Saturday, August 28, 2010

PEASANT FOOD

This is an edited verion of an article that appears in the current issue of Tin House.


Once a week, as I was growing up in the north of England, I watched my Irish grandfather eat a boiled pig’s trotter. I watched with fascination rather than envy, since my parents had assured me, with the certainty parents so often have, that I wouldn’t enjoy the taste of a pig’s trotter. Later in my life I learned this wasn’t true, but at the time I didn’t argue. There were, for sure, other, much bigger battles to be fought against my parents, but when I look back on it I wonder quite why they were so insistent that pigs’ trotters weren’t for me, and I think the answer is because they’d decided pig’s trotters weren’t for them. My parents were making a long, arduous journey from the working class to the middle class, and instinctively they’d decided that eating pig’s trotters would slow their social ascendancy. Trotters were peasant food, and my parents were no longer prepared to be peasants.

Today I live in Los Angeles, not entirely a bastion of social egalitarianism, though certainly a place where an Englishman can kick over the traces of his origins if he wants to, at least until he meets another Englishman. It’s also a place where it’s currently hard to find an upscale restaurant that doesn’t serve pigs’ trotters. Peasant food is now very hip indeed. Mario Batali’s Osteria Mozza serves trotters with cicoria and mustard: at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon they come with sauce gribiche. At Animal you’re likely to find not only trotters, but also pig’s ears, cheeks and tails.


These would have been even more unthinkable to my parents, though they were perfectly happy to eat any number of other “low” pork products: pork pies, black pudding, “scraps” which were a type of deep fried pork skin, and also pork “dripping”: this was regarded as a wholesome bedtime snack. Pork roasts themselves, of course, were regarded as rather superior fare, and bacon was eaten at every available opportunity.


I was born and grew up in Sheffield, specifically in the rough but striving, working class neighborhood of Hillsborough. At the time it seemed all too unremarkable, but looking back on it, two things stand out: that it had a large Catholic population (which included the majority of my own family), and that there were more pork butchers and “pork shops” than you’d think such a small suburb could possibly support.


A Sheffield pork shop was, and still is, a place where you buy hot pork sandwiches complete with crackling, apple sauce and stuffing. Los Angeles doesn’t have an exact equivalent as far as I’m aware, but having a large Latino population means there’s no shortage of places to buy and eat pork in myriad forms. Chorizos, longanizas, morangas, chicharr├│ns, cuertos, quesos del puerco: we got ‘em.


And one day as I was wandering around Macarthur Park, at rough but striving, working class neighborhood toward downtown, admiring the carnecerias, the taquerias and the stores that sold plaster statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, it struck me that this area had a lot in common with the place I grew up. More than that, I began to suspect there must be some strange, deep connection between pork, class and Catholicism. Why, I wondered, do Catholics seem to like pork so much?
Apparently I’m not the first to have asked this question. An online resource called the Catholic Answers Forum tells me that god revealed to the apostles that the dietary laws of the Old Testament did not apply to Christians. It’s there in Acts 10: 9-16, where Peter is told that if god made an animal then by definition it can’t be unclean, and is therefore OK to eat, which I think has a nice logic to it. And again, in Colossians 2: 16-17 Paul says, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink.” In other words, just because the Jews don’t eat bacon, that’s no reason for you not to eat bacon.


Of course you don’t have to be Catholic to love pork, any more than you need to be Latino or Irish, but coming from a working class culture that tries to stretch its money, and its food, to the limit seems to be a large part of the equation. And in rural society, it’s possible to imagine a poor family owning a pig, keeping it in their back yard and feeding it on household scraps and leftovers. Owning cows and sheep, even a goat, is a trickier proposition, requiring at the very least access to grazing land.


My own front garden contains a shady area, under an oak tree, where a pig could live very happily indeed, but frankly I think the chances of my successfully getting through L.A.’s zoning variance process are close to zero. It remains a warm, recurring fantasy however.

