analytic distinction can be made between places being frozen in time vs. being frozen out of time, but there’s an SAQ sale today, and i have a bar that needs repleting.

besides which, the Old-Fashioneds at Harry’s weren’t even that good. i have a feeling they make a lot of Bloody Marys.

 

 

 

* happily, i was to be disabused of this opinion not two days later, after i stumbled by accident into Calbar (don’t be deterred by your inevitable and completely understandable horror at the website, should you find yourself thirsty and curious in the 12e arrond. it was perfectly delightful at 3pm on a wednesday; dim, charmingly appointed, and the bartenders were incredibly nice, being perfectly willing to challenge their craftsmanship by trying to cater to my obnoxious tastes), which subsequently (as in, immediately following) led me to Sherry Butt, where shit got all the realer. had a goddamn crazy drink named after a subway station in Tokyo made with Amaro Nardini, fino sherry, marasca, Nikka From the Barrel, and who knows what else. it was pretty good.

** unfortunately, “classy” and “unfussy” can be hard to maintain simultaneously, as the starched white chemist’s coats of the bartenders and the bar’s ‘no shorts’ policy grinding up against 10$ chien chauds and ubiquitous sports memorabilia evinces.

*** the fact that i so regularly extol the merits of going to bars at times when they’re likely to be least occupied may say something telling about why tonight, in that i sleep alone tonight, is just like any other night. my triumphs and my charms notwithstanding.

The Way You’d Smell a Rose, or a Shot of Brandy.
October 18, 2013

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it is inconceivable that i have not posted this before:

Once, in a Hartford barroom, a trembly fellow in his seventies turned to Mr Flood and said “Flood, I had a birthday last week. i’m getting on. I’m not long for this world.”

Mr Flood snorted angrily. “Well by God, am,” he said. “I just got started.”

The trembly fellow sighed and said, “I’m all out of whack. I’m going uptown to see my doctor.”

Mr Flood snorted again. “Oh shut up,” he said. “Damn your doctor! I tell you what you do. You get right out of here and go over to Libby’s oyster house and tell the man you want to eat some of his big oysters. Don’t sit down. Stand up at that fine marble bar they got over there, where you can watch the man knife them open. And tell him you intend to drink the oyster liquor; he’ll knife them on the cup shell, so the liquor won’t spill. And be sure you get the big ones. Get them so big you’ll have to rear back to swallow, the size that most restaurants use for fries and stews; God forgive them, they don’t know any better. Ask for Robbins Islands, Mattitucks, Cape Cods, or Saddle Rocks. And don’t put any of that red sauce on them, that cocktail sauce, that mess, that gurry. Ask the man for half a lemon, poke it a time or two to free the juice, and squeeze it over the oysters. And the first one he knifes, pick it up and smell it, the way you’d smell a rose, or a shot of brandy. That briny, seaweedy fragrance will clear your head; it’ll make your blood run faster. And don’t eat just six; take your time and eat a dozen, eat two dozen, eat three dozen, eat four dozen. And then leave the man a generous tip and go buy yourself a fifty-cent cigar and put your hat on the side of your heard and take a walk down to Bowling Green. Look at the sky! Isn’t it blue? And look at the girls a-tap-tap-tapping past on their pretty little feet! Aren’t they just the finest girls you ever saw, the bounciest, the rumpiest, the laughingest? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for even thinking about spending money on a damned doctor?And along about here, you better be careful. You’re apt to feel so bucked-up you’ll slap strangers on the back, or kick a window in, or fight a cop, or jump on the tailboard of a truck and steal a ride.”  

               – Joseph Mitchell, “Old Mr. Flood” (1948)

more on this later.

Next Things.
March 7, 2013

~

Anna Leventhal (who rules) recently tagged me and some other people who actually write books as part of this literary-self-reflection-chain-letter, wherein one answers a set of questions about what one is working on and then tags 5 writers whom one admires, the do the same, and then we are all magically connected by networks of reference and presumably in the end i finally get a house with a gas range and at least one crenellated turret and that diamond as big as the Ritz i’ve always wanted*.

i have been sort of resisting participating, mostly because thinking about it highlights the dissonance i feel between the (semi)public perception that exists of me as an “author” and my own complete failure to inhabit that role in my own mind, but also because i haven’t seriously been working on my writing for some time. nevertheless, i -am- going to participate because i think that there is value in rethinking what that means – to “be an author”, to have something that can be referred to as “one’s work”, and our various comfort levels with what qualifies as  “creative output” and “creative process.”

consequently, the answers i am capable of giving make a poor fit for many of the questions, and many of the people i am tagging below i am tagging because i think they are awesome, and think that anyone who is paying attention to me should also be paying attention to them. as such, while for the sake of the form i am retaining these book-emphasis of the questions, i am really more interested in using this as a What are you thinking about / What do you wish you were writing a book about right now? sort of project.

