Monday, January 30, 2012


Lately I’ve been sitting here thinking, “I wonder what vulture tastes like.”  Probably not all that great: I imagine that an all-carrion diet probably doesn’t result in great flavored meat.  In any case, unless there’s a sudden dramatic change in my lifestyle, I suppose I’m not ever likely to experience that funky vulture flavor.  For that matter, I don’t imagine I’ll ever get to taste the osprey, the raven, the night wing or the great owl.

I am, of course, listing the feathered critters that Leviticus tells me I shall “have in abomination.”  Leviticus is also down on the pelican, the stork and the swan (among others).  But I really don’t think the swan can be considered an abomination.  If it’s good enough for the Queen of England it’s good enough for me.  In fact the Queen of England would have you believe it's TOO good for the likes of me (and you).  All swans in Britain belong to the crown, so killing (much less eating) one would be regarded as destruction of royal property, though obviously it’s all right to eat it if you get invited up to the palace for a swan feast.

I’ve been thinking about abomination partly because I was asked to contribute my lofty opinions to one of the odd features that occasionally appears in the LA Weekly.  They create a Venn diagram – in this case one circle of “What do Angelinos think Jews eat,” up against another circle, “What do Angelino Jews actually eat.”  As I said to Elina Shatkin of LA Weekly, who’s working on the piece, most of the Jews I know in LA eat bacon sandwiches and pulled pork, but then I do run with an unorthodox crowd.

And, life being like that, I was already thinking of abomination, because I’d just read a piece titled “Craving the Food of Depravity” by Elissa Altman, a title so zesty that any article would be hard pressed to live up to it, but she does pretty well. You can find the whole thing on her blog Poor Man’s Feast:

Mostly she talks about the things you eat when your judgment is impaired by intoxicants of one kind or another.  After a night at the Au Bar in New York, for example, she says she used to go for a Gray’s Papaya hotdog.  In England her debauchery extended to the Scotch egg.  Leviticus doesn’t specifically declare the Scotch egg an abomination (though personally I would) but the chances are there’s going to be some pork in that sausage around the egg, so the good book doesn’t need to be specific.

Since Elissa Altman is Jewish she obviously has a particular line on abomination.  She writes, "I took the conversation to my Facebook page, where I learned that, like pimiento cheese, smoked oysters are just something that my people aren’t aligned with, which is odd given the whole lox thing. Culturally, these particular foods of depravity aren’t, as I like to say, Jew food. (It’s a game: Mallomars? Jew food. Twinkies? Not Jew food. Ritz crackers? Jew food. Club crackers? Not Jew food. Veggie cream cheese? Jew food. Pimiento cheese? Not Jew food.)"   I’ll have to take her word for all that.

Religious food prohibitions aren't entirely my area, though I do get the notion of “forbidden fruit,” and it seems to me that if you’re going to have a night of debauchery why not extend the debauchery to the food – monkey brains, bush meat, long pig, hell, why not some vulture?

All of which brings me one of my favorite Kliban cartoons; there are plenty to choose from.  I have no idea whether this kind of thing is politically correct anymore, or if it ever was, and I certainly don't want the Anti-Defamation League coming after me, but I’m pretty sure that Barry Kliban was Jewish, so I guess that makes it all right, doesn’t it?         

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


We were in Palm Springs at the weekend, in the middle of a windstorm that resulted in a huge power outage.  It was scarily impressive.  We’d planned to have  lunch at the Blue Coyote – a more than decent Mexican restaurant - but they had no power and weren’t serving. 

And neither was any other restaurant in downtown Palm Springs.  So we got in the car, as the wind and palm fronds whipped around us, and we drove down the 111 occasionally seeing a restaurant that looked like it might possibly be open.  But invariably it wasn’t.  There were no lights on inside anywhere, the traffic lights were out, medium size trees were being blown over.

Things were looking desperate.  And then we saw it in the distance, hope, illumination, an oasis, a yellow arch.  Yep, we’d found the only open restaurant for miles and it was a McDonald’s.

 I remembered exactly the last time I’d been in a McDonald’s it was at least a decade ago, in England, after I’d been to see some drag racing at Santa Pod.   The memory is surprisingly fresh.  Anyway, we had a Big Mac in the McDonald’s outside Palm Springs, and it was rather good in the circumstances.  But the best part was finding the McDonald’s newsletter on the table, featuring a quiz about Presidents.  Who was the first president to fly in a plane: Teddy Roosevelt of course, but then he would be, wouldn’t he?  And obviously he was a man who wouldn't have gone hungry because of a power outage: he'd have gone and shot something.

