Tuesday, July 24, 2012

BRAIN FOOD


Back in the day when I lived in London I would occasionally find myself at literary parties talking to the Montserrat poet Archie Markham (that's him above), who had worked for Voluntary Services Overseas in the mid 1980s, as “media co-ordinator” for the authorities in Enga Province in Papua New Guinea.  Even he admitted this job largely consisted of writing reports that nobody ever read.

Being something of a provocateur, I said the only thing I knew about Papua New Guinea was that the inhabitants had a bit of a reputation for cannibalism.  Archie pooh-poohed the idea.  This was at best ancient history and at worst an ugly rumor spread by the colonial oppressor.  He didn’t quite accuse me of being one of their number, but I reckoned his thoughts were headed that way.


Now, over the weekend, we learn that 29 people in Papua New Guinea have been arrested for belonging to a cannibal cult, and they’re charged with the murders of seven “suspected witch doctors.”  The local police commander Anthony Wagambie said that the cult members “allegedly” ate their victims' brains raw and made soup from their penises.  "They don't think they've done anything wrong,” he said.  “They admit what they've done openly."  


The “suspected witch doctors” had “allegedly” been practicing sorcery or "sanguma,” extorting money, and demanding sex from poor villagers in exchange for their supernatural services.  Well you can see how, at a certain point, the villagers might have had enough.

But, of course the villagers didn’t just kill the witch doctors as simple revenge, they killed them apparently so they could eat their flesh, believing that would  give them supernatural powers, including making them literally bullet-proof.

"It's prevalent cult activity," Wagambie said, and he claimed there could be between 700 and 1,000 cult members in villages in PNG's remote northeast interior, and all of them might have eaten human flesh.  He said  he expected that police would make about 100 arrests over the weekend for cult-related crimes. He also added that out of seven victims, the remains of only four had been found.  As for the others, "They're probably all eaten up," he said.  And the bones?


The cover of the current issue of Lucky Peach magazine (above) shows a cow being fed a hotdog,  which certainly strikes me as a kind of cannibalism.  And inside there’s a conversation between Jonathan Gold and Robert Sietsema in which they discuss many things, including brains.  We learn about a place in LA, named Pigg, run by one Chris Consentino that serves “poutined out French fries”  -  and they come with a condiment called “brainaise” “basically whipped pig brains with a little bit of vinegar” according to Mr. Gold.   That's him below on the right.


Ultimately, and for all kinds of reasons (he mentions things in Papua New Guinea though obviously Lucky Peach went to press long before recent events there), Gold is not a fan of brains  - “it tastes like tofu but it comes from a skull.” He also suggests that if you eat human brains you’re actually very likely to die of some hideous disease.  Of course that may be a small price to pay for being bullet-proof, though perhaps to achieve that you’d need to eat penis soup as well.




A final note from Reay Tannahill’s Flesh and Blood: A History of the Cannibal Complex. She writes, “In some areas of New Guinea … it is incumbent on the father of a newborn child to kill a man who is known to him by name.  The victim’s brain is extracted … then cooked – with sago! (her exclamation) – and ceremonially eaten.  Thereafter, the new child takes the dead man’s name.  When the Dutch colonial government tried to put a stop to this singularly un-Christian mode of christening, the tribes would have none of it.  How otherwise, they demanded, could they name their children?"

Sunday, July 22, 2012

GORGING WITH THE GIPPER


Have you ever wanted to eat onboard Air Force One?   According to an unrelaxed-looking man in a video on display at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley (which houses a retired Air Force One), the food on the plane is, or at least was in Reagan’s day, simple stuff – burgers and chili seemed to be the big hits.


I’m not quite sure why I went to the Ronald Reagan Library – because it was there?  Because it was a punishing hot California weekend and I knew the place was going to be icily air-conditioned?  Because I couldn’t resist a chance to visit the Ronald Reagan Pub which is part of the place?  Well yes, chiefly that last one, I think.