What is the working title of your book?

i don’t have a book. but in an application for a grant i didn’t get, to write this book that doesn’t exist, my working title up until the very last minute was Into The Bloodstorm. some day i will actually call something that.

What genre does your book fall under?

food literature? creative non fiction?

Where did the idea come from for the book?

there are two ideas that have been haunting me, that i have yet to flesh out to the extent they require – one has to do with investigating how culture-bound is the memory-work that is done by potato chip flavours. specifically BBQ, a flavour that strangely does not refer to an actual food item but rather a method of cooking, and so in a sense is a flavour based less in mimicry or correspondence to a real thing-in-the-word, and more a set of associations organized around a non-existent object, an absent centre. the inspiration for this line of thought came from two places, 1) how in the current vague/vogue of expanded chip flavours, most of them still taste like variations on shitty BBQ chips, and 2) in my European travels, the comparative scarcity of “BBQ” chips (maybe because BBQ per se is an American culinary tradition?), and the absence of this phenomenon of most chip flavours just tasting like BBQ variations.

the second has to do with the history of butchery traditions in different countries and cultures. inspired by realizing there are not only names of cuts that can not be translated across languages, but that the cuts themselves often to not cross linguistic boundaries – while looking for poire de boeuf as an inexpensive substitute for tenderloin to make tartare, i discovered that the French cut appears not to exist in American or English butchery, and is uncommon even in Québecois butchery. drawing a parallel with the historicization of objectivity and histories of scientific ways of seeing, this got me wondering about the extent to which these different butchery traditions could be seen not merely as local interpretations of a fixed, universal, anatomy of meat animals, but as bound up with the production of local anatomies, in the way that how bodies are put together and of what they are made have been historically quite variable. it seems to me that butchery might offer an interesting vantage point for thinking about the non-deterministic (handi)work that is involved in making up organisms.

Which actors would you choose to play you characters in a movie adaptation?

no comment.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

i’m not sure, but i’m pretty sure one could be strung together with the phrases “food”, “literary pretences”, “impenetrable fog of jargon,” and a string of ellipses.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

uhhhhh….. no comment.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

this is exactly why i didn’t want to do this interview.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

i am having a difficult time separating out conceptual problems from sensual enjoyment. this is how i try to work these things out, -not- separate them out. some times we eat our emotions, some times we think our food. i don’t think either are irrelevant to pleasure.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

i promise that inside: no one will find in food the hidden meaning or purpose in their life, or reconnect with timeless traditions, or come to understand the true meaning of hospitality,  in the simple gestures of preparing food. no one will get their groove back. there will be only uncomfortableness, and blood. possibly jokes.

The five (six, in fact!) writers I’m tagging:

Joey Comeau
John Semley
Drew Nelles
Laura Broadbent
Nicola Twilley
Tim Maly

* funny aside – what I am actually devoting the majority of my time to is someone else’s book. since last spring, when i got back from touring singing for someone else’s metal bandi’ve been working as a research assistant for two different professors; one writing a history of state and international chronic disease programming in the 20th century, the other putting together a book on Cold War psychiatry, the role of the Intelligence community in the development of the behavioural sciences, and the covert CIA funding of some harsh experiments conducted at McGill in the 1950s. in the course of which i learned that in ’51 there was a perhaps pivotal meeting between representatives from Canada’s Defence Research Board, the British Ministry of Defence, the CIA, and some luminaries of the Canadian psychology world about the potentials of brainwashing research at the Ritz-Carlton in Montréal, which building i walk by on a weekly basis and think to myself “That looks like a really nice cocktail bar.”

