Tuesday, August 28, 2012


And here’s a thing, actually several things.  First, a headline in the New York Post, Sunday August 19th, that reads “Cheers! Drinking at lunch makes you smarter, more fun – and a better New Yorker.”  Well, I have no argument with that.  It came illustrated by a picture of Don Draper in Mad Men, above a story by Kyle Smith, initially describing research done at the University of Illinois.  They “discovered” that “creativity increases 50% after a few drinks.”  They gave their subjects enough vodka and cranberry juice to put their blood-alcohol at just below 0.08 – the legal driving limit.  They then set them some tests and found that boozed up people delivered more correct answers more quickly than their sober counterparts.  Hey, not much fun being in that control group.

The article also reported research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology about the “imbibing idiot bias.”  They found that in job interviews conducted over dinner, interviewers thought that candidates who ordered a drink with their meal were less intelligent than the ones who didn’t.  Wha?

Somewhere in all this, the New York Post article suggests, America has become a nation of killjoys, and that things were way better, and certainly more fun, in the days of the three martini lunch, and who would argue?  I’m not an expert on Mad Men but I think Don Draper is a whisky man rather than a martini man, even so I dare anyone to accuse him of being an imbibing idiot.

And then I read a rather overwrought piece by Troy Hooper in SF Weekly, dated March 14, 2012, titled Operation Midnight Climax: How the CIA Dosed S.F. Citizens with LSD.  This will not be absolute news to a lot of people, but Hooper does seem to have some new (if challengeable) chapter and verse on the CIA’s clearly immoral and illegal experiments, dosing unsuspecting rubes with LSD, and watching the hilarious consequences.

Hooper tells us there were various CIA safe houses around San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s, and one was at 225 Chestnut on Telegraph Hill.  Then he writes, “Inside, prostitutes paid by the government to lure clients to the apartment served up acid-laced cocktails to unsuspecting johns, while martini-swilling secret agents observed their every move from behind a two-way mirror.”  He also tells us “To get the guys in the mood, the walls were adorned with photographs of tortured women in bondage and provocative posters from French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.”

I find myself slightly lost in the moral maze of this prose.  Is the “French art” of Toulouse-Lautrec really being considered as equivalent to photographs of tortured women in bondage?  Didn’t every hippy chick from San Francisco to Scunthorpe have a Lautrec poster on her bedroom wall?  Were they all getting in the mood and being provoked?

In any case, yes, giving LSD to unsuspecting folks is clearly very bad and wrong, and watching their sexual activities through two-way mirrors hardly less so, but it’s that phrase “martini-swilling secret agents” that really bothers me.  Is it the martini that’s so wrong, or just the swilling?  If they’d been drinking them steadily, or sipping them gently, would that have been OK?  If they’d been smoking marijuana, would that?  Sampling a little hock and seltzer?

But speaking of LSD, Timothy Leary writes in The Politics of Ecstasy “The Creative Have to Turn On:  It is conservatively estimated that over 70 per cent of non-academic creative artists have used psychedelic substances in their work.”  Then he makes a list just in case you’re not sure what a “non-academic creative artist” is (I admit I wasn’t sure at all). “Painters.  Poets.  Musicians.  Dancers.  Actors.  Directors.  Beatle-brows.  The whisky-drinking middlebrows imprison the growing edge.  Meditate on this situation.”

Well, I have meditated.  I do, of course, accept that people’s choice of drug is a large part of their self-definition, and I can understand that people who drink Thunderbird may not necessarily want to hang out with people who drink pina coladas, that drinkers of Petrus don’t find many meth addicts in their circle.  But why this need to diss other people’s choice of consciousness changer?

Still, perhaps to understand all is to forgive all.  Timothy Leary’s wife committed suicide in 1955, leaving him alone to raise a son and daughter. He became, by his own account, in a piece titled “Death of the Mind” “an anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars and drove home each night and drank martinis … “  Well, at least he didn’t swill them.