Even more interesting was a short article about McDonald’s in India.  It seems there are certain, all too obvious, problems for a burger joint in India, chiefly that if you serve beef you risk offending about 800 million Hindus, so no burgers.  But no pork either since there are also about 200 million Moslems, and I guess MacDonald’s don’t want to appear to be playing favorites.  There are a few Jews in India too, but evidently they don’t much care what non-believers put in their mouths.

It wasn’t till I got home that I got on the McDonalds India website, and it is a thing of wonder.  Obviously they favor chicken, fish and vegetables.  You can have the McSpicy Chicken, the Veg McMuffin, and I was particularly taken with the Big Spicy Paneer Wrap, which according to the website features a “exquisitely picked, soft and tender paneer overwhelmed with a fiery, crunchy batter.”  I’m not absolutely sure that I want my paneer totally overwhelmed, but it does sound more fun than the Big Mac.

We’d thought of staying overnight in Palm Springs but since it looked as though this might involve camping out in a motel room without electricity and not being able to get a meal, we decided to drive back to LA.  On the way home we stopped at Hadley’s in Cabazon and bought some gourmet bean soup mix (yep, it’s a full life). 

Some very mournful dinosaurs looked at us from the side of the freeway, and yes, the sky really was as apocalyptic as it looks in this photograph.


We’re regularly told that the breakdown of modern society is accelerating because families no long sit down at the dinner table and eat together.  Personally I suspect there may be one or two other reasons for the breakdown of modern society (if indeed it even is breaking down), but even so in a world of shifting uncertainties, it’s good to know there’s a place where communal eating still survives, and that’s in the modern American sitcom.

Screenwriters have always had trouble finding a natural way to get characters in the same place at the same time.  Life is easy enough for writers of The Office or Mash - the people go to work or to war every day, constant interactions are guaranteed.  And actually it always seemed to me that Cheers struggled in this aspect: most people don’t go to the same bar every single day and meet up with exactly the same people, and if they do they’re kind of sad losers, and personally I don’t ever want to go to a bar where everybody (or actually anybody) knows my name, but that’s my own problem, obviously.

Even families as lovably dysfunctional as the Simpsons and the Connors (as in Roseanne) nevertheless spent an improbable amount of time sitting at the table, interacting, trading barbs, creating laughs. There may be scope for a sitcom in which everyone eats alone in his or her room and communicates only by email or text, but I suspect the audience isn’t quite ready for that yet.

In fact we’re also told that the traditional sitcom is breaking down even quicker that modern society, but Chuck Lorre’s Big Bang Theory seems to have brought the genre back from the dead, although who knows for how long.  And food plays an extraordinarily large role in The Big Bang Theory.  The characters are endlessly eating together, whether sharing take out in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, the canteen at work or the Cheesecake Factory where Penny works.

Just look at the episode titles for Pete’s sake, The Pork Chop Indeterminacy, The Peanut Reaction, The Dumpling Paradox, The Hamburger Postulate, The Big Bran Hypothesis: these are just from season one.

Of course Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons) is the majestic comedy creation of the series, obsessive about everything, and not least about food, worrying about his Hamburger Tuesday versus his Big Boy Thursday, the dubious definition of Soup Plantation (“You can’t grow soup”), worrying about whether “mobster sauce” is a menu misprint or not.

And of course, as with all the greatest comedy, Sheldon is only ever a couple of degrees away from complete tragedy. A drunken and dead father and a Christian fundamentalist mother only up the ante.

In The Electric Can-Opener Fluctuation he briefly moves to Texas to live his mother, and the situation is just heartbreaking, because he’s so polite to his mother, meekly thanking her for the food she serves him: she even cuts a smiley face into his grilled cheese sandwich. 

There is always something odd and uncomfortable about adult men eating with their mothers, especially once dad has gone (I speak from plenty of experience).  The men always become children again.  In the Big Bang Theory Sheldon grudgingly agrees to say grace, his mother’s version of course, though Sheldon obviously knows it by heart and is required to complete his mother’s lines.

Mrs Cooper: Here you go, Shelly.
Sheldon: Thanks, Mom.
Mrs Cooper: Hold your horses, young man. Here in Texas, we pray before we eat.
Sheldon: Aw, Mom.
Mrs Cooper: This is not California, land of the heathen. Gimme. By His hand we are all…
Sheldon: Fed.
Mrs Cooper: Give us, Lord, our daily…
Sheldon: Bread.
Mrs Cooper: Please know that we are truly…
Sheldon: Grateful.
Mrs Cooper: For every cup and every…
Sheldon: Plateful.
Mrs Cooper: Amen. Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Sheldon: My objection was based on considerations other than difficulty.
Mrs Cooper: Whatever. Jesus still loves you.

It’s funny and absurd of course, but the fact that he joins unwilling but lovingly is somehow just exquisitely tender and absolutely heartbreaking.  

