Friday, April 24, 2009


Think about JG Ballard and you’re likely to start thinking about his novel “Crash,” all that perverse sex and death centred around automotive mayhem. But the one perverse thing his cast of psychotics don’t do in their cars is eat.

I’m always amazed when I see guys in Porsches rolling up to the drive thru windows at some cheapo fast food joint. Of course owning a fancy set of wheels doesn’t make you a gourmet, but I’d have thought it might make you aim higher than the dollar menu.

I’ve never owned an especially fancy set of wheels but even so I don’t think I’ve eaten in my car more than half a dozen times in my whole life. Now, thanks to an article in Road and Travel Magazine I realize I’ve been doing the right thing all along.

The article is headlined, “Eating on the Go and Your Car’s Residual Value.” It reports on some research done by Kelley Blue Book and Taco Bell (so you know it’s going to be really impartial) and warns that, "With people spending more time in their vehicles, the number of dashboard diners has also increased. … Messy interiors could potentially cost owners thousands of dollars when it comes time to turn in or sell their vehicles."

And so those boffins on Taco Bell have come up with the Crunchwrap Supreme named “Best Meal on the Move” by QSR Magazine (whatever that is) and a “highlight in portability” according to the LA Times; and people wonder why the LA Times is losing readers.

The Kelley-Taco dudes also asked drivers to name the “messiest” food they’ve eaten in their car and 34 per cent said burgers and fries. This surprises me just a little. Have they never driven while trying to eat humus, or a vindaloo curry, or a fondue?

Anyway, I went back to “Crash” determined to find some perverse reference to eating, and I did, sort.

The book’s hero, who’s called James Ballard, is in bed with his wife Catherine and she’s doing a bit of dirty talk.

She asks, “… do you know what semen tastes like? Have you ever tasted semen? Some semen is saltier than others. Vaughan’s semen must be very salty.”

If this looks excruciating in cold print, it’s so much worse when it’s spoken aloud in the David Cronenberg movie of “Crash.” Poor old James Spader who has act as though he’s turned on by this, actually looks as though he’s eaten something that disagreed with him.

Monday, April 20, 2009


JG Ballard died yesterday, Sunday April 19th 2009. He was a huge inspiration to a broad generation of English writers, myself included. I have stood around at literary parties in London, drinking and eating somewhere in the general vicinity of JG Ballard, but I certainly don’t have anything that amounts to a Ballardian food anecdote.

However, I do remember some of the food scenes from “Empire of the Sun.” Initially the young Jim character goes into the abandoned houses of Shanghai scavenging for food, and eats reasonably well. Then, when he’s in the Japanese prison camp, food becomes all-important for him and all the other inmates: boiled potatoes loom large.

“Empire of the Sun” was to a large extent an autobiographical novel; Ballard himself was interned in Lunghua camp in Shanghai. The vital difference between the fiction and Ballard’s real life was that his novel’s hero is separated from his parents; Ballard’s were with him in the camp.

He’s on record as saying he enjoyed his days in the camp, reading Popular Mechanics and Reader's Digest, “waiting for the food cart and the next B-29 bombing raid." The camp was next door to a Japanese airbase.

He writes, "Towards the end when the food supplies had collapsed we were living on warehouse scrapings. One day my father said: 'We must eat the weevils, they contain protein' and so we did."

I suppose this would make the boole eaten by the poorest citizens of Addis Ababa seem like rather rich fare.

Ballard and the other internees in the camp received no regular, reliable news about the progress of the war; the final confirmation that it was over came only when the American planes started dropping food parcels instead of bombs.

Of course, Ballard's genius was to combine the world of transgression with that of the decent, suburban family man. He didn't look like the hipster at the top of this entry, nor much like the brooding presence above, with Gabrielle Drake posed behind him. He looked more, far more, like this:

Sunday, April 19, 2009


The other day, at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, I went to exhibition or work by Elia Simé. He’s regularly described as one of Ethiopia’s greatest contemporary artists, although I admit I’d be hard pressed to name another.

Simé did just fine under the old, repressive Stalinist-style Derg regime in Ethiopia, and he’s doing even better now. His art is craft based, uses found and recycled materials, and sewing is one of his important techniques. He makes thrones, sculptures made from mud and straw, decorated animal skins, as well as works on canvas.

