Sunday, February 27, 2011


The website for Musso and Frank has many pictures of famous folk visiting the restaurant, such as the one above.  I think I’ve never seen any true superstars there.  The most famous person I’ve ever seen was Tim Curry, and I’ve certainly never seen Gore Vidal.
When it comes to food and sex Vidal has always seemed pro-sex, though not especially pro-sensuality, wanting to get both jobs done without too much fuss.  I can see why Musso might suit him.
Back in the days when he lived in the famous villa in Ravello, a Time magazine profile wrote: “Everyday details are handled by Bronx-born Howard Austen, 47, Vidal's companion for 26 years. Vidal rises most mornings between 9:30 and 11, has a small breakfast and then writes until 3 p.m., pausing only to consume a boiled egg for lunch. Next comes 30 to 45 minutes of weight lifting, a daily regimen to keep his 6-ft. frame tolerably within range of 180 Ibs. When this fails, he adopts a last resort: holing up in a hotel where he hates the food.”
Yes well: this was written in 1976.

Howard Austen must surely have had a lot to put up with, but he does seem to have been something of a sensualist.  He wrote, with Beverley Pepper, The Myra Breckinridge Cookbook, the title, of course, coming from Gore Vidal’s most famous novel.

It’s not clear from internal evidence how much involvement Vidal had in the writing of the book, if any.  It contains a foreword written, as it were, by Myra which I could well believe he wrote, but I can’t imagine he had much of a hand in the recipes.  In some ways the book is a good deal more serious and usable than you might expect, but then it has recipes with names such as Flaming Faggot Trout, Cod Pieces, Cumin Covered Cock and Koo Chi Minge.  I suppose that last one was Beverly’s influence.  In any case, Vidal’s sense of humor was and is rather dryer than this, I think.

Like everyone else, I’m more familiar with Vidal’s non-fiction than his fiction, but there is wonderfully memorable passage in his novel Kalki that refers to drink.  He’s writing in the voice of the narrator Theodora (Teddy) Ottinger,

“I must have felt something for him once, I thought, staring through the martini’s first comforting haze at my ex-husband’s pale double chin.  Tears came to my eyes.

The martinis at Musso and Frank are, as discussed, the very best. 

Friday, February 18, 2011


We went to Musso and Frank last night, which I’m pretty sure is my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles.  Not so much for the food, although their steaks and fries are very good, but more for the general ambiance, and the cool guys behind the bar and the history – knowing that you’re eating and drinking where the likes of Chandler, Hammett, Faulkner and Bukowski have all drunk, and sometimes been very drunk.

Musso and Frank proudly proclaims it’s the oldest restaurant in Hollywood and it always puzzled me that it opened in 1919, the year Prohibition started.  Surely that would have been a very bad year to open a restaurant in Hollywood.  But I’ve just been reading a fascinating new book by Leo Braudy titled The Hollywood Sign.  He tells us that Hollywood was actually founded as a dry community.  It was meant to be a model of temperance and good behavior as opposed to all the bad stuff that went on in rest of LA.  And, says Braudy, Prohibition was actually responsible for destroying Hollywood’s status as an oasis of decency.  Once drinking was banned everywhere in LA, indeed everywhere in the country, Hollywood was no different from, and no better than, anywhere else.  It couldn’t claim any high moral ground on the basis of not selling alcohol.

So in that sense 1919 was probably as good a time as any to be opening  a restaurant in Hollywood.  In LA Weekly’s Best of LA 2010, the blessed Jonathan Gold sang the praises of Musso’s “Best Jellied Consommé (1919)” but I’d never eaten it, and since I still haven’t quite shaken off my jelly obsession I ordered it last night.  I didn't take a picture because I didn't want to look like a tourist.

Gold describes it “a trembly, delicate substance, served in a custom-purposed silver-plate contraption that suspends the aspic above a goblet of crushed ice.”  Well last night it came without any silver-plate contraption and was served in an ordinary crockery bowl, though it was certainly trembly enough.  I’m not sure it was exactly great but I was very glad I ordered it because I’m not sure when I’m next likely to be a restaurant that serves it.

I understand that the Connaught restaurant in London used to serve something called Consommé en Geleé Cole Porter, and if it’s good enough for Cole Porter it’s definitely good enough for me.  According to a recipe in the Saveur archive it came garnished with carrot, kohlrabi and haricots vert, which I think Musso and Frank would consider a bit fancy.  In any case the Connaught restaurant has been all Frenchified and I think they  wouldn’t consider it fancy enough.

As it happens Gourmet Live, for which I occasionally write, has a new editor, Kate Sekules who is a food and travel writer, and a pugilist.  A little light Googling took me to the website a deeply curious art website which has a section on Jell-O turkeys from (apparently) a series of annual Jell-O turkey competitions.

Kate Sekules was one of the winners of the 2009 competition.  Her entry was “The Sides as the Bride” and looked like this:

And it was described thus: “This turkey, composed of classic Thanksgiving side dishes, upends the traditional hierarchy of the meal, sublating our normative binarisms. Its operation evinces derridian différance, effectively deconstructing turkologocentrism.”  Go pick the ironies out of that one.