Monday, August 27, 2012


So, Phyllis Diller has died, which is a great shame.  She was 95, but it’s still a shame.  According to Joan Rivers in Entertainment Weekly the two of them had lunch together just a few weeks back and she was in great form.

In that article, Joan Rivers reminds us, should we need reminding, that Phyllis Diller had the best food one-liner ever: “I like to serve chocolate cake because it doesn’t show the dirt.”  I’m not sure why I find that quite so funny, but I smirk every time I think of it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


And another thing in that Gold/Sietsema piece in the current “Lucky Peach” magazine.  Gold says, “The comfort-food thing started in the eighties, when people were hungry for the food their moms used to make.  Except mom wasn’t a good cook.”  And Sietsema adds. “Like the longing of a GI from World War II for shit on a shingle.  My mother used to make that for my father  … It made him so happy because that’s what they ate in the service.”

Food for thought there.  My mom, as I’ve said before, wasn’t a good cook, and she really didn’t aspire to be.  All she really wanted to do was cook food the way my dad liked it.  And so she became the plain, bland, unadventurous cook he wanted her to be.  There was no evidence that this “made him so happy” but it did stop him complaining, which was probably all my mother was hoping for.  My dad, incidentally, had been in the navy, and his line was that the food was always pretty good, but there was never enough of it.

I used to say that all food was comfort food.   If it didn’t bring comfort, then why would you eat it?  But we now know that much food brings guilt, worry, angst, self-loathing and so on, and I experienced at least some of these when I decided, on a dubious whim, to make one of the things my mom often used to serve us: fried, battered, corned beef.  Mom’s unhealthy choice!!

My mother swore by the Fray Bentos brand, but I couldn’t get any of that at short notice, settling instead for “Hereford Canned Beef Corned” – a significant form of words I’m sure, and in fact it did look slightly less appetizing than the Fray Bentos I remembered.  But it had a ring pull opener that broke when you yanked it, and that was VERY familiar, although now that I recall it, Fray Bentos had a key that always broke.

My mother made batter, usually in the form of Yorkshire pudding, at least twice a week, and although she never used a recipe, and certainly never taught me how to do it, I learned by watching, and I reckon I’m a pretty reliable batter-maker. I felt a bit of extra seasoning was required – far more than my mom would ever have used - so I rather randomly added cumin and paprika and went heavy on the black pepper.  I sliced the corned beef, dipped it, fried it, and it looked like this:

Of course I could feel my arteries clogging with every mouthful, which in itself wasn’t a source of absolute reassurance, but the fact is, even with the extra seasoning, and the use of an unfamiliar American brand, it tasted almost exactly like my mother’s version, and that was, on balance, a considerable source of comfort.

Monday, August 13, 2012


I watched Alfred Hitchock’s Frenzy the other night: I reckon its one of his best. There are wonderful scenes in the old Covent Garden market, culminating in a horrifying ride in a truck, involving a dead, naked, (obviously) woman’s body in a sack of potatoes.  It does have one of those “let’s get this over with in the next 30 seconds” endings that Hitchcock is so fond of, but here it really works.

One of the oddest notes in the film involves the police detective (played by Alec McCowen) and his wife (Vivien Merchant.)  Merchant presents her “meat and potatoes” husband with ludicrously fancy French food.  The scenes are in fact pretty funny, and Merchant does play the wife as a pretentious fraud, but at bottom there is some kind of weary, philistine, xenophobic, joke about “foreign” food being foul and inedible, and perhaps also the suggestion that even to care about food at all is somehow effete and snobbish. 

Another mark of the wife’s pretension is that she serves up some madly inscrutable drink called (wait for it) a margarita, which is so wild and crazy that it features salt around the rim of the glass!  And some unheard of substance called tequila!  Now presumably Hitchcock had spent enough time in Hollywood to know all about tequila, but he makes the wife utterly pathetic by having her mispronounce it as “tay-kwee–ya,” which actually made me feel enormously fond of the poor woman, surrounded by these unsympathetic English boors.