There’s a widespread belief in LA that some of the city’s best food is to be found not in five star, white table cloth establishments, but in hole in the wall joints located in mini-malls, places that favor Formica tables, fluorescent lighting and gruff non-English speaking waiters. Certainly there are moments in Los Angeles, when you find yourself in some grittily cheerful cantina alongside working stiffs, off duty security guards, groups of secretaries having a night out, guys who’d like you to think they’re gang members, and you’re all there together devouring carnitas, puerco asado or burrito Jalisco (and yes OK, there may be a few lightweights who aren’t eating pork) and you think to yourself, yes this is democracy and equality in action. Such classlessness is of course a one way street. As yet the security guards and would-be gangbangers aren’t regulars at the Ivy and Spago.

Somehow this all ties in with the current food trend sometimes called (not by me) the “nouveau truck scene.” Street food surely ought to be the most classless food of all, and once this was very straightforward. There’d be a taco truck parked outside your office building at lunchtime or outside a club after a gig and you’d buy a pretty good, grease bomb of a burrito, swallow it down and damn the cholesterol. If some of these trucks weren’t strictly legal, and were sometimes hassled by the cops, well that was all part of the fun.

But now the scene has mutated, and some would say got too fancy for its own good. Alerted by Twitter, hipster foodies now drive all over town chasing down the latest truck selling Guatamalan/Korean fusion tostadas (or whatever). At the same time, cutting edge restaurants, that have never had the slightest connection with the street, now operate their own trucks to make themselves appear authentic. If you think this is less like egalitarianism than highly self-conscious slumming, you’ll get no argument from me. Although I admit it’s hard to resist a food truck called the Flying Pig.


In fact, much as I hate to say it, there are times when mainstream fast food chains seem far more genuinely classless. You see the line of vehicles waiting at the drive thru window of a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell or a KFC, and there’ll be a dented old pickup truck waiting behind a minivan full of a mom and her kids, waiting behind some movie guy in his Porsche, and you think, yes this a version of the American dream; all classes and types sharing the same appetites, buying the same products, eating the same food. And if the food is uninspired and generic, constructed to satisfy the lowest, least interesting tastes, well, maybe that’s the price you have to pay for democracy. Not much point going up to people in the line and telling them they should eat pig’s trotters. No point whatsoever telling them they should eat more like peasants.

Monday, August 23, 2010

EATING MILITARY

After I’d read all that stuff about what astronauts eat in Mary Roach’s book, I went online to see if it’s possible to buy space food. As far as I can tell the answer is, not really. I mostly found something called Professor Retro’s Space Food Sampler, which describes itself as “Chock full of tasty freeze-dried treats including Neapolitan Astronaut Ice Cream, Chocolate with Chocolate Chips Astronaut Ice Cream, Mint Chocolate Astronaut Ice Cream, freeze-dried Astronaut Apples, freeze-dried Astronaut Bananas, Chocolate Space Food Sticks, Peanut Butter Space Food Sticks, and four Splashdown Flavor Stix for bottled water--Lunar Lemonade, Intergalactic Grape, Lemon-Lime Crater-Ade.”


That all seemed a bit frivolous to me, like the stuff you’d give out at a kids party. Is space ice cream really going to be any different from earth ice cream? Is there really anything very extraterrestrial about bottled water that tastes of grape? And just as a matter of historical interest, when did space flight become “retro”?

I wanted something more serious: dehydrated cubes of bacon, stew in a tube, that kind of thing. I didn’t find any on line but I did go to my local army surplus store, the Supply Sergeant on Hollywood Boulevard, and I found they stocked military rations, manufactured by the Military Ration Company of Gardena, California. This seemed as close as I was going to get to space food: not very close. I chose the Vegetable Stew with Beef, which came in a sober-looking cardboard pack, sealed inside a plastic bag, along with a cookie, a power bar an energy, instant coffee, matches and so on.


