Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I’ve just been to a traditional Chinese wedding feast for my friends Marc Gerald and Christina Fang, at the Ocean Star restaurant in Monterey Park. The restaurant specializes in dim sum, and receives some fairly mixed reviews from online foodie bulletin boards, but we had a great time.

A traditional Chinese wedding feast is a ritualized and symbolic affair, I understand. Suckling pig is served to symbolize virginity. Shark fin soup to symbolize wealth. 7 Up is also served because the Chinese word for happiness sounds like the English word “up” and so the drink is a stand in for “Seven Happiness.”

We certainly ate some pork dishes, and some soup, though I can’t guarantee that suckling or shark was involved. You see we were served a multi-course set meal and it didn’t come with a menu so we struggled at times to know what we were eating, which led to much discussion and attempts at identification. This is in fact a really great way of bringing people together and giving them something to talk about.

Still, I think we can safely say we had jellyfish, abalone, pigeon, lobster, sea cucumbers among many, many other things. This was all grand.

It was the desserts that completely defeated everybody when it came to identification. They looked like this:

The one on the left tasted like a sweetened bean soup and it appeared to have a lychee floating in it, but it wasn’t a lychee. When you bit into it you discovered it was a kind of dumpling filled with a chocolaty seedy filling. This was pretty good.

The other was just plain absolutely baffling. It seemed to be, possibly was, tapioca in aspic. A first for me, and apparently for many others.

Incidentally I think the Ocean Star is the biggest restaurant I’ve ever been in. The place seats 800 people. Somebody suggested this might make it the world’s largest restaurant. But no way.

According to the Guinness peopl the world’s biggest restaurant is the Bawabet Dimashq (or Damascus Gate) in Syria. It claims to seat 6,014,and a small part of it looks like this:

But it’s an outdoor restaurant, which actually strikes me as a bit of a cheat. Anybody can have a massive restaurant if they don’t have to put a roof on. Any frankly once a restaurant gets to that size a number like 6,014 is surely pretty arbitrary. Isn’t there always room for one more? It’d be just terrible to arrive there as part of a party of 6,015 and be told one of you had to go away.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Psycho- Gourmet has won an award (sort of). A blog called bookofjoe has given this blog an award for "best name."

It's not quite the same as a Pulitzer, but since I don't know Joe and since he doesn't know me at least the award has a kind of independence and purity that a lot of awards lack. Thanks bookofjoe.

You can read him/it at:

Joe seems a good egg, who calls himself the "World's most popular blogging anesthesiologist.'" There's no arguing with that. And thanks to his blog I've found this wonderful device: the condiment gun.

Sounds like the very thing every psychogourmet needs, but I assumed it didn't really exist, that it was just one of those ironic design projects. I was wrong. It's there on Amazon, with this amazing product description: "Condiment gun triggers delicious fun when dressing burgers, fries and hot dogs. Kids and adults alike can hit the target every time when squeezing ketchup, mustard or other tasty spreads on any food that calls for a shot of flavor."

You couldn't make this stuff up. Fortunately you don't have to.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Last weekend I went along to Charles Phoenix’s Retro Holiday Slide Show at the Egyptian Theater. It’s good stuff.

Phoenix is the presenter of ironic and hilarious slide shows. He combs thrift shops and swapmeets, hoovering up other people’s discarded Kodachome transparencies mostly from the 1950s and 60s. After what must be a mind-numbing weeding out process, he then displays the best of them while delivering a campy and essentially benign commentary that nevertheless makes fun of the people in the slides; their clothes and hairdos and ugly furnishing.

Inevitably a lot of the pictures are taken at parties and holidays, inclduing Christmas them. And where there’s a party there’s going to be food and drink. Of course few things are campier than more mockable than food from the past and Phoenix doesn’t hold back.

I find this as hilarious as the next person, but I do think there's a lesson here; that those things that look so fashionable to day – the duck confit, the lamb belly, the choclate dessert with bacon, sooner or later are going to look as quaint as stuffed peppers and devilled eggs.

Charles Phoenix is also, if not the inventor, then at least the greatest supporter of something called the astro weenie, inspired by a slide he found of an edible Christmas tree. Basically it involves putting round things on cocktails sticks and arranging them to look vaguely space age.