Stay Hungry.
December 18, 2012

~

trying to decide on a title for the collection i put together for Expozine last month Eaten Back To Life was the first thing that came to mind (runners-up included I’d Trade It All for A Little More – a Simpsons reference, and Stay Hungry – a Talking Heads reference). mostly because i like the ring of it. it is the kind of phrase that sticks in one’s head, or my head at least, because of its somewhat paradoxical implications.

my reservations about it as a title sprang primarily from a concern that it might also carry some suggestion of a memoir of self-discovery and rejuvenation – taken the wrong way, it could well conjure the romantic trope of someone down in the dumps and over the barrel, who through cooking, eating, food-writing (even worse) or what have you rediscovers their lust for life. which impression is absolutely the last i would like to give, however much i respect that this is a fine thing and probably a reality for some people. of course i do not deny the importance of food as a lifeline, a source of pleasure and of community, but this is No Big News, and to the extent that i do succumb to extolling this in my own writing, i don’t want to advertise the fact.

rather, when i think “Eaten Back To Life”, i think of Cannibal Corpse’s 1990 debut album, which presents a whole other set of unfortunate associations. while i am a great fan of early death metal (if a picky and predictable one), i really do not like and never have liked Cannibal Corpse. part of the reason for this is musical (i find them boring), and part of it is that i find them particularly offensive and misogynist, as arguably one the first bands to really set the stage for the intensely misogynist gore-metal subgenre that has unfortunately continued to expand over the past couple of decades. on one level it is unfair to single out Cannibal Corpse for this, as certainly there are strong misogynist themes (or at least tacitly woman-hating shitty lyrics) running through the work of many of their contemporaries (such as Death and Autopsy, go figure, both of whom i listen to with aplomb), but with Cannibal Corpse sexualized violence toward women has always been foregrounded, which makes them an easier target, and harder to ignore, for all that.

there is probably much that can be written about the centrality of cannibalism to death metal for a food blog such as this, but frankly i’m just not that interested. there’s a pretty smart, nuanced, treatment of the broader topic to be found here (TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE), and the argument has been made that such death metal songs fall into a (modified) tradition of horror storytelling and/or grotesque poetry, but my response to that is a firm “Uh, maybe?” / “This is not Bataille we’re talking about.” while there is a strong association between death metal and horror cinema, i think the constrained form of the song leaves little room for the kind of play required for what (for example) Carol Clover would argue is the basis for a “cross-gender identification” that runs through horror film (although Men, Women, and Chainsaws was published in 1993, remember, and deals more with the slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s than the ‘torture porn’ genre that has blown up since, and with which i would argue gore metal lyrics have more affinity). in terms of a sort of ‘poetry of excess’ approach, the early Carcass records are interesting because of how heavily they are concerned not necessarily with cannibalism but specifically with pathology, decay, putrefaction and endoparasitism. famously inspired by the singer’s sister’s medical dictionary, the lyrics careen gleefully through a rupturing, distended, leaky and pustule-ridden bodily topography so bloated with technical medical and anatomical language that at times the songs threaten to break down into total multisyllabic abstraction, like pathological magnetic poetry, or a graduate Cultural Studies paper:

Bloody hypertrophy of papillae spewing urethritis like urticaria, septicaemia-filled dermis scorched by acidic uric nocturia. Ureterocoeles excreting warm, decaying, cystic pemphigus, gnawing at flesh with rancid uraturial lust

or,

Pyosis mucolysifies malignant mucocoeles, pustules endocrinating disseminated mortified cells . . . Putrefying your pyorrhoea – infested corpse excretes away, expelling pyuria and septic goitrous membrane. Mucopurulence excretor!

in the end, reservations notwithstanding, i went with the Cannibal Corpse reference, in the hopes that the metalheads would go “ha”, and the rest would suspect that maybe it at least had something to do with zombies, maybe? what really won me over was thinking through the phrase “eaten back to life” in relation to the cover of the record, which as you can see features a zombie crazily devouring the hell out of itself. the phrase and image trade on the understanding that zombies require (or at least feel the need for) flesh to live/persist, but fly in the face of accepted wisdom that the living dead tend not to eat themselves or each other. fundamentally, it presents a hilarious painting-oneself-into-a-corner situation that suggests the inevitable end result of the zombie reduced to an embarrassed, one-armed torso, who looks around after his frenzy of revitalizing, intoxicating autophagy and is like “Ah, nuts.” thus eating-back-to-life contains within it its inverse, eating-unto-death. i write “inverse” intentionally, if clumsily, in an attempt to avoid “opposite”, because in this example toward-life and toward-death actually point in the same direction, toward the same (if not self-identical) object.

