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SMALL SECRETS x BAR BARBARA

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A heads-up to all you frozen, misfortuned Montreal-dwellers that tomorrow evening I’m co-hosting an event for Restaurant Day (which is apparently a thing) where, instead of bothering much at all with the food aspect of things, we’re just going to pour a bunch of cool wines we like. In other words, we are opening a one-night-only quasi-legal (read: not legal) popup wine bar. We’ll have a small selection of natural, biodynamic, and otherwise interesting wines. Sourced from the SAQ and private importation and priced just above cost, in the interests of relative accessibility and the hopes of piquing curiosities or even, I dare say, inciting passions by exposing folks to some wines they might not otherwise encounter in the daily run of things. Expect a casual, convivial atmosphere, good jams, lots of Jura, occasional outbursts of wine prattle.

when: 6pm-1am
where: 33 ave Shamrock (note: this is an apt, so wear presentable socks)
facebook.

Do stop by for a drink or seven. There will be light snacks afoot.

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To Your (Spiritual) Health.

Admittedly I would drink this wine for my health. It tastes like fruit.

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If any of you are regular readers of The Guardian (I am not), or spend a much reading about the politics of clinical trials (which I do), you have probably heard of Ben Goldacre. He writes well, has a quick wit, and while I find the rhetoric of his crusade against “bad science” sort of frustrating and tiresome, I can’t help feeling a sense of kinship with someone I see as a fellow complicator. He at times can come across as a typically smug scientific triumphalist, but he is nevertheless no stranger to the complexities of evidence-production. He is also a driving force behind the AllTrials Campaign, which has been advocating – with surprising success – for a research culture/infrastructure that would ensure that all clinical trials (studies on drugs, devices, other medical treatments) centrally register and fully report their methods and results, something which does not yet exist in any meaningful way, and is undeniably essential for medical-scientific research to become more transparent and accountable (In a nutshell, the prevailing tendency, when you are conducting multi-million-dollar clinical trial with hundreds or thousands of participants and you don’t get the results you were hoping for, is to mine the  data for something usable and change the stated objectives of the trial accordingly, or, more commonly, to just not publish and never talk about it again. Although the evidence is mixed as to whether this is especially common for industry-sponsored studies, there is no question that pharmaceutical companies have a lot riding on the results of the studies on their own products that they conduct or pay for).

Anyway, he comes to mind because it is apparently “a new year” and so chatter about resolutions and getting healthy and the care of the self and all that has now risen to a fever pitch. As someone who has perpetually (perhaps cyclically?) miserable health and for whom nothing in particular in the way of diet or exercise or homeopathic hoozlewazzle has ever made any difference, and who has by profession become rather intimate with the maelstrom of contingencies, fine-tunings, and epistemically rationalized fudgings that undergird the production of scientific knowledge, I find the cycle of everything-bad-is-good-for-you / everything-good-is-bad-for-you that often provides the fodder for such resolutions pretty obnoxious. In respect to this, it was nice to stumble across this article of Goldacre’s from around Christmastime a few years back wherein he takes lightly to task the kind of research (and subsequent marketing) that supposes to justify such things as chocolate and red wine consumption:

Moderate red wine drinkers, we are specifically informed, come out better on all kinds of health measures, and nobody wants to ruin Christmas by mentioning confounding variables again (like how moderate red wine drinkers hang out at home with their friends eating salad and talking about their posh jobs and stable social support). A fairytale science story must be simple, reductionist, and mechanistic. Red wine is good for you because it contains lifegiving molecules, like antioxidants. And nobody wants to spoil Christmas—for the whole family—by mentioning that the antioxidants story is one of the great unspoken non-starters of 20th century medical research. . . . Only a malevolent Scrooge-like figure, mumbling over his glass of tap water in the corner, would dare to point out that if you are going to pore over a biochemistry textbook, and pick pathways out at random, then you can prove anything you like.
. . .
And that’s when you might start to think, well now, perhaps people who eat fresh fruit and vegetables are, just like the people who drink red wine in decorous moderation, living healthily in all kinds of ways. Much like the people who buy vitamin pills. Lusty walks around country mansions. Cycling to work. That kind of thing.

The piece is flippant and short on actual citations, but it is meant to be – most anyone who has a subscription to the BMJ can probably search out what they need – and it is a well-needed intervention, as much so in 2015 as it was in 2007 (One needs only look to this Christmas headline from L’Express: “Le vin rouge prévient du vieillissement, c’est scientifiquement prouvé,” which cites a recent paper in Nature that turns out to have nothing specifically to do with red wine, or even with human beings). While Goldacre’s piece is more about marketing and bad science journalism (or science-indifferent health journalism), by ending on an implied note of ‘Just drink it, goddammit’, it also hints at something that I find all the more noxious about the whole phenomenon.

That is, the normalization of a moral economy wherein such things as chocolate and wine need to be justified by their ostensible health benefits – guilty pleasures redeemed, while the structure of spiritual blackmail remains perfectly intact. It is an economy wherein our health and the maintaining thereof take on a personal moral valence – the individual sits at the centre of a constellation of ‘lifestyle choices’ and the story of their good works are believed to be writ on and in the body, like a modern day collapse of the portrait of Dorian Gray. If you will pardon my hyperbole, at its worst this facilitates the blaming of the disease-ridden poor for not exercising and eating too many Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers; at its less extreme it still constitutes the selling of our pleasures back to us as (health) virtues. That is a calculation I don’t much care for. If you are going to drink and gourmandize and gorge at least do so because it is the stuff of life, not because it is supposed to hold out the promise – not even the promise! only a probabilistic, anonymous, statistical implication – of some extension of your otherwise miserable existence. Or, if you are going to lard yourself and your drinking in quasi-medical justifications, at least have the good aesthetic sense to go grander; do so on the basis of old-wives’ tales, epigrams from doomed novelists, the doctrine of signatures or just to keep your damn skeleton in.

