Wednesday, July 28, 2010
In "The Uncommercial Traveller" Charles Dickens describes his melancholy arrival in London, as a boy. (Incidentally, my spell check offers “infomercial” for “uncommercial.”) He left home in Kent and traveled by stagecoach to the big smoke. “Through all the years that have since passed, have I ever lost the smell of the damp straw in which I was packed – like game – and forwarded, carriage paid, to the Cross Keys, Wood-street, Cheapside, London? There were no other inside passengers, and I consumed my sandwiches in solitude and dreariness, and it rained hard all the way, and I thought life sloppier than I had expected to find it.”
It’s hard not to make a connection and think that the sandwiches were sloppy too, or perhaps soggy because of the rain. You could probably argue that Dickens never really got over it, and that his depictions of London always have elements of solitude and dreariness, though he didn’t have to spend the rest of his life in Cheapside.
In 1908 Royal Doulton, the company that makes tableware and collectables, devised something called Dickens Ware, a line that existed for over 40 years. Plates, jugs, teapots, trays and so on were decorated with characters and scenes from Dickens’ novels. The one depicted below is the “York Sandwich plate” and the character on it is Alfred Jingle from The Pickwick Papers.
Jingle makes his first appearance, accompanying members of the Pickwick Club on a coach journey. He warns them about the dangers of decapitation from low archways and bridges. Thus:
"Heads, heads - take care of your heads", cried the loquacious stranger as they came out under the low archway which in those days formed the entrance to the coachyard. "Terrible place - dangerous work - other day - five children - mother - tall lady, eating sandwiches - forgot the arch - crash - knock - children look round - mother's head off - sandwich in her hand - no mouth to put it in.”
Saturday, July 24, 2010
I’ve been reading Mary Roach’s new book Packing For Mars, which she describes as being
about “the small comedies and everyday victories” of space travel. So it’s not concerned
with the great adventure of space, more with poop and pee and the dangers of vomiting
into your space helmet (actually not as risky as you might imagine). But the two chapters
that really rock are called “Discomfort Food” and “Eating Your Pants,” which are about
eating in space.
You might think astronauts on a mission might have more to think about than food, but it
seems to be a subject they get very excited and worked up about. My guess is that being
an astronaut, although sometimes thrilling and sometimes terrifying, is more often actually
pretty boring, and so they spend a lot of time looking forward to the next meal, like when
you’re in hospital or on a plane. When the next meal arrives and turns out to be apple puree
in a tube you can see where problems might arise.
Most space food, it seems, is pretty bad, and of course the astronauts know this better than
anybody, which is why in 1965 John Young smuggled a Wolfie’s corned beef sandwich
onto Gemini III to surprise his crewmate Gus Grissom. It was only a 5 hour flight so it must
have been done for laughs rather than to whet a jaded appetite, and after two hours Young
duly produced his sandwich. That's John Young, below. We even have the dialogue.
GRISSOM: Where did that come from?
YOUNG: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?
GRISSOM: Yes, it’s breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.
YOUNG: It was a thought, anyway.
YOUNG: Not a very good one.
Not very dramatic, and not really very many laughs, though apparently there was hell to pay
when they got down to earth. It showed that astronauts weren’t necessarily sober rule
followers. But it could surely have been much worse. What if he’d smuggled nachos and
dip and a couple of Coors on board? Mary Roach tells us that beer in space is a disaster: it
simply turns to foam.
Roach also refers to something called The Astronaut’s Cookbook. I acquired a copy. It’s by
Charles T. Bourland, who spent 30 years working on food for spaceflight, and Gregory L.
Vogt, a science writer. It’s a very singular book.
Partly it’s about science and history, describing the kinds of food that do and don’t work ins
space. “Irradiated meat ... cooked, packaged in flexible foil-laminated retort pouches, and
sterilized by zapping it with ionizing radiation” works just fine, apparently.
There are some fun pictures in the Astronaut’s Cookbook of people eating in space.
Sometimes we see that the meal tray has to be strapped to the astronaut’s leg to stop it
floating away, and there’s a photograph of Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri with a
floating Japanese apple, which the book tells us is “banned in the US, so NASA had to get
special permission from the USDA to import them and follow a strict protocol to insure all
seeds were destroyed.” You just know that “strict protocol” probably involved doing
something weird with the guy’s poop.
There are some fairly ordinary recipes for pea soup, meatloaf and apricot cobbler, which
have to be thermo-processed before going into space. And then there are some celebrity
recipes: Emeril’s Mardi Gras Jambalaya and Rachel Ray’s 5 vegetable fried rice with 5-
spice pork: these have to be freeze dried.
