rant

Against Brunch.

i just heard in passing that on Q this week they’re going to be talking to Alexander Nazaryan about his New York Daily News anti-brunch piece. seeing how i just last week won Literary Death Match Montréal reading my own “Against Brunch,” i thought it timely to post that piece here. ironically, yesterday i had pretty much the best piece of toast ever off a brunch menu in Montpelier,Vermont, but in my defence, it was 2pm and i was at a bar. if you ever have the chance, do hit up the Three Penny Taproom. i had a Flemish sour (Rodenbach Grand Cru) that kicked my whole ass. and the toast was really something.

UPDATE: that dude on Q was a nitwit.

Against Brunch,
or “Hardened Nightbirds Fondly Cherish All Its Subtle Charms”

from Food & Trembling (Invisible Publishing 2011):

I don’t like brunch.

You can save your sharp intakes of breath, brunch-lovers, because however much this offends your brunch-loving sensibilities, it is but a statement of preference. I do not hate you for what you do, and it is only slightly down my nose that I look at your late-morning/early-afternoon dining activities; one could even argue, as will be demonstrated, that I may simply suffer from a case of sour grapes.

Where to begin? It is only fair to start with brunch itself, as it emerges onto the historical stage, and work up to my own engagement therewith. “Brunch” enters the OED in the supplement to the ’71 edition, which puts the birth of the word in 1900, although popular accounts trace it to a few years earlier, coined by Guy Beringer in a rag called Hunter’s Weekly:

Instead of England’s early Sunday dinner, a postchurch ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare? By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.

– “Brunch: A Plea” (1896)

Put thusly, I would have to be hard-hearted and hopelessly contrary to speak ill of brunch, but it is less the idea of the thing than the way it has been institutionalized that chafes me. If one of the functions of brunch is to spare the fast-living the hardships of the usual breakfast/lunch rigmarole, as indeed many have suggested to me, arguing that preparing one’s own food is the last thing they wish to contend with upon awaking into a hangover, I counter that the last place I want to be in the early hours of my day is standing in a lineup with a bunch of yahoos, or still worse, surrounded by a hundred or so of such yahoos (and probably a couple of babies as well. Babies!) amidst the uniquely brunchy din of scraping chairs and clattering dishware. Oy.

Further, and I don’t mean to flatter myself, I have yet to experience an (inevitably nine-dollars plus) omelette in a restaurant that surpasses one I could make for myself in approximately ninety-nine seconds at home, and I don’t expect that when I do, it will be found at “brunch.” This has as much to do with the qualities inherent in the omelette itself as with the exigencies of running a brunch setup. The power and the glory of an omelette, in my estimation, reside in the ability to eat it mere moments after it has been slid from pan to plate, only so many moments as are required to for the residual heat to finish cooking the interior to silky but fragile perfection. If I am in the mood for something spongy, browned, and sweating, I will take it as a tortilla with maybe some olives, half drunk off two-euro Spanish red, or alternately in a bathroom stall of an Ibizan nightclub, thank you very much.

But I am not one for big breakfasts these days. This is an admission which usually allows the brunch-lover to mitigate the psychological distress caused by my public brunch-dissidence, by allowing my argument of What Is Wrong With Brunch to be eclipsed by the consideration What Is Wrong With Me. For it seems to be evidence of some frailty of spirit to be avowedly ‘into’ food, but not at all times a hopeless glutton. Most days I would be not only contented with, but elated by a good croissant and an espresso, or, if I am feeling concerned about continuing to live, a couple of fried eggs and a piece of toast.

Time was, I couldn’t get through the day without a mess of fried tofu or beans (I continue to be a fan of maple beans), some rice or quinoa, sweet potato mash, toast, and some kind of stewed or steamed green; but those were different, and if you couldn’t infer from the menu, vegan, days, and I no longer require such hearty fare to launch myself into the world.