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Two Trick Pony.

IMG_20141218_010604

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Not food-related, but just FYI, my friend Simon and I have a cover story in the new issue of Harper’s. It’s a short piece about OxyContin, regulatory gamesmanship, and the FDA, with just the tiniest bit of background on the tangled co-emergence of chronic pain as a major clinical object and the marketing of opioid painkillers. I was really angling for a less sensational tag line, but you can’t win ’em all. Available for subscribers now, I think it’ll hit the shelves early in the new year. I’d like to claim this was what I was working on the past few months, while -not- updating the blog, but in actuality I have been drinking wine and watching Futurama. 

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A Motherfucking Triumph of Goddamn Simplicity.

Radish biscuit, radish butter, radishes. Repeat.

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There is something about radishes. Radishes and butter are such an indisputable French classic that it should seem tiresome and doltishly obvious to draw attention to them, yet whenever I come across an entry for radishes and butter in a cookbook, I am not annoyed by the laziness and pretence of the author claiming that this somehow constitutes a “recipe”. Rather, I take it more as a gesture – a reminder, to the reader, in case he or she has forgotten; and a gesture of appreciation, the devotion of the space on a page to something so simple, yet so unstoppable.

Vin Papillon has been doing this radish biscuit with radish-green butter and radishes this season, and it is nuts. I am not embarrassed to say that I am impressed. Radish butter. Duh.

 

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Who Lives?

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

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Embarrassing as it is to acknowledge, this “Death to Negronis” piece reads exactly as if I had written it, right down to the author wrapping up his tirade against lazy, pretentious historicizing with a slyly bet-hedging ‘This is Stupid, But Drink it Because it’s Good, or Drink Something Else, Literally Anything Else, Also Shut Up.’

It does little to allay the ever-present temptation to let this blog just slide entirely into the mire, because seriously, do we really need one more food blog, one more jackass delving into the historical and technical minutiae of food and food culture? It is not a rhetorical question; the answer is No.

And yet I persist. And I still love the Negroni. And odds are, unless the angel of history all of a sudden begins to beat back the winds that pile wreckage upon wreckage at his feet, in the ongoing single catastrophe that is human civilization, I will probably talk about the Negroni again; I make no guarantee that you won’t be subjected to my enthusiasm at finding a perfect half-measure amaro substitution for the Campari, or just the gin that makes the difference.

Because, in the immortal words of Buzz Gunderson, you’ve gotta do something.

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An Historical Aside on Amphorae.

Whitewashed ribbed amphorae for oil or wine, almost the size of those dug up in the palace of Minos, stood by many a doorway. Once more I wondered how these immense vessels were made. They are obviously too big for any potter smaller than a titan with arms two yards long. As usual, theories abound. Some say a man gets inside the incipient jar like a robber in the Arabian Nights, and builds up the expanding and tapering walls as they rotate on a great wheel; some, that the halves are constructed separately and then put together; others that they are cast in huge moulds; yet others assert that they are built up from a rope of clay that is paid out in an expanding and then a contracting coil until the final circle of the rim is complete; which is made to account for the ribs and the fluting that gird them from top to bottom. I had heard, all over Greece, that they came from Coroni in the Messenian peninsula, only the other side of the gulf. It was strange that, even here, there should be such a conflict of solutions. There were only four men in the little group I asked among the beached fishing boats. If there had been more, no doubt the total of solutions would have risen accordingly.

I have been to Coroni since, and I now own one of those stupendous vessels. ‘We build them bit by bit, from the bottom,’ the potter said, ‘just as a swallow builds its nest.’

– Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani (1958)

Inexplicably, I have not yet written on Patrick Leigh Fermor, despite the fact that there has for the past year inevitably been to be found on my bedside table some or other book of his, perhaps picked up only sporadically, but read in bursts of avid pleasure. There has been a fair amount of buzz about Fermor lately (perhaps more in the British than the North American lit press) because the final instalment of his technically still-unfinished trilogy documenting his trek by foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul/Constantinople in 1933-1934 was just posthumously released. Consequently there is no shortage of profiles that do greater justice to the details of this life than I ever would. You should read them. Better still, you should read -him-.

I am not typically a fan of travel literature, nor of memoir, but like Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, Waugh’s When the Going Was Goodand parts of Greene’s Ways of Escape (and much of MFK Fisher, come to think of it, and to think of someone who is not a dead white British man), Fermor’s work captures something special. The first two books of his trilogy, A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water are tremendously engaging. His writing is dizzyingly prolix, but usually in the best and dare I say shit-eatingest sense of the word (and in the best sense of the term “shit-eating,” for that matter). Purple but without pretence. Almost too much, or perhaps just too much enough. It may depend on one’s taste. But there is a vital quality to all of Fermor’s prose, it animates his material in an irresistible fashion – I am inclined to say that it speaks to one’s blood, if one remembers that blood flows equally to the brain as to the heart and the stomach.

The quote above only hints at this quality, but it caught my eye since I’d been thinking about kvevri (hence amphora, although kvevri are cooler because they bury them in the goddamn ground) recently. But just wait until I track down that passage about getting wasted in Schwabing, you’ll be in for a treat.

 

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