Friday, February 27, 2009


I’ve been reading an advance copy of “The Food Of A Younger Land,” edited by Mark Kurlansky (he of Cod and Salt fame). It’s a selection of pieces commissioned by the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s for something that would have been called “America Eats” if it had been completed at the time. Writers went off all over America and sent back reports on local eating habits and traditions; but the plan was abandoned and the results never published till now.

The book’s full of wonders. The past seems to have a great place to eat, chiefly because regional food was genuinely regional. And so we have pieces on dishes and ingredients such as South Carolina chicken bog, Kentucky burgoo, and the Washington state geoduck clam, which my wife, a Seattle native, pronounces “gooey-duck.” The last time we were in Washington I was desperate to try a geoduck, but I couldn’t find one for love or money. These boys below had no such problem.

Eating also seems to have been much more of an event back then, so we have descriptions of a California grunion fry, a Minnesota booya picnic, a menudo party in Tucson, and something called a Georgia Coca-Cola party, which sounds like a euphemism for something very racy but apparently wasn’t. Young ladies of a certain class would meet at eleven o’clock in the morning and make a lot of fuss about having an iced Coke.

And speaking of Coke and fuss, there’s a section in the book, not attributed to any author, of “New York Soda-Luncheonette Slang and Jargon.” You probably know the sort of thing, terms that waiters would yell out to their cooks, “Adam and Eve on a Raft – wreck ‘em!” for scrambled eggs on toast, and so on.

For some reason New Yorkers needed quite a few slang terms for Coke. On the list are “Sheet One” for a plain Coke, “Paint it red” for a cherry Coke, “a deep one through Georgia” for a Coke with chocolate, and “one with dynamite” for a Coke with ammonia (eh?).

But far and away the best is “Watson, the Needle.” The Watson is surely Dr Watson, and the needle is presumably for Sherlock Holmes so he can inject himself with cocaine; coke. I can’t help wondering whether the writer was getting creative here and made that one up himself.

Kurlansky’s book has as its epigraph the famous quotation that includes the impeccable piece of advice, “Never eat at a place called Mom’s,” which it attributes, accurately I now know, to Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel A Walk On The Wild Side. (Algren was employed by the FWP.)

But I’d always thought it was a quotation from Edward Abbey, and a lot of people in cyberspace think so too. And we’re not completely wrong. In Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang he puts the words in the mouth of “Seldom Seen” Smith who’s quoting a piece of advice given to him by his father. So maybe his father was quoting Algren. I guess fictional character are allowed to be plagiarists.

The complete Algren quotation runs "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Since Algren had a long and difficult affair with Simone de Beavoir, it’s not clear that he followed his own advice. Below, Simone dines with Nelson's rival.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


So maybe I've have found a picture of William Burroughs, if not exactly eating, then at least with some food in front of him.

In the picture above, doesn't that look like it might be a slice of cake he's got on a napkin in front of him? Maybe spongecake, maybe cheesecake. But I'm not absolutely certain, and I'm happy to stand corrected.


I just got an email from Michael Kupperman; humorist, cartoonist, anglophile, provocateur and all-round good egg, and creator of Snake and Bacon – a fine gourmet combination if ever there was one.

On the subject of royal eating he tells me that in later life, when Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson went out to eat in public, she would silently mouth the alphabet in his direction to give onlookers the impression that they were talking to each other.

Since Edward was no longer a royal by then, I suppose it didn’t matter whether or not anybody saw him eating.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


When I first started spending large amounts of time in America – over a decade ago now – I was amazed about what we might call the cheese situation.

Historically England has had nine varieties of classic cheese; there are many more now. In France every village seems to make it’s unique cheese; c.f. Charles De Gaulle, "How can you govern a country which has 258 kinds of cheese?" (Online you can find many variations on this number – anywhere between 230 and 350, but you get the idea.)

In America, as far as I could see, there was Monterey Jack, and that was about it.

Over the years I’ve educated myself about artisanal American cheese and found plenty to enjoy but I still don’t think of America as a great nation of cheese eaters. And then I read Nicolette Hahn Niman’s new book Righteous Porkchop.

The book is full of astonishing, and sometimes horrifying, facts about industrial food production. One part that got me especially was about milk and cheese.

In 1909, she tells us, the average dairy cow produced 2,902 pounds of milk per year, and the average American annually ate three pounds of cheese. By 2005 most US dairy cows were Holsteins, which now give an average of 19,951 pounds of milk per year; with the average American now eating 31 pounds of cheese per year. This might make you think that America is a nation of cheese eaters after all.

But only up to a point. You have to wonder exactly how Americans eat their cheese. Well, certainly the cheeseburger must account for quite a few annual pounds, and mac and cheese must account for a few more, but I’m guessing that most Americans eat most of their cheese on pizzas, where it’s largely a base for other flavors.

