Monday, October 17, 2011


I’m about to go to England for ten days or so, not primarily for the food I admit, but I do find myself looking forward to English “fayre,” the odd pork pie, the odd bit of pheasant, some good English cheese, and there’s the promise of a "real" English curry in Sheffield.   Fish and chips always figure too but in fact I just had some “British” fish and chips here in L.A. at H. Salt on Hollywood Boulevard.

It’s a place I’d always thought about going to but never had an occasion until now when a fellow Englishman came to town, Travis Elborough, author of, among many other things, the book Wish You Were Here – England on Sea.  He took the photograph above.  The Sunday Times described him “an English nostalgist in the mode of John Betjeman,” which I wouldn’t think was an absolute compliment but Travis seemed happy enough with it.

The H. Salt we went to, part of a small chain founded by an actual Englishman, had some strangely authentic touches – the deep fat fryers looked completely pukka, and the fake Jacobean paneling and leaded windows were probably no more fake than those in many a chippie in England.  

We each had the Piccadilly Platter – one  portion of chips, which were very good, with one piece of slightly over-solid, unnamed fish that seemed to have been cut out by machine to absolutely standardized size and shape.  But all in all not bad.  There were hush puppies on the menu too, a fine local variation. Travis moaned that England is now beset by “gourmet” fish and chip shops, where you have to pay 7 or 8 quid for your meal.  A Piccadilly Platter costs $3.21, including tax, for which price I suppose you have to be content to live with plastic knives and forks.

When it comes to English food, Travis knows of what he speaks.  He tells me his grandparents ran a pirate-themed eatery in Polperro in Cornwall, called the Jolly Roger.  Authenticity seems to have been patchy here too.  The walls, he says, were lined with  cutlasses picked up as a job lot in some auction in the 1950s by his Great-Uncle Bob.  Travis describes their vintage as “questionable” but a cutlass surely is what a cutlass surely does.

The album cover above doesn't have much to do with Travis or his relatives, but the Polperro Fishermen's Choir do sing a song called the Jolly Roger.  

Anyway, in order to prepare myself for my English journey I found myself over the weekend consuming what I’ve come to think of as “local delicacies,” chicarrones, supremas rellenos and tequila.

And suddenly I thought, blimey, have I gone native?  And if so, a native of where exactly?  Of course, there’ll be no shortage of pork skin or blood pudding in England, certainly not in Sheffield, and I imagine the tequila bar I used to go to in Convent Garden will still be there, though I don’t imagine I’ll go to it.  It would be like taking coals to Newcastle, or perhaps taking coals from Newcastle.

And as fate would have it, over the weekend I watched Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which I thought was absolutely wonderful, and Johnny Depp was a revelation.  No plastic knives, or even forks, for Mr. Todd.  The movie contains the song “Worst Pies in London” sung by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the maker of the eponymous pies, with some wonderful lyrics,

… the worst pies in London!
Even that's polite!
The worst pies in London!
If you doubt it take a bite!
Is that just, disgusting?
You have to concede it!
It's nothing but crusting!
Here drink this, you'll need it.

Well I think everybody in London has eaten a pie like that, and I’m sure some have wondered exactly what was in it.  Not human flesh, we can safely say, because once Mrs. Lovett inserted a little corpse meat into her pies, they tasted just great.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


What with one thing and another (health concerns, public education, Michelle Obama’s “let’s move” campaign, and fast food joints listing calorie counts on their menus)  you may have been worrying that America is running out of ways to fill its eager, bloated craw with carbs and fats.  Fear not, Applebee’s is on the case.

After some moderately strenuous hiking in Joshua Tree last weekend we slipped into our booth in the Yucca Valley Applebee’s just as happy hour was starting, and for a mere four dollars we got a plate of Potato Twisters (that's it above), described on the menu as “A mountain of spiral cut potatoes served with spicy Queso Blanco and pico de gallo.”  Were they any good?   Well yes, though somehow not quite as good as I thought a plate of fried potatoes and melted cheese ought to be.

The menu told us the Potato Twisters came in at 970 calories.  Will you be surprised when I tell you this was designated as an appetizer and was actually one of the lower calorie choices? Other appetizers included the Cheese Quesadilla Grande containing 1130 calories, the Spinach and Artichoke Dip clocking in at around 1500 calories, and top of the shop were the Cheese Burger Sliders with fries – 1660 calories, though for an extra fifty cents you could add 60 calories worth of bacon.  Whose appetite could fail to be whetted?  And I think we can rest assured that the American heart attack and diabetes industries won’t be going out of business any time soon.

In not entirely unrelated news, if you were to go into the 99c Store on Sunset Boulevard, you could buy a brand of soda that I’ve certainly never seen on sale anywhere else, that rejoices in the name of Chubby.

As you see, it certainly seems to be aimed at children - and it certainly tastes undrinkable to this adult - and you might think it’s sending the dubious message that it’s a good thing to be chubby.  In any case, that’s truth in advertising you’ve got right there, with no suggestion that Chubby is presenting itself as part of some healthy, active lifestyle the way certain sodas do.