And then, incredibly it seemed to me, there’s a recipe for a Frozen Space Sandwich: “place
meat and cheese on bread … slice diagonally … place in bag and freeze.” It’s not exactly
However, one of the most fascinating parts of the book shows a sample menu for the food
eaten on the International Space Station Expedition Five, from 2005. The crew was partly
Russian, and partly American and so the food alternated on a daily basis; Russian food one
day, American food the next. On the Russian days it would be borsch, sturgeon and jellied
pike. On the American days it would be tuna noodle casserole, tortillas and shrimp
Above is a shot taken on Expedition Five. The official caption reads, “View of Astronaut
Peggy Whitson, flight engineer (left) and Cosmonaut Valery Korzun, commander (right),
eating a meal in the Service Module (SM)/Zvezda. Tomato and hamburger are floating.” It
was evidently taken on one of the American days.
Whether this helped foster international understanding I don’t know; it seems unlikely. I
can’t quite imagine those all-American astronauts smacking their lips at jellied pike, but
then again maybe it wasn’t very good jellied pike and the Russians didn’t enjoy it either.
Perhaps there was a shared agony. There’s nothing quite like really bad food for bringing
Friday, July 16, 2010
Photo credit: Thrillist Los Angeles
A newish Hollywood restauran, called District, is causing a bit of a stir with one of its starters, actually what’s referred to on the menu as one of its “breads.” They’re serving “duck fat Yorkshire pudding w/ thyme (allow 15 minutes).” Obviously this had to be checked out. There were other menu items to be checked out as well: fried head cheese, venison stuffed relleno, corn agnolotti. But obviously it was the Yorkshire pudding that was most in need of scrutiny.
We went, we ate, and they were terrific; served sizzling hot in black cloth a basket, oily but not too oily, and soft and dense but not too dense. The Loved One said she’d have preferred more crunch but that didn’t bother me. I’ve probably eaten too many dried out, English institutional Yorkshire puddings in my life.
If you think it seems a little strange to be eating Yorkshire puddings in Los Angeles, I’d tend to agree with you, but the fact is they’re less of a rarity here than you might think. You can certainly get them at Lawry’s on La Cienaga (cited, in an earlier incarnation, in “The Long Goodbye” and discussed elsewhere in this blog), which is a sort of copy of the London restaurant, Simpson’s in the Strand, and it’s one of those copies that’s an improvement on the original. That's their dinner cart above.
You can also get them at the Tam O’Shanter in Los Feliz, also owned by Lawry’s, and not a copy of anything as far as I can tell. It’s vaguely Scottish themed and the serving staff wear a kind of all-purpose traditional dress, and they do serve haggis around Burns night, but its thoroughly Californian, and pretty much a self-invention. I’ve heard that the Grill on the Alley also does Yorkshire pudding, but it's a bit further into Beverly Hills than I like to go.
I think a true Yorkshireman would have complained that the Yorkshire puddings at District were a bit small – about the size of a meatball - but that’s what true Yorkshiremen are like. I am a Yorkshireman, though I suspect not a very true any more. You can see why a restaurant might want you not to fill up too much on cheap starters: they want you to have plenty of room for the expensive main courses. But Yorkshire pudding was invented to do precisely the opposite. In working class Yorkshire homes the pudding was served before the main Sunday roast, so you’d want less roast beef.
And at some point in the 1980s when I was living in Yorkshire, many of the local pubs came up with the idea of serving “filled” Yorkshire puddings. They made plate-size puddings, crusty round the edges with a deep well in the center, cooked beforehand and reheated to order I’m pretty sure, and these were then filled with something or other: beef stew or fish stew or in some cases, I swear, curried chicken. As fusion cooking goes, it’s hard to get much more fused than that.
Filled Yorkshire puddings can now be found at manay an English supermarket, often frozen, and of course they’re terrible. Yorkshire puddings have to be fresh, as the ones at District prove..
Incidentally, as I’ve just discovered, calling your restaurant District makes it all but impossible to find on Google. Typing in variations of the words District, Restaurant, Hollywood and Yorkshire Pudding gets you nowhere at all, and brings up restaurants in theatre districts or business development districts all over the place. Arguably I did once live in the Yorkshire pudding district, and to an extent I still do, but these days it’s a territory of the mind rather than of geography.
Oh yeah, and by the way, there is no need whatsoever for anybody ever to buy Yorkshire pudding mix.