The Ronald Reagan Library, at least the bit the public gets to see, is far more of a museum than a library: there are very few books around, and chiefly what you learn is that before 1981 America was controlled by a freedom-hating coalition of satanists and communists, and then Reagan came along and everything was just fine, and now he sits at God’s right hand, a good and faithful servant.  I think I’ve got that right.


Alas, visitors don’t get to eat lunch onboard Air Force One, but you do get to walk through it, and see the galley, and afterwards you can have lunch in its shadow in the aforementioned Ronald Reagan Pub, which looks extremely faux (and not remotely like a pub), but turns out to be not nearly so faux as it looks.  Parts of it come from the Ronald Reagan Pub in Ballyporeen, Ireland, originally O’Farrell’s, renamed after Ronnie’s visit there in 1984, and when the pub closed down in the early 2000s it was dismantled and chunks of it were sent to Simi Valley.


The sign, for instance, is perfectly authentic, and the wooden back bar and the bottles on it did look real enough, though there was an ominous sign that read “for display only.”  Having seen an exhibit about Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign – which apparently applied to alcohol as well as drugs - we feared the worst.  But it was OK; Reagan’s Irish roots, and perhaps the fact that Coors beer is one of the museum’s major benefactors, and that Joe Coors was a member of Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet,” mean that the place isn’t dry.  We had some Harp lager, and I realized it was a very long time since I had any Harp lager.  “Harp Stay Sharp” indeed.


If you poke around in the online Reagan archives at the University of Texas you’ll learn that Ronald Reagan’s favourite foods included brownies, carrot cake, chocolate cake, cornbread dressing, eggplant lasagna, hamburgers (grilled), macaroni and cheese, ice cream, pumpkin pecan pie, meatloaf, split pea soup, and monkey bread.  I didn’t think I’d ever heard of monkey bread – a cultural issue, I’m sure – but my wife tells me I’ve definitely eaten some, because her mother once made it for us.


In any case, rather few of these things were on sale in the Reagan Pub – though there was certainly chocolate cake. The two of us shared half an Italian grinder, which came with an individually wrapped pickle, which I’d never encountered before, and it seemed a little strange, though also a very good idea. to prevent leakage:


And then a fruit and cheese plate that was actually pretty good.  Not bad cheese, plenty of walnuts, plenty of grapes.  I did seem to remember something about Reagan getting into trouble for eating grapes at a press conference during the UFW grape boycott, back in the day, though I could find no  mention of this in the library.


Of course, Reagan also liked jellybeans (favorite flavor licorice according to Texas U.).  He started eating them when he quit smoking, and apparently kept a jar on his desk which he handed round before meetings, on the basis that, "You can tell a lot about a fella's character by whether he picks out all of one color or just grabs a handful.”  I don’t doubt that this is true, though I can’t help thinking you might learn even more about a man by observing how he eats oysters or artichokes or steak tartar.  Anyway, here is a portrait of Ronald Reagan in jellybeans, which appears in the library:


 And here is one done in ketchup, which doesn’t:



Sunday, July 15, 2012

MY WEEK IN FOOD



The best “Reuben sandwich – Irish style” I ate this week (and admittedly the only one) was at Dargan’s in Ventura (above). I was less at ease with a cocktail on the menu named The Irish Car Bomb.  Now, I know we all love the Irish for their rollicking ironic wit (I have plenty of it in my heritage), but I wonder how many true sons of the Emerald Isle would be happy with a cocktail named the Irish Potato Famine or Cromwell’s Irish Child Decapitator. 
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The most intriguing hand-painted food sign I encountered this week (and I sure do love a good hand-painted food sign) was this one, also in Ventura:


I like it a lot but the anthropomorphizing of food is always dodgy if you ask me – the notion seems to be that the food item is so happy and human and full of fun that he really won’t mind if you eat him.  Well yes, but …
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Actually there was some competition in the intriguing hand-painted food sign department from this pizza slice painted on the side of a restaurant at Venice Beach (yeah, I got around this week):


The eyeballs are “ironic” I guess, though there must be some places in the world where you can get a little retina on your pizza.
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And the most annoying sentence (by miles) in a piece of food writing I encountered this week - Sam Sifton in the New York Times, writing about Roy Choi, he of Kogi Barbecue, somewhat famous for his fusion of Korean and Mexican flavors.  Sifton writes: “Choi cooks poems, and they taste of Los Angeles.”  Oh gimme a break.