He gets a lot of his raw materials from markets around Adidas Ababa, the Addis Merkato, one of the largest markets in Africa. The merchants there know Simé and the kind of thing he’s looking for, and they put items aside for him.

A few years back he worked in the market as a day laborer, lived on the street and ate in the market’s makeshift restaurants, eating something called boole; and that’s why he’s in this blog.

I’d never heard of boole, but according to the exhibition notes by co-curator Meskerem Assegued but it seems to be common in Addis Ababa. Homeless people go from door to door in the area, to actual restaurants and to private homes asking for leftovers, which they collect and take back to the market.

Anything that looks good enough is reheated and served on a plate. The rest becomes boole. The less appetizing leftovers are spread out on a plastic bag and left out in the sun until they’re dehydrated. The dry residue is then pounded in a mortar to make a powder, which is then boiled, or friend with onions and served.

This seems to be recycling taken to its logical conclusion. We know that half the world could live on what the other half throws away. But here in Addis Ababa absolutely nothing is allowed to go to waste.

I’m not sure that the idea of eating dried reconstituted leftovers is in itself very appealing - this is surely as low on the human food chain as we can go - but all the same I can’t help admiring the people conceived of, who make and eat boole.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


What do fashion models eat? Air? Low cal air? Vitamin air? Meth air?

Of course we know that models are famous for having eating disorders, and of course that’s terribly sad, but it’s also why we’re so fond of them. Would we love a podgy Kate Moss quite as much as we love an elegantly wasted Kate Moss? Would we feel the same about Agyness Deyn if she had love handles and a taste for pork pies? Oh yes, yes, sure, of course, I’m sure we would.

At least many of the models photographed by Helmut Newton had a certain amount of meat on their bones, they looked like they could devour a good piece of meat, which was Newton’s preference and apparently a cause of conflict between him and various magazine editors.

One of my very favorite Helmut Newton photographs features not a fashion model but his wife, June. Thus:

The photograph may well have been a big set up, or at least something that Newton had had in mind and visualized long before he took the picture, and yet it strikes me as wonderfully spontaneous: photographer and model sitting together after dinner, a little drunk, a little sexy, she lights a cigarette, he says get your tits out, he reaches for his camera; and thus great art is made.

My own wife was once photographed by Helmut Newton. To everyone’s amazement, not least mine, her tits stayed in, but she did have lunch with Newton before the shoot. He ate steak tartar, no bread, no fries, and two diet Cokes. No wonder he kept his figure.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Death by martini surely can’t be that rare a phenomenon: it certainly forms part of the plot of Agatha Christie’s novel “Three Act Tragedy” which was published in America as “Murder in Three Acts” and made into a film with that title, starring Tony Curtis and Peter Ustinov.

However, I think we can safely say that the only major American novelist to die as a result of drinking a martini was poor Sherwood Anderson, in 1941. To be strictly accurate it wasn’t drinking the martini itself that killed him, it was swallowing the wooden toothpick that held the olive.

There are varying accounts of Anderson’s death. One suggests that he swallowed just a fragment of toothpick, lodged inside the olive and therefore unseen. This sounds very plausible but apparently it’s not what happened.

According to Walter B Rideout’s “Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America” he swallowed the whole of a 3 inch long toothpick. Anderson was 5 or 6 martinis to the good at the time, but even so it must surely have been accidental, and surely he must have realized what he’d done.

At the very least when he started having abdominal cramps the next morning you’d have thought he must have put two and two together. But it seems not, and in any case it was probably too late by then. The toothpick had pierced the lower part of his colon and gone through into his abdominal cavity, causing the peritonitis from which he died. The autopsy described the toothpick as “well preserved.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Please spare a thought for the late Jeff Twaddle a man who’s death (and let’s face it, his name) proves – if proof were needed - that the universe is a place where the elements of tragedy and comedy, the grotesque, the pathetic and the farcical are far from mutually exclusive. That's Jeff in the picture below, on the right.

Twaddle was deckhand on a charter boat called Gale Force. He took kids from elementary school out on field trips and showed them the rudiments of fishing. Do as he says, not as he did. On a trip in early April 2009 to the Port of Long Beach, Twaddle tried to entertain the kids by putting a bait fish in his mouth, “a lighthearted thing” according to the Long Beach Fire Chief, after the event.

The bait fish got stuck in Twaddle’s throat, stopping his breathing. Attempts to remove the blockage and give CPR were to no avail. Twaddle passed out, went into cardiac arrest and died as the kids watched.