Given Alfred Hitchcock’s size, I assume he must have had an intense, if not straightforwardly happy, relationship with food. There’s a famous story (which exists in multiple versions) that Hitchcock bet a man named Dickie Beville  (variously described as his assistant or his unit manager) that he (Beville) couldn’t spend the night alone on an empty movie set, the pace supposedly being unbearably scary at night, maybe even haunted.  Beville accepted Hitchcock’s bet.  Hitchcock then said he didn’t trust Beville, and to make sure he kept to the deal, he handcuffed him to a heavy camera tripod so he couldn’t run away in the middle of the night.  Beville grudgingly accepted this, and Hitchcock made nice by giving him sandwiches and a flask of coffee to get through the night. 

The coffee, of course, was laced with mighty laxatives, and Beville had quite a night of it, but I suppose he did win the bit.  Not the least interesting aspect of this story is that although there’s very little evidence for its literal truth, nobody who knew Hitchcock ever doubted that it happened.  Hitchcock may not have been a gourmet, but he does seem to have been something of a psycho.  Are we altogether surprised?

Friday, August 10, 2012


“Culinary research intersects with tradition in this book which is as iconoclastic as Martin Picard's world famous cuisine. Mixing genres and styles, just like this chef does in his kitchen, the book offers a touch of literature, a smattering of sexy images together with scientific information and cutting-edge gastronomical research.”

This, you will realize, is not my own flowing prose, but rather the publisher’s blurb for Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, a food book rather than a cookbook I think, “dedicated to maple syrup”:  386 pages, 100 recipes, 2000 photographs, yours for $69.99.  A mere bagatelle by Nathan Myhrvold standards.

Martin Picard, that's him above, is the genius behind Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant in Montreal, which seems to have just about everything I’ve ever wanted in a restaurant, and more foie gras than I personally could ever possibly need.  The menu contains Boudin Maison, Tarte de boudin, Côte de cochon heureux, Pied de cochon, Tête fromagée, (and that’s just part of the “cochon” section). There’s also poutine, and the spectacular and much lauded “Canard en conserve” or as we Anglophones say “duck in a can,” which comes with preserved pork sausage, whole garlic cloves, a balsamic glaze and, inevitably, a whole lot more foie gras.

This is some very fancy duck and the fact that it’s in a can is a sort of double bluff. But in fact the first game of any sort that I ever ate came in a can – it was a tinned pheasant, bought in Walsh’s, what was then Sheffield’s poshest department store, with a food section that at the time seemed exotic beyond all imagining.  I’m not saying it was the best pheasant I ever ate, but in Sheffield at that time I honestly didn’t know how else to get any.

Since Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack is dedicated to maple syrup, it does contain the above photograph by Marie-Claude St-Pierre, which if nothing else makes me wish I liked maple syrup more than I do.  A woman sitting in a bath of boudin – now that would get the salivary glands moving.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


The scan above is suddenly popping up all over the Internet.  Or maybe it’s always been there and I only just noticed. It’s from Sassy magazine, September 1992, in which Kim Gordon gives her recipe for “Tuna Tacos Culver City.”  Apparently “Eat This” was a regular feature.

Clearly Kim’s fantasy that tacos are less calorific that sandwich bread is indeed a fantasy, but lord knows she’s always looked trim and attractive so whatever she’s eating it’s not bulking her up.  In fact I occasionally feel she looks as though somebody should give her a sandwich.  Not Thurston Moore, obviously, at this point in marital history.

Did I ever tell you about the time I stood in line next to Kim Gordon, waiting for the lavatory at Tonic, in New York?  Witty exchanges with the stars?  I let her go first - she was next on the bill, and hell I wanted her to get on stage and start.  “I’m quick she said.”  And she didn’t lie.