The bag also contained a kind of single use stove, which is either very low tech or very high, I’m not sure which. The instructions say, “heater and its byproducts are not intended for human consumption,” which seems an odd way of putting it. OK, they’re not intended for human consumption, but it doesn’t actually say you can’t eat ‘em, does it? You need a stove because the stew comes in one of those foil pouches. I confess I boiled mine in a saucepan in the kitchen. And the result looked like this.


The stew really wasn’t bad at all. There was more meat than I was expecting, given the name, and although the vegetables were a bit soft and formless, overall it was actually pretty tasty, and why not given that the list of ingredients included beef flavor, tomato paste and Worcester sauce? If there was any complaint it was that there really wasn’t very much of it, and it contained just 160 calories, which I‘d have thought was a bit skimpy if you were a hungry soldier. I guess you energize yourself with the power bar.

Now it so happened that a few days later I went to the local Indian supermarket, India Sweets and Spices, on Los Feliz Boulevard, a fantastic resource for bulk spices, chutney, pickles and dried fish. And I saw some packeted dishes, including this one; Mutter Panner, or Splendid Cheese Peas, as somebody at Kohinoor Foods of New Delhi has translated it.

I got it home, opened it, and there was a pouch, pretty much identical to the one used in the military ration. I boiled it up. Now nobody can really expect boil in the bag curry to be especially authentic, and this certainly wasn’t. Despite the cumin, fenugreek, black and green cardamom, the green and red chilli, it tasted pretty bland. It also, of course looked nothing like the image on the pack – a problem the Military Ration Company had wisely sidestepped.


Maybe it had something to do with lower expectations, but it seemed to me the military guys had made a much better job of their stew than the Indians had made of their mutter paneer. This seemed a sad thing. And I was actually made sadder because I’d just been to a really poor Indian restaurant in San Diego, and it wouldn’t have surprised me at all if their food hadn’t come out of boil in the bag pouches.

So then, just to round things off, I found myself in my local Jon’s supermarket, browsing among the unusual canned goods and I found this: Army Brand Officer’s Pork Loaf, a product of Poland. It was the camouflaged label that really attracted me.


Now I can’t guarantee that Polish army officers actually eat this stuff but I felt I had to know what it tastes like. And the answer is, again, surprisingly good. Ingredients include pork meat, pork skins, pimento, paprika and marjoram.


I admit it looked kind of unappetizing coming out of the can, but with a little dressing up of leaves, herbs and cornichons it looked a whole lot better. And it struck me that if you were an unscrupulous restaurateur, you might serve this up as an example of a little known and highly prized type of charcuterie. Hey, it wouldn't be the worst thing you've eaten in a restaurant.

Monday, August 9, 2010

OMNIBIBULARITY


After the “Drink What You Know” essay appeared, I got an email from a writer name of Bud Johns directing me to H.L. Mencken’s three rules for drinking. I was well aware that Mencken had described the martini as “the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet” but I’d never heard his rules.


They’re as follows: “First, never drink if you have any work to do. Never. Secondly, never drink alone. That's the way to become a drunkard. Thirdly, even if you haven't got any work to do, never drink while the sun is shining. Wait until it's dark.”

They strike me as pretty tough, and actually Bud Johns doubts whether Mencken stuck to them, and he would know, as the author of “The Ombibulous Mr. Mencken” a “humorous drinking biography” according to Amazon. It's published by Synergistic Press and is very reasonably priced.


The word ombibulous is Mencken’s invention, "I am ombibulous. I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all. I learned early in life how to handle alcohol and never had any trouble with it.”


Mencken suffered through, and drank throughout, Prohibition. Prohibition is one of those bizarre flowerings of American Puritanism, that is never quite incomprehensible to an Englishman. Given that we had riots in the streets of London in the 1990s when the Thatcher government tried to impose a poll tax, I can only guess how we’d have reacted if someone had tried to take away our booze.

