Thursday, February 25, 2010


There’s one thing that’s probably even less satisfying, and far more trouble, than breakfast in bed, and that’s the torturous ritual known as the picnic.

Eating outdoors in itself is fine - whether it’s sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich or on the terrace of an outdoor restaurant - but once you call it a picnic there’s all that organization, all that business with hampers and special plates and cutlery rugs. It sucks the fun right out of it.

I’ve been thinking about this because the current issue of Gatronomica also has a piece about the later years of Lee Miller. We all know about her days as model and muse, and then as war photographer, but who knew that she ended up living on a farm in east Sussex, married to Roland Penrose and engaging in “defiant” cookery”? Well, many people I suppose, but not me.

I found myself thinking about that famous photograph Miller took in Picasso’s garden, in 1937, titled “Picnic at Mougins.” See below.

© Lee Miller Archives, England 2010. All rights reserved.

The cast, left to right, is made up of Nusch and Paul Eluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin. It’s always seemed a little dubious that the women are topless and the men fully clothed, something to do with the male gaze, artists and models, nature and culture. And the fact that it’s all a knowing nod towards Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” doesn’t really change things much.

Knowing that the photograph is taken by a woman, changes things just a little, but of course Lee Miller was never exactly reluctant to take her top off, and I just discovered this picture (below) of the occasion, taken by Roland Penrose, proving that, yes she was nude model as well as photographer.

© Roland Penrose Estate, England 2010.The Roland Penrose Collection. All rights reserved.

“Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” has surely been parodied and pastiched more than any painting except for the Mona Lisa; in other paintings, in photographs, cartoons and album covers and whatnot. Even Picasso had a crack at it.

I’ve been peering at reproductions of Manet’s original, trying to see what they actually had to eat at their picnic. It’s hard to tell. There’s bread and fruit, but I can’t identify all those fruits, and perhaps surprisingly, there’s no wine. And certainly there isn’t any eating going on – they obviously have other things on their minds.

At least it looks as though the Lee Miller crowd have eaten well, and had a bottle or two of wine, but since their plates are conspicuously empty we don’t know what was on the menu. In the Penrose picture some of the plates have been cleared away. They also, of course, have a table, which seems way, way too much trouble for a picnic.

I have only one picnic picture from my own life, fully clothed, here with my mother somewhere in Lincolnshire in the late 1960s, and although my mother’s having a cup of tea – in a real china cup note, - I’m very conspicuously not have anything at all. Even then I probably thought it was too much trouble.

And just to add, the Lee Miller Archives have been more than fair and generous in allowing me to use the relevant images.  They have asked me to add the information that "The home of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, Farley Farm House in East Sussex is open for guided tours being April and October each year.  Please contact Kate: 01825 872856 "  I am very happy to do so.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


An article of mine, about my mother’s all-white eating habits, has just appeared in the new issue of Gastronomica: a great magazine.

The article doesn’t appear in their online version, so here it is in full.

Today I ate lunch in memory of my mother. She died about a decade ago, and every once in a while I feel the need to replicate the kind of lunch she and I ate together many times. The meal consisted of a cheese sandwich, made with white Cheshire cheese on white bread, along with a glass of cold milk. If this seems a rather pallid and unexciting meal, then that’s exactly the way my mother would have wanted it.

Since I grew up, and my mother lived all her life, in northern England, and since I now live in Los Angeles, this memorial meal of mine may have lacked some authenticity. Cheshire cheese, available at any grocery store in England, is considered quite a delicacy here in California, and I had to make a trip to a specialty cheese store. To be fair, not all the Cheshire cheese sold in England is of very high quality. At its best Cheshire cheese is simultaneously moist, crumbly, sweet and tangy. When it’s not at its best it’s just bland: again, my mother would have had no problem with that.

The bread I grew up eating in England has no exact American equivalent: Wonder Bread may be the nearest. Ours was called Mother’s Pride, and although I don’t think my mom was naive enough to think she was fulfilling her maternal duties by buying this brand, I know she appreciated its softness and its snowy whiteness. These days I’m a wholemeal man, but I admit there’s still some guilty pleasure to be had in eating a slice of processed, factory-produced white bread, especially spread with pale, salted butter, the way my mother ate it.

