Wednesday, March 30, 2011

THE EGG AND EYE



I’ve been continuing to think about eggs, not least because in Sunday’s New York Post there was an anecdote about Liz Taylor when she was filming Butterfield 8.   The director Daniel Mann gave her two eggs in their shells and told her he wanted her to cook them in the next scene.  She held one in each hand and said, “But what do I do with them?”  In her late twenties at the time, her life experience hadn’t included cooking an egg. Butterfield 8 is also the movie in which Liz, or rather her character, brushes her teeth with whisky. 



But in fact I don’t think cooking eggs is the easiest thing in the world.  I remember seeing Albert Roux on TV (that's him below) and he said that when he interviewed potential new chefs he didn’t ask them to cook anything at all fancy, he asked them to make him a good fried egg.  Very few could.



Are eggs inherently sexy?  I think so.  When they’re in the shell they look hard and smooth and streamlined, when they’re cracked open, the albumen is simultaneously slimy and sensuous.  When they’re cooked well, the slime goes and the sensuousness stays.  Some people think they’re downright pornographic.


If evidence of the trickiness of egg cooking were required, consider this scene from Venus In Furs.


          Just then the door opened and an attractive stoutish blonde girls entered.  She had wise kindly eyes, was dressed in black silk, and brought us cold meat and eggs with our tea.  Severin took one look at the latter, and decapitated it with his knife.
          “Didn’t I tell you that I wanted them soft-boiled?” he cried with a violence that made the young woman tremble.
            “But my dear Sevtchu ..” she said timidly.
       “Sevtchu, nothing.” He yelled, “you are to obey, obey do you understand?” and he tore the kantchuk from its hook.


Well, any excuse. A footnote in my edition tells me a kantchuk is a long whip with a short handle, but you’d have guessed that anyway.  And you’d probably have to say it wasn’t just the eggs that were getting him upset. 


Of course “decapitating” eggs is pretty tame stuff compared with what Simone and the unnamed narrator get up to in Bataille’s The Story of the Eye.  First she develops a mania for “breaking eggs with her behind” and it pretty much goes downhill from there.  Lots of toilet antics are involved and at one point they have a fantasy about putting their mentally challenged pal Marcelle into a bath “half-filled with fresh eggs, and she would pee while crushing them.”


When I was growing up, the schoolyard wisdom was that you should never play with eggshells because they gave you warts.  Lord knows what writhing around in half a bath tub of them would have done.

Bataille never strikes me as absurd in quite the way de Sade does.  He and his characters are clearly very, very odd, but not exactly ridiculous.  Certainly Bataille seems to have much more fun with all this egg stuff than the reader does, but perhaps that's the way it always is with all truly pathological writing.


By contrast with Bataille the egg action in Ai No Corrida (released in the US as In the Realm of the Senses) seems positively normal and healthy.  It’s a simple insertion.  Soft boiled egg goes in, soft boiled egg pops out, the hero eats the egg in a cheerful fashion.  Good fun all round.

So, with Easter approaching, I bought myself some Cadbury’s Creme Eggs - the deal was buy 2 get 2 free.  They were one of the great chocolate treats of my childhood, and as with so many things from childhood they now seem much tamer and less exciting than I remember.  Didn’t the “yolk” used to be much more yellow?  Wasn’t the flavor more intense?  And didn't they used to be spelled "cream" rather than "creme"?


And above all, didn’t they used to be much, much bigger?  My memory is that they were pretty much the same size as a real egg, but if so then times have certainly changed.  These were absolutely minute; scarcely a mouthful.  It obviously doesn’t take much imagination to think of erotic uses for a Cadbury's egg, but if I’m honest I have to say I didn’t find them the slightest bit pornographic.  Perhaps I'm getting jaded.







Monday, March 21, 2011

THE ACID EATERS


Augustus Owsley Stanley, psychedelic pioneer and mass producer of acid died last week, killed in a car crash in Australia, aged 76.  I suppose a lot of people didn’t even know he was alive, and I certainly wasn’t sure.  Within the last six months I’d thought of Googling him to see what he was up to, but I never quite got round to it.  Here is below, on the left.
And as the obituaries roll in I’ve found out a great many things that I probably should have known already, that he pioneered state of the art PA systems with the Grateful Dead, that he made jewelry, that when he was making LSD as the Bear Research Group, one of his main suppliers was the Cyclo Chemical Company run by Milan Panic who later became president of Yugoslavia.  Charles Perry, former food writer for the LA Times, and once a roommate of Owsley’s, is the source of that last bit of information.