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I went to the Red O restaurant on Melrose Boulevard last night, Rick Bayless’s  Los Angeles outpost, though scholars differ on how involved Bayless actually is with things there - not very is the received wisdom.

It’s a good looking room: that's the "tequila tunnel" you see above, the service was friendly if sometimes a bit fussy. the food was fine, the starters better than the main courses: the pork belly sopes were excellent, and the tamales with fresh corn, goat cheese and poblano chiles weren’t bad at all, though give me some goat cheese and poblano chiles on a square of carpet underlay and I probably wouldn’t complain too much.
The sopes looked like this:

And the drinks were better than the food.  I had the La Dama Margarita “tres agaves reposada tequila, Serrano chile, mango grenade, lime juice and pomengrate liqueur.”  It was great: sweet and sour, soft and aggressive, fruity and fiercely  alcoholic, all at the same time.  I see that the drinks menu (which I just looked up online) also says the drink comes “garnished with pomegranate seeds” which may or may not have been there, but if they were I didn’t notice, and if they weren’t I didn’t miss them.

Somehow I managed to resist the $100 Red O margarita which some people (one or two of them employed by Rick Bayless) will tell you is actually cheap at the price.  It contains three kinds of fancy extra-aged tequila and some top shelf Grand Marnier, though as discussed elsewhere in this blog I have my doubts about putting really expensive booze in a margarita, in much the same way that, for instance, I’d have doubts about making a brandy and Babycham with Remy Martin Louis XIII Black Pearl Limited Edition.   But since I’m never going to be in a position to do it that who’s to say I’m right?  Maybe if I was rich and stupid enough I’d be washing my feet (or someone else’s) in Krug.

Something else that ups the price of the Red O $100 margarita is that the rim is coated in kosher salt and gold leaf. Ah me.  I’m always fascinated by the “most expensive” this and that – like the world’s priciest hamburger or the world’s most luxurious sandwich.  It seems kind of ludicrous to me.  I mean if you want to up the price or any food dish, all you have to do is slap on an extra dollop of caviar, or add another layer of gold leaf, or for that matter.  Where’s the sport in that?

When I was staying in Guadalajara a couple of years back, the hotel bar (the hotel was the Victoria Express, the bar was the Bistro Garden, very Mexican-sounding, right? - that's it above) served a nice line in beer-based margaritas.  I’d never heard of such a thing till then, but I know I don’t get out much.  They were really (perhaps surprisingly) very good.

Of course nobody is ever likely to pay $100 for a cocktail containing beer. But then again some of us aren’t all that keen to pay $100 for a drink that has gold leaf round the rim.

I just dug out my copy of Rick Bayless’s “Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavors of a World Class Cuisine.”  It contains just three margarita recipes, none of them involving gold leaf, nor pomegranate seeds for that matter.  But it does contain some of Bayless’s “philosophy.”  He writes, “It’s my conviction that good wine and good food … are natural allies.”  Gee Rick, you’re really courting controversy there, ain’t ya?  

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


A belated plug for a book, Best Food Writing 2011, edited by Holly Hughes, published by Da Capo.  I’ve been buying copies of this annual anthology for years.  When I constantly used to fly back and forth between New York and London I found it made for great plane reading, since I could never cope with anything more joined up.

As well as containing pieces by the likes of Jay Rayner and Hugh Garvey, and pieces with wonderful titles such as “Craving the Food Of Depravity” by Elissa Altman, and “In Praise of Shite Food” by Bryce Elder, the book also has just a little Psycho-Gourmet in it – my piece from Tin House, titled Peasants, which is in fact neither very psycho, nor very gourmet, but it’s nice to be included.  If for any reason you’re not going to buy the book you can read my piece by clicking the link below.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Once again I’ve been thinking of Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and some of the lyrics from “The worst pies In London,” the ones that run:
Mrs. Mooney has a pie shop!
Does a business but I notice something weird.
Lately all her neighbors' cats have disappeared!
Have to hand it to her --
Wot I calls
Poppin' pussies into pies!
Wouldn't do in my shop!
Just the thought of it's enough to make you sick!
And I'm tellin' you, them pussycats is quick!

Well obviously not quick enough in some cases. I was reminded of the lyrics, having heard news of the alleged murder of a Chinese billionaire name of Long Liyuan (that's him above), who died after a business lunch that included a bowl of cat stew. This took place in Guangdang provice where cat stew is apparently a local delicacy.  Initially authorities thought the guy had died of simple food poisoning, then they investigated the stew and found it contained a poisonous herb, gelsemium elegans, so in fact the cat played a wholly incidental role in proceedings.

Two of Long Liyuan’s business associates were also at the lunch, both of whom got sick, but survived.  One of them, Huang Wen, didn’t eat much of the stew, complaining that it tasted “more bitter than usual” which of course raises the question of just how bitter a bowl of cat stew usually tastes.  