No be fair, Choi can be pretty annoying in his own right.  He writes a blog called ridingshotgunla.  The entry for July 10th is titled “Nowness” and begins, “I try to manifest myself separately through all the different expressions that surround my life.” Maybe that’s fusion too, the melding of the English language with gibberish.  There’s a lot of it about.
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Monday, July 9, 2012

DRINKING IN THE WOMB


The past, as I have said before elsewhere, is another country: they eat and drink things differently there, and in any case America is not the country I was born in, so contemplating food and drink of the American past involves a double alienation.  

For one reason or another, I just happened to find a copy of Esquire magazine dated March 1953: that’s it above.   The magazine is certainly from the past, but it also feels strangely “present,” since that was the month and year that I was born.

Now, for perfectly obvious reasons, I know I’m likely to find the contents of that Esquire unfamiliar but even so, as a magazine junkie and longtime student of American life and letters, the magazine was still stranger than I was expecting, especially in matters of food and drink; and the latter was obviously the far more important of the two as far as the magazine was concerned.


The Esquire reader, at least as imagined by advertisers, was first and foremost a whisky drinker.  There are a great many ads for the stuff, and some for brands remain familiar, while some don’t: Lord Calvert, Seagram’s, MacNaughton’s, Johnnie Walker, Old Crow, Vat 69, Dewar’s.  There are also ads for Harvey’s imported sherries and ports, and various ads for sweet sticky drinks: Drambuie, de Kuyper cordials  (12 delicious flavors including blackberry), Benedictine and Cherry Heering.


Whether the Esquire reader drank these straight or in mixed drinks isn’t clear, but certainly the evidence suggests that cocktail culture was alive and well in March 1953. I love the very elegant ad above for Gordon’s Dry Gin, and Booth’s House of Lords Dry Gin is described elsewhere as “the essential ingredient of a perfect martini.”


But the ad above is the one that really got me.  It’s for Heublein’s ready-made cocktails, which had in fact been around since 1915, and although this ad features the Manhattan, the range of ready-mades included dry and extra dry martinis, as well as the Yellowbird, the Screwdriver, the Hobo’s Wife at al.  But it isn’t the drink that appeals to me (and in fact ready-made cocktails are pretty damn unappealing), it’s the offer of two monogrammed cocktail glasses for a dollar!  There are so many reasons for wanting a time machine but going back to get your initial on a pair of classic, 1950s cocktail glasses is just about the best I can think of.

The suggestion in the magazine is that the Esquire reader ought to be eating out in restaurants: there’s a review of Black Angus on East 50th Street where you could get a sirloin steak dinner for 2 for $8.50.  But no doubt many readers couldn’t live up to the advertisers’ fantasies and probably lived in pokey little apartments.  For them General Electric had come up with this fabulous appliance: 


It was a combined cooker, sink, refrigerator and storage drawer, in fact “a complete kitchen in five square feet,” as they proudly say.  Here the time machine seems to have taken us into the future when women can be cloned, and three of them can hover around your “complete kitchen,” and although the one on the right with the glass in her hand may actually be doing the washing up, I’ll bet she’s a dab hand at mixing cocktails too.

Also in the issue is an article titled “How to Imbibe: A Guide to Drinking at British Bars without Fear or Befuddlement” – other ads elsewhere in the magazine suggests that  by 1953 post-war international travel and tourism was taking off again.  The article offers information about who drinks what in English pubs.  Mild ale is drunk by the working man, while the white collar classes drink light ale.  These white collar types also drink brown ale, as does  “the younger generation.”  And who drinks Guinness?  ”Women,” Esquire tells us with authority,  “especially when pregnant.”  Did I say something about another country?  Alas, the ad below does not appear in the magazine.