In general I’m not a great fan of ironic food. Who wants to eat food that’s been laughed at? But I’m obviously in a minority. It seems there’s a whole atsro-weenie subculture, with blogs and websites and whatnot. Here for example is a lady called Susan Lucas and she seems to be getting more joy from her astro-weenie those most of us get from any food in our whole lives.

Only a Scrooge wouldn’t be thrilled by that.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Jason Epstein, the legendary New York publisher and editor of the likes of Nabokov, Mailer, Gore Vidal and Philip Roth has published an intriguing, and pleasingly discreet memoir with the title “Eating” in which he writes about the connections between food and publishing.

At there’s an interview with him by Julia Reed. In it he says,“Most publishing work takes place at lunch; occasionally at dinner; very seldom in the office. That’s where all the negotiation and stuff that you have to do to be a publisher occurs. You come into the office at about ten o’clock in the morning, you look at your mail, you read the Wall Street Journal and the Times and then you make a lunch date. And then you find things to do, or not to do, until 12:30, and off you go; and you come back at 2:30 and it’s time to think about what you’re going to do for the evening. So in that sense, eating and publishing are inseparable.”

Talk to anybody in the book business and they’ll tell you that the golden age ended just before you got there. Like all authors I have the fantasy that my publisher will take me out for a heavy lunch, asks if I have any ideas for a book, and over the third brandy he signs me up then and there with a million dollar advance. I’m sure this must have happened once of twice in history but never to me, nor to anybody I’ve ever met.

So I think Epstein’s being a bit of a tease here, but still, good on him for perpetuating the myths of the old school gentleman publisher and for suggesting that great things may happen over a great lunch.

In the book he records a conversation he had with Patrick O’Connell (above), the chef proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington. Epstein writes, “When I suggested some years ago that cooking for others is a gratuitous act of generosity, he (O’Connell) said no: we feed others so that they won’t eat us.”

I can see a sort of logic in this, that we offer hospitality as a way of deflecting hostility but the idea that chefs live in fear of being cannibalized by their customers is a really very appealing one. It’s nice to know you strike fear in hearts in restaurateurs. I’ve certainly met one or two who deserve to be gutted and deep fried.

Monday, December 7, 2009


December’s issue of Food and Wine contains an article by Alberto Manguel, seen below holding an invisible sandwich. The article is headlined “How You Eat Reveals Who You Are,” to which any sane person might respond “Well DUH!” But let’s assume it was some junior sub who came up with the title.

Manguel writes, “I’ve know great authors whose table manners told me much more about them than even their writing.” The rest of the article suggests he means tastes in food rather than table manners but let’s not get pedantic.

He writes that Italo Calvino ate “eclectically,” that Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told him you should never eat a dish unless you knew its story, that Tennessee Williams thought all food should be an erotic experience.

But far and away the most intriguing fact concerns William Saroyan. Manguel writes “Once, after trying snails in garlic he said that it was a magical experience, like “tasting fairy horse meat.” To which any sane person might response, “Wha?” That's Saroyan below, with small pomegranate:

I admit I’ve never tried horse meat (not for lack of trying) but I’ve eaten a truck load of snails in my life, and I’ll be damned if I thought they tasted either like horses or fairies.

I was a college with a man called Rob Roberts who claimed, amusingly enough and I’m sure he wasn’t the first), that you can tell how people are in bed by the way they are at the table. Those women who spend all night toying with an arugula leaf – forget about it. Those girls who say they’ll just have a starter – avoid like the plague. Men who devour whatever’s put in front of them in sixty seconds flat – not good. But the women who order the tasting menu, who savor ever mouthful and once they’ve started they can go on all night, they’re the ones you really want to eat out with, and stay in with.

And if, a la Spartacus she likes oysters as well as snails, you know you're in for a feast.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Some years back I was a panelist at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. As is the way at these things, a miscellaneous group of us went out for dinner afterwards. I fund myself sharing a cab and then a table with Rick Stein, the culinary sage of Padstow. He runs four fish restaurants there, and is a TV chef with all that that means: books, a cookery school, an online gift shop that sells such wonders as the Rick Stein John Dory Double Oven Gauntlet.

In the course of the evening Rick proved himself to be the nicest man in the world, and this can’t have been easy. Of course people asked him all about food. The restaurant we went to was fairly modest, but even so the chef insisted on giving him a grand tour of the kitchen. The driver of the taxi insisted on giving him a fish recipe, “You’ll never have had anything like it.”