With some exceptions (and it is here that I think to myself, as I have been doing increasingly of late, that I am becoming such a goddamn nominalist that I am bound to make someone sick, one of these days). For it is specifically “brunch” with its modern trappings that I disdain; I am all for putting off breakfasting (or for that matter, rising) until midday, I love a good portmanteau, and I appreciate the convivial atmosphere; gathering, bright-or bleary-eyed, tails bushy or between one’s legs, to face the dawning, mocking, day in fine company. What I loathe is putting all these things together only to be met by some abominably restricted menu that forces me to eat honeydew and refuses me spaghetti. I may prefer a light breakfast as far as proper breakfasting goes, but where breaking the fast is concerned, I am happy as a clam to take lunch, even dinner, or hell, clams, for the purpose. Indeed, I’d rather lunch for breakfast than brunch, any day.

I could perhaps trace this dislike of brunch back to my adolescent years of principled/practical miserliness, an outright antagonism toward restaurants, and the veganism that reduced every brunch menu to plain toast or fried potatoes. I certainly shut myself out at an early age from the social pleasures of brunch that many folks have by now had many years to fashion into an emotional investment in brunch as a ritual; so, sour grapes? Maybe. I recall as a child going to a hotel brunch with my father, brother, and grandmother and being astonished to enter this enchanted, improbable realm where one was permitted to have, in abundance, waffles covered in syrupy strawberries, chocolate, and whipped cream without having to consume even a single vegetable by way of gaining entry, but I don’t think that I ever had the presence of mind to catalogue that as a first experience of “brunch,” as opposed to “buffet” and those excesses it inevitably encourages.

I am not saying “Do not invite me to brunch,” but if you would do me the kindness of suggesting a late breakfast or early lunch in its stead, I promise to do my best to suppress whatever frown or disapproving curl of the lip is awakened by the brunch menu that likely ends up greeting us, and content myself with my Bloody Caesar and soft-boiled egg, if only they will be so obliging.

(I may also try to smuggle in a grapefruit. Would that weird you out?)

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The Measure of My Powers.

~

standing as i am on the precipice of unemployment, i’ve been making a point to take advantage of my flagging solvency while it lasts (and of course accelerating it in the process*), which has meant buying funny-tasting wine from private importers, eating ribs for breakfast, going to fancy cocktail and charcuterie joints, and flying to Europe on short notice (more on this last, later).

the other night i went to Bar Chef in Toronto, which was pretty bananas – when i first arrived, i found myself assailed by what appeared to be the heavy scent of incense, which struck me as ill-considered for a place that prides itself on well-crafted and complex cocktails. and for my first drink, i had a really hard time sorting out its particular aroma from those already in the air, which made things pretty confusing because it was already a confusing and intentionally provocative cocktail: the “Symphony no. 5,” which consisted of gin, vanilla cognac, dill bitters, and rosemary syrup with a green chartreuse rinse and aerosolized orange blossom spritz. i can’t imagine that the bartenders there are insensitive to how strongly this suggests cacophony as opposed to symphony; in fact i only ordered it in one of those “I am calling your bluff” moments (like that time at a pub in Ottawa when i ordered a curried lamb & mushroom w/ old cheddar and sour cream wrap, that i must say fully justified my skepticism), but it turned out to be a pretty alright little drink. i eventually surmised that it wasn’t actually incense, but the residual effects of some of the more extended procedural “molecular” (barf) drinks they make, such as the Vanilla Hickory Smoked Manhattan (pictured, sort of, above), which involves much smoke and fury – a big chunk of elaborately bespoke ice, whisky and bitters, in a glass nestled into a bed of smouldering hickory embers, served in a domed display case. so it stands to reason that with so many aromatics flying around, the air is bound to get a little heavy, but you’ve already got the heat of a million candles, you may as well properly ventilate the place, right?

the following evening i went to Black Hoof, which i had been meaning to check out for some time. we had the terrine plate, horse tartare, bone marrow, carnitas tacos, and a fennel + blood orange salad. everything was good. the tartare was excellent, and totally invigorated my only very recently realized love for the raw art. overall, i would say we were satisfied, if not impressed.