Monday, July 12, 2010
And talking (re Dennis Hopper) of alcohol as a source of calories, I used to be at college with a man called Dave Lamb, and when he went out at night to get drunk he’d say he was going out for a “feed of drink.” which sounds somehow Irish, though he was a Somerset man. I certainly don’t recall him eating much, but perhaps he didn’t need to.
Dave wasn’t a large man – neither was Hopper - but they drank “above their weight,” as it were. But when it comes to truly heroic, self-destructive drinking, size is always going to be an advantage.
André the Giant (1946-1993) weighed in at between 450 and 500 pounds, and carried his bulk on a 7 foot 4 inch frame. It’s reckoned that he took in about 7000 calories a day, simply from alcohol, though he ate plenty too, sometimes going into a restaurant and ordering every item on the menu. I have to say I'd like to do that some day before I die.
He was also a person that myths grew up around. On the Internet and elsewhere you’ll find plenty of people who say he holds the “record” for alcohol intake, 119 beers, 12 ounces each, in a six hour session, (some accounts say 118, or 113, but they’re all well over 100.) Equally you’ll find plenty of people who say this is literally impossible, that death would occur from that amount of fluid intake, even if the fluid were only water. When you add alcohol to the equation, they reckon there’s no way he could have done it and survived. Maybe he just looked like a guy who could drink 119 beers in six hours.
A more nuanced account of André’s drinking comes from Terry Todd who wrote about him in a Sports Illustrated article in 1971. They spent some time together while Todd was writing the article and he reported that André drank “like a Frenchman,” steadily and constantly without ever getting obviously drunk.
Todd writes, “During the week or so I was with him, his average daily consumption was a case or so of beer; a total of two bottles of wine, generally French, with his meals; six or eight shots of brandy, usually Courvoisier or Napoleon, though sometimes Calvados; half a dozen standard mixed drinks, such as Bloody Marys or Screwdrivers; and the odd glass of Pernod.” And when, like Dennis Hopper, he simply wanted to get drunk he’d move on to straight hard liquor: a few fifths of vodka in André’s case.
All of which set me thinking about the Jivaro Indians from the headwaters of the Amazon: that's one of them above. In “Consuming Passions: the anthropology of eating” by Peter Farb and George Armelagos, it’s reported that the Jivaros consider beer a far greater necessity than food. The book was published in 1980 and things may well have changed since then, thanks to the benefits of civilization, but at the time of the the book, adult Jivaro males drank 3 to 4 gallons of beer a day, adult females 1 to 2 gallons, and a 9 year old child (sex not specified) would drink about half a gallon. And there's evidence (below) that they started younger than that.
Almost all the protein in their diet had to be obtained by hunting, nevertheless the Jivaro hunters would often abandon the pursuit of prey and go home when it looked like they might run out of beer.
The Jivaro’s beer is made from manioc root, also known as cassava, and the mystery ingredient, the one that causes fermentation, is ptyalin – from human saliva: young women of the tribe chew the root to break it down as part of the brewing process. Michael Uzendoski in his book “The Napo Runa of Amazonian Ecuador” writes, “Manioc brew has a nice balance of fruity sweetness, acidity, alcohol and texture … I have never witnessed or heard of a bad batch.”
Thursday, July 8, 2010
In interviews, the late, much lamented Dennis Hopper used to tell how when he was at his nadir in Taos, New Mexico, in the 1970s, his daily intake of alcohol consisted of half a gallon of rum, plus a fifth of rum on the side in case he ran out, plus 28 beers. With this and 3 grams of cocaine a day he could stay more or less “sober,” and if he wanted to get drunk he’d do shots of tequila.
I don’t doubt that this is true, but it seems a very specific sort of drunk who keeps track of exactly how much he drinks. A very specific one too, who drinks exactly the same amount every day. Was it always 28 beers? Never 27? Never 29? Didn’t he ever feel the urge to drink vodka rather than rum?
I don’t know what, if anything, Hopper ate during this period but I guess his calorific intake was high enough to keep him fed, if not exactly well-nourished. Those 28 beers alone must have contained a good 4000 calories.
I was reminded of Hopper, while reading Barbara Holland’s book The Joy Of Drinking. She says that in 1787, two days before they drew up the American Constitution, the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention took a break and went to the tavern next door, where they drank “54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 8 of whiskey, 22 of port, 8 of hard cider and 7 bowls of punch so large that, it was said, ducks could swim around in them. Then they went back to work and finished founding the new Republic.” This is Barbara Holland, below.