And I’ve learned, not with absolute surprise, that Owsley had some curious eating habits.  He favored an all-meat diet, having read of the good health enjoyed by Eskimos.  When he had a heart attack in the early 2000s, he didn’t blame the meat but some poisonous broccoli he'd been fed as a child.  There’s also a story that in the early '80s while he was receiving treatment for throat cancer and couldn’t eat solids, he had pureed steak injected directly into his gut, though that has an apocryphal ring to it.



I think most acidheads are not great food lovers, and vice versa.   Certainly there’s some received wisdom that a full stomach can delay a trip, and that acid can cause indigestion, but there’s little solid research of the subject.  In truth I think few trenchermen pass the windowpane around with the port.

Nobody seems to worry anymore that our enemies will spike our drinking water with LSD – I guess al-Qaeda just don’t have the technology – but maybe  we should worry more about our friends.  A recent piece in the London Daily Telegraph “solves” the mystery of the “cursed bread of Point-Saint-Esprit.”  Back in 1951 the inhabitants of that French village experienced severe hallucinations and insanity.  Five died, one man tried to drown himself, another jumped out of a window thinking he could fly, one man saw his heart escaping through his feet, some thought flowers were growing out of the bodies, some thought their heads had turned to molten lead.  Below is an image from the funeral of one of those who died.  



It all sounds very Hieronymus Bosch, and as with Bosch, for a long time it was attributed to some ergot in the local  bread.  Below is Bosch’s allegory of gluttony and lust, which I think looks less fun than it sounds.


But now, according to the revelations of former spook Hank Alberelli it seems that the CIA were responsible for the shenanigans in Point-Saint-Esprit.  They were conducting mind control experiments for use in interrogations (a long way from home apparently), and somehow or other they sprayed LSD into the air near Point-Saint-Esprit and the food supply got contaminated.  Incidentally, The French press is every bit as skeptical about this as I am.

These hallucinations of escaping hearts and melting heads suggest this was some very, very bad acid, though I suppose if you’re using it to interrogate prisoners you don’t want them to have a nice mellow trip.  Owsley would have been horrified, although of course it was long before his time.  He was a producer a quality product.  For that matter there’s no way in the world that the all meat eating Owsley would ever have touched bread, ergot ridden or not.  His website contains an essay, titled “Diet And Exercise” in which he writes that carbohydrates and vegetables “aren’t really food” that protein and fat are all a body needs.  I guess that isn’t exactly the current wisdom on nutrition, and the heart attack and the throat cancer raise a question or two, but as far as I can tell he was still going strong at 76 and it took a one car road accident to finish him off.  We should all be such acid casualties.

Monday, March 14, 2011

NOT SO GOOD IN PARTS


The Loved One is addicted to Chopped, the Food Channel tv show – you probably know it - in which four irritating chefs with more ego than charm are given mystery ingredients – generally including something intractable like breakfast cereal or umboshi - and have to come up with some more or less edible dishes, on which three food celebrities pass judgment.  Watching it makes me want to kill something, one of the chefs preferably, though that may well be exactly what the show’s producers’ intended.

Anyway now we have Chopped All Stars which creates even more intense thoughts of slaughter, since the all star contestants are celebrities who tend to have made their name on reality cooking shows – so you can imagine what a laid back and self-deprecating bunch they are.



Last night one of the mystery ingredients was haggis – in a can because it’s illegal to sell fresh haggis in the US - and the way the contestants reacted you’d have thought they been given a pile of dog poop to cook.  For Christ’s sake America, if you’re prepared to eat a hotdog or a chicken nugget you are not allowed to turn your nose up at anything, least of all haggis.  To be fair, Robert Irvine, an actual Englishman who’s gone native in TV land, didn’t make much of a fuss, though he did find other ways to be irritating




Still, at least the one who protested too much - Duff Goldman “star” of Ace of Cakes  -got sent home at the first possible opportunity – right, you stick to your fondant icing, buddy.


Anyway, this morning by pal Susanna Forrest sent me the above a cutting from the Times of London dated June 8th 1882, concerning the state of butchery late nineteenth century London.  Click on it if you want to read it all.  “I came across it while romping through The Times archive in search of things on horse meat,” she explained helpfully.

It’s a letter to the editor, from a correspondent who signs himself A London Butcher.  He rails against frozen meat, specifically that from new Zealand, and though I’m lost on some of the contemporary references, I’m much taken with his lines “I assert that nowhere is the whole of the offal of the animals slaughtered as fully utilized as it is here in London ... To abuse the butchers as so many of your correspondents do is quite beside the mark.”


Susanna is a horse lover and a food lover and author of a forthcoming book titled If Wishes Were Ponies, about her own and the world’s fascination with horses.  So I asked her if she’d ever eaten horse meat and she replied,  “Never knowingly. Don't think I could. Fully aware of the ideological inconsistencies of being a meat-eating, pro-horse slaughter realist who doesn't want to eat the stuff.”