taken together, Black Hoof and Bar Chef highlight some of the inadequacies and inaccuracies of “satisfaction” for describing my experience. satisfaction is a funny word. while i thoroughly enjoyed both, and had no complaints, what was probably most salient about the experience was how it reminded me that i need to spend more time doing this shit myself. experimenting with cocktails. eating raw meat. going big. there wasn’t the dull and sort of embarrassing feeling of “this is good, but nothing i can’t do at home,” that one sometimes has at fancy establishments, but it did serve to remind me of what i am (potentially) capable of, of my own powers; in short, it was inspiring without being impressive, if that makes any sense.

it got me excited to go home and get down to business: mess around with some grapefruit rinds, roast some bones, rustle up a Brita to see if i can’t start making me some harder ice (so it melts more slowly), maybe put Hickory Sticks in something, perfect my pepper bitters. and it also reminded me that for all the pleasures of being cooked for and waited upon, the thrills of doing shit oneself lend a savour to one’s affairs, to say nothing of not having to fret over the cost of wine in a restaurant. i mean, it’s not like i’d forgotten, it just revived the desire, perhaps.

which is to say that, all in all, it felt like a challenge. a challenge for which i am hella game.

now seeking seconds, sous, co-conspirators. knife skills an asset, bad ideas a must.

 

 

* stated thus, i suppose it is less like standing on a precipice than a graduated decline that terminates in a sheer drop onto some pointy rocks. i can see them below, not too far in the distance, but what can i do? young bones groan.

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Poverties of Spirit, or, “They’re Not Poor, They Just Don’t Have Any Money.”

a big thanks to all the all the Invisible folks, nic, chloe, and kelvin; joey and emily for reading; and everyone who showed up for the TO Food & Trembling launch this weekend, and likewise to CanZine and the Broken Pencil peoples for having me as part of their Radical Reading Series. the former went awesomely, the latter pretty well, although suffering somewhat from the consequences of the previous night’s awesomeness.*

during the question period at CanZine i was asked about my disinclination to identify as a ‘foodie’ (that i touch upon here, but get into in a little more detail in the book itself), to which i gave a garbled but passable response about the rarefaction** of something so basic and central as food into a precious lifestyle category; my failure to participate in the book, blog (besides writing one, i mean), and television culture that i would argue makes up a big part of the modern foodie identity; and the annoyingness of the word itself. some hours and beers later it dawned on me that a much more pointed reply sat very close at hand, and i regret that i did not seize on it at the time:

food-wise, CanZine was boothed by the Toronto Underground Market; there was a Beau’s stand, some southeast asian street food, a chocolatier, and this bbq place, the name of which i fail to recall.  which is fine, because i don’t want it to appear as if i have a gripe with them in particular. from them i got what was effectively a little brisket sandwich, that was advertised as a “pulled beef po’ boy,” and it is precisely this sort of thing that i find obnoxious about foodie culture, the sort of acceleration of meaningless food faddishness.

i am not naive enough to blame this sort of thing entirely on “foodies,” these sorts of trends, in cooking, serving, marketing, have been a part of food culture(s) for ages, but this is very much an example of the present moment, and they are difficult to disentangle (one can make the parallel argument that it is just this kind of quibbling i am about to engage in that makes me a foodie, and in my defence all i can say is that i do not claim not to be a foodie, i merely am not interested in identifying as such, and i think self-identification is relevant here).

my problem is this: why is this a po’ boy? what makes this a po’ boy, as opposed to any other kind of sandwich? now it is difficult to get into this without opening up the whole can of worms of the question of authenticity, which especially where regional food is concerned is an irresolvable quagmire, that i happen to think should remain that way (who needs to clean up or sort out a swamp? swamps are thriving idiosyncratic ecosystems that are better explored than organized). what makes a po’ boy? seafood or no seafood? gravy? assorted meat ends, whatever happens to be at hand? the unique combination of crustiness and airiness of French bread baked in balmy, bawdy New Orleans?*** does it simply have to be from Louisiana? how much agency are we willing to grant the sandwich itself, as it moves northward and westward, popping up in different permutations on menus so removed from its ancestral home?