I’m not sure if any of the delegates kept track of what they drank, but we know this chapter and verse because the bill has been preserved. I can’t help wondering if there were a few hangers on who drank at the delegates’ expense, or if the tavern padded the bill a little, but even if so the guys must certainly have put it away. We know for sure that several of the signatories of the Constitution were gout sufferers – John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton among them - and I imagine quite a few others too.
The Guinness Book of World Records long ago stopped keeping records on the quantity of alcohol people drink, but a recently published first edition facsimile lists two champion drinkers: Auguste Maffrey of France - 24 pints of beer in 52 minutes, and Dionsio Sanchez “a Spaniard” – 40 pints of wine in 59 minutes. This is Auguste, below.
I’ve been wondering if these people count as “binge drinkers” a term that comes with various definitions. By some standards 5 drinks “in a row” for men, 4 drinks in a row for women, counts as a binge. By other definitions binge drinking requires drinking a lot of alcohol rapidly with the deliberate intention of getting drunk. Clearly Hopper, the founding fathers, Auguste and Dionsio must have had far more than five drinks in a row, but none of them seems to have done it with the deliberate, and certainly not the sole, intention of getting drunk. They were just drinking what they always drank.
Incidentally my friend Hugh reckoned it was time to cut back on drinking not when he had too much to drink and woke up in the gutter in a pool of sweat and remorse, but on the occasion that he had fifteen pints of beer, then quietly got on the bus and went home and got up in time for a lecture the next morning.
Now, nobody in their right mind is going to suggest that binge drinking is a “good idea” but according to some new research done at Brown University, the next day effects of binge drinking aren’t nearly as bad as you might think. Science Daily reports, “The study found that intoxication in the evening did not affect students' next day scores on academic tests requiring long-term memory, or on tests of recently learned material. Binge drinking did, however, slow participants' attention/reaction times and worsen mood states.”
In other words, the constitutional delegates would still have been perfectly able to draw up a constitution, they just might have been a bit grumpy while doing it. Dennis Hopper, of course, would probably have reached for his gun.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
When I first went to San Francisco in the 1970s I went along to Fisherman’s Wharf and looked at all the seafood and felt baffled and overwhelmed by it all.
I was especially confused by the hollowed out loaf of sourdough bread filled with clam chowder. I’d never encountered a clam or a chowder and the concept of sour dough was completely unknown to me. I was drawn to it, but it seemed too strange and exotic. I wouldn’t have known how to order it or how to eat it or how it was supposed to taste Sour bread sounded strange though somehow attractive, and eating the “vessel” you’d eaten from seemed so decadent. I bought some bread and cheese and felt on much safer ground.
These days I eat soudough pretty much every day – it’s the basic bread we buy at the supermarket, and I certainly know what clam chowder is, though it’s not something I ever crave.
Even so it seems impossible to visit San Francisco without going to Fisherman’s Wharf and having clam chowder in a hollowed out sour dough loaf, usually at the Boudin Bakery. I was there a couple of weeks back and that’s exactly what I did. These days it not only seems unexotic it seems downright dull, and I was left wondering how this dish has become such an attraction to me and everyone else. Maybe it’s like eating fish and chips at the English seaside or eating Nathan’s hotdogs at Coney, you’re not sure you’re really enjoying them but you think you should.
My San Francisco visit wasn’t especially food-related but, to my surprise, I did find a kind of potato I’d never eaten before. It was in a French restaurant on Grant Avenue called Café de La Presse, I ordered the the Confit de Canard Maison and it came with “potatoes salardaise.” I didn’t take a picture, because the restaurant seemed too classy and I didn't want to seem like a rube. It looked like this:
I wasn’t completely sure how they were cooked, though garlic and duck fat were certainly involved, and when I got home I couldn’t find a recipe in any of my cookbooks, least of all Julia Childs. I figure it must be in Larousse Gastronomique but my copy has (not so mysteriously) disappeared. Online recipes are of course wildly various, not least in the spelling of the word itself, which sometimes appears as “sarladaise.” They seem to be a speciality of the Dordogne.
But the basics are simple enough, essentially you fry slices of potato in duck (or goose) fat along with garlic, onion and parsley. It’s the cooking time that gets really interesting. Some recipes suggest twenty minutes, some suggest two hours, by which time you’re pretty much making a confit of the potatoes themselves, which is OK by me. And the fact is, it’s hard to go wrong with those ingredients, as my own humble efforts (below) prove.