Rick Stein continued to smile and nod and be the nicest man in the world. If was just an act it was an amazingly convincing one.

I was reminded of this because I’ve just been down to the Guadalajara Book Fair as one of a largish group of writers representing Los Angeles.

One of the others was Jonathan Gold, the food critic for the LA Weekly, who’s won a Pulitzer Prize, been profiled in The New Yorker and is generally regarded as a godlike presence in LA foodie circles and beyond.

If anything I imagine he had an even harder time than Rick Stein. All Stein had to do was be charming; nobody asked him to whip up a fish stew on the spot. But since Gold is in the business of dispensing recommendations everyone was constantly asking his advice about where they should go to eat, what they should order and so on.

It struck me as an awesome responsibility and in some ways a thankless task. If people didn’t like his recommendation then he’d look bad; and if they did like it, then they still wouldn’t be impressed because after all he OUGHT to be able to recommend a good restaurant, it’s what he gets paid for. Rather him than me.

However, Mr. Gold was fully up to the task. I’m not inclined to pass on secondhand restaurant recommendations, but suffice to say his advice was very sound. On his advice I found myself eating some pretty good birria and cueritos.

Here’s a plate of pigs’ feet that’s about to be eaten by me and the man himself:

Thursday, November 26, 2009


The Loved One and I have been on a road trip through Arizona and New Mexico, indulging our taste for (among other things) deserts, Americana and road food.

We did our best to avoid eating in chains, heading for the quirky, the eccentric, the soulful; but it was harder than it sounds.

Of course if you’re a restaurant trying to draw the attention of people driving by in cars it pays to have a quirky sign, a quirky building, or maybe just a quirky name.

We were suitably drawn, but once you get inside these places, the food is often quiet ordinary: burgers, patty melts, all day breakfasts. And this being the desert southwest there’s also plenty of Mexican influence: carne asada, tacos, breakfast burritos.

I can’t tell you exactly where these restaurants buy their ingredients, but there wasn’t much that suggested “local sourcing.”

My dream was that we’d be driving along the highway and turn off to discover a perfect
French-Mexican-American bistro/cantina tucked into a mini mall on the outskirts of Los Cruces. But it was not to be.

We did however find a couple of great places in Bisbee, Arizona.

The first (above )was Dot’s Diner attached to the Shady Dell Trailer Park – where the food was as good as the architecture. I liked it so much I bought the mug.

And then there was Jimmy’s Hot Dog Company:

There’s nothing like a stucco hot dog on the roof to draw the eye. We saw it one evening as we drove past, then decided we had to make a detour the next day and go back.

The hot dogs looked very good, but since I have a rule of ordering things I’ve never seen on menus before, I went for something called the Sea Dog. This is a fishy version of a hot dog (so not really a hot dog at all), actually a long thin tube of cod in beer batter served in a bun.

I admit I was a little disappointed later when I looked it up and found that the Sea Dog is a national product made by Icelandic USA Inc, but it was still new to me, and wildly inventive by the standards we’d encountered on the road.

Still, Jimmy’s Hot Dog Company was quirky, fun, different, very friendly, and what road food should be all about. Apparently the place even got a good review from Gourmet magazine.

We also stayed a couple of nights in Alamagardo, and went to the Museum of Space History where we saw some American space food that looked like this:

And then we saw some Russian space food that looked like this:

Is it just me or does the Russian version look far more quirky, eccentric and soulful?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" has received a massive amount of publicity. Here's my review of it, done for the San Francisco Chronicle. If I'd known it was going to be such a media sensation, I suspect I might have been a bit harder on it.


Jonathan Safran Foer

Reviewed by Geoff Nicholson

In World War Two Jonathan Safran Foer’s Jewish grandmother crossed Europe, barefoot and starving, one step ahead of the Nazis. A Russian farmer took pity on her and offered her a piece of pork. She wouldn’t eat it even to save her life, her reasoning being, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

With stories like this told around the dinner table, it’s hardly surprising that Foer has some deep and complex feelings about the role of food in culture and family. Once a wishy-washy vegetarian, now a fully committed one, he dates the origins of this book, and his concern with the morality of eating meat, to the birth of his son. He spent three years immersed in “animal agriculture,” visiting farms, talking to activisits, farmers, scientists, and in one case a vegan builder of slaughterhouses, all the time asking “what are the economic, social and environmental effects of eating animals?”