But American’s cheese industry still wanted Americans to eat more. And so the food scientists invented the pizza with the cheese-stuffed crust: blandness wrapped in dough - the perfect delivery system for people who don’t actually like good cheese.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I guess my title Psycho-Gourmet also has something in common with psychogeography.

A psychogeographer according to Guy Debord is someone who studies "the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals."

So I suppose the psychogourmet would be someone who studies “the precise laws and specific effects of the eating environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

You may argue that these “laws” aren’t in fact very specific, and I would agree with you.

I think we’d also have to say that we’re nudging up against the notion of “terroir,” how the geography of a region (including its geology, climate, soil composition, cultural history and so on) creates specific qualities in the food produced there.

Psychogeographers are great lovers and manipulators of maps. And so am I. I especially love “food maps." There might be those who'd say that the Leafy Green Vegetable maze at the top of this post isn't an absolutely accurate depiction of food distribution networks, but what the hey.

I also like those maps that show an area and dot various foodstuffs around it, as if they were geographical features.

Here are a couple I’ve found.

First a map of United States represented by its beer labels, nice in its way but unless you were in the know you'd have a tricky time identifying either the states or the beers.

Naturally the Germans, are more orderly, and you could actually use this map to find your way around: turn left at the Bavarian pretzel and you’ll soon find yourself in Stuttgart.

But if you’re looking for true orderliness, here’s a food map of my native city of Sheffield. It sure manages to make finding a seem restaurant a rigorous and foursquare business. Who knew there so many Italian-sounding restaurants in Sheffield? And who’d have guessed there was one called Yankees?

Friday, February 20, 2009


We know that Lindsay Lohan has been troubled with eating disorders; first denying the fact, then admitting it, then becoming a poster girl for overcoming it. The Internet is now awash with pictures of her eating, so I guess that’s a Good Thing.

In fact the Internet is awash with pictures of all sorts of celebs eating. Given that the paparazzi and snaperazzi are now just about everywhere it’s perhaps not so surprising. But it didn’t used to be that way, did it? Celebs used to take a lot of trouble to make sure they weren’t seen pushing food into their faces.

I’m not quite sure why it’s so compelling to see celebs at trough. It’s not like seeing them naked or falling down drunk. There’s nothing shameful or humiliating about being seen eating. But there is something very revealing about the way people eat; how they use their fork, whether they eat delicately or just stuff themselves, whether they dribble gravy down their shirt fronts. Tell me how you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.

I once saw Kim Cattrell in a restaurant in London and I couldn’t stop watching her. (Discreetly of course). I learned a lot. Now, I never imagined she was exactly the most natural and easy going of women, but she sat there at the table completely rigid, fork in hand, smiling tightly and although she was served food, and although she paid it some attention I’d be surprised if she took more than three bites all evening. And if you say she wasn’t eating because she knew I was watching her, well that proves my point. She didn't want to reveal herself.

I was once at a big arts festival party where Prince Philip (above) was guest of honor. He seemed a jolly old cove, and pulled off the amazing feat of looking as though he was pleased to meet me, and everyone else. But when the time came for us all to eat, he and the festival grandees went off and ate behind a screen. The word was that protocol demands no member of the royal family be seen eating by their subjects. I can’t swear this is true, but I’ve certainly never seen a picture of a British royal eating, unlike, say, American Heads of State. See below:


Isn’t it weird when you go to some restaurant, knowing nothing about it, and you have a perfectly pleasant but quite ordinary time, and then later you discover it’s one the hippest and hottest places in town?

This happened to me a couple of nights ago at Kitchen 24, here in Los Angeles.

The Loved One and I were walking along (rare enough in LA) looking for somewhere to eat and we went into this somewhat cool-looking diner-ish place on Cahuenga Boulevard.

I had meat loaf wrapped in pastry with mashed potatoes – comfort food I guess and it doesn’t get much more comforting than that, but then again if food doesn’t comfort you, why eat it? The Loved One had a steak salad. The steak was way overdone, but then she didn’t specify (and the waitress didn’t ask) how she wanted the steak cooked, so what could you expect?

But overall it was just fine.

Then I got home, looked up Kitchen 24 online and I see, according to Instyle magazine that it’s a hangout for the likes of Lauren Conrad, Scott Speedman, Megan Fox, Gisele Bundchen, Danny Masterson, Lindsay Lohan, Samantha Ronson, Brody Jenner, Paula Abdul and Audrina Patridge.

Ok I admit I’ve never heard of some of these people, and certainly don’t know what they look like so it’s possible some of them were there that night, but somehow I doubt it.

I also hear we should have ordered the “Smac and cheese” and the vodka- infused milk shakes; but I had no idea I was in such a cool place, so we didn’t.

It’s also the only restaurant I’ve ever been that has two – count ‘em two - happy hours.