One of the things “The Ombibulous Mr. Mencken” makes clear, and it was something I’d never really thought about before, is that Mencken, and no doubt many others too, knew that Prohibition was coming and so began stocking up for the impending drought. In his letters Mencken writes that he has enough booze to last him 18 months, then two years, and eventually 15 years, which of course is more or less how long Prohibition lasted, though later letters suggest he may have overestimated his supply


Mencken was a formidable eater as well as drinker. Bud Johns quotes from “H.L. Mencken - A Portrait from Memory” by Charles Angoff who recalled that Mencken would start his evenings with 4 or 5 beers and a large plate of sauerkraut. Then he’d have half a dozen blutwursts, or several slices of pot roast, or a dozen small sausages, with potatoes, vegetables and bread and butter. No disguising those German genes. Then there’d be more beer, or possibly or wine, along with one or two pieces of cheesecake. After that he’d begin the night’s serious drinking.

According to Angoff, Mencken said, “Food never hurt anyone, but only if it’s washed down with liquor. Most of the trouble from so-called overeating comes from under-drinking.” How very, very consoling, for him and for all of us.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

KNOW WHAT YOU DRINK

Maybe this is very slightly off topic; more drinking than eating, and also about writing, but I know you Psycho-Gourmet readers are literate types. It appeared last week in the New York Times Book Review, under the title DRINK WHAT YOU KNOW.


There are only two cocktails: “a slug of whiskey” and a martini. This isn’t my opinion, but the law as laid down by Bernard DeVoto in his book “The Hour,” first published in 1948 and recently reissued. It so happens that I’ve owned a copy of this book for a long time and often wondered if anyone would ever bring it back into print and whether the world would find it as engaging and infuriating as I do.


The hour referred to is the cocktail hour, naturally, and the book is essentially a celebration of booze, but only the kind DeVoto approves of, and as we see, he doesn’t approve of much. “Hot drinks are for people who have had skiing accidents,” he declares. And “one tribe of our enemies drink something they call a Gibson. They are not drinking a cocktail, they are drinking gin with an onion in it.”


Now, I happen to think he has a couple of good points there, but then he banishes even the olive from the martini, which strikes me as downright foolish. This, of course, is the problem with offering advice of any kind: people think you’re talking sense only when your prejudices coincide with theirs. Dissenters tend to raise the question “Who asked you anyway?”
You might imagine that Christopher Hitchens (may there be many more martinis in his future) would be far too wised up about human folly to lay down rules about drinking, and yet there he is in his recent memoir, “Hitch-22,” delivering wisdom like “Drink when you are in a good mood,” “It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone,” “Cheap booze is a false economy” and so on.


This last opinion would seem to put him in direct opposition to Kingsley Amis. In “Everyday Drinking,” a collection of his booze-related writings just issued in paperback, Amis gives the recipe for the Lucky Jim, essentially a vodka martini with cucumber juice in it. And wait, it gets worse when he writes in a footnote, “Use a British vodka, the cheapest you can find.” As Hitchens himself notes in his introduction to “Everyday Drinking,” Amis eventually became “a very slight cocktail bore,” though Hitchens insists this was only in print. Maybe, but Amis’s insistence that a basic dry martini should contain cocktail onions (note the plural) would irk many souls far less touchy than Bernard DeVoto.


Reading all this, I find myself wondering why on earth writers would bother setting down rules for other people’s drinking. People telling you how to drink is every bit as tedious and annoying as people telling you not to drink at all. It seems to me that writers are much more useful in these matters when their advice is dispensed casually in their fiction — when they are showing rather than telling. After all, “Lucky Jim” contains some of the greatest booze-related scenes in all fiction, from which you might learn, for instance, that if, in a drunken stupor, you burn a hole in your hostess’s sheets, cutting around the edges with a razor is unlikely to convince her that the cause was “dry rot or the ravages of a colony of moths.” It may be reductive to think of literature as an etiquette manual for the young and/or na├»ve drinker, but when I had my first hangover, very shortly after I’d first read “Othello,” I was much consoled by the line “O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!” It told me I wasn’t the first idiot ever to feel so remorseful the morning after.