But my favorite Jell-O turkey was this one by Cindy Sherman, yes, THE Cindy Sherman, I think, which was called “Jiggles” and made from (and I’m quoting) “white chocolate with chopped candied walnuts filled with cranberry/pomegranate flavored gelatin (no added sugar) with raspberries.”  It looked like this:

There’s a fairly obscure musical number by Cole Porter titled “What a Priceless Treasure” which contains the following absolutely wonderful lyrics
Let me taste the consommé.
Have a care, don’t let it jostle.
As dear Hollywood would say.
It’s terrific, it’s colossal.

And of course there are also these Cole Porter lines “You’re the Top”
You're sublime,
You're a turkey dinner.

It’s even better because he rhymes it with “Derby winner.”  They don’t write ‘em like that any more.  

Monday, February 14, 2011


The Loved One and I were eating dinner and discussing Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Children,” you know, the way you do.  She’d known it since childhood, from an art book her parents had in the home.  Her father had told her that parents were perfectly entitled to kill their own children (don’t ask), although at least she knew she wouldn’t be eaten, since her father was a vegetarian and health food nut.

Now Goya isn’t an open book to me, but when I look at that painting I don’t see anybody eating a child, and certainly not children in the plural.  I see a monster eating what appears to be a grown woman, and certainly Goya himself never gave the painting that title.  It was added later by art historians who wanted to class it up by giving it a mythological basis.

The original myth, depicted more convincing in the above picture by Rubens, has it that Saturn (which is the Romanized name of the Greek god Cronos) has been told that one of his children will overthrow him and so each time a new one’s born he eats it: birth control being at a primitive stage back then.  Since Saturn had deposed and castrated his own father, you can see he might have worried about this stuff more than the average dad.

I, of course, grew up eating babies – Jelly Babies.  I was born in Sheffield less than half a mile from the Bassett’s factory.  That’s how it was: the men made steel, the women made sweets.  Looking at pictures of today’s Jelly Babies they seem far less anatomically detailed than I remember them, but I could be wrong about that.

Naturally we fell to talking about Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (that's him above) which features a character by the name of Saturninus, father of Chiron and Demetrius.

Titus tells Saturninus that these sons have ravished his (Titus’s) daughter Lavinia and cut out her tongue, leading to the following exchange:

Go fetch them hither to us presently.

Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;

     Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,

     Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.

     'Tis true, 'tis true; witness my knife's sharp point.

It sounds as though Shakespeare’s Saturninus doesn’t actually devour his own children (there are no stage directions), and they’re certainly not babies, but since his wife Tamara does the eating, the effect isn’t so very different.  In any case, they all die horribly by the end of the scene.

Now, just to prove the interconnectedness of all things, a couple of days ago, in my role as literary dude, I did a bookstore reading for Slake magazine alongside Mary Woronov, a woman I’ve admired since at least 1972 when I first saw her in a single screen version of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls.  The double screen version would have looked like this:  

I also loved her in Death Race 2000 and, most relevant to this posting, Eating Raoul  which is surely one of the one of the great film comedies dealing with sex, death and cannibalism.  The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is, I suppose, the very greatest.  Here's Ms Woronov with Paul Bartel:

Mary Woronov’s piece in Slake is titled “Jane Says” and it describes the joys of one night stands – and I’m sure it’s shallow of me to wonder just how autobiographical it is.  She writes,  “I like knowing how he feels without ever seeing how he eats his soup, whether he is an asshole about the wine he drinks or a connoisseur of the cheese he eats.”

It’s good, funny dirty stuff, and finally she (or her heroine) concludes, “The only thing a man has made that resembles the female genitalia is the side view of the hamburger, with its labialike buns, and the reason why is because the hamburger is to be eaten the way a cannibal eats the heart of his enemies, hoping to attain some of their power.” 

I’m not sure that’s altogether why I eat burgers, but it would certainly be reason enough.  Some, of course, are considerably more than a mouthful.

Friday, February 11, 2011


At the risk of blogging about blogging, a rather curious statistic has just been revealed by this site's tracking apparatus.

Until very recently the most read post has been "Eating White" a rather gentle and nostalgic piece about eating with my mother, that first appeared in the magazine Gastronomica.

It has now been knocked off by the number one spot by the post "Dining With de Sade." about the eating habits of the divine marquis.

I can't say my I'm very surprised. This I suppose represents the two poles of appetite and consumption; the soft, warm experience of eating in the bosom of the family, and the Dionysian frenzy that goes with sex, death and blood rituals.  Only a fool would entirely reject one at the expense of the other.  Sometimes the things can go rather neatly together.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


There was a waspish piece in Sunday’s New York Times magazine about Hugh Hefner and the Playboy empire.  It said that Hef “lives these days what appears to be the life of an invalid, or even of a cosseted mental patient: wearing pajamas all day; rarely venturing out of the house; taking most of his meals in his bedroom — the menu seldom varying, the crackers and potato chips carefully prescreened to remove any broken ones.”  This does sound suitably nuts, but the detail about the potato chips may have hit a particular note with the author of the piece - Charles McGrath – who is known around the office as “Chip.”

