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Fine-Tuning the Contours of Realness.

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the ‘Abyss of BBQ’, which is something that I have never properly explained, but has for some time been rattling around my skull shaping experiences, proliferating references, refers to the tendency (that was up until recently in North America an inevitability) of more exploratory and unconventional potato chip flavours to end up just tasting like some variation of BBQ (‘Black Hole of BBQ’ might be a more fitting analogy, but I am erring on the side of poetic resonance here). or, at best / worst / most, like some BBQ-borderline-All-Dressed. which I suppose, given that All-Dressed by definition contains BBQ, would just be “Half-Dressed”. like a deep v-neck and tights, I suppose, were I to suggest a fashion equivalent.

travelling outside of North America, however, exposes one not only to a plethora of new chip flavours, but also a very different set of culinary reference points around which the standard canon of flavours constellate. the most jarring of which, particularly where is concerned the thinking of this Abyss of BBQ is the fact that BBQ is -not- a tried and true point of reference for potato chip flavour profile design (or consumer familiarity) the other side of the Atlantic. which is a reminder of how distinctly (North) American is “BBQ” as such; both the chips and the culinary technique / culture to which they so tenuously and non-specifically refer. arguably, “BBQ” flavour in North America points to nothing, it points to no specific meat, it points to no specific sauce, thus belying the considerable diversity which of course exists in American BBQ (to say nothing of commercially available BBQ sauces, that represent a simulacric register unto themselves); it points only to the BBQ chip itself, or the idea thereof, such that any chip flavour that invokes a particular BBQ’d food item, such as ribs or, say, baby back ribs (the imaginative capacity of chip flavour scientist-administrators for what can be BBQ’d is strikingly lean, it seems) is inevitably understood as a variation on the pre-existing ur flavour of non-specific ‘BBQ’. which of course is not even itself a single flavour, because pretty much every BBQ chip one eats falls somewhere or other along the spectrum of sweetness v. smokiness anyway (and further usually just taste like Mrs. Dash with more or less smoked paprika involved).

which is why it is extra-specially conceptually interesting to encounter “BBQ” chips in European countries (such as England, which I consistently forget is in Europe at all), because one can’t help but wonder whether their reference point is in fact the American BBQ chip or some notion of “American BBQ” as a culinary entity – put another way, is the (ie, any given) European BBQ flavoured chip a barbecued meat flavoured chip, or a a BBQ chip flavoured chip? it us not always clear. in the case (at hand), of the British version of “Smoky BBQ” Kettle Chips, one gets the sense that there is a “real thing” that the Kettle UK creative team is attempting to approximate, but it is almost as if they assumed that the American BBQ chip was itself an approximation of some truly existing object called “BBQ” and they in turn were trying to get closer to that Real. in effect, it tastes like a more tasteful, carefully refined version of BBQ. but what does that mean? WTF, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? it’s just less gross, less vulgar than the typical BBQ chip? it tastes more like more real things (like, plants and shit) went into making this thing that is supposed to taste like… what? a condiment? a process? fat and fire and the contraction of time into the relaxation of flesh?

 

my friend James tells me that even the appearance of the BBQ chip in the UK is an indication of the extent to which the usual British resistance to American cultural influence is being dissolved by the recent trend in burger and BBQ joints popping up around London (see also: how the British are now big into building ridiculous towering eyesores, and the proliferation of beers that don’t taste like room-temperature dishwater, which i also will be getting on about soon, believe you me), although I am inclined to speculate that the American BBQ boom is more the consequence of forward-thinking entrepreneurs realizing what an opportunity had been presented by all these Britishers eating BBQ chips and being like “Wait, barbecued –what-?”

 

also, these chips are huge. can you see how big is this chip? that chip was huge.

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of a literary bent

Next Things.

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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.”

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product review

Fragments of A Tour Journal. (day 24)

i should have been tipped off by them not being "Jambon Barbecue"

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i was looking rather forward to the bag of Lay’s Barbecue Ham chips that i picked up at a night market in Liège a few weeks back. so much so that i carted them across four countries, squirreled away in the recess under the van’s passenger seat, that they might be safe from being fallen upon by any of my bandmates in a fit of drunken chip-lust (or for that matter, loss of balance). i had vaguely entertained the notion of carrying them all the way back to Canada with me, but if i am to be honest with myself, i must admit that it was to simple lack of desire that they owed their continued existence, born of an already carbohydrate-heavy diet of road food that left me all too dense and gummy to subject them to any nobler fate than being eaten out of sheer boredom.

and they deserved better than that, i thought.

 

that i decided to finally crack into them in the passport-control waiting area of the Milano-Linate airport was due less to gastronomical curiosity than my unwillingness to continue goddamn worrying about such an unwieldy and immanently crushable addition to my carry-on luggage. as it turns out, it is for the best that i decided to do so in such inauspicious conditions. because they’re not very good. there is a discernible hammishness to them, but it lacks all the potency that earned Barcelona’s Jamón Ruffles* and the Jambon Fumée Lay’s of Marseille so dear a place in my heart. i had hoped that Belgium’s cultural and geographical propinquity to France might assure some similarity, but i see now the family resemblance is faint. it is the curve of the ear, if anything. so far removed one from the other that no scandal could be aroused by what nocturnal fumblings lie buried in their adolescence.

 

too late i recognize the warning signs that had earlier escaped me, writ plain across the face of the bag: the flavour already in English, the unmistakable picnic roast that we are to believe has been BBQ’d, along with the sheer unlikelihood that “BBQ HAM” is something that any Belgian has eaten often enough to confidently and faithfully reproduce using only the 200 variations of MSG and food colouring that comprise the traditional palette of the potato chip flavour scientist. upon investigating the ingredients, i can find no evidence of even a synthetic ‘condiment’ – they read: potatoes, sunflower oil, “barbecue ham flavour”.  this latter consisting of “sugar, flavour enhancers (MSG, DSG, disodium inosiate), flavouring (contains milk ingredients), salt.” not that i don’t trust flavour enhancers (i don’t, actually. WHY WOULD I?), but i would wager that there being “flavour enhancers” in greater quantity than “flavourings” probably goes a long way to explaining the banality of these chips.

and yet here i sit, in the Milano airport, grossly and mechanically covering myself in chip crumbs, growing steadily denser while feebly trying to wish away my steadily depreciating contraband. contemplating the shapeless abyss of BBQ. waiting for the one that will take me home.

 

 

* although at the time (2008) i was still too timorously post-vegan to try the famed jamón ibérico that was ubiquitous in the local bars, i did fall dizzily in love with Ruffles’ homage to it. so much so that on my last, nightmarish, morning as i vomited my way through the Barcelona underground, i paused for a moment in front of a vending machine, just long enough to contemplate the feasibility of fitting four bags of the chips into my stowed luggage. i didn’t come away with any in the end, but did find a carefully folded empty bag in the breast pocket of my leather jacket, that i used to open up and smell sometimes. you know, like a maniac.

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