Equally, I knew from reading Dorothy Parker that three martinis would put me under the table, and four under my host, long before I’d had even one martini. And I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have so much affection for the gimlet if I hadn’t discovered it in Raymond Chandler’s “Long Goodbye” as a symbol of loss, melancholy and tarnished ideals. I also know, thanks to Hunter S. Thompson, that if I ever make a savage journey to the heart of the American dream, I should load up the trunk of my car with a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, and a pint of raw ether, among many other substances.


Of course, you could argue that if the lives of Parker, Chandler and Thompson prove anything, it’s that writers might be better off not drinking at all, but that’s one piece of advice that’s never going to fly. In some cases it would leave them with nothing to write about.


That unredeemed drinker Jack Kerouac did offer one excellent piece of advice, “Try never get drunk outside yr own house,” a clear case of do what I say, not what I do. However, this wasn’t a rule for drinking: it was a rule for writing, attached to his list of “essentials of spontaneous prose.”

When you think about it, rules for drinking are not so different from rules for writing. Many of these are so familiar they’ve become truisms: Write what you know. Write every day. Never use a strange, fancy word when a simple one will do. Always finish the day’s writing when you could still do more. With a little adaptation these rules apply just as well for drinking. Drink what you know, drink regularly rather than in binges, avoid needlessly exotic booze, and leave the table while you can still stand.

You could also substitute “drink” for “write” in these well-known examples of writerly wisdom. “An author ought to write for the youth of his generation” (Fitzgerald). “Write, damn you! What else are you good for?” (Joyce). “Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To leap. To fly. To fail” (Sontag).


Other writers prefer to offer lengthier, more complex pieces of advice. On her Web site, Erica Jong suggests that when writing you should “forget intellect,” “forget ego,” “accept change” and “let sex in,” which is pretty much what happens to most of us when we drink. I’m also fond of one of Richard Ford’s rules: “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.” This transfers very nicely indeed to drink. Nothing could be worse for a drinker than to marry someone who thinks drinking is a bad idea.

However, the biggest problem with trying to establish rules about things as personal as drinking or writing is that however good the advice, the person on the receiving end is never going to be able to take somebody else’s word for it. You have to find out about these things for yourself, usually the hard way. You write and drink as you see fit, partly out of choice, often out of need, and if you wake up next morning, look back on what you’ve done and feel mortified and shaken — well, maybe you’ve learned something. But this lesson is never transferable. Somebody tells you not to mix Zima with Drambuie, somebody says that rewriting Icelandic myths in the style of Candace Bushnell is a really bad idea, but you may feel compelled to go ahead and do it anyway.


The best you can hope for is to arrive, by whatever means, at the same conclusions as those who are older and wiser. Another piece of advice from Richard Ford runs, “Don’t drink and write at the same time,” a rule I follow scrupulously. But a more nuanced version of the same rule comes from Keith Waterhouse, the author of “Billy Liar.” He said you should never drink while you’re writing, but it’s O.K. to write while you’re drinking, a nice distinction.


And finally there is one gem of wisdom to be found amid all the prejudice and humbug of “The Hour.” DeVoto writes, “For God’s sake, develop a little skill and then do the job unostentatiously.” Great advice that applies equally to both drinking and writing, if you ask me, although I am, of course, well aware that you didn’t.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

THE BEEF EATERS


I’ve been reading the unimproveably titled “Memorials of Gourmandising,” an article written in 1841 by William Makepeace Thackeray. That’s him above, with wife and son. In the article he asserts that not only are the English superior to the French, morally and martially, but also physically. He’d got it into his head that the English were a big brawny race, wheras the French were a bunch of weeds. He writes thus, addressing his fellow Englishmen:

“I say to you that you are better than a Frenchman. I would lay even money that you who are reading this are more than five feet seven in height, and weigh eleven stone; while a Frenchman is five feet four and does not weigh nine. The Frenchman has after his soup a dish of vegetables, where you have one of meat. You are a different and superior animal — a French-beating animal (the history of hundreds of years has shown you to be so); you must have, to keep up that superior weight and sinew … simpler, stronger, more succulent food.”

