product review

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

Stop me before I say too much.

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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product review

On the Science Fiction Turn in Chips.

Death is Everywhere.

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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.

 

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product review, spirit possession

Apples, As Rain or Tears.

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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product review

Take Your Medicine.

~

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

But as it turns out, I like cod livers.

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

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

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of a literary bent, product review

I Fucking Love Renoir.

~

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.

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product review

I Mean, It’s Basically an Economic Fuck You As Well…*

As those who are attentive to gastronomic rumblings in Canada are doubtless already aware, a few weeks ago it was announced that Montreal is finally lifting its 60-odd year ban on street food, although it is so doing in as perversely over-regulated and ass-backward a fashion as la Belle Province can muster (Quebec, I mean, not the fast food chain). The city will be granting a small number of permits, exclusively to pre-existing restaurants and caterers, and apparently only to those that will provide food of a quality “highly respected and renowned” that showcases the gastronomic excellence of Quebec. Vendors will be restricted to food trucks per se (no carts, wagons, etc.), and the majority of the food preparation will have to occur off-location, ie: not in the truck itself.

What all this amounts to is that Montreal’s recently self-identified foodies will finally get to enjoy the opportunity to stand in line for twenty minutes to pay $9 for a pork belly sandwich, thus catching up with the rest of Western civilization in realizing the ineffable and irreplaceable gastronomic qualities of “something that was in truck at some point.” Don’t get me wrong, I myself have doubtless at some point or other uttered the meaningless statement “I LOVE STREET FOOD,” unconsciously attempting to meet the social expectations to be agreeable without bothering to take a minute and a half to figure out what I was actually saying. For there is an important distinction between “liking Street Food,” as code for the current obsession with tacos and banh mi, and actually being interested in supporting the culinary space that is opened up by the permission of public, mobile, food-vending.

And this is the point that is completely missed by Montreal’s approach to food trucks. Arguably, what is important about street food is the opportunity it provides for people who don’t have the resources to open up a full-scale restaurant to make some kind of a living through food (important in the “big picture” sense; it is also important because of how vastly it improves the quality of life of wasted people, obvs.). What is interesting about street food is that, partly due to the lower overhead, a greater flexibility is allowed – street carts can afford to cater to the specific and sometimes obscure culinary inclinations of particular neighbourhoods, communities, or cultures, and the material and logistical constraints of how to prepare and serve food on the fly can produce mutations and innovations in local culinary practices, even if it’s as simple as “Fuck it, let’s put it on a stick.” In this way street food comes to constitute a lively and often idiosyncratic part of the foodscape of a city.

Montreal’s food truck plan explicitly precludes the former, which if one is even remotely sensitive to questions about cultural appropriation, constitutes a pretty undeniable symbolic “fuck you” to the poor people and immigrants upon whom street food has depended, basically forever. And even if you’re completely indifferent to that side of things, the idea that the vendors are going to be selected on the basis of some city wonks’ idea of what the culinary identity of Montreal is supposed to be should give anyone pause. The city is supposedly proceeding with due caution in light of the colossal failure of Toronto’s similar A La Cart pilot program, but what is truly creepy is the consonance of this with the project of asserting a particular Québecois identity that must be carefully tailored and maintained, protected from threats both internal and external by an elaborate scaffolding of regulation and legislation.

Toronto’s shitting of the bed notwithstanding, they at least still have street meat, and similar projects started in Calgary and Vancouver have met with some success in recent years, in spite of the attendant profusion of puns and extreme spelling (Perogy Boyz, Feastro Urban Bistro, Fasttrac Fusion, etc.). While both cities have a pretty restrictive licensing and regulatory apparatus, the number of vendors and the locations in which they are permitted to operate continues to expand, with Vancouver’s food carts growing to nearly one hundred since the pilot was initiated in 2010. Of course, it is still to Portland and Williamsburg that these look for inspiration/administration, rather than Bangkok, Mexico City, or Kerala, the grand dames of eating on the street.

So it’s hard to predict exactly where this Montreal thing is going to go, but it already has the earmarks of a bad tourism venture, with a bunch of administrative yahoos trying to manufacture a cultural identity and say “this is Montreal” instead of opening things up and actually finding out what the place is all about. I mean, credit where due to the Grumman ’78 folks for fighting the fight to at least get the bylaws changed, but it’s got to go farther than this, which as it stands threatens to be but a precious and privileged promotional exercise, and a nullification of what makes street food a vital and relevant force in the culinary life of a city.

 

Glut on.

 

 

(*first published as “Montreal’s Food Truck Plan Is a Symbolic ‘Fuck You’ to Poor People and Immigrants” on by Vice magazine online.)

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