Much of the book describes and condemns factory farms, which Foer tells us produce all but one per cent of American meat. It won’t come as news that terrible things happen in these places, but Foer reports that things are worse than most of us ever imagined.

For example he describes how slaughtered chickens, some of them diseased, “leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces.” are dropped together into a massive tank of refrigerated water. The liquid in these tanks is known as “fecal soup.” Once in the tank, the chickens soak up the liquid, getting heavier and therefore adding to their value (or at least price). Many of us have balked at paying extra for chickens plumped up with water: the fact is we’re paying extra for fecal soup.

I wish this were the worst, most revolting fact that Foer receals. It isn’t, by many means. Much of the book is a catalogue of the horrors factory farmed animals endure, and also of the casual sadism of many who work in the industry. On grounds of basic decency this would be objectionable enough, but the process harms humans as well as animals. Factory farms create pollution, are partly responsible for global warming, and play a huge role in the spread of mutant pathogens, as well as multiple diseases including swine flu. This, Foer suggests, is a very high price to pay for cheap meat.

In his novels Foer is a witty and ironic writer, and Eating Animals contains a few nice literary touches. He describes modern fishing methods that scoop up vast quantities of unwanted fish, which are then discarded. He writes, “Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.”

Before long however, the sheer horror of his subject makes wit and irony unsustainable. There are extensive passages in this book that some people are not going to be able to stomach.

Set against factory farming are “ethical farmers” such as Nicolette and Bill Niman (once but no longer owners of Niman Ranch) and Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry. These are certainly the “good guys” when it comes to raising meat, and many of us see this as a way forward. But for Foer it isn’t enough.

His book is ultimately a work of moral philosophy. Having made us long for humane farming methods, he then concludes that ethically there’s no such thing. Even the most humane farmers still castrate, brand or remove the tails of animals. All farmers are ultimately involved in killing. If I understand Foer correctly, he believes all that is immoral, and considers vegetarianism the only ethical option. Since we don’t have to kill animals to survive, then we simply shouldn’t.

Clearly the majority of us aren’t going to agree with him on this, and he doesn’t expect us to. However, the fact that he makes me wonder whether I’m being, at best, a hypocrite every time I eat a piece of beef, suggests he’s completely successful in at least one his ambitions. He writes, “We need a way that brings meat to the center of public discussion in the same way it is often at the center of our plates.” After reading this book, it’s hard to disagree.


Incidentally a brace of cornish game hens from Good Shepherd Poultry will cost you $94, but that does include postage.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Not surprisingly the Internet is awash with recipes for giblet pie, although pictures of it are extremely scarce. Maybe they’re not necessary: pies all look much the same regardless of what’s in them. But here’s a picture of Clare Rudebeck that accompanied an article she wrote for the Independent, describing how she made giblet pie for, it seemed to me, some rather annoying friends.

‘“Is that a bit of chicken thigh?" says one, popping it in his mouth. "No, that's a bit of neck," I say once he has started to chew. He spits it out.’

He’d get a slap upside his head if he spat out my food at my table.

Rudebeck’s recipe comes from her grandmother and is actually a bit tame. “A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes” dated 1852, has a more interesting one:

“Giblets of fowls are always to be bought at a low price at most poulterers'; when you have a mind to lay out 6d. or 1s. in this way, first scald the necks and feet, to remove the feathers from the head and the rough skin from the feet; split the gizzard and scrape out the stones, etc., and the yellow skin there from, and when the giblets are thoroughly cleaned, put them into a saucepan with some thyme, winter savory, chopped onions, pepper and salt, and about a quart of water, and set them on the fire to stew very gently for an hour, by which time the liquor should be boiled down to half that quantity; then add two ounces of flour and a little mushroom ketchup; stir all together, and put the giblets into a pie-dish; cover this over with a dripping crust, and bake it for about an hour and a quarter.”

If you couldn’t guess, this book was for the English working class, the “dripping” gives it away. The author was Charles Elmé Francatelli, chief cook to Queen Victoria. He was an Anglo-Italian chef, trained in France to cook haute cuisine: and in a way it’s surprising that he concerned himself with concerned himself with working class cookery.