Well, it’s funny she should say that. I bought some smoked pork tongues last week and they’ve been sitting in the fridge ever since and I eye them from time to time and I think yes, I will eat them quite soon but not right now, and I’m edging toward the realization that maybe I won’t actually be eating them at all.  And I agree this would be a shameful waste.


I think the problem is that they look just too tongue-like.  I can all easily imagine the piglets they came from, quite small ones judging by the size of the tongues, and although it doesn’t seem any more morally objectionable to eat a piglet’s tongue than his trotter or skin, there’s just some about the tongue that gets to me.  Ideological inconsistencies, indeed.


And then later in the day somebody sent me a news item about the Chinese boiling eggs boiled in children’s urine.  That's them above, apparently.  This, I take it, is some new spin on the myth (or maybe it isn’t a myth) that Chinese Century eggs are boiled in horse urine.  The story came from Metro a free tabloid given out in tube stations to London commuters, so not an entirely unimpeachable source of information, but I assume they just got it from a genuine news service.


According to the article, traditional chefs in Dongyang, Zhejiang province, eastern China, have been doing boiling egg’s in children’s urine for thousands of years but we only hear of it now because there’s a big “export push.” A chef name of Lu Ming is quoted as saying: “The urine is gathered from local schools and the very best comes from boys under 10 years old. They pee in buckets and we collect it fresh every day.”  The Internet offers many supporting images.


First the eggs are boiled with their shells on, and then with them off, a process that takes a day and a night. Lu Ming goes on: “The eggs are delicious and healthy. They stop fevers and can help you concentrate if you're feeling sluggish or sleepy.”

Now I’m not sure that any egg really needs boiling for a day and a night, but leaving that aside, again the only objection seems to be an aesthetic one.  We know that urine is in fact a pretty harmless substance, especially if it’s been boiled for all that time.  The problem seems to be these anonymous ten year old boys.  In these days of local sourcing, when we know the family trees of the critters we eat, I think I’d like a little bit more information about who these boys are.  Surely we have enough eggs and enough urine at home without having to import any from China.  Why can’t be have native, free range, artisanal Century eggs, possibly with celebrity endorsement.  Surely Lady Gaga or Kate Middleton or Charlotte Gainsbourg must have some urine they could spare in order to create special “limited edition” eggs.  Let the suckers on Chopped use them as a mystery ingredient.



Monday, March 7, 2011

FUN WITH DICK AND FANNY


It was my birthday at the weekend.  Birthdays are always tricky I find, and never without anxieties and unfulfilled expectations, but this was one of the better ones.  On the night of my birthday we went to District, a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and among other things had oysters from Washington – the Loved One’s home state.

Jay Rayner, mentioned in a previous post, wrote in a recent piece in the Guardian, “Advice to women: if a prospective lover denies a taste for oysters and sea urchins, … then give it up as a bad job. That coupling will never be satisfactory.”  I assume this is a not so veiled reference to oral sex but obviously he’s totally correct.  Likewise I’d say don’t marry a woman who doesn’t like sausage.  That's Jay Rayner below on the left, with oysters, in case the previous post created any doubt.



We also had some cardoon gratin at District.  I had never eaten cardoon before, although I’d grown it very successfully in my garden in Suffolk, and it’s a great architectural plant.  They’re related to the artichoke but you eat the stem, and you have to blanch them, which I understand involves wrapping them in straw, and I just never felt able to take it on, but I’m very glad somebody else did.


The District cardoon gratin involved gruyere, b├ęchamel and breadcrumbs and was absolutely wonderful.  Arguably you could say that a piece of cardboard would taste pretty wonderful if it involved gruyere, b├ęchamel and breadcrumbs, but I think that would lack an intrinsic celery-like sourness.

Then on Saturday night I went to somebody else’s birthday party at house up in the Hollywood Hills, a house (that a little Googling reveals) belonged or possibly still belongs to Pauly Shore. If you're interested, it looked pretty much like this: yep, that's an infinity pool.



There was a vegetarian buffet which was excellent – I got more than my share of grains – and also a hotdog cart where I got a hotdog, possibly artisanal. And OK, since you ask – it was Mark Z. Danielewski’s party – a man who shares a birthday with Mark E. Smith of the Fall, though I don’t imagine Mark E. celebrated with a vegetarian buffet.

Pauly Shore, need I say, was not at the party but Bret Easton Ellis was.  I once interviewed him for a British newspaper and I remember him eating Japanese crackers obsessively throughout our chat. 


But I can never think of him without thinking of that devastating scene in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman coats a urinal cake in chocolate and makes a girl eat it.  The scene in the movie script runs thus, with Reese Witherspoon as Evelyn:



EVELYN's face twists and contorts with displeasure.  Anxious to please PATRICK, she swallows a second mouthful.
      