The third diner Huang Guang had been in a financial dispute with Long Liyuan, and he allegedly is the one who poisoned the stew, eating just enough of it himself to get sick himself and thereby avoid suspicion, though obviously it didn’t work.

I’m sure there are many who’d think that anyone who eats poor little kitties deserves everything he gets, and as Chinese incomes rise and pet ownership increases, there’s quite a movement in that country to stop eating cats, and dogs too for that matter.  In fact it seems to be only a southern Chinese tradition, and is considered taboo in the north, although that doesn’t stop northern cat collectors rounding up feral cats and sending them to Guangdong. 

There are some genuinely horrific images around of cats being readied for Chinese consumption, though I’m not sure these are actually any more horrific than images that could be taken in any slaughter facility.  However, the edible cat is supposedly skinned and boiled alive, which seems a bit unnecessary to me. If I was going to eat cat, I think it’d want it to be free-range and to know that it was killed humanely.

Anyway, my chances of eating cat here in California are pretty slim: it’s almost certainly illegal.  California law protects "any animal traditionally or commonly kept as a pet or companion," which seems way too broad, and I think any good lawyer could have a field day dismantling the logic of it, but I’m assuming the courts aren’t overburdened with legal challenges.  I’ve got my eye on some squirrels out in my garden.  They look tasty enough: I just have to make sure they don’t start getting too companionable.  

Monday, January 2, 2012


Actually it was the other way round.  I photographed some things, then I ate them.  Eating them and then photographing them would be just weird and disgusting.

Early in the year I had an “art idea.”  I realized that I eat a sandwich for lunch pretty much every day of my life.  Occasionally I eat out or buy a ready-made sandwich but more often than not, since I work at home, I make my own.  Here from the beginning of January, for example, is a tuna sandwich on sourdough with cornichons.

I eat a lot of sandwiches that look like that.  Not very visually exciting, so to make life a little more interesting, I made an open-faced egg mayonnaise on pumpernickel with anchovies. 

It tasted pretty good but I realized I was only doing it for the sake of the blog, and that’s no way to live. Then later in January, the Loved One was briefly in hospital, and here’s picture of a ham and cheese sandwich on marbled rye, which she was served there.  Of course it was definitely her sandwich rather than mine, but since she didn’t have much appetite I ate some of it, and it wasn’t at all bad for hospital food.

By the end of the month I stopped photographing my sandwiches, having realized that most of the ones I eat look very much the same.  Of course a part of me thought that could have been the whole point.  This could have been a beautifully minimalist art idea; 365 sandwiches all looking essentially the same but with the minutest variations. 

Anyway, I had other things to do with my life, but I continued to eat a lot of sandwiches, though I only photographed them once in a while.  For instance, later in the year, when I was in Minneapolis, I ate lunch at the cafeteria in the Mill City Museum, and had this sandwich:

To be honest, at this point I don’t really remember what was in the sandwich; ham and cheese again, I think, but I actually took the photograph because of those Rachel’s Gourmet Kettle Chips – “Made from the Heart.”   Not sure if I want heart in my kettle chips, but I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned.

In London, for one reason or another, I found myself in Dollis Hill in Gladstone Park, named after William Gladstone, and I was in need of something to eat.  Now, cafés in English public parks are places where historically you’ve found the kind of terrible food that has won England its reputation for low cuisine, but no longer. 

Here was the Karmarama Café housed in an old stable block and the sandwich was terrific: smoked salmon with red onion and capers, and I ate sitting in the cobbled stable yard, while a Rufus Wainwright album played in the background, and I thought good lord, things have changed for the better in the old country.

It must have been round about this time that I heard about a book titled Scanwiches, by John Chonko, published by Powerhouse, and also a website, naturally:  a wonderfully obsessive project of cross sections of sandwiches, as seen on a scanner.

This is not quite the sandwich book I had in mind (it’s certainly less minimalist) but it’s near enough, and in fact it’s a good deal better than I’d have come up with, so I’m glad I hadn’t put too much energy into my project.

In December we made one of our desert road trips and returned to The Astro-burger at Kramer Junction, on the outskirts of Boron.  We went there originally because of the sign, but we returned because the food was so damned good. 

That’s a patty melt on the left which the Loved One swears is the best ever, and that’s an astro burger on the right.  How could you go to a restaurant called The Astro-Burger and not order the astro burger?   You might argue that a burger isn’t really a sandwich, but I wouldn’t.

It was a good year for potato chips as well as sandwiches.  I rounded off the year with some Granny Goose potato chips: "Quality family snacks for over 60 years.”  That's them above.  I suspect that the gourmet food gods do not entirely approve of potato chip sandwiches, but then I suspect the gourmet food gods disapprove of quite a few of my activities.