As for the glass of milk, full fat of course (my mother would not have seen the point of any other kind) well, that has much of the guilt and very little of the pleasure. If you grew up in England at a certain time in history, your school, on behalf of the government, provided you with a daily dose of “school milk” and we were led to believe we had a moral duty to drink it. The kids who didn’t like milk were regarded as a bit strange. If any of them were lactose intolerant they certainly kept quiet about it.

Today, of course, I worry about my cholesterol as much as the next man. My mother entertained no such worries. She loved milk, and she loved cream even more; milky coffee, milk puddings, creamy soups, creamy sauces, vanilla ice cream. Perhaps it was because she’d been through World War Two, a time when milk was one of the many things rationed in England, a time when there were bigger things to worry about than cholesterol. But I don’t think it was the historical associations, and I’m not even sure it was the taste of milk that she really liked. I think it was the colour. She just loved white food.

My mother wasn’t, and never had any ambitions to be, a good cook, but she did care about keeping my father fed and happy. These two things weren’t absolutely synonymous, but they were inextricably linked, and so she became the cook he wanted her to be, which meant that she provided heavy, overcooked, tasteless English food.

I don’t suppose my father’s eating habits were especially strange for a white, working class man of his generation. He liked meat and potatoes in large quantities. Vegetables were present but irrelevant, dessert was essential but it didn’t have to be fancy. He didn’t want “adventure” in his eating. He wanted slabs of pork and beef, sausages, pies, suet puddings.
Of course these are not primarily white foods, but there were other areas where my mother could sometimes satisfy both her own and my father’s tastes. She made excellent creamy mashed potatoes, for instance. She made cod, stewed with onions in milk: tripe was served exactly the same way, and it was a long time before I realized tripe wasn’t a kind of fish. She cooked cauliflower and served it with a white cornflour sauce. She served blancmange, custards, store-bought cream cakes.

You might have thought that chicken would have been a natural menu item, but we never ate it. My father had briefly worked on a farm when he was a boy and had developed a violent aversion to poultry. Equally, although it was permissible to eat rice in a sweet rice pudding, we couldn’t eat it in savory form: my father hinted darkly at rice-related experiences he’d had in Ceylon during the war, intense and too terrible to be spoken of. As for pasta, well I think it never really crossed my father’s mind that a man like himself would ever eat pasta.

I now know that my mother must have been incredibly eager to eat chicken, rice and pasta, because she started cooking them for herself the moment my father died. When she cooked them for me - I’d long since left home by then - I dropped broad hints that they might be improved by adding a few herbs and spices, but my mother’s pantry contained no seasonings except salt and pepper, and will it surprise you that she favored packaged, ground white pepper? Anything else would have adulterated the whiteness.

My mother was a Catholic: my father and I were not. Although she wasn’t a church-goer except at Christmas and Easter, I’ve often wondered whether she made some connection, unconscious perhaps, between food and purity: white food meant a white soul. Perhaps that’s a little too obvious. And I’m sure you could speculate about why she should want to become “purer” after my father’s death, but I shan’t. Whatever the reason, white foods were her idea of comfort food, and it seemed to me at the time, and still does now, that as a widow in her late sixties my mother was entitled to seek comfort wherever she wanted.

Today there is a “no white food” movement, an all-too-simple to follow diet that avoids white products, partly on the basis that potatoes, pasta, rice and bread are wicked carbohydrates, and partly because the whiteness of sugar and flour, for instance, is a sign that the food has been processed, bleached, made unnatural. There seems to be a lot of good sense in this line of thought, but it’s one that would have had no effect whatsoever on my mother. She wouldn’t touch brown sugar or brown flour.

I think we can probably say that my mother’s white diet didn’t, in itself, kill her. She had a pre-existing heart condition, caused by rheumatic fever in childhood, but I think we can also be fairly sure that it didn’t do her health much good. She was found in a chair in her living room by a neighbor one Sunday morning. Her heart had apparently given out some time the previous afternoon. The sliced chicken loaf that she always bought from the local deli counter for her Saturday evening meal, a sort of “high tea,” was found uneaten in the fridge.