There’s a story, true as far as I know. that when a certain book editor was at the Playboy mansion in LA, working with Hef on a project, the great man said that if he (the book editor) wanted something to eat he should go into the kitchen and one of the staff would make him something.  In due course the book editor got hungry, went into the kitchen and the staff made him a sandwich.  But while he was in there he noticed a chocolate cake on a display stand under a glass cover.  He asked if he could have a piece of that.  Oh no said the staff that was Mr. Hefner’s own personal chocolate cake and nobody else was allowed to touch it.  They baked a new one for him every day.

The book editor said that surely Hef wouldn’t object to him having a single piece.  How much chocolate cake could Hef eat in a day?  The staff then revealed that in fact Hef never ate any chocolate cake whatsoever.  Every morning they baked a fresh chocolate cake and every evening threw it away untouched.  A command had come down the line some years back that Hef had to have a fresh chocolate cake every day, the rule was established and that was the way it had been ever since. 

Intrigued by this Ruritanian arrangement the book editor asked Hef whether this was actually true.  Hef had no idea.  He saw there was a new cake in the kitchen every day and indeed he never ate any of it, but he had no memory of ever ordering the arrangement.  Hef seemed thoroughly amused by the absurdity of the situation and showed no inclination to rescind the order.  It was just one of the winningly eccentric things that go on in the wonderful world of Hef.

Despite Hef’s personal indifference to food – and I’m sure many 84 year olds feel the same way - good food and good drink were always part of the “Playboy philosophy” and The Playboy Gourmet a cookbook by Thomas Mario, who was the magazine’s food and drink expert for a long time, is an exquisite time capsule of certain ideas about sophistication and high living from the late 1950s and 60s.  My edition is dated 1977 but there are others, and most of the material inside is copyright 1954 to 1971.

Much of the writing is excruciating and condescending, and it would surely have seemed that way even at the time.  The chapter on desserts begins “Although she may one day outgrow valentines, no girl ever outgrows desserts,” and then there’s a bunch of recipes for peaches in champagne, coconut soufflé, and various crepes that need to be flambéed.  There’s no recipe for chocolate cake.

For one reason or another we have a few copies of Playboy from the 1960s in the house.  I hate to say it, but it’s the car ads that hold most fascination for me at this point in history, those and the occasional bit of fiction by Updike or Nabokov.  But some of the food articles are priceless.  Below is a scan of a page from one of my favourites, the “urban luau,” as opposed to the dreadfully uncool suburban luau, I suppose.  It’s from the June 1966 issue, and again it’s the prose stye that makes it special.

Here’s some wisdom from Mario, “Staging an indoor luau is as easy as poi … A single giant model of a tiki god surrounded by a bounty of island offerings serves far more admirably as a mood setter than a plethora of interior decorator-inspired fish-net coverings and cornball colored-glass globes.”  Strange perhaps that the photographer somehow managed to do without a giant model of a tiki god.

The magazine also contains the above ad for Smirnoff.  Ah for the days when any advertiser would have wanted Woody Allen plugging their product.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I used to think I liked cocktails.  And back in the day when I fancied myself as a playwright I thought I’d come up with a wonderful dramatic device for a play.  There’d be a bunch of people staying together in a house for the weekend and one of them, a minor character I suppose, would be trying to invent a new cocktail and every now and then he’d appear from offstage bearing a cocktail shaker full of his latest experiment.  As the play went on he’d get drunker and the cocktails would get ever more revolting.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

         But the truth is, I now think almost all cocktail are revolting.  Oh sure I can knock back a bloody Mary or a gimlet, and I was in a bar in New York last year and had something called a Herb Albert, which was a variation on a margarita, with jalapeno infused tequila and fresh oregano, and all these drinks are perfectly drinkable.  But the truth is, when it comes right down to it, I only really like one cocktail and that’s the martini.  

         Now, readers of Psycho-Gourmet will hardly be surprised to learn that I also enjoy a good piece of bit of pulp noir fiction, and when I bought a 1947 novel by Henry Kane with the title Martinis and Murder it seemed like a convergence made in heaven. My expectations were high, and they didn’t even fall too much when I discovered the book had originally been published as A Halo for Nobody.  Certainly the jacket shows evidence of martini drinking and (possibly) its after effects.

         But it turns out the book itself is entirely martini-free.  Sure, a lot of boozing goes on as characters regularly knock back beer, rye, bourbon, sidecars and even some sherry.  But the legendary silver bullet never passes anybody’s lips.  I felt cheated.

         Well, actually, to be absolutely honest, I didn’t feel as cheated as all that, since as with so many pulp novels I never really expected the words in the book to live up to the title or the cover image.  The book did at least contain some exotically named characters such as Joe Pineapple and Xavier Hoy Ginsburg.  But then things suddenly got a lot better. 

         I looked up Henry Kane and his work on various pulp websites and discovered that some of his books, including Martinis and Murder had been published in Holland.  And there it was, the Dutch title that suddenly made everything all right: Cocktails en Doodslag.  It really doesn’t matter what the book’s about, does it?