this is no new terrain, but it’s been a while since i’ve thought about it (2009?), as i’ve gotten a little better at not eating wildly toward (self)destruction. but this is the tension that animates gastronomic desire and gustatory pleasure, as one teeters on the edges of excess – the basic need for food, eating to live, both perverted and exalted by the pleasures of taste, as we well overshoot the mark of survival and drive toward death. whether it’s the self-negation of gross crapulence or simply the gradual hardening of the arteries that i’m casually certain my “Multiple Fats, All The Time” philosophy engenders.

no new terrain, for those of us who get a little crazy. for whom the idea of the “will” as a ruling mechanism, within yet quasi-independent of the self, seems an ill fit for the governing of our appetites. who suspect that there is only enough want or not enough want, compulsion or complacency. the will is not lacking, it is simply a way of understanding desire that does not feel relevant and does nothing to illuminate, for those driven and derided by taste.*

i could call that object, at which both the toward-life and toward-death aim, satisfaction.

 

FYI, copies of Eaten Back To Life are available by mail, via myself (for i guess 5$), or in Montreal at Dépanneur le Pick Up.

 

 

* i’ve had it in my head for some time, somehow, that the last line of Araby was “driven and derided by fate” when it is in fact “driven and derided by vanity.” i’m not sure when this happened, because it’s definitely something i used to know.

Reflexes and Reflexions.
July 11, 2012

“To cook something to exactly the right degree is a delicate operation which requires great care, scientific interest, and art – that is to say, love.”

– Édouard de Pomiane

while this goes against my actual cooking practice (non-scientific interest, careless measurement, reckless abandon), i like the idea of love as involving rigour – that it demands something of they who love, and of the beloved. i haven’t fleshed out what that means exactly, but it makes good (counter)intuitive sense to me.

i’ve been reading the Modern Library’s edition of Cooking With Pomiane, skimming the recipes while relishing Pomiane’s style and personality, but i am annoyed to discover how difficult it is to get clear information on the source of the text. in her introduction Ruth Reichl refers to Cooking With Pomiane as the first of his books to be published, in the 1930s, but when one actually looks at his list of French publications, it is nowise clear of which of these books it is a translation. i would like to believe that it is Réflexes et réflexions devant la nappe, as that is the cleverest of the titles, but it is my suspicion that Cooking With Pomiane is probably an anthology (if anyone has information to the contrary, i would love to be disabused of this notion). this, and the attendant difficulty of pinpointing when the text(s) was written, is unfortunate because much of the réflexions of Pomiane concern the past; the past of French cuisine, and his own. it is the way that his recipes are larded and barded with memoir that makes the book so attractive:

These friands bring back all my childhood. Alas, the people I loved have vanished. Asphalte has covered the fields of the Butte Montmartre and the streams have disappeared beneath the pavements

but the book has become unmoored in time, and it is difficult to situate this nostalgia – is this the Pomiane of the ’60s or of the ’30s who is looking back so wistfully?

elsewhere, he writes:

What would our lives be like without tradition? What terrible fatigue would overwhelm humanity if it only had to concern itself with the future? Tradition represents a momentary pause in the course of toil – repose and backward glance toward the past – the comparison of today with yesterday. Tradition is the memory of happy moments which have vanished, and their ephemeral return to life.

this is certainly a rosy view of tradition, that which rests and revives, rather than stifles and binds, but Pomiane is considered neither reactionary nor conservative. he has been hailed by many as a culinary Modern, even iconoclast, and has been cited as an intellectual forefather of molecular gastronomy, himself a scientist and physician, working at the Pasteur Insitute in Paris. indeed, i think we can read in Pomiane the best of the spirit of molecular gastronomy (or the spirit of the best molecular gastronomy). the public face of molecular gastronomy is too often that of of wild abstraction, deconstruction, the technological colonization of the kitchen by a perhaps mad-scientific rationality. but there is also a respect for tradition, and for the foods themselves, combined with an unwillingness to be bound by that tradition, and one could say that molecular gastronomy is (the formal grounding of) the theory, which undertakes a demystification of the kitchen, while modern(ist) cooking is the practical remystification of the cuisine.