what is the difference that makes a difference, so to speak? how different from what origin or what collection of qualities must a sandwich before it ceases to qualify as a po’ boy?

rather than implicitly or explicitly evoking the “authentic po’ boy,” however, i think we can come at this another way. namely, what makes this sandwich a po’ boy? there seems to be nothing, really. mini bun, slaw, biscuit, pickle, pulled beef? is it only a po’ boy because the slider is played out? i really cannot discern any clear grounds for the identification, which seems to leave only an attempt to exploit the current modishness of the po’ boy, and this is annoying to me on two levels – 1) it strips the po’ boy of its context, its history, its specificity (specificities?), however fraught and varied that may be, and reduces it to a sort of empty signifier. one might ask “well, what has really been done to the po’ boy as a dish? does this make any difference to the po’ boys served across the south?” no. not really. but what it does is effectively say “what is special about the po’ boy? nothing! who cares!” and 2) it does a disservice to the sandwich actually on offer. why does this perfectly charming little brisket sandwich (and it was indeed a decent sandwich) need to be thusly (mis)represented? further, i think it is unfortunate that they felt compelled to ‘pull’ their brisket, seemingly because Pulled Pork Is The New Chipotle, when probably the most attractive feature of good brisket is its willingness to come apart in one’s mouth, to begin as an identifiable piece of meat that so readily cedes its integrity and gives way to a fatty, melty compromise, which transformation is lost when you get it pre-deconstituted.

so one is left asking why, why? and is met with either the mute senselessness of a world without order (postmodernism wins! i never thought i’d be so dismayed!) or the cynical retort that this is what sells, and that strikes me as dismal.

but then, is the argument i’m making all that different from the tiresome cynical naïf of a gourmande who demands authenticity in each of his/her exotic culinary encounters? i like to think so, but am willing to be called on it, if someone’s willing to put in the time.

which i happen to know you are not.

* ie: at 4am drinking Kronenberg Blanc (which tastes like peaches and is weird) out of a bottle you have accidentally broken the neck off of by trying to open it on a parking meter, then warming up a slice of pizza of indeterminate age on someone’s space heater. i woke up at noon to my friend ed playing, rather appropriately, “Still Crazy After All These Years” on an old electric organ.

** being unsure that “rarefy” was really the word i wanted to use here, i looked it up and apparently it technically refers to the process of making a gas less dense, which itself derives from the original meaning of “rare” which has to do with the constituent particles of a substance being few and far between, hence we have “rare” as the opposite of “dense,” but can see where the meaning of not often found comes from. the question, then, is whether either this meaning, or that of “pure or refined” really apply to what i’m talking about, with regards to foodie culture – on the one hand, yes, there is a certain elitism to it, but on the other we witness a great proliferation of …. stuff. the cultural substance of foodieism becomes cluttered and dense with discourses, products, publications, etc. but then most specializations, rare in their own way, tend to involve this sort of proliferation of microrelevancies. hm.

*** this, as it happens, is my favourite of the arguments i’ve heard thus far for the singularity of the New Orleans po’ boy – that the baking styles of the French, adapted for use in the swampy subtropical climate of Louisiana produce a baguette of incomparable crispness of crust with lightness of interior. arguably as specious as any other claim to the authentic po’ boy, this at least has the attraction of accounting for local specificity in a believable-sounding way, by installing a sort of barometric terroir.