But maybe he was doing a Jamie Oliver. The book apparently has its origins in his claim that he could feed a thousand families on the food that was wasted every day in London. Presumably that would be even truer today.

In Oliver’s British TV series “Jamie’s Ministry of Food,” he went into the homes of people in Rotherham, an industrial town just a few miles from where I grew up in northern England, a place with high rates obesity and related illnesses, and created a place where people could learn to cook.

According to an interview in the New York Times one of the biggest problems he had to come was the attitude of Rotherham people. Oliver said, “They thought that cooking a meal and feeding it to your family was for posh people.” I find that the most depressing, most unsurprising and most truly English thing I’ve read in a long time.

The people of Rotherham claimed they were misrepresented in the show. Perhaps they were. Below is an ad for an outlet in Rotherham called Factory Foods. “A completely new shopping experience to what you are used to, we guarantee that!” This has to be a parody, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?

Friday, November 6, 2009


The American paperback edition of my book “The Lost Art of Walking” came out this week: this is an only slightly shame-faced plug.

In writing the book it was far more of a problem knowing what to leave out than what to put in. At one point I considered writing a chapter about walking and eating, but on balance I thought this might be too peripheral. Now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been re-reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, and I’m struck by the fact that she and William were as passionate about food as they were about walking.

The very first line of the Grasmere Journal, May 14 1800, runs, “Wm and John set off into Yorkshire after dinner at ½ past 2 o’clock – cold pork in their pockets.

And throughout her writings there are references combining food and walking.

16 March 1802 “I went & sate with W and walked backwards and forwards in the Orchard till dinner time – I broiled Beefsteaks.

And I think my favorite, November 28 1801, “Baking bread apple pies, & Giblet pie – a bad giblet pie – it was a most beautiful morning … The sun shone all day – but we never walked.” A bad pie and no walking was as worthy of mention as a good pie and a good walk.

Dorothy Wordsworth was born in 1771, a little under 200 years before me, but the vast majority of the food she mentions is perfectly familiar from growing up in Yorkshire childhood: gooseberry, rhubarb, tapioca, potted beef, parkin.

However, if by some time traveling miracle Dorothy found herself in a modern English restaurant, say one in the Gordon Ramsay chain, would she even recognize some of the dishes as being food at all?

And looking at the menu mightn’t help her much either. What would she make of these items from the appetizer menu at Ramsay’s Maze?

Crab salad, marinated golden beetroot, apple jelly, Bloody Mary sorbet.

Braised octopus, oxtail vinaigrette, dehydrated black olive, fine herbs and confit lemon.

Confit of wild mallard, raspberry gel, walnuts and compressed celery.

Now Maze is a very good restaurant and I think Dorothy would have enjoyed herself once she got over the future shock, but like me she might have thought to herself, isn’t it odd that food stays much the same for hundreds of years and then suddenly good food is nothing if it doesn’t involve a confit of this, a carpaccio of that, a velouté of the other.

She would also surely have noticed that none of these were exactly dishes she could put in her pocket and go out walking.

There seems to be some evidence that “giblet pie” was once a term for having sexual, though I don’t really think that’s what Dorothy had in mind.

“The Odd Index" by Stephen J. Spignesi includes it in his list of “Euphemisms for Sexual Intercourse” but frankly according to him just abut everything you can thing of is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Here are just some of the food-related ones:

“Eat cauliflower. Eat hymeneal sweets. Feed the dummy. Get a belly full of marrow pudding. Get jack in the orchard. Get oats from someone. Give juice for jelly. Give pussy a taste of cream. Give someone a stab. Give someone the works. Have a bit of curly greens. Have a bit of fish. Have a bit of fun. Have a bit of giblet pie. Have a bit of pork. Have a bit of split mutton. Have a bit of sugar stick. Have a bit of summer cabbage. Have a hot roll with cream. Have a lady feast. Have hot pudding for supper. Have live sausage for supper. Hide the salami. Hide the sausage. Mix your peanut butter. Play hide the weenie. Rub bacons. Slip someone the hot beef injection. Spear the bearded clam. Suck the sugar-stick.”

He doesn’t include one of my favorite euphemisms, which includes sex, food (or at least herbs) and walking: to go for a stroll around the parsley patch.