Below: Lindsay Lohan eating, though not at Kitchen 24

Thursday, February 19, 2009


William Burroughs said about his book The Naked Lunch, "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” I think I know what he means, mostly.

I’ve tried to find out about Burroughs’s eating habits; with limited success. Victor Bockris’s “A Report From The Bunker With William Burroughs” contains many tape-recorded conversations made around dinners with Burroughs and various cronies, but there’s not much information on what they ate. Bockris describes one dinner at Burroughs’ loft, says they had fish, rice and broccoli, and tells us it was “delicious,” but that’s about it.

The most revealing moment in Bockris’s book comes when Debbie “Eat To The Beat” Harry asks Burroughs if he can cook. Burroughs says, “I cook tastily for as many as ten people.” This strikes me as amazing, if true.

I’ve been trying to find a picture of Burroughs eating, but so far I’ve failed. There are plenty of pictures of him drinking and smoking, pictures of sitting in restaurants with empty plates in from of him, and of course endless pictures of him waving guns around. But none of him eating.

So here’s the best I can do: William Burroughs shopping in a supermarket in Lawrence, Kansas. I wish it were a better picture so at least we could be absolutely sure what he was buying. I think it's cat food.

Junkies, we know, don’t care much about food: that’s how they stay so trim and attractive. But Burroughs seems to have been, in some ways, a picky eater. In “Electronic Revolution” he tells of his troubles in the early 70s at the Moka Bar in London’s Soho. He claimed to have been on the receiving end of “outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake.” And so he began a hate campaign against the owners.

Actually he regarded it as psychic warfare, an attempt to disrupt the “space time continuum” around the café. This involved taking a lot of photographs of the place, and making tape recordings and playing them back in situ. “Playback is a bitch,” he writes. This sounds like twaddle to me, but it worked apparently and the café duly went out of business. But this psychic terrorism also involved Burroughs doing a lot of hanging the café, and I’d have thought Burroughs’ sustained, cadaverous presence would be bad for anybody’s business.

Still, it’s easy enough to imagine Burroughs engaged in psychic warfare: much harder to imagine him enjoying a good cheesecake.

Below is a picture taken in the Moka Bar in 1954; a man saves time by using the cafe's electric razor while he drinks his morning coffee. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The two great fictional psycho-gourmets who immediately spring to mind are Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Actually I have my worries about Lector’s gourmet’s credentials. Yes, human liver may be a special delicacy, but fava beans and Chianti don’t strike me as very sophisticated. Why not quinoa and Crozes-Hermitage? Maybe Thomas Harris doesn’t have much faith in the sophistication of his readers.

Bateman seems far more the real deal than Lector. His taste for power dining becomes symbolic, or at least indicative, of crazed homicidal tendencies.

Some of the dishes served in American Psycho are pretty hilarious: radicchio with free-range squid, monkfish ragout with violets, shad-roe ravioli with apple compote. I take it these are author Bret Easton Ellis’s satirical inventions, but given the exoticism of New York restaurant culture in the 1980s, it’s possible that some restaurant was actually serving them, especially after they’d read the book.

Years ago I interviewed Bret Easton Ellis for an English newspaper. We met in a London hotel bar and he obsessively ate those sweet Japanese rice crackers.

Then, earlier this year I found myself on the same table as him for an art world dinner at Lucques restaurant in Los Angeles.

On the basis that you should always try what you’ve never eaten before I ordered “kampachi crudo with cucumber yogurt, watercress, mint, fennel and pistachio.” I’d never heard of kampachi and especially given the crudo, it sounded like something Ellis might have made up. Now I hear that kampachi is just about the most wonderful fish in the world, sustainably open ocean grown on environmentally friendly fish farms, raised without growth hormones, antibiotics or genetic engineering, with no detectable levels of mercury, and rich in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. I’m quoting here, obviously.

Incidentally, the restaurant Luce in the InterContinental in San Francisco currently serves a dish of kampachi crudo with lemon verbena and fava beans.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


This is Geoff Nicholson's blog about the wilder, weirder shores of gastronomy. And if all goes well it will turn into a book.

It concerns the curiosities of food and eating, why we eat, what we eat, how we eat. It will deal with eating habits, eating manners, eating disorders, eating taboos. It will also try to discover why so many people are so downright weird about food.

And actually it was a bitch to come up with a title for it.

I first thought of Naked Brunch - but there's a novel of that name. Naked Luncheonette and Naked Lunch Counter have also been done.

I thought of Naked Buffet, but I think everyone would assume it was about those sushi restaurants where naked women stretch out in the middle of the table and get covered in raw fish.

There were similar problmes with Food Fetishist.

I thought of Mouth-feel - but there's already a poetry blog with that name. The Lost Art of Eating - Google brings up hundreds of extant references for that.

So ... Psycho-Gourmet it is.