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rant, Uncategorized

Actions Louder Than Groans.

thinking of late about Thanksgiving, and my misgivings therewith, i was reminded that i had been doing some similar thinking just last year around this time. which is to say that i was having misgivings – if not the same ones, as it turns out. so i think i’ll get right into it, starting with the following, which has been lurking around mostly written yet wholly unposted for nigh on a year:

 

Part One: “Some Get the Gravy, Some Get the Gristle..”
(12.10.10)

i’ll refrain, however, from getting into Thanksgiving by way of a historical, “post”-colonial analysis, because i have no doubt that it can be and has been better said, by better than i.

on a more personal note, i don’t know if i even like Thanksgiving anymore. which is strange because i’ve spent most of my years in Montréal endeavouring to recuperate the holiday back into a meaningful relationship with my and my friends’ lives. you know how it goes: “we, who are isolated by necessity, circumstance, or design from our families, and already skeptical of the traditional trappings of this particular tradition, still have an interest in forging new (or at least modified) traditions, returning to the ‘spirit’ of the holiday (which is the feast day, which is a celebration of each other, and of the food that sustains us), and of course taking advantage of having the day off work, and so shall assemble anew and cram our gullets in the exultant harmony of excess to each, and each to their excesses. raise your glass!

which is all well and good to the extent that it is successful. however, this Thanksgiving, over the course of two dinners (one vegan, one beturkeyed) in two very different contexts (one friends, one family, admitting the slipperiness of those categories), i found that, strangely, the food became for me an impediment to the very connections that i had so flattered myself as to declare formed the basis of my interest in the holiday – those being my connections to a) other people, and b) the world.

b) the world, is a rather simple affair. to the extent that Thanksgiving has to do with marking the change of season, this remains a conceit for the average city-dweller. of course options exist to eat seasonally (and locally), but it is the momentary bounty in the face of coming months of scarcity that gives significance to the harvest, not merely the prevalence of decorative gourds (whose affective worth, however, i am not questioning). it is difficult to argue that the veneer of seasonalism does more than give us an extra excuse to eat pumpkin pie, at slightly reduced cost to ourselves. more to the point, the act of ritual gorging associated with Thanksgiving is as much a celebration of our heavily-mediated freedom from the constraints of the seasonal as it is any gesture of deep appreciation for the food before us. it is in many ways (easily taken as) an act of defiance of the world, rather than one which affirms our being not only in but of it.

similarly, where Spending Time With Those One Cares About is concerned, any sort of meaningful engagement on either an emotional or intellectual level with those Cared-About Ones tends to be eclipsed by the necessities of frantic food preparation, consumption, and recuperation. it often crosses my mind at a packed dinner table how strange it is that people are often so busy eating (usually after a considerable wait) that little time is taken either to savour the meal at any leisure, or savour the company of those around them. i am not, to make things clear, opposed to enjoying food in silence; i think there are a plethora of ways of enjoying a meal in company. but i do tend to be of the opinion that a festive dinner is at its best when the food and drink enliven and inspire, rather than stultify and consume, allowing space enough for diners to slip easily in between conversation and absorption in things gustatory. it is an idealistic scene, i know, but i’m sure i’ve tasted it, and lamentably too rarely of late. the situation is only exacerbated by everyone eating themselves into an uncomfortable stupor, too surfeited to muster anything more than pained sympathy for the others who share their lot.

it is a dismal scene from which to limp home or flop defeated into bed, uncomfortably full and yet curiously empty.

 

*  *  *

so that was that, roughly. i will grant that on the whole, Autumn of last year was not my best of seasons, emotionally, but it does raise a suspicion that has been creeping up on me all the more of late, which is the uncomfortable possibility that i may no longer be a glutton.

 

(well, we’ll see.)