And in any case, I’m sure Chubby is a great preparation for adulthood, when the drinker can move on from "orango tango" to Fat Bastard wine.  I’m particularly taken with the Fat Bastard slogan “Live large, live long.”  Yeah right.  You want some Potato Twisters with that?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


And speaking of hotdogs … Is there anything in the world sexier than the sight of a woman with a hotdog? 

Well yes, actually, I think there are a great many things sexier.  Nevertheless, there’s evidently something about a woman eating phallic-shaped food that does something strange, powerful and ignoble to the male spirit.  We snigger.  We think of oral sex.  We become foolish adolecents. (A woman with a banana would have much the same effect.)

So here are a few borrowed images of women chowing down on wieners, some obviously a good deal sexier than others, but they all share a kind of erotic playfulness.  You don’t take a hotdog seriously, the way you would, say, a slab of raw meat.  That would be sexy in a quite different way.  A hotdog may be smutty, but somehow it doesn’t really mean it.

And the fact is, sometimes eating hotdogs may not actually be all that sexy at all.  To prove it here (below) is Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, the most famous of all female competitive eaters, seen in mid-swallow at a Nathan’s hotdog eating contest, which in fact she won.  And trust me, there are many far more troubling and unhappy images of her available.

And here’s the divine Martha Stewart bringing heft and scale to the hotdog while also managing to desexualize it.  The dog is so long it’s lost all its phallic energy and symbolism.  Martha even needs some poor male minion to hold the end of it because it’s so floppy.  

That just wouldn’t happen with Snooki.

Nor even, frankly, with Betty White.

And finally a picture by my favorite photographer, Martin Parr, that effortlessly indicates that sausages in buns may not in fact be all that sexy after all.  The title of the photograph is "Waiting For Hotdogs."  They do say that the waiting is the hardest part.

Monday, October 3, 2011


There are people in Los Angeles who’ll tell you that Pink's on La Brea sell the world’s best hotdogs.  I wouldn’t know.  As I get ever more curmudgeonly I find I’m ever less prepared to wait in line for things, and I’m particularly reluctant to stand in line for a hotdog.  At most hours of the day and night, certainly at any hour you might actually want to eat, Pink's has the longest lines of any restaurant I’ve ever seen.  I can understand that this might be a mark of the quality of their hotdogs, but you know, how great can a hotdog be?

I admit I have stood in line for hotdogs at Dodger Stadium in order to buy Dodger Dogs and beer, but that was only because I had no choice: a baseball game being incomplete without them, and in fact the line moved pretty quickly.  Here the objection was the price.  A man shouldn’t have to remortgage his home in order to be able to buy a hotdog and a beer.  At least the Dodger Dog is big, though not nearly as elegant as it appears in the image above.

The last hotdogs I ate at home were cheese dogs, which sounded like a good idea at the time, hot dogs with a vein of liquid cheese running through them – they don’t have those back in the homeland.  I thought they were genuinely foul, as though the dogs had developed some kind of disease that created hot yellow pus.  We still have them in the freezer and I want to throw them out, but the Loved One hates to waste food (as in general do I) and she insists a moment will come when cheese dogs are exactly what we want.  I continue to doubt this.

All this has made me doubt whether I even like hotdogs.  So when my pal Scott suggested going to the new Coney Dog on Sunset Strip for some Detroit-style hotdogs, I was game enough, but my hopes weren’t quite as high as they would have been if he’d said let’s go to Petrossian and sample some caviar.

Scott hails from Detroit and he assures me the Sunset Strip version is authentic enough.  A Coney Dog, I now know, consists of a beef hotdog covered in chilli, with some raw onion and a line of mustard.  As for why this is a Detroit-style Coney Dog, rather than say a Detroit Dog, well that’s because the inventor, George Todoroff, was a Greek immigrant who arrived in Michigan by way of Coney Island, and opened his restaurant, Todoroff's Original Coney Island, in 1914 actually in Jackson rather than Detroit.  Perhaps he thought the name Coney Island smacked of metropolitan fun.  In any case, imitators sprang up in the surrounding area, including Detroit, and I guess that Detroit just has better name-recognition than Jackson. Of course there are local variations, and local rivalries, but I gather that a truly authentic Detroit dog has to have beef heart in the chilli, and the dogs have to be Koegel Viennas.  I can’t swear that the Sunset Strip outpost reaches this level of authenticity.

There was no line and no wait, which was a very good thing and I’m happy to say I was served two of the very best hotdogs I’ve ever tasted.  You may think, given my prejudices this isn’t a very high hurdle, but they were genuinely good.  I had a Coney Dog, and for comparison an LA Street Dog, wrapped in bacon and scattered with jalapeno slices. Not least of the attractions was the bun, and the bun is so important.  It can easily taste like cotton wool, these actually tasted like bread.

To make it thoroughly authentic, Scott drank a Faygo Original Redpop but I contented myself with a “craft beer” (when did that stupid term gain currency?)  Incidentally, the menu describes the LA Street Dog as the “opposite” of a kosher hotdog, not by any means anti-Jewish, just wrapped in bacon.  I suppose it would be equally the "opposite" of an halal hotdog.  That's all right then.