My mother had never discussed what kind of funeral she wanted: she and I didn’t have that sort of conversation. By default, and far from sure that I was doing the right thing, I found myself organizing, then attending, a full-blown Catholic funeral. Inevitably I was rather lost when it came to the finer points of ritual, but in due course I found myself joining the line of those receiving holy communion. A thin white wafer was placed on my tongue by the priest. As it dissolved slowly in my mouth I felt that my mother might have approved of the blandness, but she would surely have wanted something smooth and creamy to help it go down.


Friday, February 19, 2010


I was thinking about breakfast in bed, and wondering why it’s never as much fun as it ought to be. I think it has something to do with being afraid of spilling juice or cereal or getting crumbs in the bed. Admittedly this is less of a problem if you’re in somebody else’s bed but even so …

Then I came across the above picture of Marilyn Monroe. She’s putting a raw egg into her glass of milk, raising the possibility of getting egg shells and uncooked albumen between the sheets which seems even worse.

From Marilyn Monroe it was a short step to thinking about J. Edgar Hoover, not least because a new biography’s just been published called, “Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties” by Kenneth D Ackerman.

Breakfast, like everything else in the Hoover household must have been a difficult business. He lived with his mother in Washington and they argued a lot. His niece Margaret reports, “His favorite breakfast was a poached egg on toast, and if that egg was broken he wouldn’t eat it. It went back to the kitchen and another egg was prepared.”

So far I have some sympathy with this. A bad egg is far worse than no egg. However, even when the egg was perfect, Margaret continues, “he’d eat one bite of it, then cut it up and put the dish on the floor for (the dog) to finish up.” This must have caused no end of bad feeling in the kitchen.

Hoover’s eccentricity made me think Sir George Sitwell, father of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell. You could spend a lot of time arguing whether George was eccentric or simply nuts, but he certainly had curious and fixed views on just about everything and was an inventor, who came up with the Sitwell Egg.

This was actually one of his more reasonable ideas, a variation on the Scotch egg, which is sausage meat wrapped around a hard boiled egg with breadcrumbs on the outside. The Sitwell Egg contained smoked meat as its “yolk,” surrounded by a “white” of compressed rice, the whole thing contained in a “shell” of artificial lime, whatever that might be. The story is that he arrived unannounced at Selfridge’s and got an appointment with the owner, Gordon Selfridge, and said, “I’m George Sitwell and I’ve brought my egg.” It never caught on.

All of which brings me back to a story my wife likes to tell about when she was a kid her grandmother asked her is she knew how to make breakfast more nutritious, when she said she no, her granny replied triumphantly, “You put an egg in your beer.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Did you ever read one of those recipes that starts, “Take a pig’s caul” ?

Often they appear in the same kind of recipe that says, “Make friends with your butcher.” I’ve never found a butcher who wanted to be befriended, but a couple of weeks back I did find a source for caul. So we went and bought one, and then we got it home and thought. “Oh, OK, what do we do with it now?”

A riffle through the recipe books suggested it was great as a kind of sausage skin or the wrapping for a crepinette, or venison and quail pate, but alas we didn’t have any venison or quail just lying around waiting to be turned into pate.

So we dug out an old Saveur recipe - white fish, shrimp, green onions, water chestnuts, coriander - pureed in a food processor, wrapped in a piece of caul, battered, then and deep fried.

We did it. It went pretty well, tasted pretty good, but you know it wasn’t the great thing we were hoping for.

We realized we were attracted to the notion of “taking a caul” rather than to what a caul might actually be or what it might taste like.

This is a familiar phenomenon, like “First catch your hare” sometimes attributed to Hannah Glasse, sometimes to Mrs Beeton, though apparently it’s not to be found in either. It just sounds good.

Or there’s “Take Buttock of Beef” which again may or may not be from Hannah Glasse and is also the title of a book by Verity Isitt.

I thought Apicius might be good at this sort of thing and I found his recipe for “Aliter Sala Cattabia Apiciana” a name that doesn’t quite say it all. You take Picentine bread, Vestine cheese, chicken meat and goat’s sweet bread, put that in a mould, pour a wine and herb dressing over it, and then (and here’s the line), “Cool in snow and serve.”

It’s not even clear what’s being cooled, you or the dish. Either would be just fine, I’m sure