 

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Forced, False, Fraught*

well, that was certainly a New Years Eve of a Nuit Blanche, if ever so ignominious a comparison could be made. given our failure to plan any specific activities/itinerary, it may be tempting to charge us with responsibility for the night being (oblique pun intended) a total washout, but given that my stated standards leaving the house this evening were “go to the old port and see some touristy shit,” and, “eat a sausage,” and that so meagre demands were not met, despite the substantial historical and experiential weight that suggested that if nothing else, those were the precisely, perhaps the only, desires that one might reasonably expect to satisfy on a typical Nuit Blanche, i feel perfectly at ease placing the blame, nay, plopping the blame, squarely in the lap of the city of Montréal.

mind you, and this may not be immediately clear, i say the city of Montréal, and not the City of Montréal, because i mean to implicate not solely the Powers That Be, but The People themselves, for so tamely settling into mediocrity.

perhaps i need to take a step back. the germs, or at least the catalysts, of this discontent, lie in part in my arrival in the Old Port around 2:30am only to find the area cloaked in shadows, fast in the grip of Wrapping Things Up At A Respectable Hour. no sausage cookouts, no ice-rave, no mysterious orb (well, there was a mysterious orb, but it appeared to be closed). in my mind, this represents a fundamental misconstrual of not only the spirit but the “literal” (ie: figurative) meaning of a nuit blanche (ie: all-nighter). at the time, however, i was in inexplicably high spirits, and decided that if i was already out and about, and the metros were running all night, i may as well grab a bowl of pho in order to end things on a hight note. as it turns out, there is not a goddamn pho restaurant to be found open in Chinatown on goddamn Nuit Blanche, night of all nights. Continue reading

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Joyce vs. Schultz, or, Merry Christmas, Round-Headed Kid.

~

as it turns out, what i have for months assumed to be a rosemary plant growing on my kitchen table, is in fact I Don’t Know, Some Kind of Goddamn Spruce Tree?

what is exciting to me about this realization is that is has involved the discovery of a heretofore unrealized aspect of human existence, that being an experience of embarrassment that is negated by the extent of its own stupidity. how about that, eh?

i’m not even joking, as far as i can tell.

because i’ve even eaten it, before. had it in my head that it was rosemary, probably tossed it into all sorts of things that Rosemary Would Probably Go Good In, although not all that often, for every time i did so it was accompanied by a mild self-admonishment for not taking better advantage of this seemingly ready supply of fresh rosemary at my disposal. but i never noticed, somehow.

until today (why now? who knows?). and there i was, all ready to be pretty seriously mortified at this nigh-unbelievable gaff (me, a Food Person, no less), and then what should swoop in but this further realization that i can’t really be embarrassed, because it is just so inexplicable and stupid that in order to effectively accomplish embarrassment i’d have to be of a certain level of intelligence that actually precludes the possibility of making such a mistake. if you are now thinking to yourself that that doesn’t really make any sense, i’ll do you the favour of suggesting that the only way out of such a paradox is the further fragmenting of selfhood into discontinuous shards and facets of experience, an avenue of escape that i am at least on paper fully willing to take advantage of.

the punchline of the whole affair being that roundabout Christmas time, i thought of hanging on it that single ornamental bulb in order to at least symbolically acknowledge the holiday and my desire to enjoy it in some meaningful and sincere way. the joke, genius in the current light, if you think of it, is on me.

way to go, homunculus.

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Don’t Take Your Sword To The Table? or, Peace-Binding For the Big Feast.

~

for the politics and politesse of dietary constraints and the guest/host relationship, “debate” is probably too strong a word, but it is certainly a fraught issue on both sides of which i have found myself at different times in my life. i have spoken to many people – lapsed, lapsing, and prolapsed vegans and vegetarians – who have explained that they did not want to find themselves in a situation, for the sake of their host, where they could not eat what was put in front of them. this is laudable, as a matter of courtesy, but also as a recognition of the essential role of food as a social coherent,* the importance, for many people, and for whole societies, of being able to provide for the nourishment, and share in that nourishment, of another. breaking bread, and all that.

it is not, however, a one-way street. the egalitarianism implied by sharing food – the recognition that fundamentally, we are all united by our mortality, our need to pause, to rest, to eat – suggests a willingness to meet one’s guest halfway, as it were. food is the bridge, and it is upon that bridge that we meet, held aloft however precariously over the chasm of difference. Continue reading

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