                          EVELYN
               It's so... minty.
                     (beat; then)
               It just... so minty.

It’s funny because I think we’ve all contemplated coating a urinal cake in chocolate and feeding it to Reese Witherspoon.  Haven’t we?


Earlier tonight, as the birthday mood fades, I ate pack of potato chips, actually Miguelito’s Papitas “como hecho en casa” which looked authentically Hispanic, though they seem to have been made by Premium Snacks of Oxnard, California.  The best part was a tiny sachet of hottish salsa that came inside the pack, not entirely unlike the English potato chips of my youth that came with a little packet of salt.  Adding things to potato chips by hand is an oddly satisfying thing, far better than having them ready flavored, even by artisans.  Thus we add to my archive of potato chip knowledge.


And once I’ve done this blog post I shall round off the evening, and call the birthday season over, with a canned spotted dick.  In fact I never ate spotted dick growing up – it’s just a sponge pudding for Pete’s sake - but there’s a store in Beachwood Canyon that sells it as an English delicacy and I think they should be encouraged.  

My friend Bill Bray, who shares my birthday, sent me birthday greetings and reminded me of the time we ate Fanny Bay oysters in the oyster bar at Grand Central station in New York.  Fanny Bay is in British Columbia and no distance from Washington state.  Bill (obviously) is a Piscean and a man after my own heart and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that we would have ordered oysters with fanny in their name.  We are serious men but the English sense of humor dies hard.


Fanny and dick, ah me, though of course in America fanny means the rear end, whereas in England it means the vulva.  When the Loved One used to direct photoshoots for men’s magazines she’d sometime say to English models stick your fanny out – with hilarious consequences.

Dick, of course, is much the same in any language.



Wednesday, March 2, 2011

THE LOST ART OF DRINKING - THE ART OF LOST DRINKING



Some years back I was at a book party in London and was talking to a guy I’d never met before and whose name I didn’t know, and we started talking about mothers, and he said “The best piece of advice my mother ever gave me was never be photographed with a drink in your hand.”

This seemed an unlikely piece of advice to me so naturally I said, “Who the heck is your mother?”  And he said, “Claire Rayner.”

If you were born at a certain point in history Claire Rayner was a very big deal indeed.  She was best known as an agony aunt, but was also a TV presenter, campaigner, journalist and a prolific novelist.  One of her novels was titled Lunching At Laura’s.  She died just last year.


I have of course searched the Internet looking for a photograph of Claire Rayner with a drink in her hand, and I have, of course, failed, though I did come across this pretty wonderful one of her eating (or at least holding) fish and chips.


And while searching for her, I discovered that she had two sons.  Jay and Adam.  Now Jay Rayner is a food writer and sometime TV food judge in England but unless he’s undergone a complete physical transformation I don’t think it was him I was talking to.  So it had to be the other son, Adam, described as an “electronics reviewer, angling and motoring journalist.”  He looks like this, though he didn’t at the time:


And obviously if I could have found a picture of him with a drink in his hand I’d have used it, so he’s apparently stuck with his mother’s advice.  I, on the other hand, seem only ever to get photographed WITH a drink in my hand.  




It’s not so much that I drink constantly, just that I only get photographed at parties.  And yes, just occasionally I get photographed with a drink in one hand and a snake in the other.


A couple of weeks back I was at a party for Benedikt Taschen’s 50th birthday.  There was an official party photographer who certainly snapped me while I had a drink in my hand, though I haven’t see the results.  But bad boy provocateur Terry Richardson was there too and of course he was photographing all and sundry, at least if they were famous, or in my case standing next to somebody who was.  And the results now appear in the diary section of his website, see February 15th.  And the amazing thing is – none of the pictures from the party show anybody with a drink in their hand. 

This is interesting, isn’t it?  Now, Terry Richardson is obviously pretty good at keeping celebs happy, and maybe it’s a rule, written or unwritten, that you don’t photograph them looking as though alcohol ever touches their lips. I, of course, am doing the famous Richardson thumbs up, so my drink’s not visible – it’s in the other hand.


Incidentally, the party is covered in this week’s New Yorker in the Talk of The Town section.  As we all know, the fact-checking at that magazine is impeccable, but the author writes that the party took place in “a cozy restaurant in Los Angeles.”  Trust me, I was there, and it was a very good party, but the place was about as cosy as a bus station, and the guy sitting next to me, the great sports photographer Neil Leifer, is still waiting for his risotto.

Finally, here’s a picture of Benedikt Taschen eating what appears to be the head of a dog (actually it’s a cake, sculpted in the shape of the Taschen French bulldog, name of Sans Souci) but still no drink in his hand.