i would like to pursue a more in-depth comparison between Pomiane and Hervé This, but unfortunately i lost both my notes and my (borrowed) copy of Molecular Gastronomy somewhere in Europe while i was on tour. which is bad news for you guys, because there were some real gems of insight in there, i’m pretty sure. in any case, to make explicit the connection, it is important to bear in mind Hervé This’s point that “molecular gastronomy” is not a style of cooking, despite how the term is bandied about. gastronomy is the study of food, cooking, eating. it’s a body of knowledge. molecular gastronomy (or in its earlier, more accurate if more unwieldy formulation – “molecular and physical gastronomy”) is about constructing an understanding of food and cooking based specifically in the ‘hard’ sciences. modern/modernist cooking is about taking this understanding as a starting point and using not only the theoretical apparatus of chemistry and physics, but also its material battery (such as the infamous centrifuge, itself borrowed by organic chemistry from physics in the making of molecular biology) to take the preparation of food in new directions.

this distinction is important, and i find makes the term “molecular gastronomy” that much less annoying. so when Pomiane speaks of the art, science, and love involved in cooking food to exactly the right temperature, one can’t help but the thermal immersion circulator (the instrument used for sous vide cooking) comes to mind. it is the technological answer to Pomiane’s heart’s desire, or so i think its exponents would put forth, perhaps going so far as to say that the thermal immersion circulator is a cyborg technology of love (no one would say that). the use of such technology raises the question as of whether they are better thought of as shortcuts or as extensions of human capability. a sort of technological precising definition of the act of love?

reining myself in for a moment, i had another worlds-collide moment when i read that while at the Pasteur Institute Pomiane worked with Felix d’Herelle on his pioneering study of bacteriophage – a class of what were eventually decided to be viruses that feed specifically on bacteria and have been sources of both elucidation and problematization in the history of virology. notably, it was particularly with the work of the Phage Group in the 1950s that physicists (and their wacky instruments) began to enter into the study of viruses, which played a major role in the rise of molecular biology and of chemical and physical understandings of life.

whoa, right?

 

 

 

 

related posts:
“Mostly When I Think “Oxford” I Think Homosexuality and Fake Moustaches”
“Cooking in Process”
“Don’t Take Your Sword To the Table”

In the Film Adaptation, Liza Minelli Will Play These Chips.
April 11, 2012

~

i felt some hesitation before i left bringing a book that would so strongly evoke America as does Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918). it seemed almost perverse, but i justified it in part on the rationale that it was an America in all its newness – not only seen through the eyes, but made by the hands of, Swedish, Norwegian and Bohemian pioneers,¹ and all of these are countries that we are visiting on tour. i could claim that it would give me some better, or some stranger, reference point, to be traveling through the Old Countries that haunt or are longed for by all of the characters in the book, but that is not an argument of much force.

America looms so large in the book, the characters and the landscape are deeply intertwined. i become romantic and wistful, and wish in that untrustworthy nostalgic way that it was there that we were touring, but of the course the “there” is not one that exists any longer, or that can be recovered:

 

If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made . . . I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside of man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

* * *

seemingly more appropriate, i also brought along Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin (1939), which i read over the course of our couple of days off in Berlin. it is quite good, but it in its own way sort of reaffirms and reproduces the strangeness of reading an American novel in Europe. Goodbye To Berlin is so much a historical snapshot, Berlin now is all Turkish food and punk rock. where must one go, what must one do, to connect with that world that it represents? it is as alien and lost to me as is Cather’s America while in Europe, and as would be Cather’s America be to me were i -in- America now. what is the right novel to capture the spirit when all is myth and nostalgia, layer upon layer?

of course, Coming Through Slaughter i didn’t wait until i was in Louisiana to read, but did wait until the heavy, humid pall of August settled upon Montréal, and that i do not in the slightest regret.

* * *

they also have these Flips things here, which are basically peanut-butter flavoured cheesies (no cheese, i mean), and are awesome. they are sort of like the essence of PB+crackers, elevated out of mediocrity. through deep-frying, of course. deep-frying and corn, i should think. why don’t we have these? i want.

 

 

 

 

¹ i say “newness” and “made by the hands of” in full cognizance of the dangers of tacitly endorsing the mythological “discovery” and “founding” of America by Europeans, and use the terms advisedly. i’m talking about an America that is mythic, a myth that did not exist prior to colonization, and continues to inform our engagements with the land and the nation.