Thackeray’s opinion may have had something, though surely not everything, to do with his being 6 feet 3 inches tall, an exceptional height for a man of the mid nineteenth century. But conflating nationality and nutrition in this way seems just plain dumb, and I wonder in fact whether he’s actually objecting to the French love of salad. Elsewhere in the piece he seems to be reasonably pro-vegetable.


I was reminded of something in “Eating in America” by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont, that runs, “A significant passage in Frederick Law Olmsted’s ‘Seaboard Slave States,’ a product of his travels of the 1850s, suggests that slaves may have enjoyed a better balanced diet than that of many whites … Some owners encouraged the Negroes to grow vegetables for themselves … because they discovered ‘negroes fed on three-quarters of a pound of bread and bacon are more prone to disease than if with less meat but with vegetables.’ It did not occur to the masters to draw any conclusion from this empirical observation for their own benefit.”

I’ve recounted this “fact” from time to time as a prime example of people knowing what’s good for others while not knowing what’s good for themselves, but only now did I decide to actually look up Olmsted’s own account. That's him below.


The full title of the book is “A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; 
With Remarks on Their Economy.” Olmsted traveled through the American South and Texas between 1852 and 1857 and sent back reports to the New York Daily Times (which would become the New York Times). The reports were later collected and published in book form. Olmstead was against slavery, though he was a long way from being what we’d currently recognize as a liberal.

It turns out the person speaking in the above quotation is not Olmstead but one Mr. M. W. Phillips, who Olmsted describes, unironically as far as I can tell, as “an ardent and constant writer on agricultural economy, in connection with Slavery, and a most philanthropic man, writing to the New York Tribune, for the very purpose of proving that the condition of the slaves is better than that of free-laborers.” Phillips was a slave owner, in other words, though he claimed to run a “model plantation” and what he said, in full, is as follows:

“We might make more money by a different treatment, and we might spend more money on our negroes, if we would listen to questionable friends ... I have examined much into the treatment of slaves, having, some twenty years ago, practiced medicine, with an opportunity to see how different diet and treatment affected health. Half pound of sound bacon, with vegetables and bread in plenty, and cistern-water, is, in my opinion, a certain preventive of disease; but the cook must be watched, and water carriers noticed. Negroes fed on three-quarters of a pound of bacon and bread are more prone to disease than if with less meat, but with vegetables.”

Yes, yes we get it: he could spend more money on his slaves’ diets if he chose to, but it’s simply better for everybody if he doesn’t. Saving money coincides perfectly, and conveniently, with the health of his slaves. Everybody wins. Olmstead certainly does nothing to challenge this opinion. Perhaps he’s giving Phillips enough rope to hang himself, but I don’t think so.


In Louisiana, Olmstead also interviewed an unnamed slave. The man says he has been sold twice so far in his life, and if he has to be sold again, he’d rather it was to an American than to a Frenchman. Why? Because the French, he says, didn’t feed their slaves well. Olmsted’s passage runs like this: " ‘Why, sometimes, massa, dey only gives 'em dry corn--don't give out no meat at all.’ I told him this could not be so, for the law required that every master should serve out meat to his negroes. ‘Oh, but some on 'em don't mind Law, if he does say so, massa. Law never here; don't know anything about him.’”

Thackeray wouldn’t have been at all surprised at the meatless feeding habits of the French. But actually, Thackeray wasn’t always as humorless as his remarks about the French might suggest. Having traveled to America for the first time and eaten his first American oyster he wrote, “I thought I'd swallowed a small child." Who wouldn’t enjoy that?