An autopsy by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office declared the death to be accidental, caused by “aspiration of fish.”

I'd never heard this use of the word “aspiration” but it seems to be common enough. People who throw up and choke on their own vomit can be said to have died of aspiration. Jimi Hendrix, for example, was one of these. Here he is in the picture below, on the left. Mama Cass is on the right. Michelle Phillips is the filling in this sixties sandwich.

Mama Cass, despite all rumors to the contrary, was one person who did not die of aspiration. The urban myth is that she choked to death on a ham sandwich, but this seems to be demonstrably untrue. Certainly she died in her sleep but not by aspirating a ham sandwich.

The rumor started apparently because a ham sandwich was found in her hotel room along with her corpse. A link was established in the popular imagination; but the truth is the sandwich was untouched. Mama Cass actually died of a heart attack caused by “fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity.”

Still, I guess the public – and I don’t exclude myself – found it rather hard to believe that Mama Cass was the sort of woman who’d go to bed leaving a ham sandwich lying around her hotel room uneaten. I know I wouldn’t.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


I think the term food-porn or gastro-porn started as a way of sneering at the kind of food writing and food photography that’s so excessive and perfected that it makes you drool, but also makes you feel inadequate and dissatisfied with your own humble, ordinary eating life.

Recently I saw Rachel Ray referred to as the Queen of Food Porn, and this was related to those supposedly sexy, racy, daring pictures that were taken of her for FHM magazine.

If anybody really finds this stuff sexy, racy or daring they must have led very sheltered lives indeed, though certainly the idea of women cooking in high heels has its appeal.

But there’s another kind of food porn, which is actual porn in which people have sex while coating themselves in edible glop; c.f. Carolee Schneeman, though of course she was art rather than porn.

I don’t doubt that somebody somewhere finds this actual food porn arousing because somebody somewhere finds everything arousing but I suspect these people are few and far between. And I also suspect this stuff doesn’t arise out of anybody’s real sexual urges but rather out of a desperate attempt by the porno-industrial complex to come up with something that hasn’t been seen before.

There’s one particular strain that has women rubbing their feet in food, or crushing soft fruit, or coating their toes in chocolate syrup. And I few this really problematic. I mean, I like feet and I like food, but somehow this seems to give me less of what I want, rather than more; it’s way less than the sum of its parts.

But thinking about metaphors of food and sex, and thinking also about feet, I remembered two things. One, that in Cockney rhyming slang feet are known as plates of meat. And two, that in the world of foot fetishism, sucking toes is known as shrimping. There you have it: the perfect combination of turf and surf.


My wife tells me that in the 1980s in New York, she used to drink in a bar called Bernard’s on 48th Street close to Times Square. It was a hang out for pornographers, strippers and corrupt politicians: my wife was only the first of these.

Then one day a group of Canadian Mohawks from the Kahnawake Territory decided to make the bar their home away from home. They were ironworkers, famous for having no fear of heights. They built skyscrapers, walked happily along girders that were hundreds of feet above the ground, and at the end of the day, unsurprisingly, they raised a certain amount of hell. They all wore red suspenders. Before long, they became integrated into the life of the bar

The Kahnawake Mohawks refer to themselves as Kanien’kehá:ka, which means People of the Flint. The word Mohawk comes from the Algonquian language and means flesh-eaters or man-eaters, a name given them by the Dutch.

One night in Bernard’s a group of ten or so of the ironworkers turned up with a young, frowsy, disheveled, damaged-looking girl. They bought her a few drinks and then one of the guys went off with her. A quarter of an hour later they came back, the girl looking even more disheveled and had another drink before she went off again with a different guy. This happened quite a few times.

What they were doing with the girl seemed, in one way, obvious enough, but when one of the regulars asked what exactly was going on, the guys said they were “auditioning” the girl.
Auditioning her for what?
“For Meat,” they replied.

These Mohawks were a brotherly and suspicious group. They liked women well enough but they didn’t trust them. They especially didn’t trust white women. They certainly found the whole business of dating way too much trouble.

So it made sense to them, when they got a new job in a new town, to rent a house or apartment, all live together and install just one woman who would service all their needs. This woman was referred to as Meat.

Will it surprise anybody that women or a certain sort lined up to be cast in the role of Meat?